Friday, December 7, 2018

For Bosses: Simple Ways to Show You Care

In the A/E industry, people are often promoted into management positions more for their technical capabilities than their skill in leading people. That's unfortunate, especially in a tight labor market. Gallup research revealed that the number one reason employees leave a company is their boss. When staffing is the top strategic issue in our business, cultivating great bosses should be a priority.

If you are a boss, I hope you appropriately value the significance of your role and desire to continually improve at it. Arguably, the most important quality you can develop is genuine concern for those who work for you. If you really care, employees will generally be forgiving of other shortcomings. Unfortunately, this trait is not as common as we'd like. What is often diagnosed as a lack of people skills may more accurately be called a lack of people concern.

Then there are those of you who do care, but don't show it often enough. You need constant reminders to set aside time in your hectic schedule to invest in others. Build relationships. That's the bedrock of becoming a great boss. Here are a few simple but profound things bosses can do to show you care:

Write personal thank-you notes. In talking to hundreds of employees about workplace issues over the years, I can confirm what you already know: Expressions of praise and appreciation are in short supply. By all means, tell your employees how much you value their contributions as often as possible. But there's something about written thank-you notes that means even more.

Celebrate employee birthdays. It's not the birthday per se that really matters. It's simply a convenient date to in effect say, "You're special to us." Take the employee out to lunch and use that time to say thanks again, and to ask how things are going and what you can do to be more helpful. You might also want to have some kind of group celebration involving the office or department.

Involve staff in key decisions. One of the more uncaring things firm management can do is to make a significant policy or process change without consulting staff in advance. If you want the change to yield positive results, you'll fare much better when you proactively engage the people who ultimately have to make it work. Furthermore, involving employees in such decisions communicates that you value their input and care about how they might be affected.

Create time to talk about nonbusiness matters. Relationships built exclusively on business-related interactions are limited, even in a business setting. With pressing deadlines and pressure to meet utilization goals, you can inadvertently squelch the informal, personal conversations that help build stronger working relationships. Plus research has found that friendship at work is a highly valued workplace asset. Intentionally set time aside for personal interaction (which leads to my next point...).

Host periodic potluck lunches. Perhaps this is a Southern thing, but I associate potlucks with being great times for fellowship. Buying pizza or sandwiches for the group may seem to create the same kind of setting, but I've found there's something about potlucks that introduces a more personal, homey atmosphere that most employees appreciate. Doing this occasionally is a welcome break to the more common "business lunch" derivatives.

Help them achieve work/life balance. I commonly hear complaints from my fellow baby boomers that today's younger workers aren't as devoted to the job as we are. Perhaps they noticed that the web of work-induced stress, broken homes, and neglected priorities was a steep price to pay for making a living. Interestingly, studies are finding that adding work/life balance enhances productivity and profitability. Even us older workers are in increasing numbers seeking more balance. The bottom line for bosses: Show that you care about your employees' private lives, and help them (rather than discourage them) in the pursuit of that elusive balance. 

Be sensitive to employees' personal issues. The fact is that problems at home typically create struggles at work. Few people can effectively compartmentalize matters of the heart. This isn't to suggest that you as boss need to try to solve your employees' personal problems. But you should be understanding and compassionate. Sometimes that's as simple as taking some time to listen. Keep in mind that if an employee approaches you to talk about a personal matter, you have gained his or her trust and respect. Don't forfeit it by being too busy or distracted to show you care.

Conduct periodic "stay interviews." Why is it that in many firms the only time employees are really asked what they think about their employer is when they're heading out the door? Don't wait until the exit interview to uncover problems. A great boss will regularly ask employees how things are going and are on the alert for those unspoken signals of disengagement. But it might be wise to have a third party check in occasionally, in case there are problems with the boss that the employee doesn't want to talk to the boss about.

