Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Why Cross Selling Usually Doesn't Work

No doubt you're aware that it's easier and more cost-effective to sell to existing clients than to new ones. That's reflected in the fact that 70% of architectural and engineering firms' work comes from repeat clients. So naturally most firms make it a priority to sell additional services—what's called cross selling—to existing clients.

Unfortunately, this common-sense approach falls short more often than not. Lack of success with cross selling is among the most common complaints I hear when helping firms improve their rainmaking process. Why is this so difficult? Here are the reasons I uncover most often, and what you can do to overcome them:

Discomfort selling outside your area of expertise. Not that this is a legitimate reason why cross selling doesn't work, but it certainly qualifies as a popular excuse. Ironically, many of these same professionals who feel inadequate to cross disciplinary boundaries to talk to clients about their needs will gladly pass the torch to the firm's business development specialist— despite that individual's lack of technical credentials.

Solution: Specific expertise can be a hindrance rather than a help in sales. It tempts you to look for problems that fit your skills rather than openly exploring needs from the client's perspective. Learn to ask great questions and develop your general problem solving abilities. Then bring in the proper expertise when necessary.

Management inadvertently promotes a lack of cooperation between business units. The fact is that many firm leaders complain about the paucity of cross selling while ratcheting up the pressure for individual business units to meet their sales budgets. You can't expect people to look out for the greater corporate good when the focus (and the pressure) is predominantly on how well their own group performs.

Solution: Reward people for succeeding at cross selling, or dispense with the notion that it will ever work. The firms that excel at cross selling are typically those that actively promote cross-business unit collaboration in general. Or better still, they organize as a single profit center to minimize the inter-company competition.

The difficulty of engaging different buyers within your clients' organizations. In concept, it seems straightforward to expand business with your best clients. But the reality is often quite different. For much the same reason as my previous point, your current client contacts may not be that motivated to introduce your firm to other parts of their organization. They may love you, but what's in it for them? Plus they may not know their colleagues in other business units well enough to provide you much leverage.

Solution: Selling succeeds when you can create win-win scenarios. The same is true in motivating your clients to help you cross sell. Focus on those opportunities where it's in their interest for you to serve other parts of their organization. For example, can you export a winning solution or approach to another business unit where your client contact gets the credit?

Distrust in your colleagues to deliver. Most professionals are understandably reluctant to entrust their client relationships to peers who might not uphold the same standard of care. So they resist cross selling efforts involving individuals or groups they aren't confident will come through. This situation is far more common than many firms recognize because it's rarely discussed openly.

Solution: If you suspect this problem exists in your firm, it's best to investigate it through private conversations. To encourage transparency, avoid taking sides or putting people on the defensive—simply uncover the facts (remember, perceptions in such matters effectively form the reality of the situation). Once you feel you understand the concerns, then work with the involved parties to try to resolve the issues identified.

Lack of client focus. I once participated in a planning meeting where one of the firm's executives began sketching a matrix that listed their top clients and what services they were providing to each. The purpose of this exercise was to identify where their best cross selling opportunities existed. But the most important question was ignored: What other needs do our clients have that we might help them with?

Perhaps the most prominent reason cross selling doesn't work is the lack of true client focus. When you approach the issue motivated by self interest, you're unlikely to have many productive conversations with clients about new services. Don't you think they can detect what's really driving your interest in the subject?

If you're genuinely motivated to serve your clients, cross selling becomes a natural byproduct of your commitment to help. It's driven by the client's needs, not your firm's desire to sell more. Plus, client focus is the secret to overcoming most of the problems listed above. There should be no discomfort in serving, no lack of incentive to help clients succeed. Navigating the client's organization is easier when you offer true business value. And subpar service and quality within your firm is no longer tolerated.

So my advice for cracking the code on cross selling is this: Pursue a culture of true client focus. It's not a quick fix, but it is the most powerful way to solve your shortcomings at cross selling—not to mention a whole host of other corporate benefits.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Power Writing: Plan First, Then Write

If you're not a strong writer, the last thing you want to do is take a stream-of-consciousness approach to writing. Yet that's what I routinely observe among the technical professionals I work with. The result is often akin to this excerpt from an engineering firm's project management handbook:
Some documents are constrained to repetitiveness by factors such as regulatory requirements, work type, site information, and intent. In such cases, it is permissible to develop standard language to maximize consistency and efficiency. In such instances, a special review of the standard language must be performed to verify that applicable regulations and requirements have been considered.
Huh? I'm sure if I asked the author what he meant, he could explain it clearly to me. But by putting little forethought into his writing he ended up with something that was incomprehensible. It's one thing to do this in an internal document, but I commonly see this kind of writing in proposals, reports, letters, emails, and other communications with clients and other outside parties. That's hardly a good reputation builder!

The poor writing I see is largely the outcome of a thinking problem—or more precisely, an unthinking problem. In an industry populated by really smart people, there's no excuse for writing without first thinking about what you're trying to say. Perhaps it would help to have a process for planning your writing. Here are some suggested steps:

Think in terms of bullet points. When you jump right into writing without a plan, there's a tendency to get too caught up in how you're saying it before you've really determined what to say. Have you ever spent an inordinate amount of time writing your first few paragraphs? I have—when I didn't plan first. At the start, don't think about sentences—and certainly not paragraphs—think in terms of bullet points. Build your detailed content outline (as described below) by listing short phrases like "slow air flow a concern" or "compressed schedule is key" before you write any sentences.

First define your purpose. Power Writing is writing to achieve a specific desired result. That obviously means you must first define what it is you want to accomplish. Sounds simple enough, but identifying the purpose of writing assignments is surprisingly uncommon in A/E firms. It's important to be specific. For example: "The purpose of this report is to show that the extent of contamination at the site is considerably less than previously determined."

Then determine your key messages. These are 3-5 points that need to be effectively communicated to accomplish your purpose. One exercise I recommend to help you distill your key messages is called the "two-minute drill." Imagine you had to verbally present the essence of your entire document in only two minutes. What would you say? What are the main points that you absolutely would need to make? These are the key messages that should drive the content of your document.

