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How a Marketer Can Launch a BD Culture in a Firm that Doesn’t Have One

Five years ago, three unrelated things happened for my firm that created an opportunity I didn’t see coming:

  1.  My company changed its name. (Marketing logistics heaven.)
  2. We upgraded our CRM (client relationship management) system.
  3.  I took the CPSM exam.

The thing about studying for the CPSM exam is that the material quickly exposes where the gaps in your skillset are. For me, there was a gaping hole in business development (and another one in market research, but that is not what this article is about). 

Prior to studying for the CPSM exam, I knew nothing about BD. In fact, it seemed to be the exclusive domain of those polished people who are never at a loss for words. But in the recommended reading, there was a book called Rainmaking by Ford Harding. This book demystified the process. It was an amazing resource that didn’t just talk about the “what” but it explained the “how.” Suddenly BD processes felt like something that could be developed. You didn’t have to be born with a gift for saying the right thing every single time.

Exposing the need

Our new CRM system’s capacity to visualize data revealed something we knew anecdotally, but could now see in stark graphs and charts:  Our firm was completely reliant on two rainmaking principals for new work.

It looked something like this:

So what was going to happen to our firm if anything happened to one of the principals? What if one of them wanted to retire someday (or, quite frankly, just take a vacation)?

Something had to change.

Armed with the chart above, I began to tell this story to our senior leadership. Each of the blue bars represented a person on our team who had sold something. We either needed to hire a BD professional or become way better at being seller-doers.

Everyone could see the problem, but there was pushback….

Barriers to making the change

  1. I don’t want to become THAT salesperson. Bad salespeople have created a bad image, and the minute we started talking about sales, there was an immediate revulsion to that image. No one wanted to become the kinds of salespeople we encountered each week that accosted us on tradeshow floors or swung by unannounced to our office (or who overly said, “I get you.”).

  2. I’m not an extrovert. Most identify “business development” with “extroverted.”  We are a firm of consulting engineers. Introverts are the norm. No one on the team felt like they had a “business development” personality.

  3. How do I fit this into my workday--which is already overflowing? Professionals in the AEC industry know that there are few 40-hour work weeks. How is a person who spends so much time in their craft supposed to take on what feels like the super-human task of selling?

Working on a mindshift

We purchased eight copies of Dan Pink’s To Sell is Human. The beautiful thing about this book is that it takes on the old stereotypes and presents a more relational view of selling. It puts to rest the annoying ABC (always be closing), and focuses on attunement, buoyancy, and clarity.

In short, Dan Pink talks about selling for the rest of us. Those of us who are normal people with normal professions.

Best of all, it's a quick read--most of our team finished it in a plane ride.

We also hired a skilled business developer--Lea Kaltenbach--to come in and talk with our team. She started the session asking what people wanted to know about BD. Our team was transparent. We didn’t know anything. We asked about everything.

She scribbled the questions on a flip chart and went through them one by one. There was no magic to business development. It was about relationships. It was about helping people. It was about putting some structure into reminding yourself to connect, because in the fast-paced design world months could whizz past like days.

The AA for BD meeting

The leadership team left that session feeling like we knew what to do--and we knew that we needed to do it--but there was a big learning curve. We decided we would learn it together.

We set up a weekly meeting which we tagged the “AA for BD” meeting because it felt more like a support group than an actual business meeting. The rules of the meeting were simple:

  1. You can only talk about relationships in the meeting--no leads or proposals. Business comes through people, not paper.
  2. Share who you are going to reach out to this week.
  3. Share how it went when you reached out last week.

We focused on reaching out with real value. Tim Sanders in his book, Love is the Killer App focuses on success in business being tied to your ability to share knowledge, your network, and compassion. It was a good template.

The weekly accountability meant we actually put ourselves out there. It’s easy to just set up comfortable meetings with people you know and never try to build new relationships. But when you are sitting in a room of your peers talking about it, that kind of stuff doesn’t fly. Someone is bound to notice. Plus, when everyone else is stretching out of their comfort zone, you have to also.

Building a culture of business development works

The results were surprising. We grew 24% in new work the first year we implemented this.

Full transparency -- we went backwards the next year because we all became so busy doing the work we had won that we dropped off on the BD plan. It made us change the way we do work in order to free up people to have more time for BD efforts. We got back on track the next year.

Remember the graph that sparked this?  Here’s how it compares to last year. Keep in mind that each of the blue bars are people. Look at the shift.

Want to know what’s crazy? One of our VP’s moved from his spot as the 8th bar on the chart to the first bar. He sold more than the person in the first position--who also increased their sales.

Coaching young people on your team

One of my favorite things to do is to encourage the young people on our team to start building their networks now.  

Our firm pays for their memberships in client organizations. We have a budget for them to take people to lunch to get to know them. We teach people to use LinkedIn as a tool to stay connected to their professional network. After all, it’s the only place that everyone they’ve ever met professionally shows up with all of their current information.  

Rana Severs, who I met through SMPS, taught me the concept of zippering -- if people on your team build relationships with their peers, then there are strong links between firms at all levels of the client firm which means the connection isn’t easily broken. Too often the link to a client is a single person to a single person--which means when someone retires or leaves, the relationship with the client is over.

It’s easy for entry-level people on a team to feel like their professional relationships don’t matter. Teaching them where these relationships can go over time encourages them to invest and to see their network as a valuable part of their career.

What I learned about the power of marketing in business development

While some firms might see sales and marketing as the same thing, business development professionals and marketers know the difference.

BD professionals are able to coach and train seller-doers using the skills they leverage daily, but as a marketer, you aren’t off the hook. As it turns out, you can market a “business development culture” to the rest of your team.

You have the tools to communicate the need, to bring in training, to share the books, and to provide the support needed for people to make the shift.

For my team, it changed our culture--and created a sustainable path for business going forward. 


Cathy Hutchison, CPSM, is a Vice President and Director of Marketing with Idibri--a firm that provides acoustics, technology design, and theatre planning for the spaces where people come together to share an experience. Cathy joined the team that became Idibri in 1996 and wishes she had discovered SMPS earlier in her career. She became a CPSM in 2015. In her spare time she teaches people to sketchnote over at

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  1. Brad Thompson

    Jun. 4, 2020

    Fantastic article Cathy, thank you for sharing your firm's journey! Out of curiosity, how were you attributing the sales to the individuals since they were not specifically BD? Were you just your CRM to capture who brought in the lead that lead to the work?

    1. Cathy Hutchison

      Jun. 4, 2020

      I know you know it is more than a single person that brings in an opportunity as new work. In our system, we have an "initiated by" category that connects the opportunity to the person whose relationships resulted in us being considered for the project.

  2. Tiffany Gorrell

    Jun. 4, 2020

    What a great post! I can't wait to share it with my leadership and seller doers!

    1. Cathy Hutchison

      Jun. 4, 2020

      Thanks Tiffany! I love watching the team light up as their efforts produce results.

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