Proving the Value of BD

Proving the Value of BD

The business development role carries with it a lot of mystery. Why are they never in the office? What do they do besides go to events? This mysterious qualifying skill set, along with days spent away from the office, often leave business developers in a constant struggle to prove their value.

On this week’s episode, we talk with Jenifer Johnson, Senior Associate with Thornton Tomasetti, about her approach to communicating, proving, and increasing the value of her role as a business development leader within her firm.

We’ve worked really hard to create a model where all the engineers understand that it is their role to help sell. It took them a little bit to understand that they were part of the process too.

CQ: In an Industry Speaks blog post, Karen Compton, CPSM states, “In our industry, sales and commission structures don’t work. Business development professionals play a role in ‘opening the door’ to new clients, relationships and opportunities, but they are often not responsible for closing deals, nor are they responsible for the delivery of architecture or engineering solutions. As a result, to tie their compensation to such metrics is unreasonable and often unsuccessful.” Have you found this to be true in your experience?

JJ: Who is she? I love her, and I want to meet her. She’s dead on. Absolutely. It depends on the firm, but I think it’s just been such a changing role as the industry has actually taken in and realized the need for business developers.

CQ: What kind of compensation models have you seen? And what’s the pros and cons in your opinion?

JJ:  So I have about twenty plus years experience in the industry, and I’ve been a part of pretty much all of them. There’s “pay for play” where you have your base salary and your commission. I think those work really well for contracting and construction firms because they are much more competitive. There tends to be a lot more of them and they have a system where everybody has a market or there’s ten people in one market. When you’re in an architectural firm, or an engineering firm like I am, it’s a doer-seller role. So it’s not a place where a base plus commission really works. There isn’t a competitive structure.

I think what really works is a good base model, where you get paid well for the job that you do, and if there’s bonuses during the year because you did something great or you brought in a great deal then the firm can compensate you for that. But to have to prove yourself on a “what have you done for me lately” basis is just really tough.

CQ: When it comes to bonuses, what is the likelihood that it’s happening at the end of the year versus throughout the year?

JJ: I worked for a firm once where whenever we would win a job, they would give me a spot bonus. I was the one that went back to them and said, “I’d prefer if you don’t do that anymore.” It made me uncomfortable when the job would get put on hold. I had gotten a bonus for winning something, but the job got put on hold. And it could sometimes get put on hold indefinitely. So that may be unfair to the firm. It was a small firm, so I just thought that was fair for all of us. I think it’s typical that a firm will sometimes give it twice a year. I get mine once a year. And it’s within the framework of the whole entire company and is based on how the firm did as a whole. Which I like. I want to be fairly compensated on whether the firm did well as a whole, or whether we lost as a whole. We should all be in this together.

CQ: What and how are you reporting to leadership at your firm?

JJ: Thornton Tomasetti is set up by regions. Each business developer is responsible for a region and then there are what we call BD Coordinators who help with our leads finding and those kind of things. We report to our local regional offices and our regional directors. I particularly work in the sports market for the firm, so I also report to my sports director. I feel like I have four major bosses, but for me every single person who works for Thornton Tomasetti is my boss. If someone comes up and says they heard about this lead or have a contact we could reach out to, it’s my job to respond and help them grow their relationships and their BD skills.

As far as information, we have conference calls once or twice a week where we talk about the actual leads. Our BD Coordinators spend all week pulling everything that they can that we might have missed or didn’t get from a conversation with someone in our network. Then we go through those,  quantify them, and decide if they are worth spending our time chasing. If it’s something we think we should chase, we spend some time putting information together on it, and then we put that forward in an email to the entire group for feedback on whether or not we should really spend time chasing it.

CQ: How are you sharing what your day looks like or what you’ve accomplished?

JJ: I try not to do that. We don’t actually report out that way, and I honestly think it’s a little dangerous in any role to explain every minute of your day and what you did with it. Sometimes you have to sit down and go through your emails, and I don’t want anybody to ever go back and say of anyone, “Well, you were wasting time because you weren’t looking for leads that minute.” We are given a lot of latitude within this firm on what needs to happen, and as long as the engineers are happy and they feel they are getting the help that they need I don’t think they care what we’re doing minute by minute. They just want to know that we’re helping to make their lives easier.

CQ: How are you collaborating with other business developers at your firm?

