21 Skills Every Business Development Pro Should Have (or Work on)

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



The role of the agency business development executive has been called the "most dangerous job in an agency," due to the short lifespan, stress, and confusion surrounding the responsibilities of the role.

business development professional: Skills Every Business Development Pro Should Have

Yet, it is one of the most important positions in the agency. The success of the business development person directly influences future growth and stability.

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They get hired for having strong professional qualities -- leadership skills, organizational mindset, creative thinking -- that would make them competent candidates for managing the intense pressure. But having those skills is not all the role entails. Too often, agency leaders develop unrealistic expectations for the person taking on the duties, who may not have the qualities a good executive needs.

Agency leaders want someone with an enviable Rolodex who can bring in client accounts without much effort, in addition to being able to write proposals, market the agency, prospect, manage accounts when necessary, and command the respect of the team. This unrealistic view of what the agency wants in a person and the type of people actually looking to work in a sales role for the agency sets up the relationship for failure.

According to the Marketing Agency Growth Report 2018, 35% of agencies struggle to find employees who are the right fit for the position and 12% of agencies feel one of their biggest struggles is retaining employees. To prevent high turnover in the position and to better understand what really makes a successful business development professional, consider screening business developer professionals for these key business development skills:

1. Understands People's Buying Patterns and Trends

As a marketer, you know the famous stat: Buyers complete up to 57% of decision-making process before they ever even contact a vendor. With the increasing amount of information available online -- either from a brand, its competitors, or its previous customers -- buyers are more educated than ever before.

But does your salesperson know and understand the implications of this? Once upon a time, the seller had control of the information. Now, they need to serve as an advisor who can personalize the solution to the specific buyer and her challenges.

Business development professionals need to be able to be well-versed in strategies that will help them build trust with a buyer and move the person through the sales cycle through education and qualification.

David C. Baker of ReCourses emphasizes that you need to hire someone who understands this consultative selling approach.

"Seldom do sales people with a successful background in transactional selling make the transition to consultative selling," he said. "The process and selling points and presence are completely different. For example, a transactional seller will drive the process to close a sale even if profitability is sacrificed in order to accomplish that. A consultative seller is more patient and might close three to five new substantial clients every year. Their ego doesn't require constant stroking."

2. Believes in Inbound Marketing

Many agencies still rely on cold calling and emailing, referrals, and networking to generate quality leads. While these can be a valuable source of business development, the best sales reps understand the role of marketing in attracting, qualifying, and nurturing the very best prospects They buy into the idea of inbound marketing and understand that CMOs and executives aren't waiting around for an agency to approach them. They are in charge.

Michael Gass, founder of Fuel Lines, frequently cites a stat from a study of CMOs that found that 80% of those surveyed found their vendors, not the other way around.

"The recession, the rise of social media and the rapid advance of technology have dramatically altered business development. The Mad Men rainmaker days are over," Gass said. "So before hiring someone responsible for your agency's business development efforts, in addition to the questions regarding their traditional business development expertise, you should be asking what they really know about social media, content marketing, and how to generate inbound leads."

Your business development manager should support and, in some cases, drive the marketing efforts of the agency, and they should place the same value on the leads they did not source themselves.

3. Asks Great Questions and Listens Intently

"The most successful business development people are those that can ask great questions," said Dave Currie, president of The List. "Through their professional curiosity they ask great questions and listen with intent toward identifying and truly understanding the issues, the impact of those issues to the prospect's organization in measurable terms, and the importance of solving that issue for the prospect now versus later."

Prospects are already educated about your agency, your services, and the competition, so the business development person needs to be able value to the conversation, not just restate what the potential client already knows.

To hire for this skill, Currie's team uses two objective measures in the interview stage, an Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and a Conversational Capacity test.

4. Sets Goals and Develops Action Plans

Good sales reps understanding that they need useful, meaningful goals and an established plan for reaching these goals. This helps with a few different problems business reps in agencies face. An established plan helps with clarity surrounding the person's role, responsibilities, and priorities. Without this, the rest of the team won't buy into or support a sales plan. For many people in an agency, sales is an unknown (and mistrusted) role, and if the new biz person can't drum up support and encouragement, they will struggle to feel a part of the team and find success in her role.

"Business development professionals don't always get the support they need, even with well-intentioned leadership, so the ideal business development professional has to ‘drive the ship' regardless of what materials they have, without waiting or making excuses," said Lee McKnight of RSW/US.

Before hiring a business development person, McKnight suggest that agency CEOs/owners:

  1. Set their own expectations: how much, realistically, can one individual can do and how much support will they need from leadership?
  2. Consider the business development team structure: Will they be the only person driving business development? Or will you create a team around this person?
  3. Review the person's previous responsibilities: Were they self-sufficient? What were they in charge of? Can they find leads, set initial meetings, and run pitches?

The business development professional should create an annual plan to establish business development needs aligned with finding new client growth. This will also help to prevent a common issue that causes the business development person to fail: Once sales start climbing, they are pulled into account management to handle the additional workload. The plan should reveal how important it is to make working on business development every single day -- not just when things are slow -- a priority, and it should align with hiring and capacity forecasts.

