In this day and age of the commoditization of the A/E/C industry, you'd think the last thing we'd need is a reminder of this unfortunate trend.  Just as Hester Prynne was branded with an "A" for adulteress in The Scarlet Letter, it would seem that A/E/C professionals branded with cowbells would visually scream "commodity"!

However, that's not exactly what five intrepid SMPS members had in mind when they presented "More Cowbell: Empower Your Technical Professionals to Become Business Development Rockstars!" at the recent SMPS Build Business national conference in San Antonio.

If you're a fan of Saturday Night Live -- or have been in the past fifteen years, you probably smile at the words "more cowbell," recalling the iconic skit featuring Will Ferrell, Christopher Walken, Jimmy Fallon, and a cast of SNL characters.  The skit is a flashback to 1976 when Blue Oyster Cult was recording "Don't Fear the Reaper," a rock song that featured -- you guessed it -- a prominent cowbell.  Of course, in true SNL style, the producer had a fever, and the only cure was "more cowbell."

(For a good laugh, whether you've never seen it or enjoyed it over and over again, check it out here.)

But what exactly does this have to do with business development?

The premise behind the presentation was how dedicated business developers can harmonize with their technical seller-doers, most of whom probably don't really want to be involved with sales in the first place.  According to panel moderator Kate "Pipes" Mullaney, CPSM, Business Development Director with HDR, "'More Cowbell' refers to something you need more of, a remedy. It's time we treat the cowbell with the respect it deserves." 
Her task was to manage the unruly groupies in the audience while interviewing the rock stars gathered upon the stage.  She says, "As the business developer, you may be the lead singer, but unless you're embarking on a solo career, your band of doer-seller’s must each master their parts and together you'll earn your place on the Grammy stage, I mean win work. The impetus for this session was in part due to the SMPS Foundation publication (A/E/C Business Development - The Decade Ahead), which records project owners stating they want to see more doers, fewer sellers. But our firms need to sell in order to do, and the skill sets are not the same.   If we want to be successful, We must find a way not only coach and train these doer-sellers, but help firms implement business development programs and culture.  Business developers are natural relationship builders. This combination of skills, talents are exactly what clients need; it is this combination that gets them the results they want."

The rock stars included Jennifer "J-Yo" Yoder, former Director of Business Development for England-Thims & Miller, who recently joined Texas-based Rone Engineering/JRB Engineering; Andrew "Ringo" Weinberg, FSMPS, CPSM, Regional Business Development Manager with Simpson Gumpertz & Heger; Donna "Rocker" Corlew, FSMPS, CPSM, Chief Whatever It Takes Officer for C*Connect; and Jason "The Boss" Vesuvio, Director of Business Development for Faithful+Gould.

The entertaining session was filled with short examples of what firms are doing now.  The rock star panelists shared examples from their firms, as well as mini-case studies from other firms across the country.

Jennifer Yoder obviously has a lot of courage. You'd sure have to in order to turn BD into a game for engineers and planners! When it was launched, technical staff from Project Managers to Principals were put into random teams to encourage team building and cross-selling, and earned points for BD activities such as sending a client a notecard, meeting with a client, attending a networking function, professional association involvement, presenting at a conference, setting up client lunch and learns, and more. While the concept may have originally been greeted with a bit of skepticism, it soon became a highly competitive tool for teaching technical professionals, in a fun way, how to enhance relationships outside of typical client management.  Jennifer shared a quote about the program from her colleague, Jason McCray, Project Manager for England, Thims & Miller: "Our BD incentive game was an especially fun method to hold us accountable for completing our monthly activities and encouraged friendly competition among our staff!"

I've heard Jennifer talk about this program before, and at first I thought, "Well that's just crazy talk!" -- but it is apparent it worked! "The BD Incentive Contest was highly successful and the catalyst to making a measurable difference in the company's BD activities, resulting in enhanced relationships and a dramatic increase in capturing clients and projects," says Jennifer.  She launched a number of follow-on programs that were just as creative and successful. Would you have the guts to do something like that in your company?

Andrew Weinberg works with a lot of technical business developers.  In fact, at his firm you must be a seller-doer to make principal -- which actually sounds like an approach far more common in legal and accounting firms.  The firm also has a technical track for those staff members who don't want to engage in BD, as every company needs exceptional doers who focus their efforts on getting projects out the door.  However, because business development is so important for growth, career opportunities are more plentiful, and more financially rewarding, for those who kill what they eat.

Tracking metrics is key to ensuring that your firm has an effective BD program, and Jason Vesuvio shared with the audience the way his firm has evolved from tracking just quantitative metrics (number of contacts, dollars in the pipeline, work booked, etc.) into a more qualitative approach.  As a result, their sales meetings with technical business developers have become more meaningful.  Jason states, "I was intrigued by the book Give and Take by Adam Grant, and how it might help my organization with business development, which is too often an individualized effort for individual gain and recognition, and an effort done by chosen few. This approach can certainly be great for business, but I thought that it would be better to create an environment where all of our technical people could participate with an approach that leveled the playing field and made business development accessible to everyone, despite experience level or strength of contacts. In this new environment, the assist is just as valuable as the score. The mantra I ask everyone to repeat to themselves is: 'what can I give or offer to my co-worker that helps them with their particular BD task?'"

With seller-doers, one of the primary challenges faced is how to balance the "selling" responsibilities with the "doing" responsibilities.  Donna Corlew, a former SMPS national president who led BD and marketing for design and construction firms before starting her own company, shared an example of an 11-person structural engineering firm that is led by a strong CEO/seller who focuses his recruiting efforts on finding rock star engineers with entrepreneurial spirits and skills beyond the technical prerequisites.  However, like many of his executive counterparts in the industry, the CEO continually struggles with balancing the two priorities with his technical staff -- getting the work and doing the work.  The challenge is not focusing on the urgent (project deadlines) at the expense of the important (business development).  One of the keys is managing growth, and pulling the trigger on hiring staff when the workload gets too full and begins preventing seller-doers from looking for the next project. 

I always enjoy educational programs like this -- learning what other firms are doing, what challenges they've faced, and what they've found to be effective.  In this case, the panelists provided all attendees with the Cowbell Anthology: A Collection of Business Development Rockstars, which is forty-page collection of case studies and examples of what A/E/C firms are doing to integrate BD with technical-led sales.

Of course, with Frank "The Groupie" Lippert, FSMPS, CPSM, Business Development Manager for Parsons Brinkerhoff, in the back of the room banging on a cowbell, the session was not only informative, but quite lively as well!

Good news: The "More Cowbell Rockstars" will be giving an encore performance to SMPS Chicago on October 8, 2014.  Find out more here