The rainmaker (or seller-doer): How to attract and retain the right people for business development

By Mark Buckshon

How do you connect branding, marketing and business development into a cohesive strategy?  If your business is in harmony, both internally and in its relationships with clients, the selling and marketing process is natural and spontaneous. Much of your new business will come through referred leads or bidding opportunities from repeat clients.

Since your employees and their relationships with each other and your clients are so important to the marketing process, it is crucial to have systems in place to find and retain the right employees, while encouraging those who don’t fit in to leave quickly. This is especially important when considering the special class of employees responsible for finding new clients: your sales team and rainmakers (or seller-doers).

What is a rainmaker (seller-doer?)

Rainmakers combine professional expertise and knowledge with sales skills. They are the lifeblood of professional practices, particularly in the fields of architecture and engineering. Rainmakers are often business owners or founders, but any professional who is so inclined can become a rainmaker by learning how to combine selling and personal branding skills with their professional or technical knowledge and expertise.

The rainmaker’s brand

Seller-doers and successful owners have the ability to create a personal brand that correlates to their business. In other words, they have the capacity to attract and build sufficient reputation and success that people choose to do business with them and their organization. Clearly, if a business or professional practice can attract and retain great rainmakers, it will grow a whole lot faster than if it can’t. As well, it will be better positioned to survive any economic downturn.

Attracting and retaining rainmakers/seller-doers

The challenge is: How do you attract, train (if possible) and retain these precious individuals? You can either hope for the best, or become pro-active. While the book isn’t a recent publication, Ford Harding’s Creating Rainmakers: The Manager’s Guide to Training Professionals to Attract New Clients, can provide some effective ideas about the process.

Harding explains that the process of finding and developing rainmaking and sales talent within professional businesses and practices is not a simple thing.

“They vary from professional to professional, and from firm to firm,” he writes. “From all the possible ways to develop new business, each professional and firm must select a handful and make them work.”

In other words, someone looking for a “one-size fits all” answer here, won’t find it. You will get a lot closer, however, by looking at successful stories, adapting your own practices or the best ideas to your own business culture and operations.

Dedicated sales representatives

Relatively few architectural, engineering and contracting business employ sales representatives whose primary knowledge and ability is in sales. Perhaps this is because the stereotypical image of sales is so offensive that few technical professionals want to go in that direction. As well, your company may not need a sales representative to simply bid commodity-priced projects; you need a great estimator who is able to trim the fat on costs, finding the best prices and the lowest input expenses possible.

The other problem with conventional selling practices is they go against the grain of effective branding. I don’t know of many people who want to be sold anything; so when confronted with a pushy sales rep, unless the representative is really good, they will push back and resist.

Rainmaking rewards justify the risks

Nevertheless, if you have the choice hiring a really strong sales representative or rainmaker for $100,000 or spending the same money on advertising, you will want to make sure that you recruit and hire the right representative.

Are your estimators your marketers?

Many contractors and sub-trades believe that their marketing process begins and ends with the work of their estimators. Undoubtedly, good estimating skills are vital for success in this business; you need to know your true costs and also the most efficient and economical way to carry out your projects. However, success in marketing is less tied in with the lowest cost, but rather the ability to help clients achieve the most successful results. An instance of effective estimating combined with marketing is when you can suggest to clients, both before and after you win the contract, cost-savings improvements that won’t interfere with (but may even help) the project’s functionality.

In other words, your estimators will be successful not just because they can deliver the lowest ‘bid’ on time, but because they can show clients how you always have their best interests in mind

Sales training and resources

Experts in rainmaking are few and far between, though the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) has introduced some specific and highly relevant programs for seller-doers. You will certainly gain some value from these resources, however, in my opinion, they really only work when they correlate with your brand and marketing success.

If your company’s brand and relationship-building approaches are successful, you’ll find it much easier to attract the right rainmakers and sales reps. You’ll also find they need not push nearly as hard to find and develop profitable business.

