Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Too Busy for Business Development? Here Are Five Time-Freeing Strategies

The seller-doer model has its advantages. Practitioners are best positioned to sell their own expertise, and clients are typically most comfortable in engaging those who will actually be managing and performing the work.

But the average seller-doer prioritizes the doing over the selling. And when there's an abundance of doing to be done, selling often takes a back seat. Such is the case in most A/E firms these days, with burgeoning workloads making it extremely difficult to find time for business development.

How can seller-doers free up more time for selling without shortchanging their project responsibilities? Here are five strategies that I've found helpful:

Projectize business development. Unplanned sales activity can never compete with planned project activity for seller-doers' attention. Unfortunately, a reactive, unstructured approach to business development is the norm in most firms. To combat this tendency, treat it like a project. Business development is readily converted into the core elements of project work—tasks, assignments, schedules, budgets, deliverables, reviews, metrics. Key pursuit and proposal plans facilitate this conversion. 

Plan and schedule sales activities. Don't consign sales calls and related tasks to leftover time; that is, "when I get the chance..." If you've projectized BD, you've defined a set of actions with assignments and deadlines. Many firms take this step, but fail to capture these planned activities in some form (e.g., a CRM system) such that they can track follow-through. 

At a personal level, a basic time management principle applies here: If it's worth doing, make a specific appointment and get it on your calendar. Then treat that appointment like any other—schedule other activities around it or reschedule it if you must. But don't simply put it off, something that's easier to do if you only add it to your to-do list.

Budget time for BD. One of the most overused excuses I hear for seller-doers not selling is they can't afford the hit to their utilization. Most seller-doers I've worked with have utilization goals in the range of 50-70%. The issue isn't how much project time they have to sacrifice for BD, but how much of that nonbillable time can be devoted to it. 

If you don't specifically allocate a portion of nonbillable time to BD, you likely perpetuate the impression that BD time competes with project time. It doesn't, I would argue; it competes with other nonbillable activities. So budget how much of that time goes to BD—with individuals having specific time allocations—and then track "BD utilization."

By the way, I need to address a misguided perception that I think is at the heart of our struggle with giving appropriate attention to nonbillable activities like sales and marketing. The common notion in A/E firms is that billable time is good and nonbillable time is bad. You want to maximize billable time and minimize nonbillable time. 

No you don't. If you were able to carry out that logic to its extreme—100% billability—you'd be out of business in a month. The fact is that nonbillable activities are just as important as billable ones; you just can't have too much of them. Without sales, you don't have billable work. Without human resources, you don't have the people to do the work. Without accounting, you don't get paid for the work. It's critically important that you properly value and manage nonbillable time! Thus...treat it like project work.

Be selective in what you pursue. I've never been a fan of volume selling, which many A/E firms practice by default in submitting proposals for just about every opportunity they feel they're qualified for. A better approach is to outwork the competition on fewer sales pursuits. As I continually remind my clients, every hour spent on a losing proposal is an hour that could have been redirected to more effective sales or marketing actions.

Particularly when you're busy, spending time on low-return sales opportunities just doesn't make sense. On the other hand, the best way to convert opportunities into higher-probability ones is to exert more effort than your competitors. So choose how to spend your BD time wisely. Don't pursue opportunities where you don't have the capacity or the commitment to give it the time warranted if you really want to to win.

Free time for BD by delegating more. Some seller-doers are busier with project work than they should be. Yeah, that's easier to excuse when we value project time above all other. But seller-doers have been entrusted with a high-value responsibility—to bring in enough work for the firm to be successful. Many fail to fulfill that responsibility by not properly allocating their time and their work. They don't delegate effectively to lower-level staff.

I wrote previously about the concept of leverage, pushing work activities to the lowest practical staff level. Besides boosting profitability, leverage also permits senior personnel to have more time for higher level work activities befitting their experience and expertise. Those higher-level activities include BD. Some seller-doers are in fact accurate in saying that spending time on BD would lower their utilization. The question is: Is this a good thing?

Generally, when senior managers and project managers are running higher utilization rates than junior staff, that's an indicator of poor leverage. In some firms, this situation is even lauded. But there's a cost for consuming management time with project work. And BD is only one crucial activity that suffers from not optimally distributing the work among staff.

Final thought. I'd be amiss if I didn't acknowledge that many seller-doers these days aren't feeling the compulsion to bring in additional work because their firms can barely keep up with the projects they already have. I can empathize. You certainly don't won't to secure work that exceeds your capacity to perform well (and staffing up is difficult now), thus failing to satisfy clients and sullying your firm's reputation.

Business development when you're really busy shouldn't simply be about acquiring more work, but the right work. That is, better projects, better clients, better opportunities for staff, better financial terms, better returns for owners. Focus on growing key client relationships, expanding into growth markets, building new capabilities, strengthening your work processes and resources.

I recently sat in on a planning meeting where my engineering firm client was talking about building hedges for the coming economic downturn. They weren't venturing any guesses about when this would happen, only confirming that it was an inevitability. As I noted in a previous article on marketing, now is the time to fortify your BD capabilities for whatever is coming. Don't wait until you're facing a crisis.

Too busy to worry about that now? It's too critical to put off, so consider the above strategies for creating more space to tackle those important-but-not-that-urgent activities that can deliver success not just in a booming economy, but over the long haul.