Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Should Your Firm Be Blogging?

Social media is all the rage these days among marketing professionals, but I remain skeptical about its current value in the A/E industry. While there's no denying the remarkable growth of social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, the key question is: Can you reach the decision makers who hire firms like yours through these sites?

My research suggests the answer is largely "not yet." But there's evidence in other professional service sectors that this is beginning to change. Social media to this point has better served business-to-customer marketing, but the success of business-to-business use is growing. I plan to devote a post or two to this trend in the not-to-distant future.

Today's post focuses on one of the forerunners of social media: blogging. An increasing number of A/E firms have launched blogs. Should your firm be among them? Or if you're already blogging, is it really an effective marketing tool? Let's pull back the curtain on all the hype and take a closer look.

In considering blogging as part of your firm's marketing strategy, I recommend that you carefully consider three important questions:
  • Can you create strong content?
  • Can you post on a regular basis?
  • Can you attract the right audience?
Content. As I noted in the previous post entitled "Marketing Your Intellectual Capital," most A/E firms struggle to translate their expertise into strong written content. Not surprisingly, this is the first shortcoming that's evident in the corporate blogs I've viewed in our industry. They're usually not compelling reading. Is there benefit in blogging if your posts aren't very interesting? I think not.

I can testify to the difficulty of regularly coming up with something interesting to say. I don't always succeed. But I'm better equipped to do so than most A/E firms. For one thing, I'm a compulsive researcher, constantly in search of new ideas and better ways of doing things. I'm also a bit of a contrarian; I like to challenge the status quo. I work hard at trying to have something different to say.

What about your firm? Where will your content come from? And what about it will attract readers to your blog? Given the glut of information available on the internet, will your blog fill a void? Fortunately there's not a lot of good content out there relevant to our business. So your blog could potentially fill a gap. The downside is that online source material may be limited. And does that fact suggest a lack of demand for that kind of content?

So where does good content come from? My work experiences often generate ideas for blog topics. I suspect the same would be true for your firm. The research I perform for work assignments also contributes. Occasionally what someone else has written provides a platform for offering my own perspectives (some bloggers rely on this heavily).

The best blogs are usually commentary. They share opinions and insights--often in provocative, thought-provoking manner--about topics of interest to their readers. Most technical professionals I've known are somewhat reluctant to share their opinions in writing. They prefer sticking to the facts, maintaining their objectivity. That makes for boring blogging. So, can your firm create content that others want to read?

Frequency. For your blog to maintain an audience, you need to publish on a regular basis. Conventional wisdom says once a week at a minimum. Why is this important? Because most readers won't subscribe to your blog (where posts are delivered to their mailbox). Instead they will come to you looking for new content. Will they find it?

Several of the blogs I have been following have stopped posting regularly in recent months. The result? I don't check their blogs anymore. I'm sure that's true of most of their regular readers. By contrast, I remain committed to posting weekly. Typically, I have a new post up on Mondays (ironically I'm late this week). That allows my readers to develop a routine in checking my blog for the latest post.

There's another reason to be consistent in your postings: Your blog reflects your firm. If you don't maintain your blog (or your website!), what does that say about you? Would you produce a brochure that left a blank space with the words "Place content here"? A blog that hasn't been updated in 2-3 months has a similar impact. If you don't have the time or resources to keep up a blog, no one will fault you. But if you take the plunge, expect to keep swimming.

So what kind of commitment can your firm make? If you can't post weekly, will it be worth your while? No doubt it will be harder to develop a following if you're not regular. Obviously, your ability to create new content goes hand in hand with your publishing schedule. So it's not merely a matter of coming up with something interesting to say. Can you do it on a regular basis?

Audience. Your ability to attract an audience is the bottom line in assessing your current or prospective blog. But it goes further than how many people are reading your blog. More important is whether you are attracting the right people. This means clients or potential clients, specifically those who make the decision to hire.

Using Google Analytics, I can track how many people are reading my blog, but it's harder to discern who they are. Based on the comments left and other feedback I've received, my best guess is that relatively few decision makers are in my audience. In corresponding with other bloggers in professional services, this seems to be the norm.