In these times of heated competition for talent, we need to step up the caring quotient. Most firms are very busy, leading to long hours and elevated stress for employees. Employee burnout has become a major problem, with one major study finding that over 50% feel they are overworked and overwhelmed, and 70% say they often dream of having another job. If you're a boss in a busy firm, you've all the more reason to demonstrate how much you care about your employees. Hopefully these tips will help.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Building Your Firm's Brand

I would contend that there are relatively few strong brands in the A/E profession. There are, of course, many well-known firms. But name recognition doesn't equal a strong brand. Unfortunately, many "branding" efforts focus on image and familiarity. Brand goes deeper.

There is a great deal of confusion about brand. Even the experts differ on how to define it. One consultant website I discovered listed over 200 definitions of the word brand that he had found on the internet. So let me offer a working definition for our purposes, one that represents something of a consensus among the experts I most respect: Your brand is what people (especially clients) perceive about your firm. 

How that perception is formed is critically important. Most branding activities in our industry are misdirected. They focus on logo redesigns, graphic standards, positioning lines, marketing copywriting. These amount to selling the sizzle rather than the steak. At its core, brand perceptions are shaped by the direct and indirect experiences clients (and others) have with your firm. Marketing can contribute to those experiences, but the substance of your brand is rooted in how you serve the client.

So if you're looking to strengthen your brand, don't start by turning to your marketing department or hiring an outside branding expert. Go first to the heart of your brand. Build (or at least investigate) the foundation before adding the infrastructure. Here's what I suggest:
Learn how you are perceived by clients. Since your brand resides here, this is the obvious place to start. Ask clients what they think about your firm. A few basic questions will suffice:
  • When you think of our firm, what impressions immediately come to mind?
  • What do you think distinguishes us from other similar firms?
  • What qualities among firms like ours do you consider most valuable?
  • How well do we deliver what we promise? Are we consistent and trustworthy?
You can survey clients yourself, but you'll get more accurate results if this is done by a third party. Include both existing and potential clients if you can.

Assess all the interactions you have with clients. Again, brand perceptions are shaped by direct and indirect interactions with your firm. So what are the quality and character of those interactions? Dig deep: Meetings and conversations. Work deliverables. Invoices. Reports. Visits to your office. Correspondence (including email). How your phone is answered. Sales calls. Marketing activities. And so on.

Don't overlook the importance of any encounter with the client. Perceptions can be rapidly formed, yet be grudgingly slow to change. A mishandled phone call can cost you a prospective client. A rudderless meeting can start a slide in confidence in your firm. A couple of inaccurate invoices can erode trust. The failure to return a phone call can sour the relationship.

Determine what you need to do to strengthen positive client perceptions. The path to a stronger brand passes through the intersection of (1) what you've learned about client perceptions of your firm and (2) how the myriad of interactions you have with clients influence or reinforce those perceptions. Obviously this can quickly become overwhelming. So you need to prioritize. What are 2-3 things you can do right now to strengthen your brand? What are the most important (albeit likely difficult) things you need to do?

Develop a reasonable action plan and commit your best resources to it. Is there anything more important than your brand? If the fruition of your efforts is well into the future, you can at least celebrate and share your incremental progress. Clients often appreciate your devotion to improvement even if you haven't yet perfected it.

Seek alignment between your external brand and your internal culture and processes. I know some firms that want to brand themselves on the basis of superior client service. Good idea! They rigorously promote that objective, both internally and externally. They've written it into their values statement.

But something is amiss. There are no formal standards or processes to support consistent service delivery. Service breakdowns are routinely tolerated. There is a culture of independence that resists compliance with the "company way" of doing things. Client managers seem to think they're doing good enough already.

This is not uncommon, and is one of the main reasons why there is a paucity of strong brands in our industry. You don't build brand with a fresh coat of paint; you have to reinforce the structure itself. Ultimately, your brand is a reflection of your culture. If the two are not aligned—your desired brand with your existing culture—you've got a lot of hard work ahead of you. But it's worth it.

Demonstrate your brand in how you market and sell. If superior service is the heart of your brand, serve the client through your business development activities (my favorite approach!). If you are known as the consummate experts, don't tell clients about your expertise, demonstrate it during the sales process by helping them solve problems. If clients think of you as "that high design" firm, engage the client in developing some design concepts before the RFP. Sell substance, not image. Enable prospective clients to experience your brand, not just tantalize them with descriptions of it.

