Have you ever asked yourself how to become a business development director? We collected some wisdom from the field to help you out!
After eight years of working in agency business development, I’ve learned a lot about my field and made plenty of mistakes along the way! I will share with you the key learnings from these past years and some tips on how to become a Business Development Director.
Focus on building your foundational skillset
I learned early on that there isn’t one definition of business development. Every company wants to approach new business in a different way. Therefore your skillset has to be broad. There are however foundation skills and processes which are common in successful business developers.
Business development is a mixture of hard and soft skills. You need to be comfortable engaging with potential customers in a way that they are comfortable with. Whether it’s on the phone, face to face, by email, or at an event, late at night or early in the morning. The best business development people are multidisciplinary and can adapt quickly to customer needs.
This is a list of skills you should develop to become a Business Development Director:
- Cold calling
- Email creation
- Database creation
- CRM management
- Content creation (case studies, presentation decks, blogs, thought pieces, white papers)
- Events Planning
- Social media (in particular LinkedIn).
When it comes to soft skills you should focus on:
- Relationship building
- Communication and listening
- Consultative discussion
- Using questions to unpack opportunities and steer conversations
- Interpersonal skills
Become a lead generation expert
Lead generation is the foundation of any business development role regardless of the level of experience and seniority. This makes lead generation a mandatory skill for a successful business development career. Lead generation doesn’t mean appointment setting, it’s more about communicating your offer and gathering information in order to qualify opportunities.
It’s about research, asking questions, and identifying the right person/people at the right company who will at some stage, procure your services. This involves a lot of relationship building and establishing mutual alignment between your services and your prospect’s needs.
Lead generation is a combination of cold calling, email campaigns, LinkedIn connecting, F2F, events, content, PR, networking, and relationship building. The channels vary but what matters is doing the heavy lifting to generate leads and fill the pipeline.
It’s natural to lean towards a particular channel that you feel most comfortable with. However, a successful business developer learns to maximize the potential of these channels, gets comfortable across all of them, and learns how to knit them all together for a joined-up approach.
When it comes to quantity vs. quality of opportunities generated there is a balance. You never want to be relying too heavily on one opportunity only because it often won’t fall your way. In the same way, fifteen unqualified “coffee meetings” a week won’t get you anywhere either.
Generating a consistent and well-qualified stream of opportunities is the key to a pipeline that will lead to the conversion rate required.
In my early days, I made every mistake possible when it came to lead generation. Not being consistent in my approach to lead generation and over-relying on that “done deal”. Needless to say that this approach went nowhere and was costing me my target and commission. My Sales Director at the time noticed this and bought me “Fanatical Prospecting” by Jeb Blount. To this day, it’s the only sales book I’ve ever read and it completely changed my mindset around lead generation and how to structure my day.
This is a very important part of the lead generation process. The right person, the right type of company, at the right time are the three main elements to consider. At the very least a good lead must be the right person at the right company. Good qualification OF opportunities comes from doing research, asking questions, unpacking business problems, and being consultative in your approach.
If you are able to identify the right person, communicate your offering and demonstrate value there will be a time when that prospect will consider buying your services. The “when” in the buying cycle cannot be controlled so if it’s not the right time, find out when is and make sure you stay top of mind until it is the right time. The “keep in touch process” must be a series of valuable interactions until it is the right time. Don’t dismiss a prospect because it’s a no at that time.
A no at the time does not mean a no forever.
Sell a solution to a business problem, not your services
Never lead an introduction by giving an overview of your services. Sell a solution to a business problem. If you just sell a service, “we’re a data-driven, creative, digital agency who….” you will become one of another fifty-six agencies that day vying for their attention. Learn how to craft a message, create a point of difference and communicate that succinctly.
At several points in my career, I’ve asked for help and tried to find ways to improve and change the way I position an agency or product. It took a lot of trial and error and the best advice I received on thinking about how to create that point of difference is – “answer the why”. Why should a prospect give you their time to talk about their business needs and objectives?
Put yourself in a prospect’s shoes and answer why it is that they should continue a conversation, answer your questions, agree to a meeting, send you the brief. It takes practice and learning from mistakes to get it right but when you do you’ll see a marked improvement in your conversation rate.
Understand what motivates you
Business development can be a lonely role. You’re at the heart of the new business, often engaging with senior decision-makers on both sides of the coin and connecting the right people to unpack an opportunity further. But day to day it’s about being able to motivate yourself to generate the stream of opportunities required.
To do that you need to learn what motivates you and use that to drive your work methodology. There’s no right or wrong answer to that, it’s personal but learning what it is will lead to longevity. These are some of the tools that can help you stay motivated.
– Incentives: money and rewards
For most, that’s the initial draw. If that is the motivation, make sure there’s a balance between achievable and motivating vs. unrealistic targets. Make sure targets are aligned to the wider business objectives, the structure is clearly defined, and everyone involved is on the same page. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to make sure the commission/bonus/incentive structure is clear.
Be comfortable talking commercials
For many, mastery gives purpose. The motivation comes from the evolution and process you go through to master your craft. If this is your motivation – don’t stop taking opportunities to learn. Say yes to everything – a phone call, a coffee, meetings, events, training courses.
