Saturday, August 27, 2011

Why Technical Professionals Aren't Persuasive

We all have to sell something. Some of us have responsibilities for selling our firm's services. Others must convince clients, regulators, and communities to approve our solutions. Still others must secure buy-in from colleagues for our ideas or initiatives. Despite our industry's aversion to the "s-word," we are all sellers in some sense.

Thus your persuasive skills are critically important to your success. Yet when it comes to persuasion, it seems that most engineers, architects, and scientists are particularly challenged. Why? Some will suggest personality. It's true that the majority in our profession are introverted. But various studies disprove the notion that personality type has much to do with sales ability. Could it be the fact that many in our ranks lack strong communication skills? That certainly is a factor.

But perhaps the primary reason we struggle with persuasion is that we've been taught, deliberately or by osmosis, to communicate in a manner that is fundamentally nonpersuasive. That's why we produce proposals that read like technical reports. Or write letters to individual decision makers that, other than the salutation, seem to ignore the existence of people. Or make sales presentations that sound more like a doctoral dissertation defense.

Before I explain this tendency further, let's consider how persuasion works. There are two dimensions to persuasion, one that comes natural for technical professionals and the other we tend to ignore:

  • Position is intellectual agreement on the facts or merits of a particular option or course of action. We get this. Ours is a fact-based profession, and we often produce reams of data to support our position. We may get our audience to agree with us intellectually, but that in itself is not persuasion...
  • Conviction is the motivation to act upon one's intellectual position. This dimension evokes the emotions, and that's a realm many of us are uncomfortable with. But if you want to persuade others, you need to engage them emotionally. And this is where the communication conventions of our industry often trip us up.
Bottom line: People--even technical professionals--ultimately make decisions because it feels right. Some may weigh the facts and objective evaluations more heavily, but persuasion is at its core driven by emotion. It's personal, subjective, human...the very characteristics we've been taught to eliminate from our communication.

Let's contrast the conventions of technical communication with the elements of persuasive communication, and the conflict becomes evident:

  • Technical communication is supposed to be objective and impersonal. "Just the facts, ma'am." But persuasive communication must connect at the personal level. The points of differentiation in decision making are typically subjective in nature (don't fall for the myth that the client's selection process is really objective!).
  • Technical communication is designed to evoke an intellectual response. Persuasion, on the other hand, is powered primarily by an emotional response. It's felt, not just reasoned.
  • Technical communication stresses the features of a design, solution, or qualification. Persuasive communication emphasizes the direct benefits to the audience. Indeed, our solutions address very human needs. But you'd be hard pressed to see this connection in most of our communications.
  • Technical communication is information-driven. The more data and facts, we think, the better. But persuasion usually turns on only a few points of differentiation. In our drive to present all the facts, we often obscure the decision points that really matter to our audience.
Alas, the style of communication that pervades our profession--and is continually reinforced--avoids personal language, keeps opinions to ourselves, provides more detail than the audience needs, and buries the main selling points in information overload. This is the underlying cause, I believe, of most of our struggles with persuasion.

It is the human spirit that inspires and persuades, and there is precious little of it evident in our proposals, marketing materials, correspondence, and presentations. If you want to be more persuasive, let me suggest you start by dispatching the usual "technicalese" in favor of communication that acknowledges the humanity of both you and your audience.

In my next post, I'll outline some of the breakthrough research in the area of persuasion, and some associated practical tips. In this economy, we can't afford to continue to give this topic the short shrift.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

10 Top Tips on ... Marketing

What if, instead of having to initiate contact with prospective clients, they first contacted you? That should be the primary goal of your marketing program. If that sounds a bit far fetched based on your experiences, read on...

Marketing will never replace calling on new clients, but it can bring some of them to your door. When I was last in charge of marketing for a national environmental firm, we attracted many calls and emails from prospective clients who became interested through one or a combination of our articles, white papers, presentations, internet resources, etc. These client-initiated contacts ultimately led to several million dollars in sales.

We employed a content-driven strategy that was relatively light on the usual self-promotion. Instead, we focused on information, insights, and resources that helped clients address their most pressing environmental management problems and issues. It's an approach that is still largely ignored in our industry, which is one of the reasons I think it works so well.

This latest in my "10 top tips" series draws both from my own experience and the latest research on what works best in professional services marketing:

1. Shift the focus from self-promotion to providing content of value to clients. I was talking with the marketing director of an engineering firm recently who seemed to be agreeing with me about the importance of content marketing. I soon realized, however, that the content she was referring to was promotional materials and messaging. Her's is a common perspective in our industry.

