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Kristin Liu, LEED AP Senior Associate, Business Development Syska Hennessy Group, Inc.

Kristin Liu
In February, I participated in a roundtable discussion amongst principals and business development/marketing professionals from a few firms. The firms represented included 500-900 people firms as well as 20-60 people firms from architecture, engineering and cost consulting. The roundtable’s purpose was to share best practices and foster better collaboration between principals, technical staff, BD and marketing team members. Here are the key topics which we contemplated.

[expand title=”Click here to read more…”] The role of business developers took different shapes at each firm but all participants agreed that a dedicated BD function enhances the firm’s ability to forge relationships and keep in tuned with “What’s going on?” beyond the firm. An architecture firm owner relied on sustaining his firm for many years but hired a Director of BD in 2010 out of his desire to grow new business. A large engineering firm currently relies on a dedicated BD Coordinator to drive growth in business by creating opportunities for doer-sellers to get in front of clients and facilitating knowledge sharing internally. Business development and marketing titles differ from firm to firm, so it is helpful to focus on their specific functions when discussing with folks outside one’s firm. In some cases, BD and Marketing is the responsibility of one person; in another case, a firm’s main office relies mainly on seller-doers to perform BD functions with support solely from the marketing team. In yet another firm, the marketing team reports to the BD team. This diversity of roles and titles is no surprise, because marketing and BD functions are interconnected and each rely on the actions of the other. Another point of agreement amongst roundtable participants is that junior technical staff benefit from and are receiving some form of business development training. The “formality” or “level” of training range from mostly grassroots efforts (i.e. “individual leaders mentoring teams”), to regular BD meetings involving all client facing staff, to formal BD seminars given to more senior team members as well as on-boarding processes addressing BD/client outreach for new technical hires. When the topic of seller-doers/doer-sellers came up, billability benchmarks were discussed. One firm expects its principals to be at least 65% billable; its senior project managers to be 75-80% billable; and its junior technical staff to be 90-95% billable. Note that the 5-10% of non-billable allotment translates to 2-4 hours in a 40 hour work week. This is the time per month that junior team members can use to network at an industry/professional organization event or take a client peer out to socialize and strengthen professional friendships. Whether or not a firm has formal billability measures, the real focus should be on the return on investment of non-billable time. Retaining top talent was a topic that brought on a passionate discussion. In encouraging younger technical staff to build client relationships to develop business, principals must be prepared to address the question of reward. It is the question of “I got a $50K job, so what do I get?” A suggested approach to such claims of entitlement is to appeal to the team member’s sense of teamwork, pointing out that his or her colleagues are also bringing in value. Of course, there is always a small percentage of ambitious self-starters who will eventually leave to start their own business. For the others who can be influenced, one firm modified their ownership structure to keep top talent engaged. Acknowledgment of the full team on project wins and project delivery successes is also critical. One can never say too many “Thank you’s” and “I appreciate you’s.” Several firms use the strategy of exposing younger technical staff early on to the entire project lifecycle. Allowing transparency about fees, contracts, and proposal and interview strategies will help them better understand the big picture business goals and gain a feeling of community which cultivates stronger commitment towards the firm. Do you know what your principals are thinking? I encourage you to grab them and some technical staff (as well as your marketing and BD team) and make time for roundtable discussions of your own. Or better yet, ask them to join a SMPS principals roundtable in the future. Please share your experiences on this topic with me via email.[/expand]