For each key message, list your supporting points. If one of your key messages, for example, is "save money on O&M through different design options," then what do you need to say to convincingly make your case? Your supporting points generally serve three primary functions: (1) describe (give clarity), (2) validate (give proof), and (3) illustrate (give examples). Technical professionals often over-describe, under-validate, and completely ignore providing illustrations. At this stage, though, don't worry about the quantity or balance of your supporting points; list everything you can think of.

Organize your supporting points in descending order of importance. This applies the old journalistic standard of the "inverted pyramid." Why? Because most people don't read your documents word for word; they skim. So you want your most important information up front—in your document, chapters, paragraphs. Organizing your supporting points at this stage facilitates your use of the inverted pyramid when you're writing. 

Another benefit of organizing your supporting points is helping you pare down your content to no more than is needed. My suggestion is to place each supporting point under one of three headings: (1) what I must say, (2) what I should say, and (3) what I could say. Many (if not most) of the points falling in that last category are candidates for the cutting room floor. 

Fit your content outline to the document structure. To this point you've based your outline on importance rather than the flow of the document. Now you need to translate it into whatever document structure is necessary. This can be difficult, but without the planning steps above you'd be much more likely to omit or obscure your key messages. Beware of slavish devotion to a traditional document outline. You may determine that a reorganization is appropriate to feature your most important content. For example, I favor putting conclusions and recommendations—your most important information—at the front of a report rather than the traditional position in the back.

Now you can start writing. Having built a detailed content outline and fitted it to your document structure, the writing comes much easier—and the result will be much better. By the way, this process is even more powerful for team writing assignments. Rather than the usual divide-and-conquer approach, get your team together to work through the above planning process. The collective brainstorming is much more likely to lead to a document that will get the results you want.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Power Writing for Technical Professionals

Many (if not most) technical professionals are ineffective writers. That fact is widely acknowledged. The question is does anyone really care? I don't see A/E firms investing much in helping their staff become more proficient writers.

Perhaps they haven't considered the costs of poor writing: Lost proposals, weak marketing, unapproved solutions, project mistakes, client claims, interoffice conflict, lost productivity—to name a few. I have seen all of these over the years as a result of poorly written proposals, reports, contracts, policies, correspondence, emails, or procedures.

On the flip side, strong writing can yield substantial business benefits. I'm hardly a distinguished writer, but I've compiled a 75% proposal win rate over the last 20 years, producing more than $300 million in fees. I helped my previous employer generate millions of dollars in new business that started with prospective clients contacting us because of something we'd written. I wrote letters to regulatory agencies making the case for regulatory exceptions that allowed innovative solutions saving our clients over $18 million.

The business case for strong writing is too compelling to be ignored, although it commonly is in our profession. But you don't have to settle for the status quo. By applying a few principles of what I call Power Writing, you and your colleagues can get the results you've been missing out on. What is Power Writing? It's writing that delivers the desired result. To accomplish that, you need to attend to three basic principles:

1. Purpose Driven: Define the Desired Result. As Yogi Berra famously quipped, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up somewhere else." Technical professionals often jump right into writing without much planning, or a clear understanding of what it is they're trying to accomplish. Everything you write has a purpose, but the chances are you don't really think about it. You just start writing because you have something to say. Yet simply communicating your message often falls short of getting the result you want.

Power Writing demands a plan, what it is you want to achieve and how that will be facilitated through your writing. At the most basic level, you are typically seeking to do one of three things—inform, instruct, or influence. Each of these broad objectives calls for a different approach to writing. When you're not clear on your purpose, you're more likely to write a proposal that reads like a technical report. Or a report that has no clear objective. Or a work process description that seems to ignore the needs of the people following it.

Once you have your purpose identified, the next step is to determine your Key Messages. These are the 3-5 things that you absolutely must communicate effectively to achieve your purpose. For each Key Message, you then want to define the supporting points that are needed to clarify and validate your point. This process results in a detailed content outline that will guide your writing.

2. Reader Focused: Facilitate Message Reception. Achieving your purpose is ultimately dependent upon your readers. It takes two to have successful communication. I liken it to a forward pass in football. The quarterback must deliver the ball on target, but the receiver has to catch it. If you're like most, your focus as a writer is on making the pass. But you need to give equal attention to making sure it is received.

A good example of this is email. If you send an email to a client or colleague, you may feel you did your job. But if the recipient doesn't read it or misunderstands it, don't you share some responsibility for that outcome? Power Writing isn't just sending out the equivalent of perfect spirals, but delivering it in a way that makes it more catchable.

That happens in several ways. Foremost, you need to try to see the issue from your readers' perspective. Then they'll be more interested in what you have to say. A common disconnect in our industry is approaching a project from a purely technical perspective when the client is more concerned with the business or stakeholder implications. You won't likely accomplish your purpose in writing unless it aligns in some way with what your readers want or value.

Reader-focused writing also means making it user friendly. One of the best ways to do this is to convey your message as efficiently as possible. Did you know it takes the average adult about one hour to read 35 pages of text? You should write with the expectation that it won't be read word for word (yes, even your emails). Make your main points skimmable. Make effective use of graphics. Use words everyone understands. Write in a conversational tone that easily connects.

3. Engages the Heart: Move Your Readers to Act. Of course, not everything you write is intended to spur your readers to action. But the most important writing you do is when you want to influence a particular response. It's unfortunate, then, that technical professionals struggle so much with persuasive writing. A big part of the problem is that they have been taught to write in a manner that is fundamentally nonpersuasive.

Technical writing is by nature intellectual, objective, impersonal, and features-laden. This style of writing—which pervades our profession—avoids personal language, keeps opinions to ourselves, provides more detail than the audience needs, and buries the main selling points in information overload. It may suffice when writing a study report, technical paper, or O&M manual. But it is entirely the wrong approach when you want to persuade clients, regulators, the public, or employees.

To move your readers to act, you need to engage the heart. That's because persuasion is driven by emotion and supported by logic—not the other way around. It is the human spirit that influences and inspires, and there is precious little of it evident in most of the writing we see in our industry. If you want to be more persuasive, let me suggest you start by dispatching the "technicalese" in favor of acknowledging in your writing the humanity in both you and your audience.

I think the power of writing has been grossly undervalued in the A/E industry. So I want to devote the next few posts to explaining in more detail how to become a Power Writer.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Are You Close Enough to the End Result?