JJ: Not very well, I’ll be honest. We have recently been implementing Salesforce, and while I think it’s going to be a phenomenal tool when it gets fully implemented to help with communications, right now it has slowed communication. We had all these databases and spreadsheets that we were using to communicate, and because we’ve been transitioning to the new system the process is changing and we’re in a bit of a quagmire at the moment.

Again, because we are regionalized, what they’re chasing in NY with a local NY firm, doesn’t necessarily impact what’s going on our London office. So there doesn’t have to be collaboration there. But once a week we do get on a call and we say, “Is there anything that you have for corporate or a cross-polinization chase?” If somebody does, then we share that information and delegate. We also have a system within that where we assign a BD quarterback and engineering quarterback for each pursuit to collaborate together.

CQ: Do you find that when you’re working with other business developers that it’s a competitive environment?

JJ: We absolutely don’t have that environment at TT, which I think is great. Now, we’re all A personalities, right? So I think we’re being competitive within ourselves. It does push you to be stronger and better and not to be complacent, but I’m very happy to work in an environment where I’m not pitted against other business developers. And my role has evolved so much that while I am responsible to chase work for sports, I have other responsibilities because of the doer-seller nature of our firm that is almost just as important as actually selling a project.

CQ: Seller-doer, doer-seller – what’s the difference?

JJ: It’s the same to me. If a company puts emphasis on it it’s because of how they’re trying to get the culture of the firm to connect to it. So in our firm, we have doer-sellers. That’s what we call them because the majority of the firm have to be billable a certain percent, but we need them to sell on the back burner. A lot of firms out there, you must sell and then you have to do your job after you do that.

CQ: So with an increasing reliance on that type of model, how does that impact your role as a full-time business developer?

JJ: It’s been interesting to watch. When I first joined Thornton Tomasetti, they were a 450-person firm. We are at 1,200 today with six senior business developers and a team of thirteen, including BD coordinators. In the past, we had about thirty people who were really bringing in the new work. Since then, we’ve really worked hard to create this model where all engineers understand that it is their role to help sell. We sat down in individual office settings, or through in-house training, and communicated that when you’re meeting a deadline, you’re selling. If you pick up your phone, and talk to a client, you’re selling. It took them a little bit to understand that they were part of the process too. If you get to the vice president level in the firm, that’s where your responsibility really takes hold. You have to be out there actively looking for new work and not just making sure you keep up the relationships for continued work from an existing client.

So that has been the challenge, and really where I’ve been able to sink my teeth into something I think is so much more fun than chasing work. I’m really enjoying this management role and helping to shape this doer-seller culture and get it off the ground. It’s been really fun and interesting to help them understand what their role is and how my role is there in support, but not necessarily to close a deal. Because that is truly how the management at this firm believes. It’s my job to get out there way ahead of the lead, make sure the client knows our name, and then bring them in to save the day and close the deal. I do always remind everyone that the deal gets closed before they walk in that room. It needs to be. As business developers, it’s our job to make sure that that road is paved. And then if they can’t walk through it, then it becomes both of our responsibilities. It’s a really collaborative effort to close the deal.

Listen to the Podcast

Want to hear more from Jenifer? Listen to the podcast to hear our full conversation including how she adds value outside the win, and her advice for up-and-coming business developers.

Music by SONGO 21 – Studio sessions 2003 by SONGO 21 is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 International License.

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Links and Resources

About Jenifer


Jenifer Johnson is a senior associate with Thornton Tomasetti focusing on business and client relationship development for the company’s sports sector. With twenty plus years of industry experience, she specializes in strategic marketing, lead generation, and business and brand development. Jenifer has spent her career connecting people, companies, and projects for some of the best firms in the business. She is an active member of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) and a graduate of the inaugural class of SMPS University.

Have questions or want to chat more with Jenifer? Post your comments below or connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Double Dip with Jenifer

Join us Thursday on the podcast where catch back up with Jenifer about how a job at Sports Authority turned into a career in sports development, and the people who’ve had the biggest influence on her.

“Every single person in this industry that you meet has a story to tell. They have a failure, they have a success. They have a long career path that they’ve learned something from. I just learn something almost every day from every conversation.”

Music by SONGO 21 – Studio sessions 2003 by SONGO 21 is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 International License.

Next on Communiqueso

Next week, we’ll welcome Dana Galvin Lancour, FSMPS, CPSM of Barton Malow Company to talk with us about marketing’s role in shaping, communicating, and supporting an engaged corporate culture.