So why blog? Despite my skepticism about blogging as a means of getting in front of clients, I'm obviously still blogging--and I'd encourage you to at least consider it. There are other benefits that may make it a useful addition to your marketing arsenal:
  • Blogging generates content that can be used for other marketing purposes. This is the primary reason I continue to blog. I've been blogging for two years, resulting in 124 posts on various topics. Those posts have been included in my monthly ezine, forwarded to clients, linked to by other blogs and websites, referenced in training materials, and converted into articles that have appeared in both print and online publications. The self-imposed commitment to post weekly has pushed me to create far more content than I was previously.
  • Blogging enhances your web presence. My Google page rank has improved substantially since I started my blog. Google searches favor interactive blogs over static websites. Plus my posts have been picked up by other blogs, attracted interest from leading experts and authors, and facilitated discussions with readers and other consultants and bloggers.
  • Blogging helps position you as a content expert. Who are the top experts in their respective fields? Generally those who are writers and speakers. This is an area where few engineers and architects have distinguished themselves. Blogging can be a great way to get started. You don't need to commit to long articles; in fact, it's probably better to keep your posts relatively short (obviously I don't always follow my own advice). Just have something to say that's insightful, bold, and fresh.
My advice? Take a hard look at blogging, but don't do it unless you intend to do it right. If you were thinking clients would be reading it, think again--they probably won't be unless you send it to them (which you can do, of course!). And consider how many ways you might leverage your blog to support your marketing efforts.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Great Service Is About the Little Things

Our client circulated an internal email praising our firm for saving them as much as $20 million dollars in the cleanup of one of their contaminated properties. A few months later they fired us.

You probably would assume that we were guilty of some serious offense to go so quickly from hero to has-been. But that's not the case. Since this was a long-time, top-five client, we dispatched our president to meet with the client and learn what went wrong. His findings were almost as surprising as our termination.

There were no technical mistakes. No breaches of contract. No unethical behavior. Not even missed deadlines or blown budgets. It was an accumulation of little slights and unintended neglect. We had failed to adequately serve the client despite our exemplary technical performance.

Some of the aggravations the client reported: We frequently failed to deliver what we promised. Not contractual deliverables, mind you. But promises to return phone calls, provide supplementary information, invite certain individuals to team meetings. Our project manager seemed out of touch and indifferent at times, communicating only on a need-to-know basis. The spotty communication had led to several misunderstandings.

There were even complaints that our employees, many of whom traveled to the site from various offices across the country, had made disparaging comments in the client's presence about the city where the facility was located. Admittedly, it was a dilapidated, heavily industrialized city that was frequently ridiculed by our client's representatives themselves! But they resented our out-of-town employees echoing their criticisms. "This is our home," they told our president.

Perhaps this is an extreme example, but it illustrates an important point: Great service is about the little things. Nuances that technical professionals often miss. The all-important client experience is nothing but the sum of momentary encounters, both direct and indirect, between the client and service provider. Taken individually, these encounters may seem relatively insignificant. But collectively they comprise a "deliverable" every bit as important as your technical work products.

So what can you do to give needed attention to the little things? A few suggestions:

Identify the spectrum of client encounters.
Some elements of the client experience are obvious (e.g., conversations between your PM and the client). Others are more easily overlooked (e.g., the quality of your invoices). Develop a list of every type of direct and indirect client encounter you can think of. This would include things such as phone calls, emails, letters, meetings, work products, contracts, invoices, site visits, marketing activities, web site. The first step in being attentive to the little things is to remind yourself of what all they entail.

Assess the quality of those encounters and make improvements as needed. Assemble a team to review the list you developed and make an internal assessment of how well you're doing with each type of encounter. Undoubtedly you'll find significant differences among clients, project managers, projects, departments, etc. But avoid over-analyzing the differences. At this point, the objective is to identify which type of encounters most need improvement and outline the steps for doing so.

Regularly solicit feedback from clients. While it's helpful to do an internal assessment, the client is obviously the ultimate judge of service quality. Don't wait until the end of the project to ask how you're doing. On the contrary, mutually determine at the start the means and frequency of formal discussions with the client regarding their experience. Have a third party do this, someone other than your project manager. Be sure to ask about the kinds of "little things" you identified in the first two steps.

Make the client experience a routine part of internal project discussions. This aspect of the project should be continuously mentioned and reviewed in meetings, emails, and individual conversations. Ask, "How are we doing? What feedback--formal or informal--are we getting from the client? What can we do better? Are there service concerns that deserve our attention?" The regular discussion helps the project team keep these matters fresh in their minds.