My 17-year-old daughter has decided to become an engineer, but she had no idea which engineering discipline to choose. Since I have connections in the profession, I began setting up appointments for her to meet with different kinds of engineers to see which discipline appealed to her most.

We started with the two that I'm most familiar with—civil and environmental. These engineers did a great job selling their specialty, but none really connected with my daughter. Then one of my clients arranged for her to tour the mechanical engineering department at Virginia Tech. The light came on. She came back with an unexpected amount of enthusiasm (after all, like many engineers, she had been mainly drawn to the profession because she was good at math).

What was it that caught her attention? Well, the robotics laboratory was fascinating, of course. But the attraction went deeper. When she visited the previous engineering offices, they inevitably pulled out plan sets to show her their work. They designed things that others built. In the mechanical engineering lab, students designed, built, tested, and refined their work products. It was much more hands-on.

Now I'm not going to suggest that one field of engineering is better than another. That is a personal preference, and all engineering disciplines do valuable work. But I'm convinced there is added benefit in being closely connected with the desired end result. Ultimately, that's what engineers are hired to deliver. Does that mean that engineers must build what they design in order to be more valuable? No, but I do think many engineers could take a more active role in envisioning and shaping the final outcome.

I have several engineer friends who work in manufacturing. In talking to them about their work, the customer is typically a prominent part of the conversation. This is particularly true among those who make products for other businesses. They have a keen understanding of how their products help their customers succeed. 

Among the engineers I work with in the AEC industry, not so much. Many of them seem disconnected from the ultimate project outcomes. Why is the client doing this? What is the business result that is needed? When I pose these questions, I'm often disappointed how little many engineers in our business understand the answers.

This problem isn't limited to the engineers, by the way. Architects can also be prone to overlooking the client's desired end results. A common client complaint is that many architects seem to favor form over function, emphasizing aesthetic design values over practical priorities (such as staying within the client's budget!). One of my favorite architects once told me that his first responsibility was to create spaces that maximize functionality. Aesthetics take precedent, he said, only when the client has designated that as a critical function of the building.

So how can we do a better job connecting our work with the outcomes that ultimately drive our projects? If you follow this blog, you no doubt recognize that I've touched on this general theme before. I keep revisiting it because I keep seeing evidence that it is needed. So here are a few recommendations on how to make your work more results oriented:

Uncover the strategic drivers behind your projects. A/E projects typically help clients achieve strategic business or mission goals. Do you know what those are? Can you describe specifically how your design or solution will enable the client to fulfill those goals?

Don't overlook the human dimension of your solutions. People are always the primary benefactors of your projects. Yet many technical professionals tend to be more focused on the technical aspects of the work than how people are affected. When working on a technical problem, be sure to consider the human consequences. Your solution should explicitly address both the problem and how it impacts people.

Learn to describe your work in terms of its ultimate outcomes. I often point to our project descriptions as evidence that improvement is needed in this area. What do they describe? Typically the tasks performed. Sometimes the technical problem. Rarely do I read, in specific terms, of how the project helped the client be successful. The same is often true in our conversations with existing or prospective clients. 

Promote greater cross-disciplinary collaboration. One of the most common project delivery problems I encounter is inadequate coordination between disciplines. This is a primary cause of design-related construction claims. But true collaboration across disciplines goes deeper than merely avoiding mistakes. It leverages the different perspectives and strengths of each discipline to deliver a more encompassing, higher value solution—one that looks beyond the details of project execution to achieving the project's ultimate goals.

Follow the project all the way through. Sometimes A/E firms are contracted through construction and even start-up. That enables you to have a more direct role in ensuring the project's ultimate success. But what if the contract ends with the completed design? I urge that you keep in contact with the client, offering advice and answering questions, helping the finished project achieve its stated goals. It's not all that uncommon that design-related problems occur during construction or operation that the design firm is not made aware of. It's best to monitor project progress to the end to be in a position to help and perhaps learn from your mistakes.

The most valuable thing we do in our industry is not engineering and architecture, but helping clients realize their dreams and ambitions. We solve problems that hamper their business performance and create facilities that enable their success. When we get closer to the desired end results, the perceived value of our work increases. Agree or disagree? Do you have other suggestions for how our profession can be more directly involved in delivering business results?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Branded Experience Delivery Process

Want to get something done in the A/E business? Manage it like a project. That's my standard advice when confronted with almost any kind of corporate initiative. Need more sales? Make it a project. Need to increase profitability? Make it a project. Need to improve client service? Same answer. Projects are what we do best, so the more we can fit other corporate activities into a similar framework, the better.

In my last post, I mentioned a study by Accenture of companies that are among the leaders in providing the "branded experience" to their customers. The study found that these companies share two key traits: (1) they have a deliberate process for delivering a consistently great customer experience and (2) they regularly solicit customer feedback to determine how they're doing and what they can do better. The vast majority of A/E firms do neither.

So in this post, let me focus on the first strategy—managing the service delivery process. When it comes to providing great client service, the vast majority of firms simply rely on their good people doing the right thing for the client. There's no planning, little process, few standards, no metrics. We would never entrust our technical work products to such an unstructured approach. Why? Because the results would be wildly inconsistent.

And that's what most firms get with their service delivery. Some individuals have strong client skills and consistently delight their clients. Others fail to provide clients the personal attention and responsiveness they expect, focusing instead on the technical aspects of the work. The only way to provide consistently good service is to manage it. Like a project.

Granted, not all aspects of client service are manageable. You have to have decent interpersonal skills and a genuine concern for the client (no process can overcome the lack of these!). But we can still plan, design, implement, and measure important dimensions of the client experience, just like the technical components of our projects:
  • Plan. The starting point is to uncover what the client expects in terms of the working relationship. Such expectations are rarely explicit in the contract or scope of work, yet they strongly influence the client's experience.
  • Design. Understanding the client's expectations, you then determine what actions are needed to meet or exceed them.
  • Implement. Knowing is one thing, doing is another. Most firms need healthy doses of support and encouragement to raise service levels. Support can involve training, resources, and holding people accountable.
  • Measure. The most important measurement is getting periodic feedback from clients. The basic questions: How are we doing? What can we do better?
Let's break that process out in some more detail. Below is a basic service delivery process that I've used with many clients. Not every client is receptive (nor deserving) of such a structured approach, but for those who are (usually your best clients), this can be a definitive competitive advantage.