Take, for example, sales trainer and marketing guru Jeffrey Gitomer. Gitomer says, sure, cold calling is effective. He then demonstrates by making a cold call himself.  Calling the same person a struggling sales rep is trying to meet, Gitomer identifies himself and quickly gets through. Why?  Gitomer has achieved enough fame within the sales and business communities that he’s a celebrity in his own right.  You too would most likely return a call from the leading public figure in your marketing space.

Great branding makes selling easy

Simply put, if your branding – either as a business, organization or individual – is truly successful, your selling job will be easy. Potential clients will be predisposed to trust you, to accept your cold calls, to put you on the RFP short list (and then finalist list) and, even better, to wire the competition so you are virtually sure to win. You can achieve that success by delivering the goods, learning the skills involved, and enhancing the entire client/marketing experience.

Natural talent or learned ability

Can you learn how to be a great sales representative (or seller-doer)? You certainly can if you have the will, drive, and certain natural personality traits. I’ve already explained that you achieve the best results in anything you do by harnessing your strengths rather than forcing yourself to be someone you are not.

Rainmakers or marketing?

Should you select and hire only great salespeople and rainmakers, and not worry about marketing?  This is a good question. One could argue (see above) that if your marketing department and processes are really good and totally integrated within your overall business practices, anyone can sell, without working very hard at it.  But most businesses and professional practices still need at least one person with the sense about where to go and find new business. In the early going, the owner or founders have this role. After all, they grew the business or professional practice from scratch. Often these owner-founded businesses or professional practices have great trouble transitioning to the next generation, unless they find a way to develop and train the right rain making sales team.

An alternative approach is to build a systematic yet flexible hiring process for sales and marketing talent. As well, the business owner can extrapolate this approach to ALL hiring processes.  If you are careful about how you select employees and consultants you will likely be successful in hiring decisions. If you play by the seat of your pants, you may be lucky or have exceptionally good intuition, but you will encounter many problems and stresses along the way.

How to find and recruit rainmakers and sales representatives

Culled from many books on the topic and many of my own mistakes, following are strategies I’ve found to be most effective in finding and keeping an excellent sales team:

  1. Create a business environment so emotionally satisfying and rewarding that great employees will want to work for the organization, and stay. In addition, provide a path to ownership or partnership for as many employees who want to follow that route as possible
  2. Concentrate on real work achievements rather than resumes and interviews. Resumes can be dressed up, and interviews structured so that a less-than-perfect candidate looks great. Sometimes even references are set up and coached. Our approach is to ask all candidates on our short list to work with us for a brief period. We then learn if they are able to do the job and can get along well with their colleagues. It is a much more effective approach than subjecting the candidates to multiple interviews, or worse, hiring a “bad fit” who is skilled at doing interviews.
  3. Use a pre-screening employee questionnaire. You can customize questions to assess the prospective employee’s competence, interest in the work, and set the stage for proper reference checking and work skills evaluation. Best of all, the questionnaire puts you in the driver’s seat. You control the format and style, and thus can look beyond ‘resume-speak’ in your assessments. The questionnaire also serves as a really effective screening tool:  You are looking for someone who will put a little effort in responding.
  4. In some cases, personality tests and evaluation tools are helpful. We’ve found salestestonline.com offers an effective screening resource: The test is fast, inexpensive, and surprisingly valid. By comparison, other tests we’ve evaluated are costly and relatively complex to administer; and for good sales people, are annoying to complete.

Beware of assumptions and prejudices

First impressions are important, but these should be measured and validated by performance, not appearance. I recall my introduction to a great sales representative who is working with us on a major joint venture project. “This guy is old, washed up, and I don’t know where (my joint venture partner) found him,” I thought. Then he reported his early and astoundingly successful sales results.

He shared his personal history when we finally sat down for dinner at a trade association meeting.  “Years ago, I worked as an estimator/representative for a printing company,” he said. “There was an aluminum casting business I wanted to sell some printing services to, but the company president wouldn’t return my calls.  So one day I got up early, drove to the plant, and parked in the company president’s parking spot.

