Sunday, December 27, 2009
Monday, December 21, 2009
If you're not familiar with the term, it refers to a work environment in which employees are promoted solely on the basis of their achievements and performance. Like your firm--or is it? The fact is many firms fall short of having a true meritocracy. There are commonly artificial, if unintentional, barriers to advancement. For example, relatively few nontechnical professionals attain the status of principal. Most non-degreed individuals, such as administrative staff and CAD technicians, have limited career options.
Of course, you could argue that few of the above exceptions ever merit moving very far in the organization. They may lack the right skills or knowledge specific to our business. But do we sometimes simply assume they can't develop these attributes because of their education or background? In many firms there is something of a class distinction between "professionals" and "nonprofessionals." Not exactly endearing terms to create a sense of uninhibited opportunity, is it?
Then there's the other side of a meritocracy--dealing with underperformers. Rare are the firms that don't struggle with this, failing to address lingering performance problems, especially among their most credentialed employees. Research and experience show that this has a deleterious effect on the office. It drags down morale, and ultimately the performance of others. But companies with a true meritocracy demonstrate much higher levels of employee engagement, performance, and retention.
Continuous improvement fuels excellence. The changes may not be evident to most of us, but McDonald's is characterized by a culture of continuous improvement and ongoing modifications to the business model. They've had a few slip-ups along the way, noticeably in the early 2000s when growth slowed and other problems arose. But they eventually find a way to trump the competition and keep the customers coming.
Change is one of the foremost challenges facing A/E firms coming through and out of this recession. Evidence suggests that we are facing a prolonged period of uncertainty and change. Client needs will be evolving and the best firms will evolve with them. Does your firm have a change-ready culture, one committed to continually improving how you serve clients and perform your work?
That, I believe, will increasingly become the standard for success. A sustained culture of continuous improvement isn't something that comes top-down from management, although leaders must lead the change. It's a grassroots effort, with staff at every level thinking about how they can do their jobs more effectively and serve the client better.
In this regard, maybe even we can learn something from a company we often think of as residing at the other end of the scale of "professionalism." Perhaps the point is that success is based not on what you do, but how well you do it.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Monday, December 7, 2009
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Make productive use of nonbillable time. We typically try to manage our collective billable hours. Nonbillable hours, on the other hand, often receive little management attention. Yet these constitute "investment time" where strategic initiatives are implemented, new business is procured, work processes are improved, training and mentoring takes place. I advocate budgeting and managing this time like project time. Check out the article "Investing Nonbillable Time" for more insight on this issue.
Friday, November 20, 2009
- Overview of the client (size, services, organization, etc.)
- What are the client's priorities? What are the projected expenditures?
- What are the client's major challenges? How can we help the client be successful?
2. Assess the Relationship
- What work have we done for the client? How have we performed?
- What is the current state of our relationship with the client?
- Who are the key decision makers? What is our relationship with each?
- What are the critical success factors for each? Do we know?
3. Evaluate our Positioning
- What are our relevant strengths, differentiators, weaknesses, vulnerabilities?
- Who are our primary competitors? What is the current standing of each?
- What is our current positioning relative to our competitors? Where do we need to improve?
- How can we improve performance on our current work with the client?
4. Define our Strategy
- What are our goals in terms of services, projects, revenue, etc.?
- How do we leverage our strengths?
- How do we mitigate our weaknesses and vulnerabilities?
- What is our single best opportunity at this time?
- What are the next best actions we need to take to strengthen our position?
Give top priority to improving service to your key clients. There's a tendency sometimes to take our best clients for granted. We work hard to win new clients and address problems with existing clients. But when things seem to be going well with our top clients, we may not give them the attention they deserve. Don't let your guard down! There's always someone trying to displace you, and they may be providing that next level of service and attention. Never be satisfied with the status quo.
Be sure you're getting regular feedback. Only about one-fourth of A/E firms formally gather feedback from clients. Feedback is the bedrock of great service. You can't be sure you're serving your clients well if you don't ask. Certainly, you want to be certain that your top clients are fully satisfied with your performance and service. For more insight into how to do this, check out this earlier post.