5. Is the Right Type of Salesperson for the Role

"While sales and business development roles are both tied to generating revenue, they require paradoxically different skills," said Jody Sutter of The Sutter Company. "These days, the director of business development describes a caretaker of the pitch process and requires strengths like acute attention to detail and strong project management skills. Good business development hires tend to be people-pleasers who get fulfillment from supporting a team so that it can perform at its best."

The other type is the sales-focused personality -- what Brent Hodgins, managing partner at Mirren, describes as the "hunter" role for proactive prospecting.

"The hunter is a more aggressive salesperson, focused on results (versus detail and process)," Hodgins said. "In fact, while sometimes appearing less organized on the surface, they can perform well at delivering new leads. However, someone focused on managing competitive reviews/RFPs tends to be more detail oriented and buttoned down but finds little inspiration in the idea of picking up the phone to call on prospects. Often without even realizing it, ‘pitch managers' actually resist prospecting. This is common with most account people as well."

Hodgins continued: "Agencies often attempt to have one character type take on both roles. It then fails, with the blame landing squarely on the shoulders of the business development director. The hunter is fired for not being a cultural fit and disorganized, while the pitch manager is fired for not proactively generating new leads for the agency."

The issue is: Do you simply want someone to prospect for new clients, qualify, and set up meetings so that the owner/CEO can close the deal? Or do you need someone to build a team around -- someone who can create the business development strategy, processes, and be an important member of the leadership team?

"Most ad agency CEOs expect their business development leads to excel at both roles and are often disappointed when they don't," said Sutter.

6. Possesses a High Curiosity Quotient

According to an article written by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in Harvard Business Review, those who possess a high curiosity quotient are more adept at handling complexity and ambiguity -- they are more skilled in producing "simple solutions to complex problems."

This is a skill that Peter Levitan thinks every business development person should have, especially as the marketing and agency landscape becomes more complex and competitive.

"We can train business development professionals in sales techniques, in understanding our agency's skills, and the needs and pain points of our prospective clients. We cannot, however, train people to be curious," Levitan said. "That means being actively curious about our staff and culture, our industry, the client's persona and category, and importantly, understanding the true value of our sales proposition. The bottom line is that curious people build stronger relationships and that is the essence of a great salesperson."

7. Ability to Build a Brand

Agencies understand the importance of building a brand, creating a differentiated and meaningful market position, and generating awareness and value around the brand for their clients -- yet they so rarely do this for themselves. And that means most agencies are indistinguishable from another: They offer the same services, describe themselves in the same way, sell to anyone, and fail to communicate their value.

Karla Morales-Lee of The Art of business development believes that hiring someone who understands the importance of brand building in attracting and selling prospects is essential.

"In my experience, agencies look for all the wrong things when hiring a business development person," said Morales-Lee. "Cold calling no longer works. Today, the best business development people are marketing-savvy brand ambassadors. Beyond the day to day, you need to hire someone who can build a brand externally and a business development culture internally."

Business development professionals need to not only be able to define their brand but also be able to drive change throughout the marketing and sales practices of the company -- by defining an ideal client profile and qualifying which clients are a good fit (and which are not), marketing its firm, hiring and recruiting practices, and even determining its value through pricing.

8. Sets Realistic Expectations with Clients

A business development development rep should be well-versed in setting and managing expectations with prospects so your firm can exceed those expectations. This might be about when a proposal will be delivered -- promising "tomorrow" when it typically takes your team three days to create a proposal is not acceptable -- or creating an accurate picture of what it will be like to work with your agency. This person needs to be able to communicate your agency's values, personality, and culture to help potential clients understand what it will be like to work with your team and if your point of views match up.

9. In-Depth Knowledge of the Agency Business

While some will disagree with this, many believe that the person responsible for representing your agency in pitches or in "get to know you" meetings should have an understanding of the agency business and the services you are selling. Now, if the agency's owner can take over the role of a "closer," and you simply need a salesperson to prospect and qualify, this is not as important. This might also not be necessary if you are willing to put in the time to train and budget to educate the person and give her a reasonable amount of time to ramp up.

The business development person will be helping clients not only make marketing decisions but business decisions. They should have a good understanding of general business strategies, the concerns and challenges of leaders, customer acquisition and retention, and the financial metrics that matter to executives. They have to be seen as a business advisor who can help the client to solve business problems through the services your agency offers.

So, how can you be successful as a business development manager? Here are a some skills you should develop.

  1. Organizational skills
  2. Communication skills
  3. Technical skills
  4. Interpersonal skills
  5. Negotiating skills
  6. Collaboration skills
  7. Problem-solving skills
  8. Analytical skills
  9. Business writing skills
  10. Self-motivated
  11. Business acumen
  12. Flexibility and adaptability

Want to learn more about business development? Check out this role your sales team might be missing: a capture manager.

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