Expand responsibilities with business development

By standing out, engineers can make an impact at their firm.

By Robert Ward, PE, LEED GA, CannonDesign, Pittsburgh October 20, 2015

Our industry is continually evolving, with company structures constantly changing. As our economy continues to show signs of improvement, competition has never been fiercer. How do firms define and differentiate themselves? Are they generalists? Niche specialists? What is the right formula? How can you become a part of the solution to help your firm prosper and remain viable?

In an environment where firms of all sizes are promoting their features and benefits, employees need to set themselves apart. Possessing skills beyond technical expertise are essential: Do you understand your current or new client’s business? Their challenges? What keeps them up at night? Helping clients understand their peers, where industry trends are going, and how you can help differentiate them from their competition are great conversation starters.

But what about these "great conversation starters"? How do we learn these skills, especially when they take us out of our comfort zone and into business development? Engineers are trained with technical expertise, not as professional marketers. We are not typically prepared in the soft skills required for networking, or for client research strategies.

The 80/20 rule

We’ve all heard the phrase 80% of our work comes from 20% of our clients. Is it true in your company? People tend to work with those that they like and trust, those who they feel genuinely share their concerns and have their best interests in mind. It’s much easier to obtain a new commission with an existing client where a long-standing history of good work and mutual respect exists, rather than prospect for an opportunity with a new potential client. And although it is necessary to continually develop clients, new client relationships take time and effort to develop.

The trap

It happens. Your firm is busy with a solid backlog many months out, causing most to relax their business development efforts and become immersed in production mode. This can be dangerous. Perhaps all this work is in one market. Perhaps it’s with primarily one client. Business models and markets have the potential to change every quarter. Projects can get pushed out or canceled, and your client’s corporate priorities can change. These circumstances can dramatically impact your firm’s backlog projections and revenue forecasts. Don’t fall into this trap. The time to pursue new opportunities is when you are busy!

The future

So what is the future? Let’s say your firm has achieved success with internal expertise, high-performing staff, repeat work with existing clients, and positive marketing connections with new clients. How do you sustain work into the future?

Enduring firms will focus on developing their emerging talent—their future leaders. This undertaking not only means grooming the next wave of engineering technical expertise, but also cultivating future project managers and, dare I say, business development.

I have encountered several types of business developers in my career, including the nontechnical marketing/business developer and engineers who have the unique knack for business development. Both have the ability to be successful. Depending on the client’s personality and industry, some prefer to deal with a technical person while others are more inclined to a relaxed conversation.

But we are focusing on an engineer as a business development here, so what is the strategy?

Employers have to be able to identify those with the DNA to want to get out there, network, and engage with potential clients. We need those who want to create more opportunities for growth. But these two components alone do not necessarily make for an effective business developer. 

Or worse yet, if the wrong candidate is thrown into a business development role, not only do you have an ineffective marketer but you also might have lost one of your best engineers or project managers.

The days of just stating "how great we are and what we’ve done" are over. Not that a strong portfolio and having the relevant expertise isn’t necessary, but the competition has the same. To all the young, emerging engineers out there: Asking questions to understand your client’s issues, where they’ve come from, and where they want to go can be the beginning of building a solid relationship. This is potentially a new and rewarding role for yourself and your firm. Is it in you?

Robert Ward is senior vice president at CannonDesign.