While business is picking up, we're still a long way from the prerecession heyday. Back then, if your firm wasn't growing, you were doing something wrong. But what you were doing right back then is unlikely to be enough to fuel similar growth and stability today. So what are you doing differently?
Rainmaking success today ultimately requires (1) broadening your base of key relationships and (2) extending the reach of your firm's reputation. Consultant David Stone writes that the average A/E firm has "spent years developing a strong and loyal following from a small segment of the market. And those clients have served them well with a long record of repeat work and a steady supply of projects. Far too many firms, however, are virtually invisible outside that limited group of clients."
And for most firms, that limited group of clients isn't producing enough work in today's economy. Unfortunately, my experience indicates that few firms excel in developing new client relationships—quite the opposite, in fact. In surveying many firms regarding their business development capabilities over the years, new client development has consistently emerged as the greatest weakness.
So what's the best way to expand your efforts to attract new clients? You could direct your top rainmakers to step it up, spending more time prospecting and lead finding. You could hire a dedicated salesperson who is particularly skilled at new client development. You could enlarge your marketing function to help build your reputation in the marketplace.
Or you could substantially broaden staff participation in your business development process. I can anticipate the objections to this suggestion: "We can't afford the impact to utilization." (I've never advocated subtracting billable hours, only better allocating of existing nonbillable hours for BD.) "Most of our people are uncomfortable with or lack the skills for selling." (There are many ways to support BD that don't involve selling, and there are better ways to approach sales that alleviate much of the discomfort.)
Broader participation should increase BD activity, which in itself is a good thing. But I think there's a still more valuable benefit. In my experience, the things that firms do best are typically a product of their culture. It's the core values, the normative behaviors, the routine practices that express "how we do things around here." It's the synergistic effect of people working together to accomplish their collective goals.
Arguably there's nothing more important to a firm than its ability to bring in new work. So why is it normally relegated to a functional sidebar that engages few people? What if you created a rainmaking culture that engaged most employees in at least some small way in supporting this essential task? Sound impractical? It's not. Here are some strategies for making it a reality:
Change the focus from selling to serving. If you follow this blog, you know this is one of my constant themes. But in creating a rainmaking culture, the shift in focus is crucial. As important as company performance is, most employees are going to be more energized by serving an external purpose, as they are when contributing to a successful project, a satisfied client, an innovative design, a community asset, an energy-saving building, etc. You will gain greater buy-in if you frame your business development activities as seeking opportunities to achieve those greater objectives versus merely meeting the firm's need for more revenue. Serving also makes "selling" less distasteful.
Fit people to the right BD tasks for their skills and interests. Selling is not nearly so monolithic an activity as it is often characterized—and disdained for. There is a role for virtually everyone in supporting the firm's marketing and sales process. This can involve tasks such as:
- Conducting market or client research on the internet
- Building and maintaining a network of contacts
- Participating in professional and trade associations
- Attending conferences and trade shows
- Helping develop informative and helpful marketing content
- Developing tools and resources for prospective clients
- Writing (or supporting writing) for publication
- Speaking at conferences or other events
- Providing webinars or seminars
- Developing and making sales presentations
- Calling on existing clients for information and leads
- Updating resumes, project descriptions, other marketing resources
- Writing proposals
- Making sales calls to existing or prospective clients
Budget time for BD. You won't get far building a rainmaking culture if employees are constantly fighting the perception that it detracts from billable work. It's best to approach it as another project, with tasks and hours assigned and tracked accordingly. These hours in most cases will be drawn from the pool of nonbillable hours already available. BD is too important to expect it to be done with leftover time, which is what usually happens when you don't specifically allocate time for it.
Encourage everyone to build their network. We typically associate networking with sales, largely performed at social events where "working the room" challenges most technical professionals. That's too narrow a definition. The networking I'm talking about here is simply keeping in touch with people you know in the business, nurturing those relationships, and—for the adventuresome—building new relationships. Once again, you'll have more success with networking if your focus is on serving others. That means having useful information and leads to share rather than just asking others for them.
Make it a team effort. Selling is often a lonely activity, which lends to some of the stigma about it. The more you can make people feel they are part of a team, the better results you're likely to get. That doesn't require sending people out in pairs—although that's sometimes appropriate—but fostering interaction between those involved in the BD process. Regular sales meetings are recommended for this purpose, not to mention the inherent sense of accountability that comes with having to report one's accomplishments to peers. Promoting collaboration will also lead to better sales strategies and sharing of information.
Don't let project managers off the hook. I'm puzzled by the many PMs I've met in various firms who have little to no responsibility for BD. These are a firm's primary client relationship managers, yet many want to avoid having to help build new client relationships? I've heard more than once that selling is "just not my thing." But show me a PM who lacks the ability to contribute to building new client relationships, and I'll show you someone who's not a very good PM either. Aren't we talking about essentially the same skill set? Many firms require PMs to at least be responsible for new business from their existing clients. That seems a reasonable minimum expectation. PMs don't need to necessarily be involved in cold calling and lead finding, but should at least be willing and able to support efforts in the Sales Funnel.
Don't shortchange marketing activities. Most A/E firms I've worked with were already investing adequate hours in sales activities. Many were spending too much time writing proposals instead of positioning the firm in advance of the RFP. But almost all of them were giving too little attention to marketing to make it effective. Marketing well done can bring interested clients to your door, something any firm can appreciate. Research shows that firms that generate the most leads through marketing grow much faster and are more profitable. In expanding participation in your BD process, this is likely where you should concentrate first.
Recognize and reward employee contributions. This goes without saying, but it's important to provide positive reinforcement. Don't ignore earnest efforts even if results haven't come yet. The most productive BD strategies often take time to come to fruition. Plus it's essential to reinforce new behaviors, especially when it doesn't yet fit within people's comfort zone. Embedding change like this in your corporate culture is no easy process, but it's well worth the commitment.