Business development: When a “maybe” is really a “no” — and what to do about it

mark giving a presentation
Speaking and presenting can be truly effective for marketing and business development

Enoch Sears has written this eletter posting, which reminds us about vargarities in truthfulness when it comes to introductory relationships in professional services (and begins getting us into the thorny area of how you can be effective at business development — that is “sales” — in architecture, engineering and construction.


Recently I explained to my oldest daughter that when people say “maybe” when you are trying to sell them something, it actually means “NO”.

She asked me about an idea of selling bookmarks at her school.

“Do you think people would buy bookmarks?” she asked me.

“The best way to know is to ask them,” I said. “Let’s role play.”

So we role-played:

“If I made you a custom bookmark would you buy it?” she said.

“Sounds cool…maybe!” I responded.

“Ok great!” said my daughter.


This is when I explain to her that “maybe” in this case really means “NO”.

I told her that to test if I’m serious she should pull out a notepad and see if I’m willing to make a pre-order – BEFORE she spends any time making the bookmarks.

An entrepreneur in training.

Ok, lesson learned.

What happened a few hours later literally had me laughing out loud…

We’re driving around and it happens that we ran out of milk that morning.

My daughter Hosanna asks, “Can we go to the store and get some milk?”

I don’t have time for this so I pull out the usual avoid-the-confrontation parenting tactic:

“Maybe!” I respond.

That’s when my 5-year old daughter pipes up from the back in her high-pitched, happy-go-lucky voice:

“But Daddy…maybe MEANS NO!”

The secret is out of the bag.

Ok…so what’s the takeaway here beside the fact that little kids hear and remember everything?

If a client tells you maybe, get it in writing! If they won’t, then it really means “NO”!


Sears offers training and services in AEC business development and marketing.?This sort of training/support is a good idea especially if you are struggling to build your practice. ?You could also consider supports from the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS), which is increasing its support and guidance especially for seller-doers (reflecting a wider application of the concept formerly known as “rainmaking”.

There is a broader observation here, however. Most of us are constitutionally not oriented or interested in the stereotypical selling career. If you have the good fortune to have these personality traits and skills, you can write your own checkbook, because your skills are in extremely high demand. ?Skilled professionals with ?business development ability, not surprisingly, often start their own successful practices or earn an equity/partnership role in the organizations where they work.

The fallback position, one which I took and others who have entrepreneurial drive have applied, is to learn enough selling and business development skills that we can certainly handle the work in a crunch, and also have enough hard-life experience in the processes and experiences that we can tell good from bad in sales efforts. This then allows us to recruit and lead sales specialists. (I don’t claim great inspiration here; especially in light of recent challenges, but on the other hand, have been able to maintain this business though almost three decades.)

Correlated with this sales understanding, we should develop our product/services and reputation (through value delivery and effective marketing) that we have an abundance of inbound inquiries and leads, and where the natural client skepticism for the selling process is reduced. The goal is to get things so there is no resistance at all when, in asked to put a commitment in writing, the potential client says, simply, “Sure.”

Conclusion: You need basic business development skills. Learn them. Then apply your business structures so that you don’t need to stress or force heavy-handed techniques to succeed.

Did you enjoy this article?