Business development is about matching the products or services that your company offers to a set of unmet human needs. My job is not to do the work; it’s to go out and find it. So first rule is knowing the value of what you’re selling, and who you’re selling it to. Understand your customer so well that you know exactly what they need, how you can fill or surpass that need, and most importantly, what not to sell them.
What I do today is not something I was trained for. I was trained as an artist, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. When in university, I gave no thought to what I would do after graduating. I just wanted to make art. But that was not going to put bread on the table, so I had to decide whether I would get a job doing something else to support my art practice. Not wanting to do just any job, I studied graphic design for two years, and got a degree in that too. I figured at least it was visual and creative.
My world has never stopped changing. When I began, the word ‘computer’ meant a great big machine in a back room somewhere nobody saw. We used paper, big drafting tables, pens and pencils to do our work. Ten years later, the drafting tables were gone and every designer had a Mac on her desk. Then came the Internet. Then came social media. Believe me, the world we live in now is very, very different than the one I trained for.
So what can you do to prepare? The most important thing is to learn to cultivate an open mind. You can’t learn how to adapt to change at school, but you can learn to accept the inevitability of it. Think of it as a wave that keeps on coming. Don’t fight it; learn how to ride it, as if you were surfing. Once you let go of your resistance to it, the ride can be quite exciting and rewarding.
The fundamentals of business development, or the art of selling, will not change much over the next 10 to 20 years. Business development is relationship development, and the universal skills needed to start and nurture a relationship have always been the same. You need to be good with people. You need to be empathetic, and that means you need to learn to listen before you speak. Learning to listen is harder than you think. Very few people are good at it. Those who can do it will always be in demand.
Lots of sales people pride themselves on their powers of persuasion, and rightly so. That is a special skill set. But many also use that skill to sell people stuff they neither need nor want. That’s about the salesperson’s ego, not the customer’s needs. You need to put your customer first. That will never change. What will change is the toolbox—and the territory. Social media are playing an ever more significant role in the development of business relationships. It will be increasingly easier to reach people anywhere in the world and have the kinds of conversations that start great relationships.
A final piece of advice: choose to study and to pursue what you love. Being engaged in the thing that excites you most—the thing that gets you up in the morning—helps you deal with the obstacles that will inevitably stand in your way of pursuing it. Even if all you’re doing is selling what you love, it’s important to love and believe in the fundamental value of what you’re selling.
At the same time, don’t hyper-focus: allow influences and ideas from other areas of study to inspire and enrich how you approach your own discipline. This will help you keep an open mind, and allow you to adapt more quickly to the changes that are inevitably going to happen.