1. Benchmark Expectations
Uncovering your client's hidden expectations is the foundation of managing the service delivery process. Service benchmarking involves meeting with the client at the outset of the project to establish mutual expectations for the working relationship. The discussion should address issues such as communication, decisions and client involvement, information and data, deliverable standards, invoicing and payment, management of changes, and performance feedback. You might find the Client Service Planner useful for this purpose.

2. Identify Gaps
The focus of this process is meeting the unique expectations of your client. So having completed the benchmarking step, the next activity is to identify where what the client wants varies significantly from what you normally do. This assessment should take into account both the standard practices of the firm and the respective project manager or office.

3. Create Service Deliverables
The next step is to create "service deliverables" to close the gaps identified. This means treating the delivery of service like the delivery of any other work product, as mentioned above. Producing service deliverables involves defining a discrete set of tasks that can be assigned, scheduled, budgeted, tracked, and closed like any other project task. This moves service delivery from the realm of the ethereal to the realm of the manageable. Some additional guidelines:
  • Give special attention to those requiring significant resources or coordination. Focus on those involving multiple responsible persons or significant costs, or those with potential to impact the project schedule.
  • Alert the client of the costs of special deliverables. Don't automatically acquiesce to every request the client may make if there are substantial costs or difficulties associated with satisfying the request. Explain the added costs (in terms of budget, time, etc.) and let the client decide if he or she is willing to assume them. Look for other satisfactory alternatives where appropriate.
  • Don't commit to what you cannot deliver. While this seems obvious, there are many PMs, who in their zeal to please the client, make promises that they are unlikely able to keep. The old adage "under-promise and over-deliver" is still good advice.
4. Prepare a Service Plan
The client service plan provides direction for the project team on how service deliverables will be handled in the context of the project. Preparing such a plan recognizes that client service involves time and resources like other project tasks, and should be managed accordingly. This plan is typically brief and is integrated into the overall project management plan (in most cases, the completed Client Service Planner will suffice).

Since the quality of service deliverables is much more subjective than technical work products, it's especially important to secure the client's endorsement of the client service plan. Confirm that the planned service deliverables fully meet the client's expectations. Delivering great service is largely dependent on the client doing his or her part in making the relationship work. The plan provides a blueprint for key aspects of that relationship, and involves both parties meeting the obligations established in it.

5. Implement the Service Plan
The preceding steps of the service delivery process alone will set your firm apart from all but a few. But these activities ultimately accomplish nothing if there is inadequate follow-through. Your commitment to the branded experience obviously must extend beyond the planning stages to the point of delivery. This involves not just implementing the service plan, but being responsive to the client's evolving needs and expectations through the course of the project. 

The over-arching goal: Make every client encounter (every touchpoint) a positive experience.

6. Solicit Client Feedback
Getting regular feedback from your clients is critical to ensuring that you are meeting expectations. Two primary means are recommended: (1) ongoing dialogue with the client and (2) periodic formal survey. I outlined a general approach to this in a previous post.

By the way, service sells. Not unsubstantiated claims that "we listen" or "we give personal attention." But if you describe the above process in a sales call, proposal, or shortlist presentation, you will immediately set your firm apart.

I've seen it be a major factor in winning large contracts. One such client, a major airline, responded in the interview: "Why is no one else talking about this? The reason we're replacing five of our six current consultants is we're not happy with their service. Yet you are the only ones to tell us how you will serve us better."

Finally, let me close by summarizing the three basic advantages of a service delivery process:
  • Managing service delivery like other project tasks puts it more in the realm of the familiar

  • It enables you to provide a more consistent level of service across the organization

  • It converts client service into a more tangible (you can draw it) value proposition
Could this be your best unexploited opportunity to differentiate your firm? Test drive it with a few of your clients and see for yourself. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Delivering the Branded Client Experience

At the core of your firm's brand is what the client experiences working with your firm. So how much time and money do you spend on enhancing the quality of the client experiences you deliver? If you're like the overwhelming majority of A/E firms, it pales in comparison to the investment made in your technical capabilities. So here's a golden opportunity to differentiate your firm: Deliver what is known as the branded experience

What is the branded experience? The most helpful definition I've found comes from the Forum Corporation. They describe the branded experience as one characterized by four basic qualities: (1) it's consistent, (2) it's intentional, (3) it's differentiated, and (4) it's valued. Notice that the first two characteristics are dependent on the service provider; the second two are discerned by the customer. The branded experience involves a sort of informal partnership between the two parties. 

Accenture conducted a study to determine what separates the companies that deliver the branded experience from the rest. The study found that the best companies did two important things:
  • They had a formal process for consistently delivering the branded experience
  • They rigorously solicited customer feedback to determine what customers want
Notice the alignment between Accenture's and Forum's research? Companies that have a delivery process are intentional and able to provide consistent customer experiences. Those that regularly solicit feedback can determine what customers think is different and what they value.

So how are we doing in our industry? Over the years, I've polled hundreds of firms on this topic at events where I've spoken. I've yet to find a firm that has a true client experience delivery process (other than firms I've worked with). I'm sure there are a few out there, but they are rare. Only about one in four firms I've polled have a formal process for client feedback. The company behind the Client Feedback Tool claims that only 5% of A/E firms collect client feedback regularly. 

In my research of differentiation strategies for professional service firms, delivering the branded client experience is at or near the top of the list. This reflects a general trend in business, popularized by the book The Experience Economy. The most distinctive and successful brands across multiple industries generally provide great customer experiences. There's certainly evidence within our own industry that clients place a higher value on the experience that we have typically acknowledged. 

So how is your firm doing in delivering the branded experience? The graphic below, adopted from the Forum Corporation, is a handy way to assess where you stand in the service-level progression leading to the branded experience:
Random experience. At this level, the customer experience is neither consistent or intentional. It varies from one time to another depending on which individual service provider you work with, which office or department, or what service or product you received. In other words, it's like working with many A/E firms. One project manager is very attentive, the next seemingly indifferent. One office provides great quality work products, another not so good.

