Business development: How to win more work

An engineer provides his perspective on how to win more work by engaging the staff, building your business, and then winning the bid.

By Mark Gelfo, PE, LEED AP BD+C, TLC Engineering for Architecture, Jacksonville, FL January 27, 2012

What do you think of when you hear “marketing” or “business development”? If you’re like most engineers, you either groan audibly while rolling your eyes into the back of your head, or you start listing reasons why you’re too busy doing “real work” to do any marketing or business development. Or maybe you simply think it’s someone else’s job, and move on.

The reality is, however, that for most upwardly mobile engineers today, “business development”—winning new work and developing client relationships—is absolutely part of the job. Without clients giving us new projects, we won’t be in business for very long, so business development is everyone’s responsibility.

So, if winning new work is so important to our very existence as engineers, why are we reluctant to spend time doing it? What are the biggest challenges and obstacles preventing you and your firm from winning more work? The most common reason seems to be “time,” or more accurately, lack of it. Constant demands to meet deadlines, get drawings out the door, or deal with the issue or problem right in front of us often leads to a “firefighting” mentality and prevents long-term, strategic thinking. When push comes to shove, the first thing to fall off of our plates is all too often business development. Other obstacles to winning more often include lack of “soft skills” training in the engineering community (i.e., we don’t know how to do it), and that there isn’t enough work out there.

Before we start solving all of these challenges, let’s start with some common terms and definitions. In the architecture, engineering, and construction industry, the terms “marketing” and “business development” are often incorrectly used interchangeably, when in reality they are very different activities. Marketing refers to the development of materials and tools that support the developing of relationships and winning of work, and includes things such as advertising, public relations, and developing materials. Business development refers to developing relationships with clients, direct interaction and communication with clients, networking, and other activities related to winning new work and new and existing clients. These are very oversimplified definitions, but for the purposes of this article, we will use the term “business development. to describe the pursuit and winning of new work.

The players

Who is responsible for business development? Everyone is. But the specific responsibilities differ for different members of the team.

The marketing/business development team is typically responsible for building relationships with clients and potential clients, making cold calls, tracking down new leads, doing the legwork and recon on potential leads, and developing materials such as request for proposal (RFP) and request for qualification (RFQ) responses, resumes, experience lists, promotional materials, and so on. The marketing/business development team should work in close partnership with the firm’s principals and senior staff.

The principals and senior staff’s business development responsibilities are primarily to build great relationships with their clients and new potential clients (ultimately people give work to people, not companies), and to do great engineering work (clients give work to reliable people who have proven work records). Responsiveness and proactiveness are also key pieces of providing “extreme service” to clients; we must ultimately remember that we are a service industry—successful firms provide service to clients, not just drawings or reports. The senior staff is also responsible for writing fee proposals and supporting the business development team with technical information and input.

One often overlooked business development opportunity for senior staff is speaking engagements. Whether it’s for your local ASHRAE or AIA chapter, or at regional or national conference, any time you can represent yourself and your firm as a subject-matter expert to a group of peers, clients, or potential clients, it’s a great business development opportunity.

The junior staff also has a role in business development. They need to build relationships with peers and clients in the industry. They must do great quality engineering work and be responsive to clients. Every interaction with a client is business development, whether it is responding to an e-mail, answering the phone, or attending a meeting. Junior staff members occasionally hear about potential projects, and they need to report those leads back to the senior staff and business development team. And as the junior staff journey down the path to becoming senior staff, they may need some coaching and developing of business skills as they have more client interaction and attend interviews.

Business development skills

Often, a young engineer’s transition from just working on projects to suddenly managing them, at least in part, for business development and bringing in new projects, can be a shock. But it doesn’t have to be. Firms must invest in training the engineering staff in business and professional skills such as presentation and speaking skills, listening skills (yes, active listening is a skill), and technical writing. That investment will pay huge dividends in long-term business development.

Business development isn’t rocket science; it just requires commitment. We need to think of it as part of our day-to-day responsibilities. Marketing and business development activities should be scheduled and have specific staff assignments and responsibilities, just like any project the firm is working on. Most firms have regular weekly scheduling meetings, often on Monday mornings, so one suggestion is to incorporate the marketing discussion and assignments into that meeting to be sure they are getting the proper attention and accountability.