Become a trusted advisor and valued resource. In their book Clients for Life, authors Sheth and Sobel describe the path from "expert for hire" to "steady supplier" to "trusted advisor." Obviously the latter is the more secure position. Many firms serve only as a steady supplier even for their top clients. That leaves them vulnerable to being displaced. Trusted advisors are indispensable. They provide valued insight, not just expertise. They work collaboratively with the client, not just perform tasks. Are you a trusted advisor with your top clients? If not, determine what you need to do to become one.
Monday, November 9, 2009
That's why I am increasingly urging my clients to take steps to create what I call "strategic capacity." This involves clearing space in overloaded calendars to work on the issues that matter most. In the typical strategic planning meeting, the meaty assignments are given to senior managers whose plates are already full. Where will they find time to work on these critically important matters? Too often, they don't.
One of my recurring themes in this space is: Don't try to tackle important tasks with leftover time. This is often done with business development. Or mentoring. Or strategic initiatives. The result is that these important, yet non-urgent activities routinely get the short shrift. What's needed is a reordering of the priorities driving our time usage.
To create more strategic capacity, let me encourage you to have your firm's senior managers go through the following exercise:
- Have each identify what 5-6 activities they perform that yield the highest value to the company. I'm assuming that implementing strategic initiatives will be included in this list.
- Ask them to estimate how much time (on average) they spend each week on these high-impact activities.
- Have your senior managers identify what 5-6 activities consume the bulk of their time in the average work week (it's almost certainly going to be a different list than their high-impact activities).
- Then have them determine how to shift more time from the second list of activities to their high-impact activities. This usually involves doing one of the following with their most time-consuming responsibilities: delegate, decrease, delay, delete. Each manager should develop a personal plan for shifting more time to high-value tasks.
- Set up a "project" number for each strategic initiative and track time charged to the effort. This will enable you to confirm that appropriate management time is being redirected to your firm's most important activities.
Of course, simply delegating responsibilities down the organization can create other capacity problems. That means ultimately you have to delay or eliminate certain lower-priority activities. That's the crux of time management: We all have more things we'd like to be doing than we have time to do them. That problem applies to organizations as well.
So you have to choose. Creating strategic capacity means that you are choosing to reallocate time from less important to more important activities. Research shows that this is a key attribute of the most successful companies. Will your firm be among them?
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
There is great confusion about brand. Even the experts differ on how to define it. One consultant website I discovered listed over 200 definitions of the word brand that he had found on the internet. So let me offer a working definition for our purposes, one drawn from some of the most respected books I've read on brand: Brand is the perception in the mind of the customer that differentiates a product, service, or company.
How that perception is formed is critically important. Most branding activities in our industry (and in others) are misguided. They focus on logo redesigns, graphic standards, positioning lines. These only support brand; they don't create it or redefine it. At its core, brand perceptions are shaped by the direct and indirect experiences clients have with your firm. Marketing can contribute to those experiences, but the substance of your brand is rooted in how you serve the client.
So if you're looking to strengthen your brand, don't start by turning to your marketing department or hiring an outside branding expert. Go first to the heart of your brand. Build (or at least investigate) the foundation before adding the infrastructure. Here's what I suggest:
Learn how you are perceived by clients. Since your brand resides here, this is the obvious place to start. Ask clients what they think about your firm. A few basic questions will suffice:
- When you think of our firm, what impressions immediately come to mind?
- What do you think distinguishes us from other similar firms?
- What qualities among firms like ours do you consider most valuable?
- How well do we deliver what we promise? Are we consistent and trustworthy?
You can survey clients yourself, but you'll get more accurate results if this is done by a third party. Include both existing and potential clients if you can.Assess all the interactions you have with clients. Again, brand perceptions are shaped by direct and indirect interactions with your firm. So what are the quality and character of those interactions? Dig deep: Meetings and conversations. Work deliverables. Invoices. Reports. Visits to your office. Correspondence (including email). How your phone is answered. Sales calls. Marketing mailings. And so on.
Don't overlook the importance of any encounter with the client. Perceptions can be rapidly formed, yet be grudgingly slow to change. A mishandled phone call can cost you a prospective client. A rudderless meeting can start a slide in confidence in your firm. A couple of inaccurate invoices can erode trust. The failure to return a phone call can sour the relationship.