Not the post you were expecting based on the title? Sorry. But these steps represent the reality of building your brand. Don't settle for the cosmetic makeover. It's hard work, but that's what makes a strong brand so difficult for your competitors to dislodge.

Monday, November 12, 2018

To Focus on Clients, Zoom Out

Customer centricity is one of the prevailing trends in business. It really seemed to take off during the years of slow growth following the Great Recession. As companies searched for ways to coax some growth out of a stagnant marketplace, getting closer to customers proved to be consistently effective. In fact, several studies conducted during that period, spanning multiple industries, concluded that customer focus was the top growth strategy.

That trend shows no sign of abating. While most companies are growing in this economy, the prudent ones are preparing for future growth when the current wave will have run its course. So customer centricity continues to be a strategic priority. In the A/E industry, many companies have implemented some form of client focus initiative, to mostly mixed results. Ironically, one of the greatest challenges has come from one of our traditional strengths.

Analytical skills are highly valued in our industry, and rightly so. Particularly among our engineering and scientific professionals, analytical skills facilitate complex problem solving ability. They are manifested in a characteristic attention to detail, critical thinking, and decision making capability. But the analytical mindset that is so prevalent in our industry can also be a substantial hindrance in building a culture of client focus.

Why? Because clients aren't a technical problem to be solved. Most client organizations exist for other purposes than to perform A/E projects. Our projects are merely a means to an end. The analytical mindset often leaves us strangely disconnected from the larger purposes of our projects. Want evidence? Read your firm's project descriptions. How many of them address the results the project delivered?

Over the last two years, I've been heavily involved with a national environmental firm pursuing the goal of becoming more client focused. We've given emphasis to the matter of perspective, how we see things. In a client-focused firm, of course, we should be able to see projects much as clients do. Projects are not just a technical scope, schedule, and budget. They're a problem or an aspiration, a solution, and a set of desired outcomes.

We know this. But seeing projects this way is not the natural bent for many of us. In training hundreds of technical professionals in client skills, I've found the following analogy helpful in developing a more client-centered perspective—zoom out. The table below highlights the key differences between this perspective and the more zoomed-in analytical viewpoint:

Analytical vs. big picture thinking. There's an old axiom that touches on this: "Can't see the forest for the trees." To better understand client needs (and define the best solutions), we need to adopt a more "ecosystem" perspective of our projects—more like clients see them.

Technical needs vs. strategic and people needs. A helpful tactic for broadening our perspective is to uncover client needs at three levels: technical, strategic, and people needs. We should also consider the client's desired outcomes at each of these levels.

Projects vs. clients. Again, projects are a means to an end. Satisfying clients and their constituents is the ultimate end.

Services vs. value. A dominant theme in the business literature is value creation, something that's rarely discussed in our profession. We need prioritize delivering value—in particular, business value—not just technical services.

Technical vs. business solutions. I advocate that we start thinking of our work as providing technically-oriented business solutions. That's how real client value is created.

Scope, schedule, budget vs. client expectations and the client experience (CX). Client focus means giving as much priority to meeting client expectations as fulfilling project requirements. Experts say that CX is supplanting price and product as the key differentiator.

Project completed vs. return on investment. I challenge consultants and designers to stop thinking about project success as a completed scope on schedule and on budget. Project success is not achieved until the client realizes the ROI—after the project is constructed and in operation. Are you taking the long view of your projects?

Zooming out (big picture thinking) does not suggest that we abandon our natural skill in zooming in (analytical thinking). Both perspectives are needed. But one comes more intuitively for most technical professionals. So remind yourself to periodically switch from the macro lens and zoom out to see what the client is seeing (and more). That makes your analytical problem solving all the more valuable.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Is Your Marketing Full of Empty Claims?

