How does your firm handle business development?
The answer varies greatly depending upon who’s answering the question.
Maybe it’s a “rainmaker” – often a principal who brings in a lion’s share of a firm’s business, sometimes the president and other times a senior executive or market champion. Or perhaps it’s a seller-doer (or doer-seller) or team of seller-doers; that is, individuals charged with “catching what they eat” – developing new business while also working to manage, design, or construct the project. Possibly it’s a dedicated business developer, the euphemistic term for sales person in the A/E/C industry – an individual or individuals who are dedicated to finding new project opportunities. Perchance it is a combination of all of the above.
The SMPS Foundation has found that many A/E/C firms are looking into this very issue and trying to solve it differently. In research for their book, A/E/C Business Development – The Decade Ahead, Foundation researchers noted that some firms are “switching up” the role of their internal BD staff, asking them to train and coach seller-doers, and perhaps reduce the amount of time spent “selling.”  Conversely, a number of clients interviewed for the book stated a strong preference for having project leaders (project managers, lead designers, etc.) handle business development. In other words, they prefer to be “sold to” by the people who will actually be designing or constructing their project.
My friend and colleague William R. Long, PE, LEED AP, FSMPS, principal and vice president of Canuso Jorden, a Philadelphia-based construction company, set out to delve deeper into the trend. Together, we surveyed A/E/C firms to get a feel for how the model has changed over the past decade. What we found is that a net of 16% of A/E/C firms have increased the number of dedicated business development staff when compared with ten years ago, while a net of 57% of A/E/C firms have increased the number of seller-doers in their firms during the same period. Furthermore, 58% of firms reported that the overall time that their seller-doers spend in business development has increased over the past decade.
So there are more seller-doers, and they are spending more time selling.
According to Bill, “It appears that the primary driver for this change is the fact that firms are acknowledging that owners want to meet with the individuals who will be responsible for their projects early in the business development process – often times cutting out the role of a traditional business developer in this process. But, there also appears to be other reasons why this model is taking hold. These include a pronounced desire among younger staff to become active in such activities as well as an acknowledgement of time efficiencies since project staff are already interacting with clients, complementary firms, and industry organizations on a regular basis.” 
Marketing and business development positions are overhead costs for companies, and the continued effort to reduce operating expenses has also played a role, according to Bill: “This shift also appears to be a reflection of the financial realities in the design and construction industry since the Great Recession as firms are re-allocating business development dollars to training and supporting operations staff, rather than funding full-time business development efforts in a desire to increase a firm’s return on investment of their marketing dollars. However, much like other organizational changes in any industry, the possible realization of this goal may not be verified for a few more years - if ever.”
This doesn’t mean that firms are necessarily eliminating dedicated business development positions – according to our research, only 18% of firms have reduced the number of BD positions over the past ten years. However, it does mean that the position descriptions are changing. Professional business developers are often working in concert with seller-doers to move relationships forward. They are providing training to staff and even mentoring seller-doers. They continue to do a lot of the research and value message design, but sometimes hand it off to the seller-doers when it comes time to reach out to clients and prospects. 
The seller-doer model is extremely prevalent in this industry – as it is with other professional services. Bill states that “In many respects, it appears that the design and construction industry is integrating the model that has been successfully used by other professional service industries such as accountants, advertising agencies, and lawyers for years.” 
But it is not a model without flaws. Firms using this model have reported that seller-doers spend too much time doing, and not enough time selling. Or their seller-doers are poorly trained, and lack the general soft skills and specific sales skills required to be effective. Or there’s no accountability built into the system, with little motivation and reward to encourage performance. Or the seller-doers really don’t have the aptitude to effectively sell. Or even that they have no interest whatsoever in engaging in BD – ever! 
And yet, our clients are increasingly demanding to have meaningful dialogue with prospective A/E/C firms, from the very first conversation. They don’t have time to meet with bird-dogs, who return a month later with a key technical staff member. They want value in the first conversation – because if there’s no value there, then there’s no motivation for a second meeting.
So what’s a firm to do?
The Foundation of the Society for Marketing Professional Services is keenly interested in how firms are handling business development, including how they are using the seller-doer model, what technical positions are engaged in BD, preferred techniques, what this means for dedicated business development staff, and how professional marketers fall into the equation.
This is where you can play a role! The SMPS Foundation has engaged McKinley Advisors to conduct a survey of architectural, engineering, environmental, and construction firms to get the pulse of business development in our industry. The Foundation would love your input – via an electronic survey, as well as phone interview if you are interested.
Take the online survey here.
At the end of the survey, you’ll be asked a question about whether or not you are willing to participate in a telephone interview. If so, please provide your contact information.
The survey will be completed late summer, and the Foundation will release results sometime in the Autumn. Once it’s published, I’ll post more about the research on Marketropolis. 
How does your firm handle business development? Are you effectively using the seller-doer model, or have you found dedicated business developers to be more effective?