In David Maister’s book, “Managing the Professional Service Firm,” he uses the terms “hunting” and “farming” to define two very different but equally important business development activities:

Farming is the cultivating and nurturing of existing, repeat clients. Work from repeat clients is the best, easiest work to win. Farming also includes understanding your market segment, doing great work, providing extreme service to clients, and of course developing and maintaining relationships with the clients. Retaining your best, brightest, most experienced staff members, who do work with these existing clients, is an often overlooked aspect of farming. Farming is typically primarily where senior and junior staff spend their business development efforts.

Hunting is typically the responsibility of the business development staff and principals in the firm. Hunting is the active pursuit of specific clients or projects and involves gathering recon information, indentifying your differentiators, and pursuing teaming and partnerships with architects, contractors, developers, and even other engineers. It is important to bring information and value to your potential teaming partners, and not just come with your hand out, begging for work.

RFP versus RFQ

What’s the difference between an RFP and an RFQ? Although these terms are often used interchangeably and incorrectly, a request for proposal (RFP) is a solicitation for a scope and fee proposal, which may also ask for qualifications. A request for qualification (RFQ) is a solicitation for only qualifications and experience on past projects, without the fee element.

Regardless of whether the solicitation comes in the form of an RFP or an RFQ, if you want a serious chance at winning the project, you must take your response to the RFP/RFQ seriously. For instance, if a client receives your RFP/RFQ response in the mail, having not heard from or talked to you previously, and reads the response only to find obvious boilerplate not-project-specific information, you are most likely not going to make the short list, let alone win the project. If, however, you have been tracking the project even prior to the RFP/RFQ being issued, done the proper investigation to understand the project, talked to the client (hopefully repeatedly) to understand the specific challenges and hot button issues, and hand-delivered a tailored response that specifically outlines your approach to meeting those challenges, you will have a much better chance of being successful. Hand delivering the RFP/RFQ response, if possible and practical, is always a good idea and shows personal commitment to the project, plus it gives you another opportunity to “touch” the client and make sure the response actually gets there on time.

The importance of talking to the client and investigating the project to really understand it—its challenges, its needs, why it is even a project in the first place—cannot be overemphasized.

Many project pursuits start with an RFQ/RFP and then short-list down to three to five firms or teams that are brought in for interviews. Having an effective and successful interview often can be the difference between winning the project or not. It may seem self-evident, but the key to an effective interview is to understand the project and the client’s expectations. Too often, interviewees make assumptions or talk about what they want to talk about, without considering the client’s issues, expectations, or needs. Successful firms spend the time to research, investigate, and actually talk to the client, to determine what those expectations are.

Winning the project

As part of the interview preparation, it is important to decide whether you need to do a formal presentation or informal discussion, what type of presentation to do, what to cover (if not specifically dictated), who needs to be at the interview, and who needs to speak (hint: always bring the team’s proposed project manager). Carefully consider whether a PowerPoint presentation is the most appropriate form of presentation media. It is too often the default, so be sure to consider your options and whether another method may give a better opportunity to make a personal connection with the clients. Be sure to understand the client’s expectations—the client might be expecting a PowerPoint presentation.

Whether you are successful in winning the project—but especially if not—it’s important to follow up and debrief. This may not be fun, but it’s important to learn from the loss and to apply those lessons to the next pursuit. Plus, it shows the client that you really care about it and the project, and helps develop or strengthen your relationship with the client.

Gelfo is principal and division director at TLC Engineering for Architecture. He is chair of the U.S. Green Building Council North Florida Chapter and secretary/treasurer of the AABC Commissioning Group.

Five rules of business development

The keys to better business development and winning more projects can be summed up in the following rules:

  1. It’s everyone’s job. From the principals and senior staff to the junior staff to the marketing team, everyone has a role in business development.
  2. Information is power. The more you know—about the client, about the project, about your competition, and about yourself—the more successful you will be.
  3. No boilerplate. Always be sure to customize and tailor your responses to be project-specific.
  4. Practice. Practice. Practice. The more prepared you are for the interview, the better it will go.
  5. There’s no such thing as a wasted effort. Even if you do not win the project, use it as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship, learn from your mistakes, and be that much more prepared for the next time.