Determine what you need to do to strengthen positive client perceptions. The path to a stronger brand passes through the intersection of (1) what you've learned about client perceptions of your firm and (2) how the myriad of interactions you have with clients influence or reinforce those perceptions. Obviously this can quickly become overwhelming. So you need to prioritize. What are 2-3 things you can do right now to strengthen your brand? What are the most important (albeit likely difficult) things you need to do?
Develop a reasonable action plan and commit your best resources to it. Is there anything more important than your brand? If the fruition of your efforts is well into the future, you can at least celebrate and share your progress. Clients often appreciate your devotion to improvement even if you haven't yet perfected it.
Seek alignment between your external brand and your internal culture and processes. I know some firms that want to brand themselves on the basis of superior client service. Good idea! They rigorously promote that objective, both internally and externally. They've written it into their values statement.
But something is amiss. There are no formal standards or processes to support consistent service delivery. Service breakdowns are routinely tolerated. There is a culture of independence that resists compliance with the "company way" of doing things. Client managers seem to think they're doing good enough already.
This is not uncommon, and is one of the main reasons why there is a paucity of strong brands in our industry. You don't build brand with a fresh coat of paint; you have to reinforce the structure itself. Ultimately, your brand is a reflection of your culture. If the two are not aligned--your desired brand with your existing culture--you've got a lot of hard work ahead of you. But it's worth it.
Demonstrate your brand in how you market and sell. If superior service is the heart of your brand, serve the client through your business development activities (my favorite approach!). If you are known as the consummate experts, don't tell clients about your expertise, demonstrate it during the sales process by helping them solve problems. If clients think of you as "that high design" firm, engage the client in developing some design concepts before the RFP. Sell substance, not image. Enable prospective clients to experience your brand, not just tantalize them with it.
Not the post you were expecting based on the title? I apologize. But these steps represent the reality of building your brand. Don't settle for the cosmetic makeover. It's hard work, but that's what makes a strong brand so difficult for your competitors to dislodge.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Monday, October 19, 2009
Monday, October 12, 2009
- Passive Sentences (should be no higher than 30% for technical writing)
- Flesch Reading Ease (60-70 recommended; should at least be over 50)
- Flesch-Kincade Grade Level (7.0-8.0 recommended; no higher than 10.0)
Put the most important information first. This is the classic journalistic standard of the "inverted pyramid." Start each section and subsection with the most critical information first, followed by supporting information in descending order of importance. This increases the chance that the reader, who likely isn't reading your document word by word, will capture the key content.
Always include an executive summary. One study found that only 10% of managers read the body of technical reports, while 100% read the executive summary. This is where you want to synthesize your most important observations, findings, conclusions, and recommendations. The length of the executive summary will vary depending on the size of the document, but keep it as short as possible.
Use ample headings, subheadings, and bullets. Long blocks of text impair reader interest and decrease readability. Break up text into shorter sections with informative headings. Present complex or multiple issues in bullet form rather than long paragraphs.
Graphically present key information where possible. Figures, graphs, drawings, and tables (if not too complex) are effective ways to communicate key messages, especially to readers who will not read the document in detail.
Have someone review your draft. This is commonly done with reports and proposals, but is often neglected with other writing that serves key objectives. Correspondence with clients, regulators, and other outside parties should be always be reviewed by someone other than the author. Same for important internal memos and correspondence. And don't overlook email, which has become the predominant way we convey written messages.
Monday, October 5, 2009
- It's expensive
- Therefore firms tend to publish less often
- Your firm has to produce all the content
- You can't track what happens to it after it's delivered
An email newsletter overcomes all these shortcomings, which in my opinion makes it the favored option. So how do you get started? Having produced a monthly ezine for several years now, let me offer some suggestions:
Identify the issues that your clients care about. This is one of the biggest advantages of focusing on a few key markets; you can become intimately familiar with your clients' world and tailor your services (and marketing) to fit their needs. You can also readily target your newsletter. Whatever your market mix, find out what topics your clients are likely to be interested in reading about.
The content of my ezine, like the content of this blog, usually is inspired by conversations with clients and work assignments. I do spend time researching issues relevant to the A/E business. But most of my ideas come with little extra work, just listening to what my clients are concerned about.
