Monday, April 26, 2010

Displacing the Incumbent

One of my constant themes regarding business development is the need for discipline: Budget your time. Pick your best opportunities and give them appropriate attention. Don't waste your time on proposals you have little chance of winning.

Given this philosophy, you might expect me to discourage pursuing a client where there is a seemingly entrenched competitor. Not necessarily true. For one thing, the incumbent might not be as unbeatable as you imagined. For another, in this economy you're only going to grow your business by taking work from competitors. Are you up to the task?

Why the incumbent's advantages might not be insurmountable. Of course, the incumbent firm has many advantages--relationships with key decision makers, a track record of success, inside knowledge of the client. But there's cause for hope:
  • One survey found that over half of clients are open to switching their A/E service providers.

  • Another survey concluded that only 16% of clients give their A/E service providers an A grade for service.

  • Research by still another consulting firm indicates that less that one quarter of clients would recommend their top professional service providers.

It's clear that the prevailing 80% repeat business rate in our industry is not a wholesale endorsement by clients. The reasons for not switching may have more to do with convenience than glowing satisfaction. Therein lies your potential opportunity.

Assessing the opportunity. The time to decide whether you should try to unseat an incumbent is not before you even talk to the client. And it's not after the RFP is out on the street. Unfortunately that's when many firms make their decision. They either write off the client before ever making an initial contact. Or they decide to propose on a project they knew little or nothing about before the solicitation arrived.

In both cases, the mistake is not talking to the client at the right time. The right time is before the procurement process is underway, when clients often are simply interested in generating a good response to their solicitation. That's not the time to discern the client's interest in your firm. You want to contact the client when you're in position to help without appearing to be motivated purely by the RFP.

How to displace the incumbent. I find it interesting that market research over the years across many industries has found little correlation between customer satisfaction and loyalty. The vast majority of customers who switch products or service providers indicate they were satisfied before they made the change.

So why change? Because they found something they thought was better than what they were using. That's the simple secret to unseating an incumbent. Sure, changing A/E firms is not as easy as changing toothpastes. But demonstrating a difference in your favor may not be as difficult as you thought. Here are some suggestions:

  • Don't contact the client until you've uncovered a need. The basis for your initial contact should be to offer your help (information, insight, advice) on a specific problem or challenge. If you don't know how you might help, the client has little reason to talk to you. So use your network, the internet, or any other sources to learn all you can about the client before making the first call.

  • Offer your help unconditionally. If the client is reasonably satisfied with the incumbent, there may be little interest in talking with you. This is true even if the client agrees to meet. You should try to dispel the notion that your offer of help is simply a ruse to get in the door. Imagine the client says, "We're already working with (the incumbent)." You respond, "That's fine. If I can be helpful, that in itself makes it worth my time if it's worth your time. Helping people like you is why we're in business." Or something to that effect.

  • But look for signs of mutual interest. Besides delivering the help you promised, the goal of the first meeting is to determine if the client has interest in continuing the conversation. The best way to confirm this is to schedule a subsequent meeting (to provide further help). Of course, agreeing to keep talking doesn't necessarily mean that the client is open to making a change. With each contact, you should be seeking a little more commitment on the client's part to gage the strength of relationship. This may include things such as introductions to other decision makers, a visit to one of your client's sites, a visit to your office, a strategy workshop, etc.

  • Seek opportunities to fill a void. One of the first steps in displacing the incumbent is often helping the client in areas where your competitor isn't. In talking with the client, actively seek to uncover unmet needs. The support you provide in this area will initially be part of the sales process, but could eventually lead to contract work. Once under contract, you are then much better positioned to overcome some of the incumbent's advantages.

  • Above all, out-serve the incumbent. Many clients feel that their A/E service provider isn't as attentive or responsive as they'd like them to be. In my experience conducting client surveys, inadequate communication is the number one client concern. Do you see an opportunity? Once you have gained access to the client by consistently offering something of value, you can begin outworking the incumbent in serving the client. It's often not that difficult. But it does demand discipline and focus--which brings me back to my core philosophy of business development. Pay attention to the details of client service and watch your sales opportunities multiply.

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