Introduction to the Business Development Lifecycle

The business development lifecycle is about winning business. A clear business development process based on best practices can help organizations identify opportunities and win bid in a repeatable, sustainable way.


Successful organizations of all sizes and in all markets manage with discipline and proven leadership principles. Few organizations succeed on luck alone. At the core of most organizations’ success is business development—the ability to generate revenue that sustains the business or organization.

A key goal of any business development team is to advance a business opportunity and move toward being in a favored position from the customer’s perspective, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Increasing the Probability of Winning.

Figure 1. Increasing the Probability of Winning. By positioning products or services early and building strong customer relationships, organizations improve their probability of winning a contract.

Advancing an opportunity through sales stages helps move an organization from an unknown position in the market to a known position. Through effective marketing, opportunity, and sales activity, organizations attempt to advance to an improved position with the customer and ultimately to become the solution of choice in a favored position.

  • Unknown position. Early in the business development lifecycle, many companies are in unknown positions with potential customers. Through effective marketing and long-term positioning, companies achieve known positions.
  • Known position. Using their brand, market messaging, and early sales strategies, companies develop known positions in relation to potential customers.
  • Improved position. Effective relationship-building strategies and selling skills can advance companies into improved positions with potential customers.
  • Favored position. In many market segments, organizations collaborate with customers to develop a business case based on customer needs, issues, and hot buttons. This collaboration builds trust and helps put companies into a favored position with customers.

A disciplined approach to business development requires that organizations follow the processes that work for their own environment. A foundational process and proven, core tools and best practices are a good starting point. But organizations will be most successful if they tailor business development lifecycles to fit their own strategic plans. Organizations should modify methods, tools, personnel, and infrastructure to fit their markets and internal working environments.

Market shifts and internal organizational changes (i.e., mergers, acquisitions, and succession plans) require a flexible, nimble business development lifecycle. Organizations must adapt quickly if market conditions change. For example, if a product moves from being specialized to being a commodity, a company’s approach to positioning, marketing, and competing for business must shift—perhaps toward more of a services model to support its products.

Linking the business development lifecycle to the overall organizational strategic plan is critical. Companies must also consider business development and proposal organizations’ activities, no matter how mature, during strategic planning activities at all levels. The common approach to strategic planning includes a careful internal and external analysis of SWOT—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. SWOT analysis also must include the business development organization.

Regardless of their maturity level, organizations must invest in strategic planning to facilitate business development. They must consider their positioning and their competitors’ positioning as they develop strategic plans and business development lifecycles to meet future objectives.

Phases in the Business Development Lifecycle

APMP best practices suggest that the business development lifecycle comprises eight basic phases. However, each phase and its associated decision gates, steps, and reviews should be tailored to an individual organization and market environment. No one phase is more important than another; they must all work together to identify and advance the best opportunities.

The business development lifecycle includes activities and phases that focus on planning and performing (executing). The End-to-End Process section further details the best practices associated with the process.

Figure 2 shows how the business development lifecycle’s phases and activities work together to win business. Each element depends on the others—all requiring input and ongoing updates.

Figure 2. The Business Development Lifecycle.

Figure 2. The Business Development Lifecycle. Discipline at each phase improves win rates and leads to sustainable processes that fuel ongoing success.

The eight phases of the business development lifecycle are:

1. Market Identification

Organizations must make clear decisions about the markets they intend to pursue and penetrate. The market risk assessment is a valuable tool for organizations as they assess their risk and investment tolerance for selling to new or existing markets with new or existing products or services. Market risk is highest for opportunities with new customers and new products; market risk is lowest for opportunities with existing customers and existing products.

Figure 3 shows how market identification factors and likelihood of winning change as market decisions are made. For example, the organization experiences the highest level of market risk, the lowest probability of winning, and likely the greatest investment required in Quadrant 4, where new products or services are being positioned and sold into new markets.

Figure 3. Market and Customer Match Matrix.

Figure 3. Market and Customer Match Matrix. This tool can help organizations understand the effort it may take to succeed in a chosen marketplace.

The market identification stage helps organizations ensure that they spend marketing budgets and resources on the most likely targets for profitable business opportunities. Organizations must constantly assess and reevaluate their markets, identifying new market segments and validating current markets. Whether to enter a specific market is a key decision gate at this phase of the business development lifecycle.

2. Accounting Planning and Positioning

An account can be a prospective customer, an existing customer, an entire organization, or a single buying unit within a large company.

Account planning involves long-term positioning with a potential customer and is an ongoing activity across the business development lifecycle. Account plans must be adjusted as opportunities progress through the sales pipeline or as new opportunities arise. This phase includes marketing activities that position an organization in the market and with specific target customers.

