Optimism is on the rise in the A/E business as 2015 holds promise of continued improvement in economic conditions. Some seem to think that a return to normalcy is just around the corner. But count me among the skeptics. The growth in new business opportunities is certainly welcome, but the competition for work isn't easing up.
One thing the Great Recession should have taught us is that most firms could stand an overhaul in how they do business development. When times were good, they got by with a loosely coordinated, ad hoc approach. The economic downturn exposed their shortcomings, although many continue to blame external circumstances rather than acknowledge their weaknesses.
For those of you who still see the need to rethink how you pursue new work, let me suggest a new year's resolution—get your sales effort better organized. Where to start? The specific strategy will vary by firm, but I've found that most will benefit substantially by taking the following steps:
Anoint your "sales force." In many firms, people's sales responsibilities are more implied than explicit. If this is true at your firm, the first step is to formally identify your sales force and define their respective duties (see below). Assigning responsibilities is not the only reason for doing this. Sales is often perceived as a lonely activity, which is particularly a problem with technical professionals who are already uncomfortable with the role. You want to make them feel part of an active team where there is sharing, support, and mutual accountability.
Fit people to the appropriate roles. There's a tendency to view sales as a monolithic activity requiring a specific skill set (which many technical professionals conveniently claim to lack). But in fact there is a role for almost everyone. Activities include:
- Conducting market or client research
- Building and maintaining a network of contacts
- Participating in professional and trade associations
- Making "warm calls" to prospective clients
- Calling on existing clients for information and leads
- Participating in conferences and trade shows
- Helping develop your firm's intellectual capital
- Developing tools and resources for clients
- Public speaking
- Writing (or supporting writing) for publication
- Providing webinars and seminars
- Developing and making sales presentations
- Writing proposals
- Negotiating fees and contract terms
- Serving as a "client advocate" after the sale
Budget a specific allocation of time for their assigned responsibilities. Most firms do business development with leftover time, which is a formula for mediocrity. Sales time must be treated like project time, where there are certain tasks that need to be done regardless of interruptions or changes in schedules. Budgeting time also mutes the common complaint that selling detracts from utilization. The goal is to specifically devote a portion of people's nonbillable time to business development, not steal billable hours (although individual utilization goals may well change to accommodate their new sales assignments). Once you've made allocations, track "sales utilization" to make sure that adequate time is being expended.
Provide training and coaching. Although most professionals are turned off by the stereotypical sales persona, they typically default to many of the same behaviors—talking too much, listening too little, focusing on themselves—because that's all they know. Training is typically necessary to help seller-doers employ a client-centered approach that is both more palatable (to the professional and buyer alike) and more effective. But since improved sales performance ultimately depends on behavior change, classroom training alone won't suffice. You need ongoing coaching to reinforce application of the new strategies over time.
Manage your best sales opportunities. Research indicates that as many as 80% of sales leads are neglected or mishandled. You certainly can't afford that kind of inefficiency with your most critical sales opportunities. The leading A/E firms typically have some form of capture planning process to guide their efforts in closing on their best leads. This earlier post outlines a proven approach to maximizing your success on your top sales opportunities.
Hold regular sales team meetings. These meetings are designed to build the team, define assignments, review progress, and encourage accountability. Keep them short and to the point (usually no more than 30 minutes). Focus on sales activities, not proposals (you want to avoid mistaking proposal volume for productive sales efforts). I recommend weekly meetings at the start. Once increased activity and accountability appears sustainable, then it may be appropriate to go to biweekly meetings. Make sure that someone is in charge of the meetings so they don't drift off course.