Predictable experience. At this level, the experience is pretty consistent because the provider has taken steps to make it so. But it is either not significantly different from what you could get elsewhere or the difference isn't that valued by most customers, or both. I call this the Golden Arches Experience. The one thing McDonald's has going for it is that the food, service, and atmosphere are pretty consistent whichever of their 14,350 restaurants in the U.S. you visit. But that's also what's working against them!

Branded experience. When you reach this level, you're consistently delivering an experience that customers value. You don't get here simply because you've got good people working for you. It requires intentional effort. It requires a reliable experience delivery process. And it requires regularly asking clients what they really want, and how you can do better. There are many good A/E firms out there, and clients are generally satisfied. But the opportunity remains for your firm to distinguish itself because it commits to the high standard of the branded experience.

Can you really package the delivery of professional services into some kind of consistent process? That's the question I plan to answer in my next post.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

5 Steps to Building Stronger Client Relationships

What's necessary to build sustainable business success? Lasting client relationships. Imagine if you never had any repeat business. Could you survive? Highly unlikely. So keeping existing clients deserves every bit the focus that finding new ones does.

It's interesting, then, that most firms pay substantially more attention to winning new clients than taking care of their current ones. If you doubt that conclusion, consider these questions: How much of your strategic plan is devoted to improving business development compared to improving client care? Do you have a sales process, but not a relationship building process? Which receives more of your training budget? Or more discussion in staff meetings?

Obviously, there's nothing wrong with giving emphasis to business development. In fact, most firms could stand to give it more. But let's not overlook the fact that the best way to grow your business is usually through existing client relationships. Are you taking steps to make those relationships stronger? Here are five suggestions to do just that:

1. Create a client relationship building process. You probably have a few individuals in your firm who are skilled at nurturing strong client relationships. And some who aren't. Therein lies the problem—a crucial function that's left to individual competency and initiative. You don't manage projects that way; there are standard procedures to ensure some measure of consistency. In fact there are many less critical activities in your firm that have been defined as a repeatable process.

So why not an approach for building client relationships? Of course, there are interpersonal dynamics in relationships that are not easily programed. But if marriages can be strengthened by applying generic tips from a book or conference, such improvements can certainly be realized with clients. The key is to define certain elements of relationship building that lend themselves to being replicated across the organization. Here's how to get started:
  • Identify common traits among your best client relationships
  • Determine the steps that were taken to build those relationships
  • Develop a relationship building process based on your assessment
  • Pilot this process with a few clients with growth potential
2. Clarify mutual expectations. For every project, you develop a scope of work, schedule, and budget that the client reviews and approves. But many aspects of the working relationship—such as communication, decision making, client involvement, managing changes, and monitoring satisfaction—are not discussed and explicitly agreed upon with the client. In my experience, most service breakdowns are caused by unknown or misunderstood expectations.

To delight clients and win their loyalty, you need to know how they like to be served. Over time this becomes clearer, but you may not make it that far. How much better to simply ask what the client's expectations are up front, as well as to share what you'd like from the client in return to make the relationship stronger? This is a practice I call "service benchmarking," and you may find my Client Service Planner helpful in this regard.

3. Increase client touches. These are simply the direct and indirect interactions you have with clients. Too often these touches are limited to times of necessity. This is the project manager who only calls when there's a problem. Or the principal who is out of sight until the next RFP approaches. Clients notice. Perhaps the biggest complaint I've heard in the many client interviews I've conducted is the failure of A/E firms to communicate proactively.

What are some ways to increase client touches? Consider the following:
  • Invite the client to your project kickoff meeting
  • Send monthly project status reports
  • Share internal project meeting minutes and action items
  • Call to discuss issues before they become problems
  • Send articles, papers, reports,and tools of interest to the client
4. Periodically seek performance feedback. Having clarified expectations in advance, it's important to check in on occasion to ask how well you're doing. The frequency and timing of these discussions is hopefully one of the expectations you established during the benchmarking step. This is another valuable way to increase client touches.

About 1 in 4 firms in this business formally solicit client feedback, and reportedly only about 5 percent do it regularly. So there's a tremendous opportunity for you to distinguish your firm with your clients. Here are some tips for getting effective feedback:
  • Have someone not directly involved in the project do this
  • Mix both discussions and a standard questionnaire
  • Talk to multiple parties in the client organization if possible
  • Be sure to follow up promptly to any concerns identified
5. Don't disappear between projects. This relates back to my advice about client touches; don't limit them only to when it's in your self interest. Keep in touch with the client after the project is completed—for the client's sake. For one thing, the real value of your work isn't realized until the facility you designed is put into operation or the recommendations in your report are acted upon. You want to be talking with the client when these moments of truth happen, whether it's part of your contract or not.

Offer whatever support you can to further ensure the project's success. But you also want to demonstrate your interest in the client's success outside the project. Provide helpful information and advice, in person, over the phone, and digitally (as part of your content marketing effort). The time between projects (assuming you've won the client's trust to do another project together) can be a productive relationship building time, because it's often unexpected. Having met the client's expectations during the project, this is another chance to exceed them.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

How to Help PMs Succeed in Selling

In my last post I argued that all project managers should be contributing to their firm's sales efforts. Only half do, according to the Zweig Group. A prominent reason for the low participation is that most PMs don't feel competent or comfortable in this role (and this is also true of many who are involved in sales!). As I wrote previously, I'm confident that capable PMs can successfully transfer their project management skills to selling—it's much the same skill set. Here are some suggestions for helping them make that transition:

Train them in a service-centered approach to selling. The problem most PMs have with selling is that they have an overwhelmingly negative impression of salespeople. They have their own experiences as a buyer, and that taints their view of selling. But rather than avoid selling, they should be striving to change the experience for those who buy the firm's services. Serve prospective clients rather than sell to them.

"High-end selling and consulting are not different and separate skills," observes sales researcher Neil Rackham, "When we are watching the very best [seller-doers] in their interactions with clients, we cannot tell whether they are consulting, selling, or delivering." For the A/E professional, this means uncovering needs, offering advice, recommending solutions—giving a meaningful sample of what it will be like working together under contract. This kind of approach takes the sting out of selling for both the PM and the client.

Budget time specifically for sales. The other big excuse for why PMs don't sell is that there isn't enough time. Or more specifically, that spending time developing new business subtracts from time on billable project work. Given the obsession with utilization that exists in many firms, it's hardly surprising that this perception is so prevalent. But the claim is seldom supported by the facts.

