Friday, June 27, 2008

Marketing for Leads

So how well is your marketing working? Few technical consulting and design firms can answer that question with any certainty. Some pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into activities to promote and position their firm in the marketplace, but can produce little evidence that the investment is paying off. Others choose not to spend much at all on marketing, concluding that the apparent benefits fail to justify greater expenditures.

In my experience there is one marketing metric that trumps all others: How many prospective and existing clients call you in response to your marketing activities. If your marketing is not directly generating leads, let me suggest you rethink what you're doing. This article offers some ideas.

First, Let's Define Terms

Before we go further, I need to clarify what I mean by marketing. In our business we commonly use the term "marketing" as a euphemism for sales. I suspect that's because many of us are uncomfortable with the concept of selling, so we call it marketing to make it seem more palatable. But marketing and sales are two distinct, yet complementary, activities:

  • Marketing is the indirect client contact that drives prospective clients to your door. This includes activities such as publishing, speaking, direct mail, advertising, and public relations. The primary goal is to gain the client's interest.

  • Sales is the direct client contact that pulls prospective clients through your door. This includes activities such as sales calls, sales presentations, proposals, and negotiations. The primary goal is to gain the client's commitment.

Marketing sets the stage for sales. It helps build your reputation, define your brand, and create a comfort level by making you a known entity. Marketing also incorporates the research and planning that enables you to determine what markets and clients you should be pursuing.

The Key: Serve the Client

Probably the biggest shortcoming in the way most firms market is the characteristic self-serving focus. "Look at us!" the procession of glossy brochures, project briefs, newsletters, and website copy screams. This all-too-common strategy seems to ignore the obvious: Clients don't see significant differences between firms and aren't interested in the hype. So even the flashiest marketing materials are mostly ignored.

A better approach is to concentrate most of your marketing efforts on serving existing and prospective clients with helpful information and insights. You don't need to tell people how qualified your firm is; demonstrate it. Create "stealth" marketing materials that, rather than focus on your firm, provide content that clients want to read. I can tell you from experience, that marketing from a service-centered perspective generates leads. Prospective clients will call you.
Here are some successful approaches, ranging from the simple to the sophisticated that I'm personally familiar with:

Pass along article links via email. This is perhaps the simplest, yet most personal, marketing tip I can suggest. Always be thinking about prospective and existing clients as you come across information relevant to their needs. With internet content, a simple embedded link in an email is a great way to show you care.

Send news or regulatory alerts pertinent to clients. This can be done in a variety of ways, from the single email mentioned above to mass mailings to clients (email mailing lists are best developed on an opt-in basis; you don't want to join the ranks of spammers!). One of the most painless ways to collect this kind of information is to subscribe to free email newsletters.

Start a blog, forum, or wiki for sharing and discussion with clients. Blogs are common these days, although I've found few devoted to our industry. Wikis are an emerging online tool for collaboration. How much you can get clients to participate in these is open to question; I suppose it comes down to how much value you offer!

Create a client resource website. Your competitors' websites all focus on self-promotion. How about breaking from the pack and providing a site with information clients really value? I attempt to model this suggestion with my own website. Check it out.

Develop checklists, templates, forms, and other tools for clients. These can be offered through your website or blog or as the need arises. I have several tools available for my clients through the "Consultant's Toolbox" area of my site. Next to the articles page, it is the most visited part of my site.

Publish and present. This is classic marketing advice, but too often ignored by professionals in our industry. Most firms do a little of this, but few do enough. Publishing and speaking are great ways to build your reputation and serve clients at the same time.

Provide free seminars and webinars. Many firms have used seminars over the years to attract client interest. The new format is webinars. Although these are rarely as effective a learning tool as onsite meetings, they fit easily into busy people's schedules and are easier to prepare.

Hold a strategy roundtable for clients to share and discuss best practices. Clients love to hear what their peers are doing. The best roundtables I've seen are facilitated by an expert with his or her own ideas, supplemented by a discussion of what participants have found works or doesn't.

Undoubtedly, you can think of other service-centered marketing strategies beyond the ones described above. The important thing is to create content and activities that clients will value. Don't tell them about your expertise and experience; demonstrate it in various ways designed to help clients. That's the best possible marketing, and a sure way to help bring new business to your door.

