Technical staff must transition to sales to contribute fully to a firm’s bottom line.
If your civil engineering firm is like many others, increasing competition has made it necessary to involve project managers, designers, and other members of your technical staff in activities that were traditionally the responsibility of CEOs, marketers, and business developers. In the new economic landscape, business development is everyone’s business—not just the business of sales professionals. Yet, many technical professionals make the transition to selling slowly, if at all, either failing to perceive its relevance to their careers, or failing to understand that business development is about much more than just making cold calls.
What selling really is
The best way for technical professionals to become seller-doers is to start by understanding what selling really is. Selling is not just picking up the phone and making cold calls. It’s not just networking at industry events, either. Selling includes the following:
For a firm leader, the advantage of getting every member of the technical staff on board is obvious. If your star seller walks out the door, your entire business development program doesn’t walk out with him or her. If everyone is involved in developing business, other people on staff can spin straw into gold, or at the very least, pick up from where the star seller left off. There’s nothing worse for business than dropped relationships; you need a staff full of sellers and potential sellers so that client management is seamless and you don’t lose opportunities.
Tools of the sales trade
Some technical people have an inherent knack for selling and promoting their firms. They possess all the attributes of effective salesmanship—winning personalities, persistence, and a never-say-die attitude, to name a few. But those attributes don’t come naturally for most design professionals. Luckily, effective selling can be taught, and at the very least, inspire the kind of confidence that will coax the most resistant technical professionals out of their protective shells.
Aside from promoting them for their efforts and encouraging them to exhibit their latent talents, the best way to turn your firm’s "doers" into your firm’s "sellers," is to adopt some formal and informal business development training methods. Following are a few ideas to get started:
Hire an outside consultant to run a formal training session—Do your doers lack the necessary presentation and communication skills? Typically, even veteran technical staff could benefit from a tune-up in this area. Consider hiring a business development consultant to train those who need it most. In addition to the basics, seminar topics might include how proposals are put together and the research and strategy that goes into them.
Provide plenty of role-playing opportunities—Have more experienced staff members act as clients, and divide less experienced staff members into sales teams whose effort is to pitch them a project. After the selling phase, have the clients put each team of sellers through a question and answer session. Finish by having the clients discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each team’s proposal, ultimately declaring a winning team and explaining why their presentation was strongest.
Give younger staff the opportunity to practice presentation skills—Hold brown bag lunch events that provide junior members of the firm an opportunity to speak to their colleagues about projects they’re working on or seminars they’ve attended. Presenting a subject they know well to a familiar and receptive audience gives them a higher comfort level than speaking to a group of strangers when big money is on the line.
Teach technical staff not to talk too technically—Some junior-level staff members fail to understand that clients want only the broad outline in plain language, and may use sales calls as an opportunity to talk about the technical aspect of the project in great detail. Delivering information in broader terms can pose a challenge to a technical specialist, who is used to thinking and speaking in the language of his specialty.
Encourage staff to tout their accomplishments—The biggest challenge for technical staff in a sales context is salesmanship itself. In general, technical people are uncomfortable "talking up projects" and, even more so, talking about their accomplishments. They may need encouragement to pitch their own or the firm’s capabilities.
In addition to boosting your business development effort, providing training opportunities also increases your ability to retain staff. Most people appreciate their firm’s interest in their professional success and are eager to take advantage of any opportunity to polish their business skills.
Of course, you can also take the carrot-and-stick approach by making it clear that staff members who participate in bringing in new work have a better opportunity for advancement than those who don’t.
This article is an excerpt from the A/E Business Development Cookbook, published by ZweigWhite. The Cookbook also contains case studies of small, mid-size, and large firms of various disciplines to show how a customized business development strategy contributes to the health of an organization. The A/E Business Development Cookbook is available online. For more information, e-mail email@example.com.
Getting the entire staff on board
The biggest issue in business development is driving home the point that every individual in your firm has a role in bringing in new business—not just the principals, the business development professionals, or the rainmakers. But, according to John Doehring, principal and managing director of Strategic Advisory Services at ZweigWhite, not all of those people will perform the same function.
"When it comes to business development, not everyone in the firm will be making cold calls or meeting sales goals—the type of things with which most are uncomfortable and unfamiliar," Doehring said. "Quite the contrary, what’s most needed from the staff is superb work product, enriching their client relationships, [and] getting out in the world a bit more with visibility, networking, speaking, and writing. This is not sales goals but personal marketing."
What Doehring refers to as personal marketing is the effort each individual makes to go out and sell on behalf of the firm. That is what puts growth firms on the map and creates improbably high sales figures in tiny firms with small marketing budgets—your "hidden" sales force—the individual members of your firm who understand that they, too, play an important role. Following are some potential, low-profile "sellers" and the role each of them plays in business development:
Receptionist—When potential new clients enter your office, the receptionist is the first person they meet. In this technological age when so many phone calls reach electronic voices, get placed on hold, or require navigation through a grueling series of menus, most people are grateful for a friendly face and human voice. A friendly receptionist with a helpful demeanor and winning personality can help create that all-important good first impression.
Office manager—The office manager orders the branded giveaways with your company logo that go out to clients, advertising your firm. Additionally, he or she makes sure that each professional has plenty of company note cards on which to write personal notes to clients and prospects. The office manager may also work with the marketing department to help maintain "war rooms" and make sure work-in-progress is up on the walls for your firm’s important strategy sessions.
Accountant—Your finance department sends out timely invoices and makes sure your firm gets paid. This can have a direct impact on the external perception of your firm, since sending out invoices too early or too late can leave a negative impression. When a client is late on payments, the accountant helps keep an important client relationship on track by working with the project manager to tailor a plan of action.
It’s important to make sure your firm’s hidden sellers receive the training they need to perform these roles by including business development as a line item in your annual education budget. Continuing education is not just about making sure technical professionals receive credits toward keeping a technical license; it encompasses any form of education that elevates employees’ skill sets and careers.
To boost your staff’s business development efforts, take full advantage of training opportunities that increase their knowledge of the sales process. Provide scheduled performance appraisals that keep them on track and help them understand that their role is both expected and appreciated.