I’m a big fan of the seller-doer model of business development – at least in concept. (Even if I don’t like the term.) Clients have become more sophisticated – often even holding professional licensure or certification – and they have extreme time constraints. So when they take a meeting with an engineer, architect, construction, or environmental firm that wants to do business with them, they expect a high-level conversation. They don’t have time for the traditional dog-and-pony show. They don’t have time to listen to someone go through their portfolio of past accomplishments. Most likely, they’ve already done their research – checking the firm’s website, Googling them, even pulling up the LinkedIn profiles of the person, or people, they are meeting with.
Now the client wants to determine if that firm is qualified to work with them. They want to have a technical conversation, sharing specific issues and asking for thoughts – or free advice – about how the firm would handle it. And this is where seller-doers can shine, sharing their technical prowess to demonstrate to a potential client that yes, they are more than qualified to solve the challenge, design the solution, or construct the project.
Alas, this scenario falls down when it comes to actually getting the meeting with the potential client in the first place.
The seller-doer model has always been an important model for developing new business. In fact, before the 1970s, it was pretty much the only model, thanks to laws and ethics restrictions enforced by professional societies. But times have changed, and for several decades A/E/C firms have used, to one extent or another, professional sellers (which we of course refer to as business developers because “sales” is a bad word). If you’ve been in this business any length of time, you’ve seen the ebbs and flows of the professional business developer – when times are good, they are hired; when business slows, they are downsized. But then times return to good, and they find new employment … only to be downsized again during the next flat period.
For professional business developers in the A/E/C industry, this can be a tough way to make a living!
After the Great Recession – from which the construction industry has not yet fully recovered – things changed a bit. Firms were slower to bring back the professional sellers. They tried to make a ‘go’ with the seller-doers. 
And this is still happening today. Research I recently conducted with my friend Bill Long, PE, FSMPS, LEED AP, found that over the past decade, more firms have added seller-doers than have added business developers. And that seller-doers have been spending more time in business development than they had ten years ago. It’s a valid model, and some firms are having great success with it.
But there’s a big fallacy with the model. Most doers have no interest in selling. And even those that do have an interest don’t necessarily have the right skillset or mindset. 
Another friend of mine, Barry Kain, has a really interesting spin on this challenge. He believes that design and construction professionals are trained to always get it right. They seek perfection. They are required, by law, to fully meet codes. They have health, welfare, and life safety continually top of mine. Rejection is bad – rejection costs their clients a lot of money – and rejection can get their firms fired. Anything less than “perfection” is even worse – in extreme instances, it can cost lives. 
But selling is often about rejection. Making a call and not getting to talk to the person you are trying to reach: rejection. Not getting past the gate keeper: rejection. Not getting a return call from a voice mail: rejection. Not getting a response from a prospecting email: rejection. Actually talking to a prospect and having them say “not interested”: the Holy Grail of Rejection. Ouch!
“How could someone not want to do business with me?”, they ask. 
Plus, sales is rarely about perfection. Doers want to get everything “just right” before they pick up the phone, type the email, or go to the networking event. So they procrastinate. “I’m not quite ready,” they say. They need to do more research. They need to better prepare their script. They need to talk to a few other – very busy, of course – co-workers before they make the call. As Barry says, in sales, if you’re 60% ready, then you’re ready!
And of course, let’s not forget about the elephant in the room: billable hours! How many millions of business development-related phone calls, emails, or meetings don’t happen every year because the seller-doers are too busy doing to sell? That’s not an elephant in the room, it’s a blue whale! (A shout-out to Wikipedia, which reminded me that the blue whale is the heaviest living animal … try even fitting in a room with one of those!)
Nonetheless, I’m still a big fan of the seller-doer model.
But I’m a big fan of the dedicated business developer model, too. However, I think that too many A/E/C firms are looking at things the wrong way. Sales people are taught about the ABCs. Always Be Closing. And some firms unfortunately have this thought process. If they have professional business developers on staff, they want results, and they want them NOW! After all, sales people must be closing the deal to justify their salary, right? 
And yet, many of the most talented, effective business developers I’ve met are not closers. They don’t have technical backgrounds – or maybe they went to college for an engineering, architecture, or construction-related degree, but never practiced. Or they spent a few years as a technical person, and then they decided that they liked business development better. Their technical knowledge has waned. 
So how can these non-technical, or post-technical, business developers thrive in a market that is increasingly demanding highly technical dialogue from the very first conversation?
Simple. They are door openers.
They find the prospects. They get the conversation started. They open the doors for their firm’s closers – the rainmakers, the seller-doers. 
True business developers thrive on the pursuit. They are fearless. They have no problems “getting it wrong,” and learning along the way. They love people. They love conversation. They love networking. And while very few people actually love cold calling, they don’t mind it – or at least don’t fear it.