Nearly all PMs work a substantial number of nonbillable hours, a portion of which could be devoted to sales activities. The problem is that these hours are rarely budgeted or managed, so that in effect selling is done with leftover time. And who has surplus time left over? You can minimize the concern that selling displaces billable hours by managing your business development efforts like project work, including budgeting a portion existing nonbillable hours for this purpose.

Fit sales responsibilities to PMs' individual strengths. Selling is not as monolithic an activity as many presume, nor does it favor a specific personality type. There is a potential sales role for virtually anyone in your firm, including your PMs. Some are comfortable at networking functions, others better at one-on-one conversations. Some are big-picture strategists, others more analytical problem solvers. Some are competent writers, others better in communicating verbally. Some may be capable in making sales calls, others are better assigned to doing research, writing proposals, or developing solutions. The key is fitting the right people to the right roles.

PMs often claim that they don't have the personality to sell. But the research finds no real correlation between personality type and sales success. Fit, again, is the critical strategy. Help PMs shape their sales responsibilities around both their capabilities and their personality.

Bolster your marketing efforts. Technical professionals typically struggle more in starting the sales process than in closing the sale. They often dislike prospecting for new leads, especially making cold calls, attending networking events, and initiating client relationships. Effective marketing can shorten the sales cycle by bringing interested prospects to your door. Most PMs are much more comfortable picking up the sales effort at this point.

Where to start? Consider the marketing tactics that have proven most effective for professional service firms. These activities typically require significant support from the firm's content experts, which likely will include at least some of your PMs. They don't want to make cold calls or work the room? How about giving a presentation, helping write an article, or contributing to a seminar? Involvement in marketing not only builds the firm's brand, but the personal brands of your PMs—making it easier for them to sell

Increase collaboration. Selling is often a lonely activity, which further magnifies the discomfort most PMs have with it. That's why I favor building your sales team, where those involved in sales regularly meet together, share information, encourage one another, plan sales pursuits, and hold each other accountable. Have members of the team work together on sales calls when that makes sense. The investment you make in promoting collaboration, in my experience, will more than pay off in increased sales productivity. 

Provide ongoing coaching. Sales coaching can dramatically improve results for your PMs engaged in selling. If you do training, as suggested above, you'll need to reinforce it to make it successful—meaning real-time feedback and instruction. Organizing your sales team can provide opportunities for peer-to-peer coaching. Pairing up PMs with your best sellers is another option. Or you may decide to seek outside support from a consultant. A good coach helps build both the PM's capabilities and motivation in the most effective manner—on the job.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Why Project Managers Should Be Selling

Being a project manager is a tough job. I get that. PMs are charged with keeping the client happy, delivering a technically sound solution, meeting the budget and schedule, coordinating the project team, interacting with multiple project stakeholders, ensuring the quality of deliverables, and often a myriad of other management, supervisory, and administrative duties outside of their project work.

Did I mention business development? Is it fair to add that responsibility to an already long to-do list? According to a Zweig Group survey, only 4% of PMs claimed no involvement in BD activities. Over 80% indicated they contribute to proposals, 60% make presentations, and 55% participate in sales activities. That last number surprises me. I think it should be closer to 100%.

I can hear the howls of disapproval. Numerous PMs have told me they don't have the time or the personality or the desire to get involved in selling. Many firms seem to concur, putting little if any pressure on PMs to actively support sales activities. But there are several reasons why I believe PMs are needed to have a truly successful sales process:

PMs are the primary contacts with clients. Or at least they should be. PMs are typically the ones who work closest with clients on projects. I've seen situations where principals or department heads assumed this role, but it's less than ideal. In interviewing hundreds of clients over the years, it's clear that the overwhelming majority favor strong PMs who take charge of ensuring project success and serve as the primary liaison with the client and other stakeholders. This role alone makes PMs the logical choice to support the firm's sales efforts.

PMs are one of the critical assets you are selling. You can try to sell the firm's qualifications, but most clients want to know about the individuals who specifically will be working on their project. Chief among these project team members is the PM. Who can best sell the PM's strengths to the client? The PM, ideally. Not by telling, but by demonstrating. The nature of professional services is that we sell the people who perform the services. And the person who most needs to gain the client's confidence, in most cases, is the PM.

Selling should be about serving. I've encountered many PMs who were reluctant to sell to existing clients because they feared it might taint the project relationship. I understand their concern, if you look at it through the lens of traditional selling. But the most effective way to develop new business with clients in the A/E business is not by pushing your services. It's about serving—about meeting needs, providing advice, identifying solutions. If PMs really care about their relationship with clients, they should be looking for other ways to help.

PMs have the right skill set for selling. If you accept my previous point that serving clients is the best way to "sell," then it follows that PMs (good ones, at least) are particularly suited for this task. Who better to help clients? Strong PMs generally are more effective at bringing a broader, multidisciplinary perspective to the project than the technical practitioners who will make up the rest of the project team. PMs should have client skills that readily transfer to a service-centered approach to sales.

Despite claims to the contrary, the skill set for project management is much the same as for selling in this manner: Interpersonal skills, communication, problem solving, planning, collaboration, follow-through, etc. Any PM who cannot sell is probably not very good at project management either. And the claim that they don't have the personality? Research shows no correlation between personality and sales success.

Participation in sales increases a sense of ownership. There's something about building a relationship from scratch with a client that engenders a deeper sense of ownership of that relationship. My observation is that PMs who are actively involved in selling are generally more committed to keeping clients happy. Perhaps that's because they engaged the client before the relationship could be mistaken as simply completing a scope of work.

At a minimum, I think it's critically important to involve the PM in defining the proposal strategy, winning the shortlist interview, and negotiating the contract. PMs should always be involved in determining the scope, schedule, and budget of the project—they shouldn't be asked to deliver something they had no part in defining.

Agree or disagree? I'd love to hear what you think about the PM's role in sales. Next post I'll offer some suggestions for helping PMs succeed in selling.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Branding Isn't Just Marketing

So when was the last time your firm rebranded itself? Most of my clients have at least tweaked their brand in the last decade—or so they thought. More accurately, they redesigned their logo, modified their color scheme, rewrote their positioning statement, overhauled their website, etc. In other words, they changed how they marketed themselves.