And that's your opening. While every firm needs some promotional collateral (e.g., brochures, project briefs, etc.), I recommend spending most of your marketing dollars--say 75%--on creating content about issues clients care about. Deliver it through multiple channels: publications, presentations, workshops and webinars, social media, your website, direct mail. Your best choices are identified below.

2. Hold seminars and other in-person events. This was the consensus choice as the most effective marketing tactic for professional service firms, based on my review of several recent studies. There are some advantages to sponsoring your own events, but you may find it just as effective (and certainly easier) to work through trade groups or other third parties.

3. Make conference presentations. This is one of the more popular content marketing tactics in our industry, but most firms could benefit by doing more of it. I suggest making this a priority for every conference or trade show that your firm exhibits at. This is the best way to drive more traffic to your booth. Speaking at conferences has long been the most productive marketing tactic for my business.

4. Conduct webinars. I'm not convinced that these are an effective training method, but they are relatively inexpensive and convenient, and thus quite popular. Again, you can put on your own or work through a trade group. But if you do the latter, ask about typical attendance. Some groups don't do a good job promoting their webinars or they may attract the wrong audience for your marketing objectives.

5. Place or publish articles. Pick topics that clients care about and provide a fresh, informative perspective on them. You'll also need to determine where best to place your articles for maximum impact. Try asking your clients what publications they read. But you don't have to rely entirely on third-party publications. Create your own (see email newsletters below), post them on your website, or push them out through social media.

6. Invest in search engine optimization. The evidence is clear--A/E firms can attract business through an effective web presence. But the majority of firms, even with those with substantial marketing staffs, don't even match my modest effort as a one-man shop. Getting "out there" (including having a competent website) is the first step, but you can use search engine optimization to dramatically increase traffic to your web-based content. Most firms will need some outside help in this area.

7. Build your marketing network. There are many ways to multiply your marketing efforts with little additional cost. Building relationships with reporters and journalists (as part of your PR program) is one such tactic that has worked well for many professional service firms. You can also explore doing joint marketing with firms that have complementary services and similar clients. Or simply getting linked on other websites.

8. Publish an email newsletter. Yes, many people suffer from email overload. But this is still an effective marketing tactic if you provide compelling and timely content. I regularly receive requests to be added to my mailing list, most coming from people I've never met who discovered me on the internet. Even if they rarely read what I send them (and most don't), they get a monthly reminder that I'm there to help. Then when the need arises, several of those subscribers end up calling me and some become new clients.

9. Determine how you're going to produce all that content. So why are most firms not doing the things listed above? It takes a good amount of effort. But there are some things you can do to facilitate the process. First, create a "hot list" of topics that your clients care about. Then search for the best information and insights on those topics that you can find on the internet. Why the internet? Because it's much easier to distribute other people's content through web links, in addition to providing source material for your own content. Finally, define your schedule and make assignments.

I know, it can be really difficult to get your colleagues involved in writing articles or preparing seminars or presentations (without even mentioning the variable quality of those products). You might find it worthwhile to hire outsiders to help you produce such content. I've used college interns for this purpose--and at budget rates! Some contract writers are quite productive for the money, especially those experienced in writing about technical issues.

10. Be sure you're prepared to handle the leads that come from effective marketing. No doubt, better marketing will generate more sales leads. But will your business development staff and seller-doers be ready? Research indicates that about 80% of leads are neglected or mishandled. I advise establishing a formal process for managing leads that come through your marketing (and sales) efforts. This includes defining specific tasks, assigning personnel, setting deadlines, and tracking outcomes.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Getting Feedback: Questionnaire or Dialogue?

On an online SMPS discussion board, someone recently posed the question: What's the best way to get feedback from clients? The question spurred many responses. Some advocated using a standard questionnaire. Others advised tossing out the questionnaire and talking to clients instead. Some, predictably consultants, argued that this was best done by an outside party. My answer fell somewhere in between those responses.

I've addressed this topic in a previous post, but I'd like to expand on it further. Plus I think the question is relevant to both external and internal audiences (i.e., employees). Getting feedback from all parties who contribute to your firm's success is important, and some ways of doing it are better than others.

External Surveys 

The best way to answer the aforementioned question is to ask the client. Do it up front when "benchmarking service expectations." Clients have different preferences about how and when they'd like to give feedback. The best way, despite what some of our peers might say, is the client's way.