Think about it. Having a career in sales is having a career of rejection. Consider the socially-awkward boy at his first dance, asking a girl to join him on the dance floor. She says no. As does the second girl. And third. And fourth…
How many boys would ask fifty, sixty, seventy girls for a dance? For most, a single rejection is one too many! 
In sales, however, almost everyone says “no” the first time! Who has time to take a call from, much less meet with, someone trying to sell you something? A colleague of mine – one of the nicest human beings you’ll ever meet – recently said, “Why is it that a mean streak comes out whenever somebody cold calls me?!?!?”
Professional business developers don’t give up. They try, and try again. Of course, very few actually cold call these days – there are so many better ways to get in front of a prospect. But a lot of seller-doers equate selling to cold calling.
So what’s the perfect model? 
How about when a business developer opens the door for the seller-doer? How about when a business developer builds the foundation, laying the groundwork? How about when a business developer mentors and coaches the seller-doers about how to improve their soft skills? 
The SMPS Foundation has been researching business development models, and looking into the roles that dedicated business developers and seller-doers play. While we’re probably still a few months from seeing the final research, I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing the quantitative research, which involved more than 1300 individuals – sellers, doers, principals, and marketers from architectural, engineering, construction, environmental, and specialty consultants/contractors. 
The research shows that A/E/C firms have all added business developers over the past decade – with construction firms more likely to have added BD staff than design firms. The research also verified that A/E/C firms have been adding seller-doers over the past decade, and that the seller-doers have been spending more time in business development. 
The number one driver for using seller-doers, noted by seventy percent of the survey respondents, was that their clients/prospects expect to meet with the people who would be working on their projects. Roughly half the respondents have “always done it this way,” while a quarter of the respondents were concerned that non-technical business developers can’t accurately describe their firm’s products or services.
So how do these positions – dedicated business developers and seller-doers – co-exist?
Here’s the top activities of business development staff (in order):
  • Setting up appointments with potential clients
  • Participating in client/prospect meetings
  • Participating in client organizations
  • Attending trade shows
  • Conducting market research
  • Developing client presentations
And here’s the primary activities of seller-doers (in order):
  • Participating in client/prospect meetings
  • Participating in client shortlist presentations
  • Writing proposals
  • Setting up appointments with potential clients
  • Participating in client organizations
  • Presenting at client organizations
Is there overlap? Absolutely. But you can also clearly see the role of business developers as door openers. They set up appointments, and they bring the seller-doers along. They are attenting client organizations and trade shows, meeting the prospects, and they are conducting the research to determine who to meet or contact. These are all steps to opening the doors.
Seller-doers walk through the doors that the business developers open. They attend the meetings. They participate in the project interviews. They gather the scope and write the proposals. But yes, they also set up appointments on their own, and engage with client organizations – often giving presentations. Even in firms with many dedicated business developers, there’s simply not enough “feet on the street” to cover all their bases – seller-doers are needed to supplement the proactive sales efforts. Doers with sales responsibilities shouldn’t get a free pass just because a firm also has professional sellers. 
Firms of all sizes have business developers – it is not strictly a position for the larger firms. True, smaller firms are more likely to rely exclusively on seller-doers than the larger firms. But there are boutique firms with dedicated business developers and mega-firms with no professional business developers. 
How many firms actually utilize business developers? Well that depends upon whom you ask or which survey you read. I’ve seen some surveys that indicate that 36-42% of A/E/C firms have dedicated business developers on staff. And others that show the numbers to be as high as 70% – although those survey samples tend to include companies that are predisposed to having professional business developers, like SMPS member firms.
The reality is that most A/E/C firms can benefit from dedicated business developers. I really think that this is true now more than ever due to major changes in the make-up of A/E/C firms. There are fewer true rainmakers out there. So many of the rainmakers have traditionally been entrepreneurs. They started their companies. By necessity they became business developers, because it was the only way to build their business. As they added staff, they had to sell more. And as their firms continued to grow, they found they were natural at bringing in the work. And a lot of these rainmakers are Baby Boomers.
But Baby Boomers have been reaching retirement age. So these rainmakers are selling their firms. Sometimes to other staff members – often technical professionals who never had to bring in the work. Or the rainmakers are selling to larger firms, or even merging their companies. 
Are there still rainmakers? Absolutely. Certainly not all rainmakers are firm founders or even C-suite executives – many of the best rainmakers are market leaders or project managers. I was not the first to notice that their ranks may be thinning, but I’ve heard this trend mentioned several times in recent years. And when the rainmakers retire, what will your company do? 
Push your seller-doers out the door and say, “Go get work!”? 
Oh, they’ll walk through your door one way or the other. Many of them may be going to other firms because they got into this business to do, not to sell. And with the talent war, which is coming on some fronts and already here on others, how are you going to replace them?
If you have a robust business development team – which includes professional sellers and seller-doers, now you have a strategy. Let everyone do what they do best. Most seller-doers understand that they play an important role in the process. Let them be closer-doers. And leave the door opening for the people who are trained to do it, and thrive on doing it, the professional business developers.