But that's not branding. Not really. It's disappointing that most marketers don't understand this, but who can blame them? There's a lot of confusion about this subject in the literature. Marketing people naturally view branding as something within their domain. But the consensus of brand experts points to something much more complex than a marketing function.

In simple terms, brand is how your firm is perceived in the marketplace. It is primarily shaped through the direct and indirect interactions customers and others have with your firm. Marketing can influence those perceptions (through its indirect interactions), but eventually direct interactions form the bedrock of your brand. Your real brand is substance, not image.

So what does this mean? True rebranding is about changing the substance of the interactions you have with clients and others. It's about creating better experiences, which lead to positive expectations about future experiences with your firm. (I like Sean Adam's definition of brand: "It's a promise of an experience.") 

It's about backing up your marketing claims through action. Focused on clients? Show it! Design excellence? Let's see what you got! Superior quality? Prove it! Great at collaboration and team building? Demonstrate the benefits! This is why marketing can't create your brand, because ultimately you have to deliver it. Clients have to experience it.

This is not to diminish the contributions of marketing. On the contrary, I'm a strong advocate for effective marketing. I think as an industry that we generally underappreciate the value of marketing. Marketers are too often marginalized as tactical specialists rather than strategic partners. The best marketing comes when there's real substance to sell. Invite marketers into the discussion about how to create a genuine, deliverable brand.

For a step-by-step approach to building your brand, check out this previous post.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

This Is One Way You Become a Commodity

A few years ago I was helping an engineering firm prepare a proposal to what would have been a new client. A coastal city wanted to combine two smaller wastewater treatment plants into one new or expanded one. I was working with two seasoned engineers, both with over 35 years of experience. They were abundantly qualified to do the work.

Early in our discussions, I asked the question I typically ask when planning a proposal, "Why is the client doing this project now?" Despite having had a couple conversations with the client, neither of my collaborators could confidently answer the question. "Well, let's make sure we clarify what's driving this project next time you talk to them," I urged.

Another meeting with the client followed. We had prepared a list of questions we wanted answered, but somehow my question was never posed. When I later pressed the point that it was important to know the answer, one of the engineers responded in frustration, "What difference does it make? We can do the work!"

Unfortunately, his response is hardly unique. I've asked some variation of that question hundreds of times over the years without getting a satisfactory answer from the proposal team. It's symptomatic of a larger problem: The failure of many in the A/E industry to see the value of connecting their work to the client's higher-value strategic needs or business goals.

Need further evidence? Read your firm's project descriptions. Most I've seen do a poor job describing why the project was necessary or important. Instead they focus on the scope of work performed. How do you think the client would describe their project? Much differently, don't you think?

I once was responsible for marketing for a new national environmental company formed through the merger of six firms. I wanted to produce more meaningful project descriptions, so I divided the template for collecting project information into three parts: (1) What was the problem we solved? (2) What did we do? (3) How did we add value?

The company had some great projects on its resume—pioneering industry milestones, technology innovations, millions of dollars in savings for our Fortune 100 clients. Yet I was shocked to see how much my colleagues struggled to supply the project information I had requested. No problem with the scope of work, of course. But they found it difficult to associate the problems solved with our clients' business objectives. And many completely whiffed on the question about added value.

So, we're supposed to make the case that we're the best firm for the job, but we can't describe why our past clients benefited from hiring us versus any other environmental firm? That, my friends, is the fundamental definition of a commodity:

  • A commodity is a product or service that is widely available and interchangeable with what competitors offer.
The fast track to commoditization is to be just another competent service provider. If you can't describe how you meet strategic needs, help solve business problems, or deliver added value—well, you're in good company. That's where most A/E firms reside. But, of course, the goal is to stand out in the crowd, not fit in.

That distinction could start by simply knowing the answer to the why question above. In other words: "How do we help our clients be successful?" No, really. Not the marketing slogan kind of commitment to enabling success. But real business solutions delivered through your technical expertise. If you're not routinely making that connection now, let me urge you to make it a priority. Want to brainstorm some ideas, no obligation? Give me a holler.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Why You Should Be Writing Fewer Proposals

The verdict is in: Writing fewer proposals typically increases both your win rate and your sales. That, at least, is the consensus of the many sales and proposal experts I "surveyed" via a Google search. That has also been my experience over the last 25 years working with a variety of engineering, environmental, and architectural firms.

But many firm principals aren't buying it. Not in practice, at least. They find it hard to "miss opportunities" by being more selective in the proposals they submit. Several have explained to me that while that maxim may work for most, it doesn't apply to their firm, office, or market sector. They fear dire consequences if they reduced the number of proposals.

Inevitably, these "volume sellers" have a low win rate. Their business development costs are often inordinately high, and their profits are usually lower. It's not uncommon for volume sellers to pursue a higher percentage of price-driven selections, which would seem to substantiate their conviction that more proposals equals more sales.

They may be right, but I doubt it. For one thing, that approach to developing new business inherently erodes the perceived value of their services. My take after watching business development trends for decades is that indiscriminate selling reinforces indiscriminate buying (e.g., selecting on the basis of low price). When you shortchange the sales process by simply responding to RFPs, you shortchange the opportunity to establish your value proposition.

Still not convinced? I offer the following additional reasons why you should be writing fewer proposals:

Proposals are costly, but the greatest cost is opportunity cost. Proposals constitute roughly half of the typical A/E firm's BD budget. But for many firms, the budget share is still higher. And as proposal costs increase, there is usually a corresponding drop in ROI (i.e., win rate). That's because the larger expenditure is rarely an investment in better proposals, but in more proposals.

It's fairly typical for volume sellers to spend about 70% of their proposal budget on writing losing proposals. But that's not the worst of it. The greater cost is that those hours could have been diverted to higher-value BD activities, such as positioning their firm for success in advance of the RFP. I remain convinced that the vast majority of awards go to the firms that invest substantially in the pre-RFP sales process. 

You need to invest more in your best proposal opportunities. What about the argument that most of the cost is borne by overhead staff who you have to pay for anyway? You still suffer opportunity costs because they could have spent more time on more promising proposal efforts (not to mention marketing, which is frequently neglected in A/E firms). Plus, if most of your proposal labor cost comes from marketing staff, I would question your commitment to producing winning proposals.