Nevertheless, my experience argues for both talking with clients and using a standard questionnaire. Of course, you can do both at the same time; that's what I usually do. Most clients seem to prefer conversation over filling out a form, but you can fill out the form yourself in the course of dialoguing with clients.

But some clients like questionnaires because they're more convenient than a meeting. Clients might also favor a questionnaire when they want to deliver criticism. It's less direct and confrontational, although negative feedback almost always provokes a face-to-face meeting. That may well be the client's motivation in giving low scores, to prod their detached A/E service provider to have a serious conversation about the client's concerns.

But most of the time, a questionnaire better serves as a supplement to having dialogue with clients. Face to face is typically preferred, but I've conducted many productive client surveys over the phone.

And, yes, it works much better when done by a third party. Not necessarily an outsider, however, just someone distanced enough from the project work to remain objective and not be the object of any criticism. Many clients are reticent to tell a project manager, for example, that they're unhappy, but will often open up to someone else.

So why do a questionnaire at all? Because it helps normalize the feedback you receive and identify trends. Client feedback collected by questionnaire enables you to define organizational responses to persistent or widespread service issues. Individual client conversations can miss this.

For example, one of my clients is overhauling their quality management system after survey responses revealed broad dissatisfaction among their clients. Sure, they were aware of quality problems. But when client perceptions of their quality, as captured in a periodic questionnaire, dropped significantly over several months, the depth of the problem became evident. I doubt they would be making such dramatic (and warranted) changes if not for the questionnaire.

Best advice? Do both. Explain the differences to the client and secure commitment to participate in the process. Appoint a third party--a principal, business developer, or consultant--to collect the feedback.

Internal Surveys

Much as firms like to boast of their superior service without much evidence, they also like to tout that they're a great place to work--without feedback from employees. Yes, retention rates serve as evidence in both cases, but these days low employee turnover is not a very reliable indication of employee satisfaction. It's best to regularly solicit feedback.

The same basic guidelines apply: Combine using a questionnaire with interviews, and use a third party who employees feel safe sharing their opinions with. But there are some key differences in getting feedback from internal and external audiences.

For one thing, unless your firm is really small, you're better off starting the process with an anonymous questionnaire. You'll first need to convince employees that it is truly anonymous (I'm amazed at the level of paranoia that sometimes exists in doing these surveys, as if someone will be poring over the responses trying to figure out who said what!). In this case, you probably are better off getting an outside consultant to at least compile survey responses.

When the survey inevitably reveals some significant employee concerns, you need to then talk to employees before going further. My clients often want to skip this step, presumably to save time and money. But that's a mistake, because questionnaires, in my experience, have an inherent shortcoming:
Questionnaires can be very helpful in identifying problems, but it normally requires dialogue to really understand those problems.

This is true in doing both internal and external surveys. If you're trying to address concerns based only on feedback from a questionnaire, you're not likely to be very effective. Besides the likelihood of misdiagnosing the problem, your solution will work better when the party raising the concern has a part in defining the solution. So dialogue should always accompany an employee questionnaire.

How you do dialogue can vary. In small firms or departments, everyone potentially can participate. Small groups usually work best. Sometimes it's preferred to talk to peer groups; other times cross-functional or cross-disciplinary groups are better. In large firms, you'll probably need to dialogue with representative groups, rather than the entire staff.

Bottom line: Commit to getting both external and internal feedback on a regular basis. This equips you to better serve both constituencies. Plus it builds trust and respect. There are better ways of getting feedback than others, but first you need to make it a priority. If I can offer some advice, let me know.

Monday, August 8, 2011

10 Top Tips on ... Selling

So how's that economic recovery going for you? Not so bad for many A/E firms, apparently. PSMJ reports that there is an overall growth trend in our industry reflected in expanding backlog, revenues, and proposal opportunities. Firm leaders are increasingly optimistic about future prospects.

I'm not ready to jump on that bandwagon quite yet. The macro-economic indicators are still ominous, and uncertainty dogs even the most promising markets. Any firm leaders expecting a return to normalcy in the foreseeable future would seem to be risking a huge letdown, from my perspective. I think it wise to remain diligent in positioning your firm for the new normal.

Which brings me to the question: How has your approach to business development changed in response to the economic downturn? Are you still selling your services as you always have? The latest in my "top tips" series of posts focuses on sales, especially for the seller-doers in our ranks:

1. Serve, don't sell. Most technical professionals aren't entirely comfortable in a sales role because they've been on the other side of sales transactions. They have a strongly unfavorable opinion of salespeople (according to my informal poll), yet ironically adopt many of the same tactics in selling their firm's services. There's a better way: Serve the client; don't sell. Don't tell clients you're qualified; show them! Turn your discomfort with selling to your advantage, remembering what it feels like to be the buyer and how you'd like to be treated in that role.