Don't ignore the warning signs. Sometimes we get signals that the client isn't totally happy yet conclude it's not a significant problem. I hear project managers explain away such concerns on a frequent basis. That's what happened in the situation I described earlier.

I was the leader of our firm's quality and service improvement initiative at the time. I'd heard stories suggesting that the client was less than satisfied with our service. But when I shared my concerns with the project manager and other key players in the project organization, they were generally dismissive. Again, none of the problems seemed serious on their own, and the project team thought things were under control.

Obviously, they weren't. We made the same mistake many firms make, assuming that the problems were isolated and not all that significant. We overlooked the cumulative impact of neglecting the little things that make for a great--or not so great--client experience. Don't let that happen to your firm. Dig into the details of serving your clients well.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Managing Proposal Time

Writing proposals is a critical function that too often is done with leftover time. We fit the activity in between project and operational tasks, frequently waiting until the last minute to complete our writing assignments. Like many nonbillable tasks, proposals are commonly relegated by technical professionals to "when I find the time or the deadline is upon us."

Not surprisingly, the lack of prioritization is evident in the results. A/E firms routinely accept win rates of 15-20% as the norm. But the best firms in the business boast 50-60% win rates. What's the difference? One of the biggest is that the more successful firms manage proposals like a project. This includes budgeting and managing the team's time. Here are a few suggestions for managing proposal time:

Don't waste time on losing proposal efforts. One of the first steps to better time management is eliminating time wasters. This, of course, conserves time for more important, more productive tasks. With proposals, this means passing on those RFPs where you have little chance of winning. Sure, you can can occasionally overcome the odds. But in the long run, it's not worth it. Every hour spent on a losing proposal is an hour that could have been spent better positioning your firm with a prospective client or preparing a stronger proposal where you had a better chance of winning.

Include proposal team availability in your go/no go decision. There are some proposals you just have to do, finding a way even when resources are scarce. But for those less obvious decisions, the availability of staff to prepare the proposal should be considered. As noted above, if you commit time to a proposal with long odds, you may be stealing time and attention away from another proposal where you are better positioned for success. Remember, you can always do a better job with a little more time. So be careful of spreading limited resources too thin.

Develop a plan. If it's unwise to execute a project without a plan, the same principle should apply to proposals. It's a team effort and the team should be involved in the planning. This not only enables you to better coordinate the team's various contributions, but to pool the collective brainpower to come up with a better proposal strategy. Typically, this is done in a kickoff meeting. For larger, more complex proposals, multiple meetings may be warranted.

Make assignments, budget time, and set firm deadlines. This is an important outcome of the planning process. Making assignments is common practice. But budgeting time is not. That's an unfortunate oversight and a key reason why we struggle to complete proposal assignments in timely fashion. If you are assigned the writing of Section 2, for example, how much time is needed and where will it come from? You should schedule your time just like any project task, which will typically involve reworking your calendar to make the time available. Intermediate proposal deadlines are important to putting together a quality deliverable, and thus should be adhered to.

Revise the schedule when necessary. Setbacks and detours inevitably happen, forcing you to diverge from the original proposal schedule. But often we don't specifically define how we will correct course and ultimately get back on schedule. It's wise to do so. When delays and disruptions occur, get the team together and reconfigure the proposal schedule, still providing adequate time for reviews and revisions.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Leadership: What Really Matters

Managers reputedly run the business, but an honest assessment would in many cases conclude that the business runs them. The sense of being overwhelmed permeates our firms, at all levels. There's too much work to do and too little time to do it. Important matters get neglected. Urgent matters drive the agenda.

This is where technology was supposed to help. But many purported "labor-saving" devices have only created more labor. More forms to fill out, more data to track, more information to sort through, more requests for our attention. No wonder that a British study found that distractions from communication technologies (email, phone, Blackberries, etc.) can lower workers' IQ scores more than smoking marijuana.

And who's claiming that we communicate better now than we used to?

What we need more than technology is strong leadership. Leaders who will cut through the clutter and marshal limited resources for what really matters. Simplicity is the emerging success strategy. Complexity characterizes the average workplace, and it exacts a steep cost--in strategic, financial, and personal terms.

