Monday, August 14, 2017

What Can Your Firm Learn From Matchmaking Sites?

Turns out that dating is a rather inefficient way to find your lifelong soulmate. More than nine of ten dating relationships end in failure, often with painful heartbreak.

Enter online matchmaking services like PerfectMatch and eHarmony. Twice as many online dating relationships reputedly result in marriage as the old fashioned way. How can this be? These sites claim their success is rooted in a process of screening for compatibility, to a depth that is rarely pursued in traditional dating.

I confess I'm still a bit uncomfortable with the notion of seeking a spouse online. But I'm always looking for lessons. Is there something to be learned from matchmaking services for those of us in the A/E industry? Maybe.

Our businesses depend on relationships, and most of them don't last. Indeed, most of them don't even get started. There's the awkward courtship phase where we throw ourselves at practically every prospect who will talk to us. There's the expensive proposal phase that ends in disappointment 60-70% of the time. Then for those clients who will "go out" with us (i.e., sign a contract), most of those relationships don't last either.

Isn't there a better way? I think so. And, no, I haven't found an online client matchmaking site. But we can still apply some of the same concepts on our own:

Commit to prioritizing long-term relationships. There's a reason most people eventually end up getting married. Sure, some aspects of the dating scene have their appeal—meeting people, starting new relationships, walking away from those that don't work. But most people ultimately want the stability, commitment, and mutuality of matrimony. That's why many turn to online matchmaking sites.

In our business, the equivalent of the dating scene is project pursuit. Many firms focus their business development efforts more on gaining contracts than relationships. The recession probably accelerated this trend. Many firms were desperate for work, and writing proposals (albeit mostly losing ones) provided more immediate gratification than the process of cultivating client relationships. That trend still persists despite a better economy.

But there's a cost in taking that approach. Project-focused business development is akin to feeding the furnace. You need to keep throwing logs into the firebox to prevent it from going out. Every day you're burning backlog. So you have to keep bringing in new projects to keep from going under.

By contrast, your best client relationships continue to generate new revenue for years. These are the foundation of a sustainable, successful business. Long-term clients also typically yield your highest profits, not to mention your most satisfying work.

So why do so few firms have a relationship development strategy? Most of us would agree that bar hopping isn't the best way to look for a long-term relationship. But isn't that essentially what many A/E firms resort to in their efforts to secure new work? A better way is to focus at least a substantial portion of your limited BD resources on creating and nurturing great client relationships.

Define what constitutes a great client relationship. I have a friend who recently married a young lady he met through an online matchmaking site. They were initially matched through information they had provided the site on specifically what they were looking for in a spouse. Even from their first date, they openly explored the potential and criteria for a long-term relationship.

Have you ever outlined what your firm is looking for in the ideal client? If not, how then do you go about looking for such relationships? Are you guided by your gut, or does it happen mostly by chance?

I've conducted a few workshops where an A/E firm and one of its best clients were seeking ways to further strengthen their relationship. One of the exercises involved sending each party to opposite corners and having them define the most important attributes of a great client or a great consultant.

That has consistently resulted in a fascinating revelation. They had never thought of the question before. Yet in considering it, they were better able to identify specific ways to improve the relationship. It's not unlike attending a marriage seminar where you and your spouse clarify what you've long wanted but weren't quite getting from the relationship. You leave wondering why you hadn't had that conversation before.

Let me encourage you to do the exercise, if you haven't already: Schedule a brainstorming session to identity what your firm values most in a great client relationship. Be as specific and objective as possible so you can use these criteria to assess existing and potential relationships.

Screen prospects for long-term relationship potential. eHarmony touts its 29 Dimensions of Compatibility as a tool for enhancing your chances of finding a lasting and fulfilling relationship. The effectiveness of that system has been debated, but clearly some kind of screening process is helpful.

Most firms have a go/no go decision process at the RFP stage. But that's too late to determine whether you should invest valuable time cultivating a relationship with that client. On the contrary, the client's "compatibility" should be considered at the qualifying stage—in other words, before you begin the process of relationship building.

Now I'm not suggesting that you pursue only clients with long-term relationship potential. But this kind of client should warrant your best BD efforts. In my experience, when you invest in relationship development before the RFP, your win rate dramatically improves. But not every client is interested in building a relationship, and you probably don't want to work for every client who is either. So choose your best opportunities based on the potential of the relationship and the mutual business benefit.

Develop a plan for strengthening existing client relationships. Matchmaking sites may help you get started in a great relationship, but the true test comes afterward. You have to work at relationships to make them lasting and satisfying. And while most of us are relational by nature (i.e., we desire relationships), many of us aren't natural in maintaining relationships. It requires focused, disciplined effort.

How hard does your firm work at maintaining your strategic relationships? Do you have a plan, have you committed resources, or do you play it by ear? That can be a dangerous way to go. Check out my previous post on displacing incumbents and remember that's precisely what your competitors are trying to do to you. Don't take your most important relationships for granted.

Finding the right match is one thing, but building those relationships is where your real strength as a firm will be tested.

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