What does it feel like as a professional business developer to train technical staff in selling your services? If you are like most, you are attacking your business development tasks heuristically, while your technical staff attack those same tasks algorithmically.
Let me explain. Algorithmic thinking engages a set of rules for solving a problem in a finite number of steps. It is applying a logical procedure that, if correctly applied, ensures the solution of a problem.
Technical staff are, by nature and training, algorithmic thinkers. We should be thankful they are, otherwise, we would have buildings and bridges collapsing, contaminated drinking water, and many other serious failures.
Heuristic thinking engages experimental learning, discovering, or understanding to solve a problem—stimulating interest as a means of further investigation. Business developers must employ heuristic thinking to market and sell A/E/C services because every client and every project is unique in personality and politics.
Algorithmic and Heuristic Thinking
Let’s look at some examples to illustrate the differences between algorithmic and heuristic thinking. You join a conference call for a go/no-go decision on a project pursuit. Your technical staff have completed the spreadsheet and come up with a number that represents why you should not pursue. It’s a number on the edge, only one or two points away from tipping the decision the other way. You are seeing the opportunity as a go. The argument commences and two hours later, you are still arguing with a number on a spreadsheet.
Would this scenario feel differently if you could overcome the stalemate in 10 minutes with a clear team decision?
Look at one more example that does not involve numbers. Your project manager (PM) has reached out with an email to try and get a meeting with a hot prospect. No one in your organization has a previous connection, so it is literally a cold call email.
Two days later, the PM is upset that the prospect has not responded and concludes the prospect must not want
to do business with your company. To a business developer, this is exasperating. An algorithmic thinker logically concludes that unresponsiveness to an email equals disinterest or rejection, i.e., failure. Would this scenario feel differently if you had trained the PM to think heuristically about reaching out to a prospect, so he realizes the unresponsiveness is more likely due to poor timing, technical errors, or choosing the wrong communication medium?
The problem we face with a growing seller-doer culture in our industries is expecting technical staff to execute a business
development strategy using an algorithmic approach. An algorithmic approach to business development tasks, like solving engineering problems, will lead your team into frustration and disappointment.
To solve this problem, it is incumbent upon business developers to train our seller-doers to be heuristic thinkers when it comes to completing sales tasks. A heuristic approach to business development provides a proper foundation for completing the sales process successfully.
Get Comfortable With the Discomfort of Heuristic Thinking
Engineers are trained to solve engineering problems. Their brains work in logical patterns and algorithmic processes. To help train technical staff in the art of business development, we must get them comfortable with the discomfort of heuristic thinking.
There are two words in the previous sentence that are key in this transition of thinking: art and discomfort. Art is creative and subjective. Art requires imagination and aesthetic appreciation. Art is intended to evoke emotion and a reaction. Business development is still foundationally art. We may use numbers, logic, and statistics, but fundamentally, selling professional services is an art. This emphasis on subjectivity, creativity, and emotion brings discomfort to the algorithmic thinker.
We must help our algorithmic colleagues practice experimentation, discovery, and stimulation. These are artistic methods for solving problems that are very uncomfortable for someone who needs to be right rather than someone who simply enjoys the process of solving. It takes practice!
Practice, Practice, Practice
In training technical staff to be heuristic thinkers in their business development activities, the first step is allowing them to feel uncomfortable. They have permission to look at their prospect list and prepare to call on them with apprehension and some healthy anxiety. At the same time, they need to be encouraged to channel this uncertainty into power to act. This anxious power helps them make those calls, knowing they will experience unresponsiveness, disinterest, or even rejection. But the process will yield data helpful for future calls and strategy.
A heuristic approach is meant to process with discovery, understanding, and further investigation. If an email did not solicit a response, try sending it again during a different time of day or with a different subject line. If that is unsuccessful, try a phone call. Try stopping by the recipient’s office with some doughnuts. In other words, discover the prospect’s preferred communication method by understanding what they don’t respond to and keep investigating until you get it right.
Next, once your algorithmic thinker has completed an uncomfortable task, process the task with them. What went well? What went wrong? What did you learn? What have you not yet tried? Let them process and practice their heuristic thinking with you. Show them what you have learned from them by their answers to your questions.
One of the biggest fears for algorithmic thinkers is networking. So much of this activity is subjective and unknown. There are too many variables to count and mitigate. Algorithmic thinkers will want to count how many people they talked to, how many business cards they exchanged, and how many follow up appointments were made. These numbers will conclude whether the task was successful.
But taking a heuristic approach to networking allows the seller-doer to execute a networking strategy that is inquisitive and curious. Teach your technical staff to ask good open-ended questions and listen for problems and challenges others have. Train them to listen and synthesize what they hear in networking conversations, so they can be a helpful resource, not only for their own services, but also for the services of others in their network of relationships. Measure success by what you learned about other people and their work lives as well as personal lives at the event.
Technical staff can learn heuristic approaches to business development, which will increase their success and comfort level with selling. We must be patient and understand that technical staff want to think algorithmically and need practice to think heuristically. It is expected they will have some fear and anxiety at the beginning. However, you can be instrumental in walking alongside them as they learn to process their business development activities differently. Give them permission to think with both sides of their brain so your seller-doers become all-star performers, nailing the technical solutions while hitting the bullseye on the next prospect.
This article was published in "Marketer Must Reads: Business Development"
Gabe Lett, FSMPS, CPSM, LPC