Unfortunately, most who serve in supposed leadership roles today only increase the complexity. When was the last time a new policy, operating procedure, company initiative, or strategic plan made things easier for employees? Don't such products of "leadership" usually just add to your to-do list, extend the time required to get something done, increase the stress levels, and rob some of the enjoyment from your work?

So let me suggest we rethink the leader's priorities. Let's strip down the role to its essence. Perhaps what follows is an oversimplification of what's needed. But I'm convinced if leaders concentrated on these few things, business results--both tangible and intangible--would remarkably improve. Here are what I consider the fundamental responsibilities of a company leader:

Maximize the focus of your attention. By "your" I'm referring to both you the leader and whatever group of people you are leading. The key principles at work here are (1) we can only mentally process a limited amount of information at a time and (2) thus should try to concentrate that limited mental energy on what matters most.

Several years ago, the conventional scientific wisdom was that we could only retain 5-9 items in our short-term memory. Turns out that was probably overly optimistic. More recent research in the field of neuroscience has concluded that the actual number is closer to 4. So how many work-related items do you try to carry around in your brain each day?

The fact is that most people are dealing with information overload at work. What are the ramifications? Well, studies indicate that overload negatively impacts decision making, problem solving, productivity, creativity, and quality. Any of those activities important to your business? Furthermore, overload has been linked to a host of physiological maladies as well, from elevated stress to sleep loss.

Another related problem in our workplaces is the tendency to be driven by urgency rather than importance. Much of our work, of course, is both urgent and important--meeting a client deadline, for example. But the addictive lure of urgency also causes us to spend large amounts of precious time doing things that are not all that important, but need to be done today! That means that important (often strategic) but nonurgent matters are not given the attention they deserve.

Effective leaders help their organizations focus on what's important. They simplify. They assign limited mental energy and other resources to the things that will most contribute to success. Covey found that a fundamental difference between high-performing and average organizations is how much time they shifted from urgent, nonimportant activities to nonurgent, important ones. That's not done without strong leadership.

Maximize the productivity of your time. This recommendation obviously goes hand-in-hand with the first one. Effective time management involves spending more of your time on the things that matter. In my experience, misused and misallocated time is prevalent in A/E firms. Perhaps that's even more problematic since we sell our services (at least traditionally) in hourly increments. It's akin to selling bottled drinks with the bottles less than full.

So where does the time go? Inefficient work processes consume large amounts of it. Inadequate project planning, poor communication, excessive interruptions, unnecessary rework, and burdensome systems all contribute to the time waste. The larger problem is that firm leaders rarely consider this a priority issue. We're talking about profligate spending of our most precious resource. That would seem to warrant a leader's attention.

There are many ways to improve organizational time usage, but let me focus here on two. The first involves the leader's use of his or her own time. I believe leaders have a responsibility to multiply their impact through helping others increase their productivity and effectiveness. That's what I call the Time Investment Principle. Too many in leadership roles neglect spending the time they should helping others maximize their time.

The second opportunity I would point to is making more effective use of nonbillable time. Most firms do a poor job of allocating and managing this critical resource. Nonbillable time is the reserve that fuels all kinds of strategic initiatives and operational improvements. It's the space in which we generate new business, certainly a crucial activity these days. But unfortunately, many firms conduct these important tasks with leftover time.

Strong leaders recognize that nothing gets done without time being spent. And important things don't get done when too little time is devoted to them.

Maximize the potential of your people. According to research by Gallup and others, only about 30% of the workforce in this country gives discretionary effort. That's effort beyond the minimum required. I presume that number is higher in the average A/E firm. But how much higher? Fifty percent?

Now think about that. If half the employees in your firm are giving less than discretionary effort, that's an enormous amount of potential going to waste. How much could your firm's performance improve if you could tap into another 10-20% of that potential? That's another area where good leaders multiply their impact.

But many firms in our business just don't get it. They think that the way to improve performance is to step up the pressure, demand accountability, track the numbers more closely, and perhaps even make threats. Those tactics can boost results in short spurts, but never over the long run.

Here's why: Discretionary effort is a gift from the employee to the firm. It's given voluntarily, not under compulsion. The employee goes beyond the minimum because he or she wants to. The heavy-handed tactics listed above only reinforce that the employees have to. That never produces discretionary effort, only what I call compliant effort--the minimum required to keep the job or avoid criticism.