Account planning requires an unbiased assessment of current account activity and future potential business opportunities. Typically, an account plan consists of historical account information, buying history, key customer personnel and decision makers, and strategies for penetrating or growing an account. An account plan often feeds into an opportunity/capture plan when specific opportunities are qualified. An account plan drives long-term positioning strategies with target customers with strong future sales opportunities.

Many successful organizations store account planning data in a customer relationship management (CRM) system and keep data up to date.

3. Opportunity Assessment (Identification and Qualification)

A key decision gate at the opportunity assessment phase of the business development lifecycle is a preliminary bid/no-bid decision on a specific opportunity.

Organizations can identify sales opportunities through many channels, including marketing campaigns, traditional prospecting, social media efforts, and lobbying strategies. Generally, a marketing team works in collaboration with a sales or opportunity team to identify and qualify potential opportunities.

Decisions made earlier in the business development lifecycle significantly affect this phase. Strategic planning and market positioning/segmentation often can dictate how organizations identify opportunities and put them into the sales pipeline.

Many successful organizations use third-party sales opportunity tracking programs (subscriptions) to track and monitor future bidding opportunities, especially in regional and national markets. These programs can help identify upcoming opportunities based on specific filters used during opportunity searches.

Qualifying opportunities is a key step to improving overall win rates. Companies that do not adequately qualify opportunities often overspend their marketing and sales budgets and pursue too many opportunities that they have a low probability of winning. As a result, these companies divert resources from more winnable deals and from delivery of projects that could lead to renewals.

A few questions to consider at the opportunity assessment phase of the lifecycle include (but are not limited to):

  • Is there an incumbent on this opportunity?
  • What is the incumbent’s performance?
  • Who are known competitors?
  • Are there possible unknown competitors?
  • Can we win? Can we deliver profitably?
  • Do we need to team with another organization?
  • What will it cost us to bid?
  • Will bidding this opportunity better position us for future opportunities?
  • Does this opportunity fit within our strategic plan and vision?

Careful competitive assessment and evaluation are also key at this phase of the lifecycle. Knowing competitors’ strengths and weaknesses as they relate to the opportunity is critical.

4. Opportunity/Capture Planning

Opportunity/capture planning starts early in the lifecycle and continues through proposal submission. This planning involves customer interaction and effective sales to understand customer needs and issues. Critical aspects of opportunity/capture planning include knowledge of portfolio management and the 4Cs:

  • Customer. Gain a basic understanding of the customer’s situation, needs, hot buttons, issues, and biases. This understanding will deepen as the opportunity advances.
  • Competition. Carefully and thoroughly analyze the competition. Identify whether there is an incumbent, known competitors, or potential unknown competitors. Also determine whether you have a competitive advantage or disadvantage in pursuing the opportunity. Other potential “competitors” might be the customer deciding to do nothing, spend money on other things, or do the work in-house.
  • Cost. Is there a history of pricing on this opportunity? Include a price-to-win analysis, at some level, as part of your opportunity planning. As the opportunity advances and you gain more information, adjust this price target.
  • Company and solution. From the customer’s perspective, assess your organization’s solution, past performance, reputation, and risk.
  • Portfolio management. Weigh opportunities against each other and view resources to develop and pursue opportunities as an investment. Only pursue opportunities with an ROI versus a probability of win that supports the overall portfolio.

Keep in mind that this process doesn’t always go in this order; you may need to revisit the qualification decision as you learn more about the customer and the opportunity.

Figure 4 shows how the pursuit decision leads to the opportunity/capture planning phase of the business development lifecycle. A thorough opportunity/capture plan should evolve from this phase of the cycle.

Figure 4. Opportunity Planning.

Figure 4. Opportunity/Capture Planning. Opportunity/capture planning activities are critical to repeat success in business development.

Regardless of the size or complexity of an opportunity, a Sales or Opportunity/Capture Manager should take time to plan. The plan’s level of detail will depend on the opportunity, including its complexity and dollar value.

5. Proposal Planning

If done effectively, planning a proposal will save time, resources, and money. Before the bid request arrives, organizations should assemble a core proposal team to prepare a proposal management plan focused on the five proposal planning activities. These activities are essential to transferring customer issues and needs identified during opportunity planning into proposal strategies, solutions, a price-to-win, and mitigations.