Search for the best insights, information, and resources you can find on those issues. I advise using the internet because it yields several advantages over printed content, as I'll note below. This, of course, can be time consuming. But it doesn't have to be. A few shortcuts to keep in mind:
- Find web sites that routinely post content relevant to the targeted issues. For my ezine, I've bookmarked several sites that regularly post new content: Industry-related publications, top blogs, consultant web sites with extensive articles sections, even competitors' sites. I draw from these sources on a regular basis.
- Subscribe to free email newsletters. Ideally you're looking for those in the format I'm recommending, where the content consists primarily of links to various internet articles and resources. You can choose the best content from these newsletters and link to them in your own publication. The one reservation I can think of is drawing from newsletters that a substantial portion of your audience might also receive.
- Use Google Alerts. This can be a valuable tool, but use with caution. If you're not careful with search terms, you can be easily overwhelmed with too many email notices from Google. Start small and increase the scope of your search terms as you become more comfortable with it.
Of course, I highly recommend writing your own content. This is key to establishing your firm as content experts. But the advantage of email newsletters is that you don't have to produce all your content, or even any of it if you choose.
Select one of the many email marketing services. These services provide several tools that are really helpful in producing an email newsletter, including templates, list management, delivery, and reporting. The reporting function is particularly valuable. You can track how many open your newsletter, forward it, read which articles, and refer back to it multiple times. This enables you to evaluate which topics generate the most interest and the least. Some of the more popular email marketing services are Constant Contact, iContact, GetResponse, Stream Send, and Bronto. Here are a couple of reviews of these services to help you make a choice: TopTen Reviews and Star Reviews.
Design your email newsletter. The email marketing services above all provide a variety of templates for your newsletter, or you can import your own HTML. The important decision is how to organize the content. I suggest doing what I do in my own publication: Provide an introductory paragraph with a link to the full article. This makes your newsletter easy to skim, with a minimum of scrolling. You might choose to have different sections within your newsletter. I have three: Feature Articles, Industry Trends, From My Blog. You can check out my ezine here.
Commit to a publication schedule. Most firms I know that publish a printed newsletter do so only every quarter. I recommend monthly, which is much more achievable with an email newsletter. This is one of the easiest ways to get your firm in front of existing and potential clients on a regular basis. Only about 30% of my subscribers open my ezine (which is twice the industry average), even though they requested it. But every month they receive a publication they know has some useful insights and information, if they took the time to read it.
The point is: My ezine still pays off, even among those who don't read it. I've picked up several new clients who heard me speak at a conference, requested to be added to my mailing list, then called me when the need arose--sometimes years later. The ezine was the only contact I had with them. I've learned that whether they read my ezine or not was not a significant factor in getting the call. It was the monthly "reminder" they received in their inbox.
Any reason not to do an email newsletter? The most common one I hear is lack of time. I can empathize. But if I can publish a monthly ezine as a one-man shop, can't your firm? I promise it will be worth your time.
Monday, September 28, 2009
- Trusted advice. Provides great counsel, broad insight, problem-solving ability. Doesn't necessarily have to have extraordinary expertise, but knows how to effectively pull together the know-how and skills that are needed.
- Client focus. Makes the client, not the work, the center of every project. Understands the client's business, technical needs, personal expectations. Tailors service delivery to the unique needs of each client.
- Proactive communication. Keeps in regular contact with the client, providing advance notice of changes or developing issues or concerns. Makes the same commitment to the project team, including outside subcontractors and stakeholders.
- Active collaboration. No mavericks here; understands the value of cooperative problem solving and solution development, both with the client and with the team. Integrates multiple perspectives, disciplines, and services to deliver the best possible outcomes.
- Disciplined performance. Routinely tracks progress and metrics to ensure that the project fully satisfies contract requirements and client expectations. Minimizes surprises, delays, budget overruns, mistakes.
- Inspired team contributions. Knows how to get the best out of project team members, providing strong leadership and motivation to perform at a high level. Develops people as part of doing projects so that their value on future projects grows.
There are other attributes I could name, but these comprise a worthy goal. A tall order to achieve these? Yes indeed. But you don't have to perfect these to stand out because most firms seem to accept the status quo for project management. You can go further and make project management your most prized product. Then see if the value of your design services doesn't increase as a result. You might call it the Google Effect.