More is less when it comes to hyping your firm. Yet most of us who have ever penned marketing copy have been guilty of making statements that don't stand up to scrutiny. The odd thing is how often we resort to using the same empty marketing claims as our competitors to try to differentiate our firms.

For example, consider the over-used phrase "full-service engineering firm." What does that mean, anyway? Is there a minimum number of engineering disciplines or services you have to have to qualify as a full-service firm? Perhaps the phrase is simply meant to clarify that you're not a "partial-service engineering firm."

Type "unique architectural firm" into Google and you get over 182,000 hits. There are only about 105,000 licensed architects in the U.S. To be fair, you could say that there's no other firm exactly like yours, hence it is unique. But that definition renders the word pretty useless, doesn't it?

A few other examples of hype that I found in a brief survey of A/E firm websites (emphasis added):
  • Our projects deliver long-term, far-reaching benefits for their communities and serve as the genesis for future community-focused development. 
  • Our goal is to raise the standards of professional consulting engineering by hiring industry professionals who understand the complexities of building and maintaining modern infrastructures.
  • We provide pioneering solutions that better our community and safeguard the environment.
  • Our firm is an award-winning leader in engineering design.
  • [The firm] accomplishes this through unparalleled customer service—from pre-design to post-design construction follow-through.
Okay, maybe I'm making too much of throw-away phrases that no one takes seriously. But isn't that the point? When you use empty marketing claims that are not really to be believed, what does that do to the value of your marketing?

Let me suggest that you avoid all such language in your marketing, proposals, and sales conversations. Meaningless claims of distinction only diminish your message. A few guidelines:

Avoid absolutes unless they're true. This includes words such as unique, unparalleled, complete, and full. Absolutes are commonly used in marketing copy but are rarely accurate. That only erodes the substance of of your marketing claims—even your true ones.

Back up your strongest claims with proof. If, for example, you claim your firm was one of the "pioneers in sustainable design for Virginia public schools," you need to back that up with evidence. Stating the obvious? You might be surprised how often such claims are made without proof. And even if the claim is true, it only evokes skepticism without substantiation.

Be diligent in compiling the evidence. A key reason firms make empty marketing claims is that they simply don't have the proof to back up what they think is true. You say your firm saves clients money or minimizes construction claims? Can you produce the numbers? Providing a handful of examples out of the many projects you've done won't cut it. If you want to make such boasts, get serious about compiling the data to support it. Most A/E firms don't.

Make sure your claimed distinction isn't routine. I often see firms boasting of their 80% repeat business rate as evidence of exceptional client service. But that's pretty close to the norm in our business. And it's not necessarily a good measure of client satisfaction anyway. Your high repeat business rate could indicate weakness in winning new clients. Avoiding such useless claims is easier if you benchmark your firm's performance against competitors.

Beware of bloated adjectives. Much of the marketing hype we create involves the overuse of superlative adjectives like excellent, outstanding, exceptional, best-in-class, and industry-leading. I understand the temptation to use such words (I've used them many times myself), but the truth is they are at best useless, and perhaps counterproductive to your intent. Many marketing experts advise eliminating most adjectives from your marketing copy. I think it's wise to generally avoid what you might call "elective adjectives" (adjectives that aren't really needed to clarify your writing).

Identify or create tangible distinctives so you don't need to resort to empty claims. The best marketing copy is simply sharing the unadorned truth about a genuinely different company. If you struggle to avoid hype in marketing your firm, you might benefit from doing an inventory of distinctives:
  • List everything you can think of about your firm that's different or rare in your business
  • Rate or rank the items on your list according to their marketing value
  • Write down the evidence you have to support each claim on your list
  • Eliminate from your list anything that lacks adequate proof (or determine how you'll produce that proof)
You might be surprised what doing this inventory reveals. We often write marketing copy by rote without reexamining the substance of our claims. There's a good chance that you have a marketplace distinctive or two that you've been overlooking. Or you have proof of a distinctive that you haven't been using. Or perhaps you'll learn you really don't have much to brag about. In that case, it's not all bad. That revelation could serve to motivate your firm to do something about it.