People love transformations. Well, at least they like to watch them. Television shows like Extreme Makeover, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Flip This House, What Not to Wear, and The Biggest Loser are enormously popular. These shows tap into the universal human desire for betterment.
Unfortunately, the hard work of real change is much less popular. In the business world, we substitute talking about transformations for watching them on TV. Substantive change comes slowly, if at all, despite all our strategic planning, corporate initiatives, and skills training. But when crisis overtakes the status quo, we suddenly become more receptive to change. The flailing economy provides one such opportunity.
Is it time to rethink how you approach business development? Conventional wisdom yields only conventional results, which in a recession might not be good enough. So I offer some different ideas about marketing and sales in the A/E profession for your consideration. Ten steps towards an extreme makeover (for most firms, at least) of your business development process. These have all been tested and proven to work--if you're open to the hard work of change.
1. Stop selling and serve the client instead. There’s a reason why most technical professionals are uncomfortable with selling. They’ve been on the other side of the transaction! If we don’t like being sold, what about our clients? The best way to sell is to not sell. Serve the client instead. Focus on meeting needs. Become a trusted advisor, a valued resource. Never waste the client’s time, but always bring something of value to every encounter with a prospective or existing client.
2. Stop the self-promotion and provide valuable content instead. Our usual marketing activities suffer the same fundamental flaw as the traditional sales approach—they’re self-centered. Brochures, newsletters, direct mailings, websites, advertisements, trade show exhibits, all with the same central theme: Look at us! A better approach is to divert most of that investment (say 70-80%) to creating content that informs, advises, and equips clients to succeed in their business. This approach obviously complements the service-centered sales philosophy described above.
3. Create a topical resource library. If you want to position yourself as a thought leader and trusted advisor, you need ready access to good content. Creating your own is highly recommended, through articles, white papers, presentations, seminars, webinars, blog, etc. But the quickest way to build your resource library is to mine the internet. First, you want to identify the issues that matter most to your clients. Then search for the best online information and resources you can find on those topics. Assemble an “electronic library” of web links organized by subject. This becomes an extremely useful tool to support your service-centered business development efforts.
4. Build your brand around distinctive customer experiences. Brand is all about perceptions, and perceptions are shaped by the direct and indirect encounters one has with a company, product, or service. You can’t create brand in the marketing department. It’s rooted in substance, not image. That’s why most branding initiatives in our industry have negligible impact. If you’re serious about your firm’s brand (and you should be!), start by assessing the experiences clients have with your firm and devise ways to improve upon them. Then embody your brand in the way you market and sell, by serving the client.
5. Go beyond just meeting technical needs. Our tendency to focus predominantly on technical issues has had a profound effect on our industry. I think it’s a key reason why A/E firms cannot command as high a labor multiplier and profit as most professional service firms do. If you want to distinguish your firm and increase the value of your services, learn how to address needs beyond the technical issues that we specialize in. This will include meeting strategic needs—financial, competitive, political, and operational factors that impact the client’s overall success. And don’t neglect the personal needs of your clients, including the desire for responsive service and a positive experience with your firm.
6. Encourage all employees to nurture their network. Ultimately the things of enduring value that most of us take from our careers are the relationships we develop and the people we help along the way. That puts a different spin on networking. No longer should it be viewed as merely a business development activity designed to generate contacts and leads. Rather it is a commitment to build relationships—and that should be a goal for every member of your firm. Encourage them to establish the discipline of nurturing their network weekly. It takes time, and it’s easily neglected when we are busy. Yet relationships are the wellspring of both business and personal success. Multiply these benefits in your firm by fostering firmwide involvement in networking.
7. Manage business development like a project. In most firms, marketing and sales by technical staff is done with leftover time. You would never handle project work that way. So why relegate such a critical function to the scrap heap when it comes to resource allocation? Business development tasks should be defined and assigned just like project tasks, with individuals’ time specifically budgeted for that purpose. I advise tracking “sales utilization” just as you monitor project utilization. Since deadlines largely drive project commitments, you should also establish deadlines for business development tasks. These tasks and deadlines need to be given equal priority with project activities.
8. Involve staff at all levels of the organization. You can increase your business development effort without increasing your costs by redirecting more existing nonbillable hours to it. This is more easily accomplished when you recognize how the varied skills scattered across your organization could be applied to business development. For example, administrative staff could conduct client and market research on the internet. Junior technical staff could update resumes and project descriptions, and create tools and resources for clients (part of your service-centered approach to marketing). Spreading the effort not only enables you to get more done, it boosts morale since more people can take an active role in tackling what is probably your firm’s most pressing need.
9. Double your win rate by doing half as many proposals. Most firms submit too many proposals, pursuing opportunities they really have no chance of winning. They often spread their marketing resources so thin that even on pursuits they could reasonably win they don’t expend the effort necessary to produce a strong proposal. With limited resources, you need to keep in mind that every hour spent on a losing proposal is time diverted from a more productive task. Cutting the number of submittals in half may not be a reasonable goal for your firm, but passing on long-shot proposals will improve your win rate –dramatically in many cases. Plus you’ll be investing those extra hours on increasing your odds on the proposals you should pursue.
10. Make your proposals more client focused and skimmable. If you want to distinguish your proposals from nearly everyone else’s, here’s a good place to start. The vast majority of proposals lack true client focus and almost none of them are skimmable. What does client focus entail? It means the prevailing theme of your proposal is the client—the client’s needs, concerns, priorities, and interests. Most proposals—like most sales calls and marketing materials—flip the focus to the seller. Another simple way to orient your proposal toward the client is to use personal language. Did you know that the word “you” is the most persuasive word in the English language according to several studies? Yet it is absent in most proposals, as well as the personal connection that makes the word so persuasive. Making your proposals skimmable not only makes it easier for the client to review, it facilitates good communication. Few clients read our proposals front to back, word for word. But we write them like they do. What I’m suggesting here are not just stylistic changes, but potential game changers.
Radical ideas? No, mostly common sense. But still rare among A/E firms. So if the recession has you ready for a change, consider these suggestions for transforming the way you develop new business.