Developing Good Business Development Habits

By Karen O. Courtney, AIA, FSMPS


So much of business development (BD) is doing the little things right as well as focusing on the big things that really matter and can bring work in the door. For the busy architect, getting business is often a natural progression of doing good work for clients. But to grow, a portion of time should always be devoted to acquiring new business to replace the inevitable turnover of clients. Here are some insights that can make a difference in improving your BD bottom line.


Understand Your Brand

Branding is “marketing speak” for your reputation and what that means for your clients and prospects. Having a positive brand helps jump-start BD, which begins indirectly when a prospective client has heard something positive about your firm. Whether or not it is formally developed and documented, every firm has a brand; you may just not be in control of it. Getting control of your firm’s brand is the first BD habit to master.

Brand manifests itself in all the touch points or interactions with a firm. Be deliberate about what those touch points are and then be relentless and consistent in living and communicating the brand at all times. This includes little things like email signatures, one of the most overlooked and yet most utilized of brand touch points in our email centric world. Have standards for how this looks and enforce them.

Do the same with your presentation boards and drawing sets, not to mention marketing materials. Be bold and distinctive in your logo and make sure it tells a story that reinforces the brand promise made to your clients.

A strong brand identity conveys information about a firm’s core essence and what it the stands for and what it does not. It serves to position the firm in the client’s mind and is expressed visually, verbally and experientially. Brand messages are the key attributes that clients need to know and remember about a firm, and brand voice or personality is how those messages are expressed to the target audience.

Make sure everyone in the firm is clear about your brand, its messages and what it stands for. Take the time during new employee orientation to explain this and periodically review it for all employees so that they can be great brand ambassadors for your company.


Invest in Training

Too often in design firms, it’s assumed that those with good people skills or the extroverts in the office are natural salespeople and can do all the business development for the firm. Sales acumen and learning business development is an acquired skill and can be taught to technical staff who typically have had little or no formal training in the subject.

Invest in basic sales and public speaking training so that good practices are developed and years of potential missteps and frustration are eliminated. Toastmasters offers an inexpensive and convenient way to sharpen speaking skills. Many options exist for basic sales training, both online and in person, and through allied professional societies like the Society for Marketing Professional Services.

Mentoring staff new to the BD process is also a good way to train others, so consider including two staff on each sales call to increase the learning opportunities.


Start Relationships Early

Once potential clients are identified, start early in the relationship building process. Don’t wait until there is a defined project to get to know the client. Start by doing your research, and make the first visit heavy on listening to the client and light on talking about your firm. Then, armed with this information, figure out a way to share something of value to aid the trust and relationship building process. This can be simple advice, technical information, a connection or resource or even an article of interest that relates to a client’s pressing business issues.

Don’t hesitate to use third party bridges to get an introduction, which is asking those who know the prospect client to introduce you to them. However, be prepared to pay it forward in the future. Use relationship visits to gather intelligence and really understand the drivers of potential design commissions so that when the RFP is released, the information to create a compelling sales strategy is already in hand. Make the BD process ongoing, deliberate and consistent during both busy and light work load periods.

Research shows that the earlier a firm is invested in a relationship, the higher the information flow and ability to wire the work. This is another way of saying “know more than the competition and use it to outsell them.” Then, after investing the time and energy in making that first visit, be relentless about staying in touch with hot prospects, both directly (face to face) and indirectly (email, mailers, etc.). Too many first visits never result in second visits until an RFP comes out, and by then it’s usually too late to acquire quality project intelligence to bolster your sales strategy.


Use Capture Planning

Capture planning is a tool developed for pursuing high value complex opportunities with long sales cycles and committee decision making, usually in context with federal procurement. It is a written, action-oriented plan designed to positively position a firm in the buyer’s eyes before a proposal is requested.

The basics of capture planning can help design firms stay on top of the BD process and document the steps that lead to a winning sales strategy. Capture planning can be done for a client or a project and a good habit is to do them for must win projects that will make or break a year’s success.

The elements of a capture plan include intelligence gathering of key client issues and project drivers; competitive analysis to discern differentiation; and development of a sales strategy that offers unique value and information on client decision-making criteria, personalities and preferences - all written and documented as action items to do by the pursuit team over time. The capture planning process encourages teamwork in developing a strong sales strategy and helps to keep all involved in the pursuit accountable.


Make Better Go/No Go Decisions

The not-that-far-gone recession caused many design firms to abandon wise go/no go decision making and chase after any and every project to get work in bad times. Now that some normalcy has returned to the marketplace, reinstate a go/no go process and use it regularly. If relationship building has started early, the information to make better and more strategic go/no go decisions should result.

Don’t hesitate to apply the process at multiple points in the business development cycle, as more knowledge from the relationship building is uncovered. The issue is rarely if a firm can do the work but whether a firm can win the work. The go/no go process helps to remove the rose-colored glasses and be brutally realistic about the investment and odds to capture desirable work. And don’t submit proposals so that a client can get to know the firm, but redirect that time and money to something with a better chance of success.


Prepare and Rehearse

If all the above is done well, opportunities to interview for work should flow. However, now is not the time to slack off and ignore the necessary time to prepare and rehearse for competitive interviews. Use the capture plan and intelligence gained from the process to build the interview framework around strategic selling points. Then use these to sell, not tell in structuring an interview. Make these messages about the benefits your firm can provide the client and not the features of the firm.

And lastly, rehearse so that timing, body language and transitions can be managed. This practice leads to more confidence for the presenters and hopefully more chemistry developed with the audience by demonstrating more competence. Don’t spend all the upstream effort doing the right things in business development, only to fall short with the win in sight. Make interview preparation and rehearsal something your firm takes seriously and watch it pay dividends in increasing win rates.

Solid business development is a process done well over time. It’s slow, steady and built with value exchanged via relationship building. Keeping it targeted and consistent helps raise the chances for success. By applying some of these little, but important, ideas to the business development process, the payoff gained can be big indeed.



Karen O. Courtney, AIA, FSMPS is the Chief Marketing Officer for Fanning Howey, a national education design practice. With over 25 years of marketing and business development experience in design firms of all sizes from coast to coast, she is a past national president of the Society for Marketing Professional Services. She is the author of “Building Client Relationships” in the 13th edition of the AIA Handbook of Professional Practice, the BD subject matter expert for the upcoming SMPS Markendium Body of Knowledge and has written chapters on marketing and business development for past editions of the SMPS Marketing Handbook.



 (Return to the cover of the 2016 PM Digest: Business Development)