Collaboration as Competitive Advantage

The concept of a collaborative planning and design process is hardly novel. In fact, it sounds so common-sensical that it hardly seems worth promoting. But I would argue that the lack of true collaboration is epidemic in our business. Indeed, a genuine collaborative work process could be a strong point of differentiation. I'll try to prove that point:

Let's start with rework, which estimates suggest consumes 15-25% of project budgets. One large engineering and construction firm did an internal study to better understand the causes of rework. They found that the number one cause was the improper sequencing of work. For example: Since the electrical department is anxious to get started, the architectural department pushes work to that group before floor plans are finalized. When architects finish the layout, the electrical engineers have to redo their design to reflect the changes.

Another example from my time with environmental firms: Geologists plan and execute a remedial investigation of a contaminated site. Their findings are passed on to the risk assessment staff who determine they don't have all the data they need to do their work. The field crew goes back to the site to collect more data. Later, the engineers get involved and find they need still other site information to design the remediation system. More samples, more costs.

These are hardly isolated situations. I suggest they're more the norm. Inefficiency due to the lack of an interdisciplinary collaborative process is prevalent in our industry. More typical is a compartmentalized, sequential approach where work flows from discipline to discipline with coordination limited largely to the points of handoff. What's needed is an interdisciplinary team that together guides the work through planning, design, and construction.

Seamless Delivery Across Disciplines

Real collaboration starts with effective planning. All the relevant disciplines and stakeholders should participate in planning the work. Unfortunately, the work is often planned in stages (if at all!), with the different parties contributing only to the stage that directly involves them. No collective vision emerges, nor a shared understanding of precisely what each party needs. The more disciplines and stakeholders involved, the more opportunities for disconnects.

I once helped an engineering and construction firm map its work flow from sale to startup. Like most such firms, they had distinct departments to handle the various stages of the project: Sales, Design, Procurement, Construction, Operations. With the managers of each department participating in this joint workshop, I was amazed to see how little they understood the needs and work flow of the other departments. They were amazed as well.

As you might expect, we were able to identify many opportunities for improving the work flow—with a substantial boost to the bottom line. Yet when I've offered the same service to other clients, I've been routinely turned down. Could it be that we grossly underestimate the degree of dysfunction across departmental lines. I know this client did until we looked under the hood, through a process that itself was collaborative in nature.

The benefits of better collaboration are obvious:

  • Less rework
  • Lower costs
  • Shorter schedules
  • Better planning, decision making, problem solving
  • Better design--improved functionality, aesthetics, client focus
  • Stronger value proposition--a point of differentiation
  • Stronger working relationships
  • Better professional development, with experience and insight across disciplinary lines

So why aren't more A/E firms focusing on this? Could it be that the problem seems too simple to merit serious management attention? I mean, it's just common sense, isn't it? Well sometimes common sense isn't so common.

Moving to the Blogosphere

Who said old dogs can't learn new tricks? I'm adding a blog to my modest web empire. Why would someone who can't find time to regularly publish his newsletter add still another writing assignment to the mix? Well here's my plan:

  • A blog will enable me to more immediately share ideas and strategies when I discover or develop them. I'm constantly learning through my consulting assigments and research, so there is (in theory) a constant pipeline of content to share with interested readers.

  • I'm hoping to generate some dialogue through comments to my blog, something I couldn't do with the newsletter. The advice and insights offered here will be much more beneficial if others will weigh in on the discussion. Please do.

  • I will continue to publish my newsletter, hopefully on a regular basis. But I will devote it primarily to articles by others, focusing my writing on this blog instead.

Anticipating that I will attract new readers to my blog (and so that I have something to share in this space from the start), I've added several of the best articles from my website. I hope you find them helpful. If you'd like me to touch on a specific topic not covered here, let me know. I'd be glad to offer my two cents worth.

The E-Quip blog, I think, fills a gap in the blogosphere. I'm not aware of another blog devoted to practice management insights for managers of technical consulting and design firms (if you know of one, let me know). Your feedback on how to better address that need is coveted. Thanks for tuning in. I hope you continue to come back to this space and join the dialogue.