Having reviewed hundreds of proposals, I've observed that most fail in the area of technical content. Rarely do they reflect the firm's true expertise and insights. Why? Because the technical experts invested too little of their time in the proposal effort. Yes, I understand the demands on their time. Which is all the more reason why they shouldn't be wasting time on proposals that have little chance of success.

You shouldn't be using proposals to introduce (or reintroduce) your firm to the client. I advocate a "no know, no go" policy. In other words, if you weren't talking to the client before the RFP was released, you shouldn't be submitting a proposal. There are exceptions, of course, but I consider them rare. I addressed this issue in a previous post, but I'll recount two reasons that stand out: (1) if you don't know the client, you're usually going to lose to someone who does and (2) if you haven't been gathering insight into the client's issues, you're not going to be able to write a strong proposal. That means a mediocre first impression—another opportunity cost.

Bottom line, the volume strategy usually ends up diluting your value and wasting a substantial portion of your BD budget. Yes, it can be a step of faith to say no more often and trust that less is more. But you can take courage from the fact that the best firms have already taken that step.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Who's at the Top of Your Org Chart?

The late Bob Dunlap, founder and president of RETEC where I worked for a decade, often would show an organization chart with clients at the top, then project managers, then the rest of the organization, and him at the very bottom. He would proudly say, "My job is to serve those who serve our clients, because that's why we're in business."

It was Bob who fashioned our core values, the first of which was: "Our clients are the focus of everything we do." Unlike many companies, RETEC was serious about their values. They routinely came up in conversations about strategy, operational matters, business development efforts, and personnel decisions. That focus on clients was perhaps the most important factor in RETEC's success as one of the top performing environmental firms—before they were acquired by AECOM.

I've since been involved in several debates within different firms about organizational structure. These discussions are typically internally oriented, in contrast to Bob's vision of an externally-driven organization. Ego is a common visitor in these conversations, as managers vie for their favored spot on the org chart where the extent of their domain will be visually displayed. In general, people's perceptions of the org chart within the firm take precedent over any concern about clients and markets.

Interestingly, what results is often internal dysfunction. Every subdivision of the organization is a potential barrier to communication and collaboration. When client focus is subjugated to internal realms of control, functional silos inevitably develop. While A/E firms tout the breadth of their experience and expertise, the fact is that many of them struggle to make the full benefit of these assets available to clients because of organizational hurdles.

So here's a homework assignment for you: Sit down with your management team and do an honest assessment of how well your organizational structure serves your clients' interests. Does it facilitate the efficient delivery of your services? Does it expedite access to your best resources as client needs dictate? Does it promote cross-disciplinary collaboration? Does it help you focus efforts on your target markets?

If you find your org chart is a hindrance rather than a help to serving clients, perhaps it's time to restructure. You don't necessarily have to invert it like Bob did. But it wouldn't hurt to remind your management team in the process: "Our job is to serve those who serve our clients, because that's why we're in business."

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

How to Make Your SOQs More Client Focused

I've written in this space before about the importance of making the client the central character in your proposal narrative. This can be quite challenging since most RFPs encourage you to do the opposite, to feature your firm rather than the client. But clients notice when you turn the attention to their needs and aspirations (while still being fully responsive to the RFP requirements).

I think client focus has been the single most important differentiator in my compiling a 75% win rate over the last 25 years.

Typically the most client-focused section of your proposal relates to the project approach. This section should include a description of the project's background, objectives, approach, and expected outcomes. Don't simply provide a scope of work; demonstrate that you have a deep understanding of the project from the client's perspective and how best to deliver it successfully.

But what if there's no specific project involved? A common scenario is a client solicitation (RFQ) to provide a statement of qualifications for an indefinite delivery contract. There may be many and varied projects and consulting assignments packaged within this contract. You may have little idea what specific projects you might be working on. So much for the project-centered approach to writing a client-focused submittal.

Don't give up yet! There are still ways to feature the client in an SOQ. Here are some for your consideration:

Connect with the client's broader needs and goals. There is no difference between an RFQ and an RFP in this respect—they are both driven by the client's needs. Differing needs motivate the client to package several projects under a single contract rather than individual contracts. Different expectations influence the client's assessment of the A/E firm's performance under an IDC compared to a single-project contract. Assuming you have uncovered these critical success factors, be sure to address them in your SOQ. In particular, consistently point out how your project experience, project team, and other qualifications are directly relevant to the client's needs.

Always include a compelling executive summary. This enables you to distill the essence of your SOQ with a particular focus on the client. The basic message of your executive summary is this: "You said you had these needs and wanted these outcomes; here's how our qualifications are a perfect fit for you." Don't hesitate to include an executive summary because the RFQ didn't ask for one. In my experience, this section of your submittal will almost always be read, often be read first, and commonly will be a factor in your selection.

Describe how you will optimize the working relationship. While you can't describe your approach to a specific project, you can describe your approach to your relationship with the client. This is a critical success factor that is commonly overlooked in A/E firm SOQs and proposals. To avoid the usual marketing hype, you'll need to outline a formal process for defining and meeting the client's service expectations. Besides the real advantages of having such a process, you'll also benefit from likely being the only firm to address this in your SOQ.

Describe how you will deliver quality, on-time projects. Sometimes the RFQ will ask you to include a description of your QA/QC process, and possibly other routine activities such as budgeting and scheduling. If not, you should briefly outline your project delivery process. The emphasis should not be on internal procedures as much on how you ensure the client receives what they want. Of course, this advice is hard to follow if you've never really defined your project delivery process.

Use personal language. If you use third person exclusively, as is common in our business, your SOQ will come across as impersonal. If you only use first person (we, us, our), it helps reinforce the impression that it's all about you. Adding a generous helping of second person (you, your) puts the spotlight on the client where it belongs. Don't discount the power of pronouns. Several studies going back to the 1960s have concluded that you is the most persuasive word in the English language.

Make your SOQ skimmable and easy to navigate. I can't think of a much more boring reading assignment than reviewing a stack of A/E firm SOQs—can you? Help the client reviewers out by making your submittal user friendly. This is the differentiator that no one talks about. Any important messages in your SOQ should be provided at the skim level; don't make the client read for it. That means making ample use of boldface headings, bullets, graphics, and captioned photos.