Great leaders leverage their strengths to multiply their impact through others. They motivate employees to willingly give their best. They focus limited mental energy on what matters most. They carefully allocate and manage time for its highest use. Do these three things and see if your firm's or group's performance doesn't soar. It's the simpler formula for more profound results.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Better Project Communication

Communication links people. It informs, instructs, inspires. It enables us to work together, to pool our resources, to brainstorm new ideas, to achieve more than we ever could on our own. Communication is the mortar that strengthens relationships. Alas, it is also widely recognized that most technical professionals are not great communicators.

Not surprisingly, when I'm asked to help firms address operational or project performance problems, poor communication is almost always the key factor. Likewise, the most common complaint I hear when conducting client surveys is that communication from their A/E service providers is deficient.

XL Design Professional, which provides professional liability insurance for A/E firms, reports that 39% of the claims it processed in 2009 were related to communication breakdowns. That was the most common factor by far, more than six times the number of claims related to contract problems.

So is there any more important responsibility for the project manager? I don't think so. Where to start? Let me suggest a few tips, both for communicating with the client and with the project team:

Better Client Communication

Clarify client expectations about communications. Clients differ substantially in how they define adequate communication. For some, a conversation every week or two will suffice. For others, every day is expected. They only way you can know for sure is to ask. Do this at the outset of the project, when "benchmarking" the client's service expectations (see previous post). Key questions include: How often does the client want to communicate? What information? By what means (phone, email, etc.)? Is there a preferable time of day? Who should be talking to whom?

Make sure you're readily accessible. Given the modern technologies we have at our disposal, there's no excuse for being out of touch. Yet failing to be accessible when clients call is still a problem in our industry. Certainly, your clients should have your cell phone number. You should also keep your voice mail greeting up to date. Always let the receptionist know where you are when out of the office. Promise the client to return calls within a certain time frame.

Communicate proactively regarding changes or problems. Some project managers are reluctant to call clients to alert them of concerns or problems. But when does delaying such conversations ever make things better? On the contrary, proactive communication can enable you and the client to work out issues before they become significant problems. Plus the vast majority of clients want to hear about problems early rather than late. Don't neglect keeping them informed of pending or developing concerns. Failing to do so can really erode trust.

Document everything of importance. This is standard advice for reducing your liability, but has other practical benefits. For one thing, when you document a conversation or meeting in writing and share it with the client, that serves to confirm agreement on the content of that communication. On the liability front, documentation can save your bacon. I once worked for a firm that was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy because it had failed to document an owner-requested design change. When that change didn't work out and the owner sued, we had no way of proving our side of the story. The damages exceeded our insurance coverage. By the way, this happened 10 years after the project was constructed!

Make appointments for routine client communications. Don't leave this important task to when you find time in your busy schedule. This is particularly crucial for PMs who are prone to neglect regular communication with the client (you know who you are!). But the difficulty in communicating regularly, of course, doesn't all fall on the PM in most cases. Clients can be hard to reach as well. That makes appointments all the more effective. They represent a mutual commitment by both parties to talk as often as they ought.

Better Team Communication

Define both daily and weekly communication responsibilities. The advice here is to manage the communication process. It helps if all team members understand what's expected in terms of ongoing dialogue. Determine what communication activities will occur each day--and each week--the project is active, and share that with the team. Then make following through on your planned communications a priority.

Connect the team to the client. Team performance improves when members feel like they're working for the client, not just the PM. They should have a sense of what the client is like as a person: What motivates her, what constitutes a win for her on this project, what are her biases, what are her hot buttons, what kind of personality does she have? This puts a face on the client, which makes a huge difference in drawing out the service orientation of the team.

Provide context for project assignments. Teams perform more effectively when everyone can see the big picture and how their individual efforts contribute to the whole. Understanding the context of their respective responsibilities enables team members to add value to their work. Given limited instructions, the worker can only do what he or she was directed to do. But with a broader perspective of the project, client, and team member roles, that same worker is better equipped to find ways to enhance his or her contribution.

Keep team members informed of progress, changes, and client feedback. As important as providing clear direction at the start of the project or individual assignment is keeping the team up to date throughout the duration. This conveys the reality that a project involves a dynamic relationship with the client that is subject to change as new situations and information develop. You should fully engage the team in responding to these changes. Any feedback from the client regarding the team's performance should also be promptly passed on to the team.