For as long as I’ve been in the design and construction industry - and certainly a lot longer - people have been looking for shortcuts to business development. Depending upon whether you serve public or private clients, as well as the market sectors within those spaces, the business development cycle can take years from your initial outreach to a prospect until a deal is closed. Or from when you first learn about a project until it is actually funded and design or construction proposals are solicited.

There’s no replacing traditional relationship-building. It is a critical skill for every rainmaker, seller-doer, and business developer to master. Regular outreach. Calls, emails, meetings. Coffees, lunches, and sporting events. Finding ways to add value. Out of sight has never been more out of mind than it is today. Even with your existing clients. They may know you, love you, and be thrilled with the results of the last project you delivered for them. They may have scored as a “promoter” on your Net Promoter Score questionnaire two years ago. But that doesn’t mean they are going to call you next time around.

Responsibilities change. People leave firms and organizations. Turnover happens. And even when turnover doesn’t happen, your competitors are continually knocking on your clients’ doors with new technologies, ideas, and value propositions. What have you done for your clients lately?

So what we’re about to cover is in no way a replacement for the tried and true business development tactics. Ignore them at your own risk.

And yet, times are a changing....

More than two years into a global pandemic, it can still be challenging to get in front of our clients and prospects. They won’t meet with us at their offices - some of them no longer even work at their offices, and they’re not about to open their kitchen table to us. Others work for firms that have policies against non-employees in the building. Or they simply don’t yet feel comfortable going to the sporting event with you. Don’t take it personally.

Furthermore, the demographics of those in decision-making roles is changing. More than 55% of Millennials in business-to-business (B2B) environments are making consultant and vendor decisions. And one recent study found that roughly half of Millennial decision-makers are not interested in meeting in person – with you, with me, with anyone.

Research by Gartner found that by 2025, as much as 85% of the B2B buying process will happen digitally.

So much for pressing the flesh at networking events and trade shows. (We will still need to do this, of course, but it is less effective than it used to be.)

Like many of you, I’m a seller-doer, meaning that I have responsibilities for bringing in work (selling), and then delivering that work (doing). This is why I love inbound marketing, whereby prospective clients prequalify themselves and contact me or my firm. As a result, my time in business development is spent with higher probability opportunities than with traditional push marketing and BD outreach.

Seller-doers have always complained that they don’t have time for business development. And hey, I’ve muttered those words myself. Recently. But it is not about having the time, it is about making the time.

Inbound marketing is not new. Has your firm ever hosted a seminar on a topic of value to your target audience and invited clients and prospects? That’s inbound marketing.

Have you written an article for publication in a trade journal or client publication? Or even the newsletter of the local chapter of a client organization? Again, inbound marketing.

Or presented at a local, regional, or national conference in front of potential clients? More examples of inbound marketing.

What is important to consider, however, is that the tools for inbound marketing are continually evolving. We need to keep up with these tools – as well as the preferences of the decision-makers.

Substitute a webinar for a seminar, or a blog for an article. (Or even a video blog, or vlog.)

Inbound marketing tools allow us to share knowledge of value to our prospective clients, giving them a bit of a free sample of what it would be like to work with us.

Think about the way you buy services – and products, for that matter. You get online and conduct your research. You type your keywords into Google and hit “search.” You visit websites and check out blogs. You look up potential consultants or subcontractors on LinkedIn and read what they are posting. You are doing your due diligence, and by the time you are ready to move forward, you already have a preferred firm or person. Maybe two.

The numbers vary, but I tend to see around 66% as a fairly consistent figure for how far along a B2B buyer is through the buying process before they reach out to potential partners to help them achieve their goals.

In other words, your firm is already shortlisted before you know about the project, or even that you are in the running for the project.

Now here’s the scary thing: if you’re not utilizing inbound marketing, your firm is missing out on these opportunities. As I write this blog, I’m on a late-night flight. I spent the last three days with my largest client onsite at their corporate headquarters. They learned about me because one of their senior people heard me speak a few years ago and read several of my blogs.

I’m headed to another client – this one from the more traditional path: we met a conference several years ago and developed a relationship. Eight years later, I have my first project with his firm.

And next week, another plane ride, another new client. This one attended a free Stambaugh Ness webinar that I delivered.

Three projects, three different paths to get the work, using a combination of approaches. Oh, and the client that I met at a conference? We were both delivering educational presentations there.

Inbound marketing works, but it does take commitment. Inbound marketing is NOT about asking your marketing department to write a blog on new environmental regulations. Or the impact of the infrastructure bill in your state. Marketing’s role is to work with your subject matter experts (SMEs) and help them to develop this content. But the knowledge resides in your SMEs.

We all need to determine which inbound tools play to our strengths and which we feel the most comfortable with. We still need staff out there using traditional BD approaches - attending conferences and trade shows, going to networking events, joining client organizations, working their networks for introductions.

But when coupled with inbound marketing, the opportunity to shortcut the process and avoid low-probability pursuits becomes clear. When coupled with inbound marketing, hit rates rise because the prospects have already identified your firm as being qualified, even preferred. When coupled with inbound marketing, a seller-doer’s time is focused on high-quality pursuits. And dedicated business developers have many more tools in their toolbox.

When I receive an inbound lead – maybe someone heard me speak or read a blog I wrote – I reach out to learn more. With a better understanding of the prospect’s specific needs, I turn to the inbound content library. Is there a blog, either written by a coworker or myself, that provides value related to the opportunity? Can I share a link to a webinar that we hosted? Again, it doesn’t have to be one I led, it can be a great webinar from a colleague (ours are free, and available on-demand after the live event). I also have the benefit of having led several primary research initiatives for the AEC market space, so sometimes I share knowledge learned from that as well.

I’ve seen inbound marketing be crazy successful, but I’ve also seen it fail. If the content doesn’t offer value to your audience, what good is it? Maybe it has keywords that will help with search engine optimization (SEO), but if your ideal client doesn’t find value in it, you are wasting their time – and your limited time, as well.

Additionally, if the content is occasional and random, it gets lost. It is critical to have a stream of regular content coming out of your firm. Write and post a blog. Share it on personal and company social media. Encourage coworkers to share it on their social media channels. Send an eblast to clients and prospects with a brief introduction to the piece and a link. (Don’t SPAM them, and don’t overdo it with a barrage of emails.)

Then incorporate “long tail” thinking and utilize the content as a way to offer value in your outreach. Trying to reconnect with a former client or long-term prospect? Send them a personalized email with a link to the blog or webinar. And if the content starts to get stale, update it. Refresh it and go through the cycle again.

Traditional business development techniques will always be a part of the process, but with inbound marketing, prospects pre-qualify themselves and the “dating” process can accelerate. The prospect comes to you because they feel you can help them solve a specific challenge, and you can be laser focused on what they really need, and not waste time trying to sell every item on the menu! Think of inbound marketing as a type of for AEC. Prospects know what they want, and through your inbound efforts, they may be attracted to what you can offer them.

Inbound marketing can create a match made in heaven, but only if it is valuable to your target audience and utilized with regularity. Traditional business development is not dead, but when coupled with inbound marketing can become even more effective. Furthermore, seller-doers can focus their energies on helping to create, and chase, high-probability opportunities by providing educational content to prospects and clients.