“When the owner showed up, I told him: ‘I’ll give your space back if you give me 20 minutes of your time.’” The owner did, and he sold the business owner a complex and profitable brochure design and printing project, which entailed several months of work.

After completing the job and delivering the product, my sales friend received a call from the company president, saying he would like to meet with him.

So he showed up at the plant and the president offered me a job with the company. “The benefits, salary and opportunity were too good to pass up,” the salesman recalled.  Subsequently, the salesperson went to work there, changing standard practices, leading an invigorated team, helping to build the company into a multi-million dollar international organization. By the time he retired, he had achieved independent wealth.

Typical of high achievers, he became bored with a traditional retirement. So he launched a new career working with our joint venture partner.

Capturing your opportunities

The aluminum casting company president had the insight to recognize talent and he could see that the salesperson not only used creativity to get his foot in the door, he also delivered the goods. He didn’t need sales tests and resumes to evaluate this type of ability.

The dangers of relying on one superstar

Relying too much on one sales superstar is one of the biggest risks and dangers in any business. If you founded the business, this person could be you, or someone you hired. Really effective rainmakers and sales representatives can be so effective that they alienate everyone else in your organization, or even more dangerously, sell to their personal objectives at the expense of your brand. As well, if they account for most of your sales, their leaving would put you under immense pressure and threaten the company’s viability.

I know of a top sales representative who worked primarily on the phone, but could sell more in a few hours than others who struggled for a month. She worked on pure commission and knew her power. However, she ultimately alienated key people in our niche community by high pressure sales, by going behind people’s backs, and by putting her sales agenda first and foremost in any communications with customers.

We depended on her for virtually all of our business, so how could we ask her to leave?

Ultimately, as our business reached a low point, circumstances led to her resignation.  This turned out to be a blessing in disguise when I realized we could offer a base salary to a new sales rep based on established contract ad sales. Using our hiring system, we found some competent sales reps right away. This is a powerful lesson that a bad employee can poison your business culture and destroy your brand.

The solutions: Excellent communications and solid employment contracts

A regular company meeting system, as described in the previous chapter, is the best control on any employee threatening your business and brand through self-interest.  You can readily capture inconsistencies or problems, and quickly resolve them.  Effective communications will go a long way toward preventing soured relationships and turf wars.

Also essential are solid employment contracts. Working with a qualified employment lawyer, take the time draft legally correct employment contracts. The expense to develop the contracts and to ensure that your recruiting and dismissal practices comply with local laws and regulations, will keep you out of trouble. Beware: You can dig yourself into a really big legal hole if you are ignorant of the laws and processes of terminating employees you want to leave. It is far better to head off trouble by combining an effective contract with sold employee communications. A troublesome employee will often resign of their own accord, without your having to pay them severance.

Technical and non-sales employees

The principles here apply to hiring all employees, not just sales and marketing specialists. Look first for employees with natural ability in their area of interest. Then look for a strong co-operative spirit to ensure that they will work well with others in the organization.  We always ask prospective employees to demonstrate their skills in a trial assignment, and also encourage them to attend our weekly meeting and spend some time with current employees.  We then evaluate their successes in the trial project, considering their technical skills and their fit within the company culture.

Learn your lessons

If you take the time to develop skills to evaluate and select rainmakers and business development specialists, you can then apply the same principles for all employee hiring. By hiring correctly, you will create a thriving working environment, which your current and potential clients will notice when they are considering whether to work with your business. The combination of enthusiastic employees working together, and a great brand reputation, will bring your strengths forward in the marketplace, and you will win all around.

This material is excerpted from Construction Marketing Ideas: Practical Strategies and Resources to Attract and Retain Clients for Your Architectural, Engineering or Construction Business, by Mark Buckshon. You can obtain the full book from Amazon.ca or through the Construction Marketing Ideas blog (www.constructionmarketingideas.com).

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