For many small agency owners there comes a day when investing in a business development manager (BDM) is not only financially viable but integral to the next phase of growth.

Speaking to agency owners over the years, their efforts at recruiting and managing a BDM often don’t work out. The solution was the right one but the execution failed.

So what can agency owners do to ensure they make a success of their fledgling business development function? Here are a few thoughts based on someone who has been there and bought the t-shirt (from a very good salesperson might I add).

1. Develop your knowledge and appreciation of business development

If the discipline of business development is under-valued by agency owners (or anybody else for that matter) it’s because it’s misunderstood. It’s completely unrecognisable from the traditional, negative perception of ‘sales’ or ‘selling’. This is reflected in the heady blend of attitudes (blue), behaviours (yellow) and skills (grey) required to do the job well. 

 Attitudes, behaviours and skills of successful BDMs

Before you do anything, make an effort to read a decent book or two and understand some of the principles of business development. It will make you more appreciative of the role, more realistic in your expectations and a better manager.

2. Know what you’re looking for

If you haven’t recruited a BDM before, do your research and seek help. Look at other agencies and their job specs. Look at BDM’s on LinkedIn; their background, experience and the language they use. And speak to recruitment agencies with experience of placing BDM’s into agencies.

The better you understand the responsibilities and requirements of the role, the more equipped you’ll be to put together a decent job spec, interview questions and tasks. You’ll also know what to look out for if using personality profiling techniques, such as Myers Briggs.

3. Ensure you have a credible value proposition  

Even the best BDM is not a miracle worker. If your proposition is weak or your products / services uncompetitive (due to price, quality, service), hiring a BDM will make little difference. 

A relevant, compelling and credible agency proposition is the foundation of a successful business development strategy. It forms the basis of how the BDM will communicate your agency’s offering and value to prospects. If it’s not right, work on it.

4. Become a Sales Director… of sorts

A BDM is not the solution to winning more business. They are part of the solution (albeit an important one). As an agency owner that means the hard work doesn’t stop once they are on board. 

Their success will be largely shaped by your ability to manage them. In effect, you become an overnight Sales Director, responsible for inspiring, motivating and holding the BDM to account.

If a BDM is left to their own devices, with poor stewardship from someone who doesn’t understand business development, they are very unlikely to succeed.

5. Invest in marketing, especially content

Prospects are busy, they research on their own terms and are inundated by other suppliers. Therefore, buying lists, ‘hitting’ the phones or sending hundreds of generic emails doesn’t work. We are way beyond that. 

If a BDM is to open new doors and nurture relationships, they need to create value through their communication. This means understanding the challenges faced by prospects, empathising with them, advising when appropriate and being helpful.

To do this, the BDM needs a ‘tool kit’ of relevant, useful and engaging content. They simply will not have the time or expertise to create or curate this on their own. They’ll need the support of the wider team, particularly the discipline experts.

Positively, most agencies invest in creating content. The key is to ensure that the content plan is, in part, driven by the new business strategy. 

6. Give the BDM time to build a sales function

The frameworks, processes and templates that will exist in a more established new business department are probably thin on the ground if you’ve never had a BDM. A lot of small agencies I speak to don’t even use a CRM (for someone as anally retentive as I am when it comes to recording every call, email or even the slightest of enquiring glances at a networking event, this frightens the hell of out of me).

With nothing to work from, you are essentially tasking the BDM with building a sales function from scratch. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as you give them the time and support to do so.

7. Approach business development as a team effort

The BDM is on board to own and lead new business. But they can’t do it on their own. He or she will need help from the wider team. Along with content, they can support the BDM in all manner of ways, from industry research to attending pitches. 

Another often forgotten point is that a BDM needs to believe in what they are selling – in an agency that generally means its people. Yet too often business development sits to the side of the agency, rather than at its heart. All the onus is on one person, rather than a collaborative effort where everybody plays a part. 

If you want your BDM to succeed, put them at the centre of the agency where they can hear everything going on and build relationships with the team; the people whose expertise and experience they are ultimately selling.

8. Invest in their development

I’ve done business development for the best part of (uh um) 15 years. But I learn new things every day.

There isn’t a BDM in the world who is the finished article. In fact, there isn’t a human being alive who is the finished article (apart from Bruce Springsteen, obviously). 

This means your investment in a BDM goes way beyond their salary. They need the necessary support, internally or externally, to continuously build their knowledge, skills and network.

9. Give credit when it’s due… and support when perhaps it’s not

Only a seasoned BDM knows just how much commitment, patience, resourcefulness and attention to detail it takes to win that dream client.

It might take months, sometimes years, of hard graft.

Celebrate every win like it was the first. Ensure the BDM’s pivotal role is acknowledged and understood by everyone. Celebrate the small wins too – the appointment booked with a great prospect after months of trying, for example. 

People in sales are (hopefully) motivated by the opportunity to smash a target and the financial rewards that comes with doing so. But this isn’t all they care about. The pat on the back, the casual ‘well done’, the motivational ‘keep your chin up’ are just as important as any financial rewards, especially when they’re on a bad run... which, trust me, happens. 

10. Don’t pull the plug too soon

It will typically take a BDM 6–12 months before they’re flying. This is of course dependent on a whole host of factors, some of which have been explored above.

Yet I speak to agency owners that have got shot of a BDM after three or four months, blaming their poor performance. Granted, in some instances perhaps the BDM just wasn’t right for the agency. But in others, I’m not convinced the BDM was given the necessary support, time and resources to deliver.

So before you give them the old heave-ho, consider whether it might be you, not them. Have you given them the best possible platform from which to perform?

Ben Potter

Published 31 July, 2017 by Ben Potter

Ben Potter is the former Commercial Director at Leapfrogg and now a new business mentor to aspiring digital agencies. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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Comments (1)

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Eleanor Holmes, Freelancer at SonderTribe

Maybe I misread, but it sounds like you're advocating using Myers Briggs Personality Type to inform your recruitment process? MBTI is a fantastic tool, but not to decide who to hire.

It comes more into your point 7, and there's probably a great follow on blog to be written on the subject of teams and personality types. I'd suggest getting in touch with the guys from OPP, the MBTI experts, who can point you in the right direction of some articles and resources to build from.

3 months ago

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