COMMENTARY

What's the best shortcut to mastering business development?

Knowledge and education can help business development professionals take control of their careers

Thirty years ago, I was three months into my first job in engineering. Every day, someone gave me billable work. It was as if a Job Fairy came around every night and put work on my desk. But this week was different. It was Friday, and I had no billable hours for my timesheet. It seemed the Job Fairy had died.

I realized if I didn’t have billable work, I would be fired. It was up to me to find the work. And if I really wanted to be successful, I could find work for others, too.

The big question was how to do it. Few engineers and scientists graduate from college with the thinking and skills necessary to develop new business.

But I was lucky. I had great mentors. They helped me realize that to be successful, I had to do more than just technical work. I needed to develop new business. One told me: “We do three things in this business — sell, manage and do. People who learn to do any two of the three well will do just fine.”

Other than mentorship, I had little training. I learned by doing. Eventually, I became what is termed “unconsciously competent” in business development.

The first step was to market myself internally. To ensure a steady flow of billable work, I needed to do a great job on my projects. Then I needed to network within the company to make sure the people who manage new work knew my skills and would seek me out.

The second step was to manage my own projects. For many, this is the first real exposure to clients. To do an outstanding job, you must make sure that customers get what they want — on time and within budget. When that happens, you will grow work and begin to develop as a business development farmer.

As your career progresses, you might be called on to assist the firm’s growth by developing new business — to become a hunter. This is where it gets hard for most people. Developing new business requires cold calls and visiting people you don’t know and who believe you are trying to sell them something. The skills required aren’t taught in college, and learning through trial and error is a long, tough road. But training can accelerate the learning process.

Many traditional sales training programs focus on the skills of prospecting, qualifying, learning who the real influencers and decision-makers are, shaping deals, and winning the business.

But business development is not all about those mechanical skills. For most folks, the biggest hurdle is conceptual. It isn’t just what to do but how to do it and why it works. They might be taught what to do, but they won’t do it because they can’t get past their conceptual problems.

The biggest conceptual hurdle is that many people associate selling with business development. But in business development, the purpose is to provide customers with what they need or want — fixing customer problems whether or not they purchase the solutions from you.

Another conceptual problem is fear of rejection. Business development professionals meet rejection most of the time. They need to understand that it’s not about them. It’s timing, budgets or a slew of other considerations. If they take it personally, they will fail.

After those conceptual problems are out of the way, you can learn how to qualify leads and develop prospects efficiently and effectively.

In 30 years of business development training, we find most people want to jump to the “what to do” stage. But simply teaching what to do isn’t effective. It’s far more important to first understand the thinking behind business development because it’s vital to know not only what to do but also the thinking behind it and why it works.

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