Robert Davis


Is firing your BD team really the right answer?

Too much churn indicates bigger problems

It is time for the annual ritual.  The business development people have not won a $200 million program during the last six months so it is time to clean house.

But business development (BD) is not a person.  BD is a function; a function that should operate across an entire company and not in one department. 

I have seen numerous companies in our business turnover their entire BD team every 2 years without fail.  At some point you would think that top management would observe this constant churn and ask some basic questions.

Is our lack of consistent BD success because of poor marketing sophistication, old metrics, rewards that actually serve as disincentives? Are there serious disconnects between BD and operations, a lack of business development infrastructure, having a no-value-creation web site, or other?

While executives today know that the good times in this business are over, their company’s structure, metrics, rewards, collateral and internal engagement with BD is still designed from the old days, the days of a bull market.

Recently I have read job postings for companies to hire a new BD person to add to their BD team.  The job requirements include being a BD person with 10-15 years’ experience calling on a specific agency and capture management responsibilities and ability to manage the proposal process and market research expertise and ability to develop and implement strategy for a particular market segment and other duties as assigned.

You get the picture.  I do not believe this person will be successful.  But that is okay, the company can just replace them.

Today, we are in a bear market.  No news here.  Except top management in today’s companies built their reputations during the bull markets of the 1980s and 1990s.

They will quickly concede that times are tough but have not shifted their companies’ market reality to actually being in a bear market.  Marketing, such as it is after non-stop cost-cutting over the years, business development as a function and its integration with operations, team-based selling instead of job-based selling, no real vision, social media engagement, a meaningful web site, and actually demonstrating thought leadership have not been considered.

These capabilities and more must be part of a company’s plan to be competitive going forward.  Constant cost-cutting is not a growth strategy.  The constant churn in BD people is not a solution; it is an indicator that the firm has much deeper problems.    

About the Author

Robert Davis is a 35-year veteran of the government IT marketing and has held positions large and small firms in areas such as marketing and sales, program management, business development and market development. He is an expert in business development, marketing, and management.

Reader Comments

Wed, Feb 20, 2013 David McQueen Seattle, WA

Although federal construction contracts are high risk, many times they are based on a best value scenario which means the low dollar does not always win. I say this because I believe BD is a culture that starts in the field, it is a reputation that you as a company develop by providing a quality product on time and deliver the least amount of hassle to the project teams government counter part. If your company has a great reputation, and you maintain it, then you have the biggest piece of BD tackled. Most of the government selection for proposals are distributed to various levels including the field personnel, which means a small community will be deciding on you, based on weather they like working with you or not. Therefore you can be the 2nd or 3rd lowest price and be awarded the project. I start with this because I see a general disconnect between the BD team and what actually happens in the field. It is important on projects that have been successful to expand on the relationship from your great success, and repairing relationships, showing the customer you are willing to make changes and learn from the bad projects. You can write the best proposal, and tell the government all the great things you will do for them if you are awarded the project, but if your reputation in the field is that you are a pain to work with, or you do not provide adequate staff, or are always behind schedule then you can be easily overlooked and graded as not providing the best value. It is important that the BD team gets out into the field and works within the culture of the company, and tries to get a clear understanding of your reputation with the industry and with your customers. This way changes can be made to repair/maintain your reputation and specifics can be written within the proposals directly addressing specific issues to show you are making the adjustments and are in touch with with the customers needs. The BD team needs to own what they are doing, and be accurate when doing it. They are your sales team and eventually they will not be as motivated or productive if they are not selling a great product that inspires them, and that creates turnover.

Sun, Feb 17, 2013 Eileen Kent

Owners and Senior Sales Managers: Federal Sales is not for dabblers with expectations of hundred million dollar deals. It takes 12-24 months of face-to-face selling and perfect proposal writing to build your federal business into a profit center. It takes a combination of customer insight, excellent past performance, ideal solutions and strong teaming arrangements to woo this highly risk-averse federal customer into even scoring your company’s proposal to the top three contenders. With that in mind, you must have a detailed competitive analysis on what the competition is actually winning in this market, and then provide your BD team with a strategic roadmap, which is clearly understood by all, so your BD team can report their progress (or lack there of) while you as managers maintain a legacy database of what works - and what doesn’t. This way, if you turn a team, the new BD team members you hire don’t go down the same rabbit holes - wasting yet another precious year of your time and money. I have trained over 10,000 on federal sales, proposal writing and GSA schedules and I have personally captured millions in federal contracts. I am among many other experts available who can help owners and sales managers one-on-one to perform a custom competitive analysis, train the entire team on the federal sales ‘game’ and then, build a custom sales action plan. If you continue to make “strategic hires” and let them “sink or swim” every six months, you’ll lose. This market takes an entire company’s commitment, understanding, experience, patience, perseverance, persistence, and, most of all, focus.

Sun, Feb 17, 2013 J-- EVP in McLean McLean

Some companies did well and grew fast and profitably without dedicated full-spectrum BD specialists. Booz Allen is a good example--until recently. Responding to the columnist's headline, I would say: yes, by all means, fire the BD team, unless they are good at delivering services and get back on the billable staff. Comb the ranks of people delivering services--not all, but a prominent minor fraction of them whom top mgt needs to identify. The mechanics and methods of proposal writing are all tradecraft that can be grown, hired on a spot basis, or harnessed by pulling in good staff. The real talent is marketing. In our firm we say we should be spending ten times more time marketing than selling via proposals/task orders. The goal is to find the fewest, high-probability leads and develop them long before an RFP is being drafted. I don't think I am preaching to the choir here. Most federal contractors of any size are used to growing as budgets grow, or to give-away, noncompetitive bids that really should have been competed if the regs and policy were followed. They do not know how to grab someone else's share or enlarge demand.

Sat, Feb 16, 2013

Good article. Mr. Davis is right on in describing that BD is a function and not just based on the quality of your BD reps. It actually is a complex and interdependent function with a number of components that need to be aligned and operating efficiently. In the past, many companies have been successful by having quality players in the BD rep role. You can longer get away with just that. Having a quality BD function takes investment in a number key areas. Unfortunately, for many companies in this budget constrained environment, if they have not previously made the investment in the multi components of this function, they are going to be challenged to sell exec management to make this investments at this point. They are going to continue to be caught in the cycle of just replacing their BD personnel out. Those that previously made those investments, can focus on optimizing the process and components of that complete function.

Fri, Feb 15, 2013 John Broughton Largo, Maryland

Well stated article and very timely given sequestration and budget cuts for the next five years in the federal space. Also concur with comment #2 above.

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