2. Offer your "entree." One of the best ways to serve the prospective client is to respect his or her time. If the average sales call takes about an hour, what does the client get in return for that investment? Usually not much. Set yourself apart by consistently providing something of value in exchange for the client's time, what I call an "entree." This includes information, advice, or help regarding a specific need or problem. Sales researcher Neil Rackham (SPIN Selling) writes: "High-end selling and consulting are not different and separate skills...When we are watching the very best [consultants] in interactions with clients, we cannot tell whether they are consulting, selling, or delivering."

3. Be persistent in following up. Research indicates that about 70% of sales leads are lost through neglect or mismanagement by the seller. A big part of the problem is a simple lack of follow-through. Yes, we get busy and fall behind in our sales duties. We're also concerned about overdoing it and being perceived as a pest. But if you're diligent in serving the client and offering your entree in every sales call, you're unlikely to be viewed as a nuisance. On the contrary, clients appreciate consistent follow-up; it's a sign of interest and commitment. Having trouble getting prospects to return your phone calls? Give them a good reason to call.

4. Plan your sales calls.
Time spent with a prospective client is too valuable to leave it to impromptu conversation. Yet that happens all too often. Sure, some of us are pretty good on the fly. But not as good as we could be if we planned our sales calls in advance. When I started doing this, even after several years in sales, it made a big difference in the quality of the sales conversations and in my win rate. Don't pass on this simple step to increasing your selling success.

5. Focus on relationships, not transactions. We all seem to agree on the value of lasting client relationships, but most A/E firms still take a transactional approach to sales. This means a focus on identifying project leads, tracking RFPs, and writing proposals. One way to assess your firm's balance between relational and transactional selling is to compare sales labor "upstream" and "downstream" of the RFP. How do you transition to a more relational approach? Develop a relationship building process. Start the process by screening prospective clients for relationship potential, and leverage the relationship all the way to the close of the sale.

6. Develop your skills at sales conversations. Again, we're not selling per se, but uncovering needs, offering solutions, building relationships. The best place to start is to focus on your listening skills. You can't be a great listener until you truly care what the other person has to say, an attribute most salespeople lack. Having planned your sales call, you should have some good questions in mind and how you want to ask them. Go beyond uncovering technical needs, and explore strategic and personal needs as well. Watch your pacing; many technical sellers tend to push the conversation along too quickly, missing valuable insights.

7. Seek evidence of mutual commitment. I learned the hard way that taking a service-centered approach to selling can entice a few clients to take advantage of you. These clients will invite you to return with more helpful information and advice, but have no real intention of hiring your firm. That's why I counsel sellers to "climb the Commitment Ladder." This means asking for reciprocal actions on the part of the client that indicate a mutual interest in building the relationship as the sales process progresses. Ask for increasingly greater commitments over time, roughly commensurate with the efforts you have made to serve the client. If the client balks, that may suggest it's time to move on.

8. Give appropriate attention to existing clients. On the surface this would hardly seem to qualify as a "top tip." But I regularly encounter firms that I think spend too much time chasing new clients and too little expanding opportunities with existing ones. I would encourage you to have an account strategy for all your top clients. Leaving these crucial relationships to ad hoc efforts is unwise, and yet all too common. You might find it helpful to assess where you are in the client relationship life cycle with each of your clients, and determine how to advance to the next level for each. Bottom line: Invest more time growing existing client relationships. There's always someone out there trying to steal your clients away.

9. Align your sales approach with the client's decision process. People usually follow a predictable, if unconscious, sequence in making a buying decision. First they must recognize a problem or need. Then they search for more information about the need and possible solutions, evaluate different alternatives, and make a choice. You should know where the client is in this decision process and align your sales approach accordingly. Our tendency is to get ahead of this process. Furthermore, different buyers within the client organization may be in different places in the decision process. Customizing your approach to different buyers will give you a leg up on the competition.

10. Budget your sales time like project time. Many technical practitioners have trouble being consistent in their sales efforts. Part of this is the aforementioned discomfort with selling. But a large part of it is the tendency to yield to billable tasks rather than overhead functions like sales when the two are competing for your attention. One way to combat this is to budget specific hours for sales just like project time. Give sales the same priority as any project task.