Build relationships with people more experienced than yourself. I often say I’m happy being the least experienced in a room because you’re guaranteed to always learn. If you’re not learning and developing, then mastering what you do will not be possible.
– Words of affirmation
If it’s a pat on the back and recognition of success that motivates you, be sure to publicize your success and seek approval reassurance from those in the business you respect.
Fear of Failure
“I must succeed because I’m scared of failing” – for some this is highly motivational. Failure is not always a bad thing and it’s important to remember that especially in business development. You will fail, you will miss targets, you will hear “no”. Failing gives you opportunities to learn and to gain experience. Then it’s about evaluating, making changes and doing things better the next time around.
Accepting failure and learning from it is part of the evolution and progressing your career to a business development director.
Get comfortable with rejection
Being comfortable with rejection is an important skill in business development. You will hear “no” A LOT. And that’s ok. It’s important to be comfortable with it and understand there are different types of no.
Sometimes it’s a no because they’ve got too much else going on that day. Or maybe because “You’ve caught me on leave”, “I’m not the right person”, “It’s not the right time” or “we don’t have any budget at the moment.”
Don’t stress. People can sense desperation a mile off. Hearing no is not a mark of your inability. Understand why it’s a no and then focus on the “yes” prospects and generating more of those.
When it does get tough:
- Take a breath.
- Evaluate the situation.
- Understand whether it’s a “forever no” or “a no for now”.
- Seek counsel and advice internally.
- Focus on what you can control.
- Trust the process.
- Keep filling the pipeline and put your effort and time into better opportunities.
Learning to get comfortable with this took me a long time. I had sleepless nights over worrying about whether a meeting I’d arranged for my seniors would go ahead or if that brief I was promised would arrive. The best advice I’ve received over the last few years of my career is “to wear a loose white shirt into the office” or in other words – take a relaxed approach, stress gets you nowhere in sales. It’s a phrase and mantra a sales director of mine swore by.
Trust that when you do get a no, you’ve done what you can, you’ve learned from it and move on to the plenty of yes opportunities out there.
Related article: Dealing with rejection in business development
Earn the right to ask questions
If it doesn’t come from your customer’s mouth, then it’s guesswork. Asking questions and being consultative are both very important, but you need to earn the right to do so. You earn the opportunity to ask questions and qualify opportunities by creating credibility and relevance with your potential customer.
Never presume you can dive in and ask commercially sensitive questions on a cold call. Build a relationship and be upfront in what you want from the interaction. Demonstrate relevance by showing you understand their business challenges and create a sense of credibility. It’s always a good idea to show how you’ve helped other businesses in similar scenarios to them.
Let your prospect feel comfortable opening up to you and let them decide the direction of the conversation. But make sure to stay in control and drive the conversation where you need to. That’s the skill.
I had a phone pitch from a junior SDR at LinkedIn who wanted to sell me Enterprise Sales Navigator licenses for my team. If she’d done her research, she’d have seen I don’t have a team. I knew she was on to a loss before she’d even started but I was interested to hear her out.
Within 90 seconds of the call, she’d explained what she wanted from the call and asked me five questions about commercials and company structure without any hint of justifying why I should answer – she was the one selling to me!
Consultative discussion is a skill and it’s important to remember that you should never presume you have the right to ask leading questions. However, you can earn the right to ask as many questions as you need, if you focus on customer needs.
The long game
Never sacrifice the long term win for a short term personal gain. Clients know when that’s the case and you’ll lose out in the long run.
If the timing is not right, play the long game. This is when the “keep in touch” process is most important.
Ask when the right time will be. Keeping top of mind for when the timing is right will pay in the long run. Three, six, eighteen months down the line when the right person is looking to procure services you need to make sure you’ve done all you can to stay top of mind. However, without a clear followup strategy, you run the risk of crossing the line between persistence and pest.
Every interaction with a prospect from initial contact to keeping in touch must add value. A content piece, a video, a case study, an event invitation, something relevant you’ve seen in trade press – whatever it is, have a reason for the contact. Do not expect to maintain contact and build a relationship with people if it’s just a weekly call to say “have you got a brief for us yet”…
An example of this is an opportunity that came inbound four months after I met the Marketing Director of a retail brand at a conference. We talked and we exchanged cards but he explained while he saw the value in our services the timing was out. A conversation wouldn’t be relevant for three to four months.
A younger me would have ignored that timing heads-up and hammered his mobile and pushed him into a meeting for the sake of a date in the diary. I resisted that temptation and instead checked in with him every few weeks with a relevant piece of content to steer the conversation and add value to the interaction. When the timing was right, his colleague came inbound to me with an RFP.
Last consideration on how to become a business development director
A career in business development and the path to business development director is varied, to say the least! Stick close to people you can learn from and never say no to an opportunity (for yourself or your company).
Learn what works for you, remember that lead generation is the foundation of business development and you’ll go along way to being at the center of real business change and growth for your company with an exciting and fulfilling sales career to match.
To make it easier for you to navigate business development, we created The BD School:
The first platform is entirely dedicated to business development.
Our mission is to help ambitious BD pros and companies acquire the skills they need to be successful in their job.
If you’re looking for a complete course to help you advance your career, check out our Business Development Course.
And if you manage a business development team and need help making them more effective, visit our tailored business development training.