Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What To Expect From A New Business Person

There are several common mistakes made by companies hiring business development executives.  Their most common error is not defining the job properly. And by doing so, the company often sets up unrealistic expectations causing the new business person to fail. (Of course, the company blames their failure on the executive.)

Defining the job
The first thing a company must do is to determine what kind of person they need.  It is critical to the success of the endeavor and to the person who is hired.  Companies must be introspective and realistic about their needs and expectations. 

There are many kinds of business development people.  There are cold callers who are primarily responsible for making the initial contact with prospects.  There are many people who are not necessarily cold callers, but they are most effective at going to meet potential clients at trade shows and events; these people are often at their best once a prospect has been introduced to their company.  There are specialists in organizing and orchestrating the actual presentation(s) to possible clients.  And there are strategists who can determine what potential clients need and determine how this information should be presented.  There are executives who can do it all, but they are rare (and often expensive).

I have met many new business directors who are great strategists but poor cold callers, but their job is wrongly defined by how many future clients they bring into the agency or company.

Setting expectations
Successful business development often takes months or years.  First, contact has to be made.  It could often be several years before a client is ready to look for a new agency or other supplier. Establishing contact and developing a relationship may take months or years.  Surprisingly, many ad agencies and other marketing companies hire without thinking through this issue.

Expecting a development person to be successful (however defined) within three or six months, or even a year, is unrealistic.  After all, why should a biz dev person be able to do what the agency or company ownership or management cannot do?  It is a common mistake for an agency principal to assume that a sales person can speed up the process.

Successful business development people must be part of management.  This enables them to know firsthand exactly what the agency wants and needs.  It also allows them to deal with clients at an executive level rather than being seen as a hired gun.

Expecting a junior, non-management person to be able to effectively operate and fully complete the process is unrealistic.

Assessing Results
I know one new business person who took a job at a small, well known creative agency.  The agency was only interested in major accounts (or parts of them) – IBM, Mondelez, P&G, etc.  Those expectations were totally unrealistic given the size, history and background of its principals.  The business development person left quickly because she realized that she could never be successful at that agency.  Unfortunately, when the NB person was hired, she was never told about expectations.

I met a famous new business person who left a highly successful and creative ad agency because the agency rejected almost every company he approached.  For them, the work they had previously done was never good enough. They only wanted clients who they believed (rightly or wrongly) would approve exceptional creative work, but they neglected to tell the development person from the onset of his employment about the kinds of clients it wanted.

Expectations must be realistic.  If the agency’s (or company’s) tools (case histories, presentations, etc.) are non-existent or out of date, it could take months to get them organized, agreed upon and updated.  That time should not be held against the development person and, while their job may be to bring in prospects, they must have the tools (and resources) necessary to pitch once a potential client is identified.  It would be awful to have a prospect come in and not be prepared.

The criteria for determining success should be agreed to by all parties, including the potential new business person prior to their being hired. Among the many questions,  should a development person be judged on the number of contacts he or she makes each month or each quarter?  Should that person be judged on the number RFP’s the completes or should they be evaluated by the number of actual presentations made to clients?   Many development people are graded by income their prospects generate, even though many clients actually exaggerate their spending or underestimate the amount of time required to service them.  All of these things should be considered and agreed to.

Pay must be realistic for the job.  People who can deal with prospect executives will cost more than a cold caller who just makes introductions. 

Everyone needs a fair base salary.  One company said to me, “If she is so good, and she believes in herself, she should be willing to work only on commission. She will be making big money quickly.” Wrong.  Everyone needs to be paid for work, no matter how high the subsequent commission.  And, from the time an agency is hired until the time revenue starts coming in may be many, many months.

I have written that biz dev people should be paid a good salary rather than any form of commission.  They may get a good bonus at the end of the year, but there are too many pitfalls and questions with commission payments.

One of the worst examples was a successful EVP who was asked by the agency management to drop everything for six months and work on a major pitch.  The agency landed the account but did not want to give the biz dev person his normal commission since he was not responsible for the initial contact, despite running the pitch.


  1. One company said to me, “If she is so good, and she believes in herself, she should be willing to work only on commission. She will be making big money quickly.” Wrong.

    With a 6 month to 1+ year sales cycle typically, whoever said this to you is quite out of touch. Enlightening quote that someone in our business actually believes this.

    1. Sadly, Ray, I have heard this comment in one form or another many times. When it is said to me I always turn the assignment down.

    2. I'd love to know how that same agency would respond to a client who said, "Why should we pay you fees? If you're as good as you say you are, you should be willing to work for commission on the money you bring in with your ads!"

    3. Steve, that is a fabulous answer. Wish I had though of it.

  2. Paul - Ironic we should both address the same topic. My post entitled "Were you hired to fail? No really, were you?" is a short version of your piece today. My point - both parties often have the wrong impression and/or expectations for the New Biz Job!

    1. Chuck, both parties do get the wrong impression. My experience in both recruiting and within the business indicates that most of the fault lies in the company. They often hire people with great track records and great reputations and then don't allow them to perform or give them enough time to succeed. While some candidates do not do their homework properly or ask the right questions, I blame it mostly on the hiring company.

  3. Great column, Paul. One key point came up a couple of times having to do with expectations being out of sync. In one place you wrote, “Those expectations were totally unrealistic given the size, history and background of its principals. The business development person left quickly because she realized that she could never be successful at that agency. Unfortunately, when the NB person was hired, she was never told about expectations.” Both in this case and another one you cite, isn’t it also incumbent upon the person interviewing for the NB position to dig into expectations for the post and help define markers of success as the process progresses and hiring is likely? Seems that both the future employee and future employer would benefit.

    1. You are 100% right. Unfortunately, the company often lies to the candidate. Or sometimes, while it is not a lie, it turns out people of influence within the company have differing points of view. No question that it is incumbent upon the candidate to ask all the right questions. I wrote about that a couple of weeks ago.

  4. Just a few additional things I’ve learned about agency new business development after 40 years in the business … First, every agency thinks they’re special, which may or may not be true in a comparative or competitive sense. Ask a principal what sets their agency apart from others and you will usually hear bullshit things like category experience, creativity, case histories, client service, commitment, culture, diversity, etc. All BS because those claims (even if actual traits) are generic in a field of worthy agency competitors. So why agency ABC over XYZ? Next, every agency principal will say that all they really need to grow is more opportunities to get up to bat. That once they’re “in the game” with a prospect, their batting average is around .350 or .400. Again, total BS because agency new biz is a TEAM sport – and no one “hitter” or person wins the game. Offense AND defense rule the day. One person on a pitch team dropping the ball could cost everyone. Last and to the headline, “What to Expect from a New Business Person” … Expect LEADERSHIP. A “coach” or team manager who knows the game inside and out; knows the strengths and weaknesses of his or her agency and players and how to bring out the best in them; and how to inspire others to follow his or her lead Because the agency game never really ends, and any team can win on any given day. And guess what, agency principals? All of this (and more) takes TIME … the one thing agency new business development execs never seem to get enough of from the “owners”.

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