AAM Minute - Business Development News

Comparing the Business Development Generalist and Specialist

Jason Jobgen, BKD LLP


Generalists Work as Matchmakers

The business development generalist is what most people picture an accounting firm BDE doing. While these BDEs may, at times, target specific companies for specific services, they are generally responsible for converting any viable prospect into a client. The generalist uses direct prospecting and relies on referral sources to match the right partner with a prospect. Together, they then diagnose the prospect’s needs and craft a solution.


Often generalists lead a long prospecting process; building a relationship with their prospect over months or years. While a basic understanding of the prospect’s business is required, these professionals rely on their strong sales and communication skills and leave the deep technical knowledge related to the firm’s services to client service personnel. To be a successful generalist, one needs a basic understanding of all the services the firm provides. Prospecting will likely focus on a specific city or geographic region, and the generalist will rely heavily on his or her existing network in the business community.


The career of a BDE generalist allows for:


·         The ability to cast a wider net. BDE generalists are able to target any organization that meets the firm’s expectations as a prospective client.

·         More to sell. By learning how to identify the need for each service your firm provides, generalists are more likely to identify a need or two when meeting with a new prospect.


There are downsides to being a generalist, too, including:


·         Limited involvement after introducing a partner. In many firms, the generalist is only involved in the first few stages of the pursuit. Once an opportunity is identified, a partner typically steps in to lead the proposal process. This can be frustrating for a sales professional and creates problems when it is time to calculate commissions if clear guidelines are not established.

·         A longer sales process. Generalists will likely be targeting new tax and audit clients for the firm. Decisions to change core service providers do not happen overnight.

·         A lower success rate. It will probably take 12-24 months for a BDE to ‘ramp-up’ and develop a full pipeline. Unfortunately, both firm leaders and new BDEs rarely plan for this start-up time. As a result, most generalists new to the accounting industry do not make it past the first two years.


Specialists Have Narrower Focus and Deeper Understanding

With a more narrow focus, specialists might concentrate sales efforts on a specific industry, a specific service, or a small group of services. Potential specialties include technology solutions, specialty tax projects, or a consulting service. They may even focus on core services for a specific industry. Most specialists are found in larger firms that have a more comprehensive suite of services, greater geographic reach, and the capacity to justify a full-time sales person with a narrow focus.


BDE specialists need to develop a comprehensive understanding of the technical aspects of the services they are selling. Former client service partners transitioning into sales often thrive in this role. This role is expected to lead the entire sales process and, in some firms, be involved in the delivery of service.


Those choosing a specialist career path have the opportunity to:

·         Become famous. Specialists can become famous in their selected service or niche area as they are often the face of the service they sell in the market.

·         Have a book of business. In some firms, technical sales people have the opportunity to build a book of business, while also building the case for a larger share of the firm’s profits.


The biggest shortcomings to a specialist are that:


·         All eggs are in one basket. Regulations, tax policy, and market forces can change in an instant. The wrong change could eliminate that single service a career was built around.

·         The BDE specialist is a one trick pony. As a sales professional, specialists can certainly identify opportunities outside a chosen specialty but that will be the exception. The geographic focus will probably need to be expanded to find enough qualified prospects to be successful.


Play to One’s Strengths

Just as no two firms are alike, neither are two sales people. They have unique strengths and skills that will make it easier for them to sell in one situation than another. You will have the most success when you deploy your BDE in a way that makes the most of their skillset.


If you are currently in a BDE role, think about your strengths and the strengths of your firm, and decide how you want to spend the next phase of your business development career.