Program managers play a bigger BD role as recompete landscape shifts Breva Colmeiro

Incumbency is no guarantee of success, so program managers must embrace their business development role and to do that they should get more training to recognize and communicate their customers needs.

How much does your projected revenue depend on a program or project manager winning a recompete? In the past, incumbents had a high probability of winning unless they were underperforming or had lost favor. No selling was required. Just perform well on the contract, be a trusted resource, write a compliant proposal, and the PM was virtually guaranteed to win!

But things have changed. Incumbency does not guarantee anything anymore. However, what hasn't changed is the PM's access, trust, and knowledge of the customer’s challenges and future needs. Often the difference between winning or losing a recompete is how a PM leverages their customer access, relationship quality, and communication skills to outthink, outsmart, and outmaneuver those who seek to replace them without getting caught up in a race to the bottom on price. 

Has your organization factored in the declining incumbent recompete win rates and the critical role PMs must play in winning these contracts that have historically been a surefire source of revenue?

Given the multitude of tasks a PM must handle, BD is often not given a high priority.

PMs play a critical role in the success of organizations. They are great at planning and managing risk, schedule, and quality and have tremendous technical knowledge. However, with all these priorities, business development is often neglected, and many PMs fail to recognize potential opportunities.

Due to their technical backgrounds, many PMs have little career exposure to BD or sales skills. As a result, many view BD, especially when entrenched with a customer, as somewhat unethical or, at best pesty behavior. However, even though the words sales or business development are often met with stereotypical aversion, it is a necessary skill set that organizations rely on to achieve their revenue goals.

Many organizations acknowledge the importance of PMs in program execution, change orders, identification of adjacencies, and winning recompete opportunities. However, they often overestimate the PMs' abilities to engage and grow programs. Even in terms of professional development, PMOs tend to concentrate on programmatic or technical skills and often shy away from providing BD training.

Organizations that prioritize the development of PMs' BD skills, such as communication and emotional intelligence, and incentivize a growth mindset, have observed a significant increase in their win rates. Despite this, most PMs are expected to navigate BD on their own with the skills needed to compete, especially in a virtual world. So why aren't more organizations investing in their PMs' BD skill development?

PMs can succeed in BD without resorting to manipulative sales techniques.

The benefits of BD training include improved communication skills, a better understanding of customers' current and future needs, and more effective team, customer, and stakeholder collaboration. So with all of these and many more benefits tied to your PM's ability to engage the right decision-makers and gather the right intelligence, and given that communication skills are often identified in surveys as a significant area for improvement, why aren't PMOs focused on developing BD skills and performance?

To achieve BD success, PMs don't have to become a stereotypical "sleazy salesperson" or cross over to the dark side! It's not traditional sales techniques they need to learn. These manipulative and pushy techniques are more likely to increase their aversion to doing BD than enhance it.

Instead, BD is about identifying and understanding the impact of customer problems or needs and then working with the customer to achieve their desired outcome. This type of customer-focused approach is closely aligned with what PMs do daily, making many of their PM skills directly transferable to the BD role. It's just applying those skills differently and asking questions to gather competitive intelligence that others are not getting.

Most PMs haven't recognized that they have been selling their whole career. Examples include - selling a new project to an executive committee, selling stakeholders on increased scope, convincing management during a gate review to continue funding a project, getting the team to buy into a more aggressive delivery schedule, selling a potential team member during a job interview, or convincing management to provide additional resources.

Poor communication skills can be identified in several ways. Most result from making assumptions rather than gathering customer intelligence, such as losing recompetes despite the PM's confidence in a win, failure to expand programs, inability to recognize adjacent opportunities, low PWin, ineffective teamwork, frustration among proposal teams, and limited engagement with stakeholders.

The Importance of Developing BD Skills

To ensure PMs effectively identify, qualify, and win new and recompete opportunities, they must be comfortable planning engagements and communicating effectively. Planning provides confidence, and communication skills provide the foundations of credibility. Do a quick calendar check to see how much time your PMs have blocked for BD planning.

The highest form of communication is connection, and PM success often depends on how well they engage, communicate, and build trust with customers, stakeholders, and their teams. Connection and trust are built by focusing on the customer's need to be understood. This might be to understand who they are, how they think, and what needs, wants, goals, or problems they want to solve.

Developing relationships with customer influencers and decision-makers is crucial to winning re-competes. However, PMs may not be comfortable establishing relationships beyond their existing POC. Being well positioned with the wrong people has limited value and leads to lost recompetes. Not engaging with the right people limits access to critical customer intelligence and the ability to shape requirements or acquisition strategy.

As organizations face heightened pressure to retain and grow contracts, the need for PMs to possess exceptional engagement, communication, and BD skills has never been greater. Customer-focused BD skills, not traditional pushy or manipulative sales techniques, are a must-have in every PM's toolbox.

Some organizations are mandating annual BD training for all customer-facing personnel, recognizing its critical role in winning re-competes. Failure to equip your PMs with these vital skills may result in lost opportunities and missed revenue forecasts. Don't let lack of training be your excuse for losing a recompete you were counting on winning.

Nic Coppings is Senior Partner at the Hi-Q Group and has over 20 years of experience in Government markets. With a focus on Business Development and Capture processes, Nic leads the development of on-demand training programs focused on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of Human Intelligence to increase win rates. Follow Nic Coppings on LinkedIn for more insights.