Focus on these five key proposal planning activities:

  • Migrating data from the opportunity plan to a proposal plan or to proposal planning tools
  • Extending the opportunity/capture strategy into the proposal strategy. A proposal strategy consists of statements of an organization’s position and how it plans to make each point in its proposal. Organizations can capture this transfer by preparing a draft executive summary.
  • Refining the solution and price-to-win
  • Engaging the right staff for the proposal team and securing the right executive support
  • Holding a proposal kickoff meeting to share planning activities with the proposal team

In completing these activities, an organization should conduct a review to validate and suggest improvements to its proposal strategy. The opportunity/capture plan review team reviews the technical, management, and pricing solution against the customer’s needs and requirements, alignment with the opportunity/capture strategy, and competitive focus.

Adjustments made at this time, especially before the bid request comes out, help to maintain the alignment between pre-proposal activities and solutions and the proposal’s description of these solutions. Often, organizations use mockups and content plans as proposal planning tools that make proposal development and writing more customer focused.

6. Proposal Development

As the opportunity matures and a formal bid request is released, proposal development kicks into high gear. If the opportunity is still viable, the planning documents prepared in the previous phase now become working proposal development documents.

At this stage, bid planning activities—including changes to the solution, strategy, teaming partners, proposal organization, proposal schedule, and workshare—should stop. Ongoing changes result in wasted time and resources and can lead to a mediocre proposal that’s frustrating to prepare.

Organizations should use compliance tracking tools, such as compliance checklists, response matrices, and writers’ assignments, to ensure that they’re meeting the bid request requirements. They should also use communication tools to validate progress, troubleshoot proposal content, and address concerns. Finally, they should conduct short check-ins to monitor progress and status to ensure that deliverables and schedules are met.

When the Bid or Proposal Manager is satisfied with section drafts, the manager should submit them for final document review. A team should review a complete draft proposal beginning with the executive summary, all volumes (including cost), and other items required at submittal. A Final Document Review team evaluates the draft proposal from the customer’s perspective.

The review team makes recommendations for improvement. After completing changes and receiving final approval, the organization submits the proposal to the customer. Organizations vary in how they execute the proposal development process based on the nature of their business and the complexity of bid they submit.

7. Negotiation and Post-Submittal Activity

Submittal of a proposal does not signal the end of the business development lifecycle. On the contrary, this is the phase where business decisions become intense and real.

Many customers request clarifications or have discussions with bidders before making a final decision. These may lead to proposal modifications.

An organization’s strategy during this phase should be to respond fully to customer questions and concerns and to reinforce the customer’s trust in its solution and organization. Companies should prepare the appropriate materials for final revisions, presentations, or any submissions the customer requires to complete the selection process.

While interacting with the customer, refine your opportunity/capture plan information and plan for customer meetings and live discussions.

Overall, an organization’s strategy should be fairly simple:

  • To respond fully to customer questions and concerns
  • To reinforce a customer’s trust in its solution and organization
  • To optimize the deal to the benefit of the bidder and customer

Conducting a lessons-learned review on each bid opportunity is a critical best practice. Lessons learned should be well documented and stored for others to access and reference on future sales opportunities. Make lessons learned part of an account plan, with all information captured in the CRM or tracking system.

8. Delivery and Ongoing Customer Relationships

Effective business development activities continue throughout the solution delivery phase. This happens through ongoing interaction with the customer. Winning the contract is an opportunity to prove value and position your organization for additional opportunities.

Effectively executing on a contract is the best way to position for future business with an account or client organization. Apply account management techniques, such as regular customer contact, product demonstrations and upgrades, social marketing, and participation in relevant industry and trade events. These activities demonstrate an ongoing interest in the customer’s business and success and help position your organization for future opportunities.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Necessity of the business development process

Some organizations mistakenly think that a repeatable business development process is unnecessary. Ad hoc business development activities are occasionally successful, but they’re mostly hit and miss. Time and again, tailoring best practices and turning them into a repeatable process has proven effective. This offers a greater ROI—leading to achieving organizational revenue goals—than ad hoc activities.

Importance of bid decision gates and positioning

Another misconception is that “by bidding more, we’ll win more.” This is a costly mistake companies make, compared to those that leverage the power of bid decision gates and effective opportunity reviews. It’s better to make the tough decision to no-bid rather than waste money on a marginal opportunity.

Importance of early customer involvement

Many companies believe that a compliant, responsive, and well-done proposal will win the contract. On the contrary, a proposal is often the final step in confirming a customer’s buying decision. Effective marketing, positioning, and selling are critical to winning business—the proposal then verifies the winning solution. A poor proposal, however, can kill a deal.


Defining, documenting, and implementing an effective business development lifecycle is a core part of strategic planning for any business. Organizations must remember to:

  • Scale and tailor the cycle to specific markets and competitive positions
  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities within the cycle
  • Secure leadership buy-in and support for implementing the cycle
  • Document all successes and failures to learn from experience
  • Enhance the customer relationship across the cycle at each phase and as part of each activity

Terms to Know