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September 17, 2020

10 business development tips for a COVID-19 world

Johnston Training Group


Goodbye, handshakes and exchanging business cards; hello, Zoom and chat windows. According to a recent survey by Zweig Group, 90% of AEC firms say COVID-19 will affect overall business development activities in the next 12 months. And yet business must go on and new work must be pursued.

Here are 10 ways to stay engaged with existing connections and build business.

1. Take the lead. COVID-19 is changing how schools, workplaces, and more are designed and built. What is your firm doing differently as a result? Can you team up with another firm and offer a webinar or other virtual service? Collaborate with your colleagues, partners, or clients to be a thought leader.

Dara t'Sas, director of marketing at BCRA, said, “Now more than ever, understanding where your target audience is showing up online is incredibly important. If you can create relevant content and get it in front of your target audience, that opens up more opportunities for your business. Pitch and develop webinars, panel discussions, produced micro-content, blogs, and email blasts where your subject-matter experts can shine.”

2. Focus on the benefit of this change. Past business development efforts could mean spending more time getting to and from appointments than actually meeting. Now that most people are comfortable with virtual meetings, you can go from one appointment to another more quickly. Having someone's undivided attention for 30 minutes during a virtual meeting can be more fruitful than trying to have a meaningful conversation at a crowded networking event.

Shannon Gustine, director of operations at Hensel Phelps and program committee chair for DBIA Northwest, said, “We are all working to maintain close connections to our clients and partners. It is more challenging when you are missing out on some of the casual encounters within the industry, but well worth the effort to stay connected.”

3. Apply PM methods to business development. Technical professionals think linearly — a project starts, achieves milestones and ends. Business development is an ongoing effort that has a soft, uneventful start (you pick up the phone or send an email) and the “finish” may be a slower process with no clear end. This often prevents technical professionals from taking the first step, because not having a clear start and defined finish can be off-putting. The initial step is often the hardest, so before you dive in, set up a plan like you would for a real project. Reserve time on your calendar each week to reach out to a rotating list of six connections that you have at the ready — just as you would line up tasks to begin a project.

4. Get help if you need it. Longtime rainmakers who are great at face-to-face networking may struggle when it comes to using virtual meeting programs. If you're not a savvy Zoomer, find someone in your organization who is and practice, practice, practice. Work out the kinks before you meet with that big new lead. Most virtual meeting tools have a record option — use it during your practice sessions and watch and learn from the playback.

5. Make it count. Running into colleagues at networking events is an easy way to start a conversation. But asking someone to meet virtually requires a reason. Are you surveying your clients to see how they are dealing with COVID-19 restrictions? Do you have new information that would benefit your contact? Many people are in virtual meetings all day, so make your meeting count. Since everything is up in the air, leading with “Any upcoming projects?” is not a good question. That information will come out anyway later in the conversation. Scheduling a 10- or 15-minute meeting will likely get a better response than asking for 30 minutes. Many may appreciate a call rather than a video chat.

6. Lights, camera, you. We've all seen the nightmare clips of people taking their phones or laptops into the bathroom during a meeting. The more common faux pas are poor lighting, sound and backgrounds. You wouldn't conduct business development meetings in a dark nightclub with background noise, so why do it at a virtual meeting? Find natural light, use hard-wired headphones or earbuds with a mic, position your device so that the camera is at eye level, and clean up the distracting background (or use a virtual background). You're a professional, so keep it professional.

7. Don't socially distance from social media. LinkedIn and other networking sites are seeing increased use as people work from home and connect online. Now is the time to bolster your business's social media presence. Don't just “like” other people's posts; instead, share useful content and ask questions in the comments field. A good online conversation can be a springboard to discuss the topic further one on one.

8. Take the temperature. Everyone has different standards for how comfortable they are meeting face to face. For some, it will be a hard no. Others may be comfortable meeting outside for food or a beverage without a mask. Ask your contact what works for them and, if they are open to it, suggest an in-person meeting. Look for a restaurant with outdoor seating or limited indoor seating and online reservations. Since dining out is one of the few activities you can do together without a mask, meals can even feel normal (almost).

9. Be a problem solver, not a salesperson. Your intention is to build a good relationship, so show that you understand your contact's needs, ask good questions, share stories of how you solved similar problems, and track your results. Developing strong relationships means your contacts will come to you — a trusted resource — when they need assistance.

10. Make business development part of the culture. AEC firms often leave rainmaking to the leaders. What happens when they retire or leave? To be successful in today's competitive environment, every single person must be able to engage with potential clients and develop relationships that may lead to business. Firms that make business development a priority for everyone and equip their staff with the skills to succeed lay the groundwork for long-term success.

“After rescheduling our Johnston Training Group BD program several times due to COVID-19, we proceeded with the training this summer,” said Emily Meyer, client engagement manager at Bernardo|Wills Architects in Spokane. “While so much has changed, many principles remain the same, and we are very glad to have trained every single staff member in both basic and advanced BD skills.

“Establishing goals and practicing these new skills has accelerated our COVID-19-era business development strategies,” Meyer said. “Our team has challenged themselves, with new leaders emerging and developing business, and this will carry our firm successfully through the uncertainty of the next season.”

The COVID-19 pandemic will not last forever, but virtual work will be a bigger part of our future when it does end. That is why we want to learn new ways of broadening options for building relationships. Apply these 10 strategies to your firm's business development efforts and you'll be ramping up for success in 2021 and beyond.

Scott Johnston is president at Johnston Training Group, which offers interview coaching, presentation skills and business development training programs for AEC firms.

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