What expertise do clients value most? A deep understanding of their business. This answer will surprise many in the A/E industry who think that expertise in their various technical disciplines is what is most valued. Obviously, clients expect you to know your business. But what usually matters more to them is how much you know theirs.
Client knowledge is a critical competitive advantage that many firms in our business undervalue. They're too busy filling the pipeline with proposal opportunities to invest in learning much about the clients they pursue. If you're looking for causes of the commoditization of your services, start here. The value of your work is much enhanced when you can meet clients' strategic needs. That requires an understanding of their business.
When I work on proposals, I always ask what the strategic drivers are behind the project. What are the business results that we need to deliver through the project? I'm typically disappointed with the answers I get. It's apparent that most technical professionals (especially engineers) are more interested in the what and how than the why. Yet the why—the desired business outcomes—is what clients really care about.
So how do clients perceive your firm? Are you viewed as insiders or outsiders when it comes to their business. Of course, I don't expect you to have a deep understanding of all your clients and their respective industries. But the important question is: Would you be seen as as an industry insider for any of your clients' businesses?
An industry insider is not only knowledgeable of that business but actively participates in it. So let's say that higher education is one of your core markets. Do you simply design facilities for it, or do you know trends driving that market from an insider's perspective? Do you understand how demographics will change future enrollment? Or how slower tuition growth is fueling greater competition among schools? Or how the student loan debt crisis might impact them?
If you think these (and other similar trends) don't really matter to your business, think again. Moreover, if you want to stand out among the many firms serving this market, leverage your facilities expertise in helping schools respond to these emerging challenges and uncertainties. Become a recognized industry insider. How? A few suggestions:
Research your clients' businesses. Given the easy access to market information on the internet, I'm perplexed by how little research many firms do. Don't have time? Make it a priority, and delegate some of the responsibility to others (e.g., administrative and junior staff). Firms that give priority to market research are more profitable and grow faster.
Talk to clients about their strategic needs and concerns. Don't limit these conversations to technical issues and personal chitchat. Find out what defines success for your clients, what issues cause them particular concern, and how their business is changing. Then determine how your firm can better help them achieve their pressing business objectives.
Get involved in their trade and professional associations. By involvement, I don't mean simply attending events. Become an active participant in committee work, especially those that are most strategic to their industry. For example, my previous employer was a key player in working through client trade organizations to help influence changes in environmental regulations that would save our clients millions of dollars in compliance costs.
Share your expertise through targeted writing and speaking. These same trade organizations typically sponsor conferences, seminars, webinars, and publications where you can share your insights on issues of importance to their business. To become a recognized industry insider, you should have something interesting to say and do so on a regular basis.
Develop other resources helpful to those industries. You might prepare relevant articles, white papers, and ebooks and share them through your email list. Or publish regulatory updates or planning checklists. Or establish a resource website specifically targeting people in those industries who might be interested in hiring you.
Build peer relationships within your clients' businesses. Partner with other service providers to offer distinct integrated solutions, as well as to share knowledge and insights about those industries. Especially consider affiliations with experts outside the AEC industry, since these are less common and may offer unique value to clients.
Hire people out of those industries. There's real value in having people on your staff who can really see things from the perspective of clients. They've been there. They often have instant credibility that can take you years to establish on your own. But do your due diligence; confirm that they are known and respected in their industry.
Don't confuse business development focus with becoming an industry insider. Market focus to many firms simply means seeking more sales opportunities within that market. But what I'm describing goes much deeper. Becoming an industry insider means being recognized as a contributor to your clients' business, not just another firm seeking to mine it for revenue. The core philosophy is this: Help clients succeed and they'll help you succeed.