In a recession there is one job that is never in short supply – sales. No company is getting enough sales, and for those that are hurting due to the economy, sales is the primary point of attention. Managers are putting pressure on low performers, and firing or reassigning those who are unable to contribute. This level of attention may make some people feel like sales is a high-pressure and ultimately undesirable job. But in fact, a sales role can be very fulfilling and liberating if you are good at it – i.e., if you understand what drives successful sales.
I'll talk about what these drivers are in a future article, but right now, let's discuss the high end of sales – which is business development.
In my mind the main difference between a salesperson and a business development manager, apart from the sexy title, is that the biz dev person works at a strategic level most of the time, trying to take a broad cross section of products and services carried by their employer, and knitting these into solutions for a partner or client. In creating the solution, often the biz dev manager will have to find missing parts of the puzzle to make things work, and so they may be looking for other collaborating vendors as much as they are looking for customers. In this regard, biz dev managers are entrepreneurs – often tasked to turn very average companies into profitable ones with these strategic relationships.
How do you get to be a biz dev manager? Well one way is to work your way up through the ranks of sales, then as you are being offered the sales manager position, ask to move into biz dev instead. This can work if you are in a larger organization with a high level of personnel mobility and sufficient people to allow the CEO to permit you this choice. However, for smaller companies, CEOs are often reluctant to let their best people go off on a tangent and do what initially is a very nebulous and non-bottom line related activity.
Put another way, if you want to get a CEO's attention in the current economy, you need to appeal to the bottom line. So I have found that most biz dev people get their jobs as freelancers who approach companies they like and offer to work on a modest retainer plus success fee. This keeps the risk level low for the CEO, particularly as it keeps the salary costs down. How? Well the freelance consultant will be assisting a number of other companies and is thus able to spread their costs.
In Tokyo, at the moment, most SME CEOs when given the chance to access a new market or business network, will invest JPY250K a month for 3 months. Their expectations will naturally be that within that period there will be regular activity reports and some strong customer introductions that will lead to new business opportunities. Fail to deliver this, and it is unlikely that they will continue the contract.
In my experience, the most successful biz dev people are those who are able to find clients who are at the point of changing their business models and who need something new to get things moving again. Once found, the successful biz dev person will listen to the client's ambitions and goals and take these back to their employer to join the dots and produce a solution. Often, the opportunity is going to be something that needs additional effort by the biz dev person's company – not just a simple sale. Therefore, it is important that the CEO is on board with the need to stretch and should be willing to make an investment in either new relationships or in filling in the service/product gaps to get the solution done.
This is of course slightly risky, because it calls on the CEO to do new things. But then, if they don't do it, they're destined for Darwin's dust heap right?
A recent example of my activities as a biz dev person and joining the dots was for a small U.S. company that distributes sports video DVDs through sports apparel stores in Japan. This once booming business is declining as more people go online, and so they have to come up with something new. I talk to a lot of people – as do most biz dev people – and in my travels I came across someone wanting to set up a broadband TV channel. They were complaining about all the content they would have to produce, and this was the main thing holding them back from setting up the station.
Suddenly the dots connected, and I realized that the U.S. company had thousands of titles in their catalog and could partner with the TV station to provide the bulk of the programming for very low cost. Thus, my client could move from being a DVD wholesaler to being a partner in a broadband TV venture.