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January 12, 2023

Business development at the crossroads

  • Local AEC firms share how they are building the professional relationships that will lead to work this year — and beyond.
    Johnston Training Group


    A new year starts with resolutions — hit the gym, get organized, maybe learn a new language. For AEC firms, the new year often means business development (BD) swings into high gear. In 2023, two factors are complicating the picture: in-person BD took a roughly two-year break during the pandemic; and the economic outlook is uncertain.

    Johnston Training Group (JTG) interviewed six local AEC firms (and longtime clients) to get their take on the past, present, and future of business development. Interviewees included Jill Patterson, marketing director at Herrera; Dave Jacobs, business development manager at Osborn Consulting; Joel Rohrs, executive vice president at Andersen Construction; Eric Olson, vice president at Clark Construction Group; Dave Heater, president at Ankrom Moisan; and Oliver Whitehead, chief operating officer, PNW at Prime Electric.

    Q: How has COVID affected your BD in the past year?

    Jacobs: “The past year has been new ground for the Osborn team, learning how to reengage during in-person meetings with clients and partners. We are working diligently to reconnect and restart relationships that were built over the past two decades but have become strained. The biggest challenge now is that the ease of a virtual meeting is often hard to get past. A 30-minute meeting for a project team member is much easier to schedule and attend when accounting for travel time.”

    Heater: “In the fall of 2021, Ankrom Moisan was winning more than enough work, but no one wanted us to move at full steam ahead. Only small portions of the projects were approved, like a phase at a time. That resulted in us continuing to push on BD well into Q1 of 2022. Then by Q2 2022, the environment changed dramatically, and all slow and stalled projects hit the gas. We tried to keep up with the contracted work — BD had to take a back seat for the next two quarters.”

    Whitehead: “COVID restrictions forced us to reevaluate most of our BD activities and come up with innovative ways to create meaningful experiences with clients. As opportunities for BD have normalized, we have actually continued on with some of the BD activities that originated during COVID.”

    Q: How has the local economy affected your BD plans for 2023 and beyond?

    Patterson: “Our strong backlog positions us well for 2023. However, we have concerns about a potential recession in 2023-2024. To date, we are seeing many clients on expedited schedules for project work due to funding deadlines.”

    Rohrs: “I believe that we are better off today than we were pre-COVID, due to having to become more nimble and creative around how we communicate and seek new partners.”

    Heater: “Local economies are already affecting plans, and a few projects have gone on hold. These are spread out across the West Coast, so it's not concentrated in any one local market. People are looking at fewer sites and not starting new projects at the same pace. There are also fewer BD opportunities right now, so it appears to be a slower pace than a year ago.”

    Q: Do you see unique BD opportunities that have come out of networking virtually?

    Rohrs: “We have gotten much more comfortable talking virtually, which has set us up well with out-of-town clients we might have otherwise had to travel to, to get to know. This provides for a more financially viable model, but I still don't believe there is any substitute for in-person meetings.”

    Olson: “COVID taught us not to take face-to-face interaction for granted. That being said, COVID has also created new ways for us to mesh better with our clients. It's become more socially acceptable to keep meetings flexible — whether in person or virtual.”

    Patterson: “I think one of the biggest impacts of COVID on business development is that staff are no longer gathered ‘around the water cooler' to discuss their coworkers' projects. This reduces their ability to effectively present cross-discipline solutions to clients during business development. One way we are remedying this is a monthly 30-minute virtual ‘Rainmaker Rodeo' to increase all staff knowledge of Herrera's great work — past and present.”

    Heater: “Starting in mid-2020 we created specific expertise pieces based on surveys and client work and then broadly conducted one-on-one video calls with clients where we walked through the information. We had never done that at a firm-wide level before.”

    Q: Are BD efforts and results part of performance reviews for all, some, or just people with “BD” in their title?

    Jacobs: “For the project managers and up, there are conversations at the performance review. We do not have set numbers that need to be met for individuals. We do have larger, practice-specific goals that are used to provide the team with a path toward achieving a companywide goal.”

    Olson: “To some degree, business development is a collective effort. From entry-level engineers to senior leadership, we should all be attuned to the goals of our current and prospective project partners. Building a lasting network and sharing the company value proposition are not confined to someone with ‘business development' in their title.”

    Q: Do you see generational differences in how people approach BD? If so, what are they?

    Rohrs: “The older generation is much more hands-on and wanting to be in person. Younger folks don't mind the virtual dialog with new clients. That could be either out of lack of experience in any other way or truly a paradigm shift in a new direction. Additionally, the depth of relationships seems not to be the same. This could also be due to the other ways of communicating rather than the in-person way.”

    Patterson: “I think that the younger generations find it easier to approach BD from a ‘How can we help you?' standpoint whereas traditionally it has been thought of as an element of sales.”

    Jacobs: “The engineers with 15-plus years of experience are focused on identifying the solutions in collaboration with the client during the BD process (free consulting). The younger engineers are hyperfocused on identifying sales and forget about the trust built when consulting during the BD process.”

    Q: Do you offer training to team members who want to do BD?

    Patterson: “We've offered business development and presentation skills training to staff in various forms since 2005, when we first hired Johnston Training Group. The skills required don't always come naturally to technical experts.”

    Rohrs: “Most of our training is hands-on and involves working with a more seasoned team member. We have informal discussions around the ways of Andersen BD, but we are not so rigid that we have a scripted program. In our organization, the knowledge and understanding of our people and teams is critical. Coupled with a true belief and understanding of our core values and company vision, those are truly the primary lessons we endeavor to point out or teach on.”

    Whitehead: “BD at Prime is not limited to certain individuals. We feel that all of our employees contribute to the great partnerships we have developed with clients. BD-focused training is offered regularly to employees at all levels and emphasizes effective communication and creating positive interactions.”

    Q: What is the most important thing you tell your team members about BD?

    Rohrs: “Andersen doesn't want to be everything to everybody. We are asking our clients to trust us with the checkbook, and we take that responsibility seriously.”

    Heater: “The most important thing I tell everyone about BD is to be themselves and to share openly. Since we are in a creative profession, it is OK to be your unique and quirky self out in the BD world. In fact, it is the only way to make meaningful connections quickly and begin to build relationships of trust. This is usually a relief to younger team members involved in project pursuits who don't have to try to be more 'salesy.'”

    Jacobs: “We have team members from diverse backgrounds that bring unique strengths to their roles but are not traditional business developers. Not everyone plays golf, drinks alcohol, or even socializes in the same way. One of the benefits of our recent JTG BD training was that it enabled the participants to roleplay situations where they could use new BD strategies on their own terms.”


    As AEC firms navigate the crossroads of COVID and economic twists and turns, here are four BD resolutions worth keeping:

    • Make sure everyone in your firm is clear on their individual BD expectations, and provide a way to easily track not just the results but effort too.

    • Use the downtime from projects going on hold to provide training that enables team members to fulfill their BD goals.

    • Tailor BD training and efforts so that everyone can fully participate regardless of age, gender, race, or background.

    • Invest in the technology to facilitate hybrid meetings smoothly so those attending virtually are active participants.

    The core component of JTG's business development program remains the same: make BD part of your culture, and empower your people with the skills to show that they are trusted problem solvers. Happy New Year, and cheers to a prosperous 2023!

    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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