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  • December 8, 2011

Buying Wins

Investing in business development is like investing in anything else; you have a finite amount of resources to invest in a wide variety of options. Decorative Illustration In retail, the success of an enterprise often hinges entirely upon managing inventory. The difference between a successful and an unsuccessful venture often rests in the balance of ordering enough merchandise to meet demand, while subsequently avoiding over-ordering, and wasting money on overstock. In professional sports, a team’s success often rests in combining value among contracts, as much as in combining the right line up of athletes. In my role, the resource I invest is time. Money too, but man, it’s the time I miss.

I’ve sold allied health text books to nursing schools and UX consulting services for internal pharmaceutical applications. I’ve cold called upwards of 75 clients per day while working in staffing, and been lucky enough to work with clients who were true partners. Whether I was the last phone call a prospective client wanted to receive, or offered a truly valued service, successful business development often rests in knowing when to walk away, and when to run.

It’s Our Time

I have about 40 hours per week to work with when I’m lucky, and right off the bat a minimum of five hours per week is spent in internal meetings. Five daily status meetings, an hour long weekly sales meeting, plus a two hour long weekly estimating meeting take an eighth of that week out of the picture. In addition, sales calls can easily take an hour each, a pitch or client meeting can be an all day affair, and a new project kickoff takes a full day off the books. And that’s just my time.

We’re a boutique-sized team. Our practitioners are hands-on at every step of the process. This means every time I pull someone into a meeting about a prospective client, they’re not working on an existing client’s project. If they’re traveling to a pitch, which they often do, they lose even more billable time. So the challenge becomes not only investing my time wisely, but theirs as well. That’s when the stakes get higher.


The trick is ensuring that you have the opportunity to spend the time you need on the valuable investments while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls of a bad time investment. If you are scheduling intro cold calls with clients, determining top priorities and lowest priorities is key. If you are choosing between responding to a lengthy RFP with a company you might want to work with, or spending that time connecting more personally with potential clients through email or generating a referral, you need to decide where your time currency is best spent.

Comparing prospective clients can feel like evaluating apples against pineapples, but I’ll let you in on a secret: I grade client prospects against a series of criteria. I assign a total value to each opportunity or prospect, and evaluate based partially on this grade. I’m still working out the kinks, but, man, is it satisfying to look at grades on a scale. Additionally, I work with a variety of passionate, entrepreneurial leaders on our team, and it’s not always 100% my call to walk away from a prospective client. That said, empirical measurement becomes useful in these conversations too. Defining what you (and your team) consider a valuable opportunity is the first step. For our team, this tends to be a client that meets a mix of tactical and strategic criteria.

Dollars and Sense

Tactically, budget and timeline expectations have to be appropriate. This sounds terribly mercenary, but there is little reason to dig deeper if a potential client’s expectations are completely unreasonable. Budgets that come in at a fraction of what you’ll propose, or timelines that will compromise work quality are difficult to overcome in the best of situations. If a client is close-lipped and unwilling to disclose budget, share your ballpark with them and see how they respond. Ask about the money tactfully and up front, every time. If the project is flawed at the ground level, winning it may actually be the worst possible outcome.

Process is King/Queen/Important

You can evaluate a lot about a client through their vendor selection process. If clients:

  • Reach out via a criminally bad RFP delivered by mail
  • Deny you access to the project team
  • Miss calls or are late for meetings
  • Become unresponsive
  • Exhibit fundamental differences of opinion on critical concepts

You can bet, heavily, that you will experience these issues throughout the course of the project. The excitement of finally engaging a client you have been long pursuing can sometimes blind you to their faults once you break through. Sales cycles can be lengthy, but stubbornly pursuing increasingly difficult clients, merely due to the time invested to date, can be throwing away good money after bad. We all know that brand appeal is hard to resist. RESIST IT. Similarly, the appeal of the end result of the project can often overshadow a shaky roadmap getting there. Don’t allow yourself to get too excited by the potential project outcome and blind yourself to what you’ll endure in order to get there.

Get Someone on the Phone, Anyone.

The next criteria is the authority of your client contact. Are you talking to the right people? I hate to harp on RFPs, but procurement folks are rarely the right people. Lovely as they may be, typically they are involved in the vendor selection process specifically because they are insulated from the actual project itself. If you are talking to the project or product lead, good. They should know what you need to know. However, if this person is not also the budget owner, a lot of hard work can be wasted when/if that budget owner swoops in down the road. The wrong contact at the right client is a liability and very difficult to overcome. Soldiering on is an admirable quality, but results are pretty sweet too.

Between the Lines

Then there are significantly more subtle, and occasionally critically important criteria: project appeal. Over time, it should become extremely clear what your team and your organization find valuable in prospective projects. In my first year at Happy Cog, our team’s priorities became crystal clear: baseball and cats. Alright those are not everyone’s top priorities, but absent those, we tend to agree that the most important criteria, number one with a bullet, is the client project team. Everything else takes a back seat. Historically, our most satisfying and most successful projects have been the byproduct of meaningful client collaboration.

Awesome client teams can be difficult to identify this early in this process. Fortunately, we employ a Project Planner to organize and diagnose prospective projects, and I couldn’t recommend utilizing something similar highly enough. This is a diagnostic tool you can utilize no matter the size or maturity of your organization. If nothing else, a document like this tells clients that you take your work seriously, are organized, and deliberate. It doesn’t have to be pages and pages, just enough to ask a few critical questions. If a client balks at completing a well-defined form where the value is clearly communicated, fold ‘em.

When a client takes the time to fill it out fully and thoughtfully, they immediately get points for process with our team. We recently received a Planner from a potential client and after reviewing the document, one of our directors turned to me and said “We need this project”. Need. All based on a thorough Planner that was thoughtfully and creatively completed. They “got” us and sounded like an awesome partner. It was like a love letter, so it received top priority.

Also important when looking at potential projects is the opportunity to try something new. Maybe it’s a new kind of problem our team has not previously addressed, or a new platform with unique constraints and opportunities, or a chance to adjust our internal process. We learn from each and every project. It’s exciting when we get to ask ourselves, “How much are we going to learn here?”

How do you evaluate clients and opportunities? Wanna share any war stories? Blog back and we’ll swap them like Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws.

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