12 Common Business Development Mistakes You Cannot Afford To Make

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By Andrew Sobel

The other day a client called me for advice about an important sale he was involved with. His firm was making its final presentation that very week. I did my best, but the problem was that he and his team had made some important mistakes much earlier in the business development process. It was now too late to rectify them. Their position was weak. They were lost in a strange city because they had made several wrong turns earlier in the trip.

I see very basic but often fatal mistakes made all the time during the sales process–frequently by very sophisticated professionals. I’ve personally made more than my share of them during my career. Here are the 12 most common ones:


1. Not preparing                                                                        
You’d be surprised how many client executives have complained to me about the poorly prepared people who come to pitch them on their services. My father always told me, “There is no substitute for genuine lack of preparation.” Well, it’s true. Research the individual you’re meeting with as well as their company. Establish the agenda in advance—find out if there’s something in particular they are interested in. Make sure you know who will actually attend your meeting. Don’t walk in and ask, “So tell me about your business” (yes, really, people use this as an opener…it’s probably the last time they ever see the prospect…)

2. Not walking in as a peer
Many potential engagements are lost in the first ten seconds because the presumptive advisor or service provider doesn’t walk in and act like a peer. Acting like a peer has a mental and a physical side to it. Mentally, you must believe you belong in that senior executive’s office. You must be fully convinced you have something very, very valuable to offer. Physically, you have to stand tall and exude confidence. But you also have to show you’re humble though your tone and your curiosity.

3. Trying to accomplish too much in the first meeting
In a very first meeting, you must focus on a limited number of objectives. You need to focus on:

  • Building rapport and trust
  • Establishing (indirectly, through questions and client examples) your credibility
  • Understanding the client’s most pressing issues—their agenda
  • Creating enough interest to invite another meeting

In most first meetings you are NOT trying to “be sure to mention products X, Y, and Z” or “Discuss our newly opened Singapore office.” You’re NOT trying to get commitment to a project or deal. You’re NOT trying to simultaneously talk in detail about the project you’re doing at a lower level in the organization while making a pitch to reorganize the entire company. And so on—you get the idea. Don’t load that first conversation down with too much or it will sink to the bottom very quickly.

4. Rushing the sale
As Diana Ross and the Supremes sang, “You can’t hurry love.” If you try and rush the sale you’ll come across as “salesy” and unsophisticated. Some sales can happen in one meeting; others take ten meetings. But in all cases you have to get the foundations in place. Is there an urgent issue and have you understood it 360 degrees? Have you built trust in your ability to address the issue with a road-tested approach? Are the internal stakeholders lined up? Etc. For any kind of a sophisticated and complex product or service, if there’s no trusting relationship, there’s no sale. Real professionals actively manage the selling process, always pushing it—artfully—to the next step. But they are patient. As Abraham Lincoln said, “If I have six hours to chop down a tree, I spend four hours sharpening my axe.” Everyone talks about “closing the sale” but that will never happen if you haven’t put in the careful, hard work in the days and weeks leading up to the close.

5. Focusing on your solution not the client need
When you have the expert-for-hire mindset, you focus on your methodology or solution and how great it is for the client. In contrast, when you have the advisor mindset you focus on developing a deep, full understanding of the client and their needs. Don’t be a product-pusher. Explore your client’s agenda carefully, testing for frustrations and also aspirations. When you lead with your marvelous solution–your “unique approach”– it’s a turnoff. First show you’ve really understood what the client is looking for. Then and only then illustrate how what you do could help address their need.

6. Using PowerPoint or other written material
Why would you go through a presentation or brochure in a first meeting? You have no idea what the client is interested in at that point—or at least, even if you have an idea, you haven’t explored it sufficiently to develop a PowerPoint deck on it. In the first meeting you want to have a conversation, not show the other person how much you know. You can’t have a great conversation when your prospect is reading slides in front of you. You could bring a “leave behind” with some credentials and client examples—but you should leave this with the client as you depart. In a second or third meeting, a presentation might be more appropriate.

7. Not meeting with the decision maker—the buyer
Question: How can you sell something to someone you have never met? Answer: With great difficulty. Don’t waste your time and invest in a long business development process if you can’t meet or speak to the actual decision maker—the so-called “economic buyer.” Everyone and their brother will try and keep you from meeting with the executive sponsor for the program or issue in question. Your job is to stand tall and explain why you have to speak to that executive in order to fully understand the issue and craft a meaningful proposal.

8. Ignoring the emotional and political aspects of the sale
No one buys for purely rational reasons. Remember the old adage: Facts tell, emotions sell. Every major sale has emotional (or personal) dimensions to it and also political dimensions. How will your project or engagement affect the key executives? Who does it threaten? Who are the stakeholders who will be involved in the decision, and what is the rational and personal agenda of each of them? How will different constituencies be affected with the client’s organization? Ignore the emotional and political dimensions, and you dramatically handicap yourself.

9. Not asking high-quality questions
Everyone knows they should ask really good questions. I find most professionals fall into two groups: Those who just talk nonstop and don’t ask questions at all, and those who ask mediocre questions. Very few people ask truly thought-provoking, interesting questions. Here’s an example of what I mean:

Issue: The client wants to reorganize around customer segments instead of geography.

  • Boring question: What’s your timetable for implementation of the new organization?
  • Boring question: Can you tell me about the segments you want to organize around?
  • Better question: How would you characterize the distinct needs and goals of each of the three segments you’ve identified? (and how will you organize internally to meet those needs?)
  • Better question: What motivated you to make this change, now?
  • Better question: How will the key executives in the current structure be impacted by this change? Typically, there is resistance to a move like this—where do you think the resistance will occur in your own organization?

10. Not listening
When it comes to serving clients, aside from outright incompetence, there’s almost nothing worse than being considered someone who “doesn’t listen very well.” And few greater accolades than “He’s an excellent listener.” Listening isn’t about just asking questions and listening. It’s about showing you really understood. Asking for clarification. Posing thoughtful follow-up questions. Affirming. Empathizing. And, disclosing and sharing your own experiences and thoughts. It’s about making the other person feel like they were they ONLY person in your world for those 40 minutes you were together.

11. Playing not to lose and ending up bland and unmemorable
Especially when meeting with a senior executive, you can’t play to not lose. You must play to win. If you take a conservative, “don’t offend anyone and don’t upset the apple cart” approach, you will seem bland and unmemorable. And then you will be…forgotten. You must walk in and clearly stand for something. You must have an incisive point of view about the prospect’s industry or function. You should be willing to gently challenge them and their definition of the problem and the solution. Be bold, not bland.

12. Not adding enough value to command a second meeting
If your prospect doesn’t derive value from the first meeting, why would they want to meet again? In the past, executives might take the time to get to know you if they think you eventually could have something to offer. But today’s time pressed clients don’t have that luxury. They need to think, “This was a useful conversation. This person seems to know their stuff. Our discussion helped sharpen my understanding of my issues and the possible solutions that are out there. I have the feeling this is someone I could trust and have a relationship with.” Add value through examples of what other clients have done, by sharing market and competitive information, by explaining best practices that may be helpful for the challenges the client has mentioned to you, by asking thought-provoking questions, by challenging their very definition of the problem, and so on.

Now, take the “Not” out of each sentence and you know exactly what you should do in your next business development conversation. Go for it.


Andrew Sobel

I help my clients build enduring relationships with their clients and other important individuals in their lives
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