If you have been in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) for a while, you’ve probably noticed an ongoing problem. Have you ever attended a technical class led by a highly competent technical professional… who somehow didn’t manage to teach you anything? Has one of your company’s highly regarded technical experts been made a team manager…  and then proceeded to alienate their staff? And have any of your best technical experts moved up the ranks and been asked to develop clients… then have to make excuses as to why they failed to talk to the right clients at the right level of an organization?

We continue to take our best and brightest technical staff and ask them to teach, manage and even sell, and then we walk away scratching our heads when they fail. They are the best at what they do. They know their stuff. But the problem is you have asked them to step into a completely different career. Teaching, managing, and sales are actual professions, and asking our technical experts to take on these roles without the tools and training they need is a recipe for disappointment for you and your experts, not to mention a tremendous waste of money.

After years of working with these highly regarded, technical professionals turned Business Developers in the AEC industry, I have felt their pain and, yes, their fear. While some individuals may have a “natural ability,” others underperform and even fail in their new roles.  And these “add-on” careers are becoming more sophisticated daily. In particular, in business development, your technical professionals are now competing with your client’s last, best buying experience. Yet, they are put into these positions lacking basic knowledge that is critical for their success. (Think Amazon. I give them one clue that I am looking for dog food, and they are offering solutions on dog beds, leashes, and training tools. They listen to me, and now I expect the same from all professional services.)

The business development process in the AEC industry is long, there are many players, and the stakes are high, but the keys to success at making a great first impression are simple.

Learning how to identify the problem, not solve the problem. When nerves are in control, our brains naturally go to what we know best, and for most technical professionals, it is problem-solving. That is what your technical staff is good at, but without knowing the real truth about the real problem, they are wasting their time, and more importantly, the client’s time.  This is the classic show-up and throw-up meeting.  “Let me go through my 80 slides and stop me if anything looks good.”

A better strategy for your moment of truth meeting is to come well prepared to ask the right questions and listen and probe for clues that will uncover the actual pains and challenges the client is experiencing. No presentation is needed. By asking questions, you will clarify the problem, which will allow you to set up a follow-up meeting to discuss your solution.  Now you have their attention.

So how do you do this?

Understanding your “Moment of Truth Game Plan.” Preparation and research are the keys. If you set aside 2-3 hours for preparation, you will be ready.

  1. Develop personas. Who are you meeting with, and what are their challenges? In most cases, they are not technical (unless you are meeting with the facilities group). These individuals do not care about what kind of scheduling software you will use, the optimal lighting solutions, or the energy it will take. They care about achieving their strategic initiatives, period. Your job is to understand their personal and professional goals, and then after you clarify their needs, provide your technical solutions to achieve their initiatives. If employee retention is their highest need, your job is to let them know how the project will have the most significant effect on the employee’s satisfaction. If their need to is get this done quickly, then you will let them know about how you can fast-track the project.
  2. Create a clear client contact plan. This requires two critical steps. The first is research and the second is a communication plan.

Research. Our industry loves to pass research to Marketing. “Research this client and get back to me.” Having others do your research is a huge mistake. Research is where the magic happens. By researching yourself, you will find powerful information you have never dreamed of, which you will not get by having someone else do it for you.  Think about when you research your personal needs. How often do you find yourself following trails of information that lead to unexpected knowledge? The same is true with client research. My challenge to you is to lock yourself in a room for two hours of uninterrupted time and understand a client you have been trying to reach. Research the client, research the industry, analyze the industry trends, research their competition, and research the people. It will be the most valuable time you have spent.

Communication Plan. After your research is complete, create a communication plan that includes your calls, emails, and meetings, and develop your questions in advance to find the root of the problem. Over the years, I have identified a list of powerful questions that work wonders when you meet with a client. They are simple, but even after all my years in this industry, I still carry them with me and review them before my meetings. (And I do not grill my clients with all of them—I choose a couple.) Here are a few of my favorites:

  • What are your top three priorities with this initiative/project?
  • How does this fit into your strategic plan?
  • Is there anyone else I should talk to?
  • And finally, before we part, what would you like to know about us?

The key to asking these questions is to stop thinking of your next great answer, listen intently and find areas to probe and ask for clarification. Be curious. It takes practice, but you may learn things that your competition and even your client may not have known about how this project will affect them and their organization.

Also, here is a secret: your client will consider it a successful meeting if they talk 80% of the time. How can that work when you show up and throw up with your deck of 80 PowerPoint slides?

Business Development can be frustrating and expensive, but it can also be highly effective if you teach your technical experts how to master their new profession with the skills and tools they need to succeed.