Thursday, March 19, 2015

Should Clients Be Your Friends?

The small engineering firm had a client relationship that most would envy. Millions of dollars in fees were awarded on a sole-source basis. No proposals were necessary. "Business development" activities focused on hunting and fishing trips. The families of the firm's president and the main client contact actually vacationed together!

But when the firm hired me as a consultant, I was concerned with what I saw. Although over 80% of the firm's business came from this one client—a large energy company—no one in the firm could tell me what upcoming work was in the pipeline. There was no contract. The firm's principals deemed it unnecessary to try to extend their relationship to other key decision makers in the client organization ("our contact makes all the decisions," they told me).

Then the unexpected happened. The firm's client was acquired by a still larger energy company. Reorganization followed, and the firm's primary contact was reassigned. The new management team raised questions about the firm's work. They had never really been required to demonstrate their success in delivering business results—construction cost control, life cycle costs, system performance, value engineering, etc. It would prove to be their undoing.

The engineering firm lost most of the work with that client, and ended up being a bargain-bin acquisition by a larger A/E firm. Eventually what remained of their staff and three offices was discarded by the new owners, with the exception of two or three employees.

Was their fate avoidable? Perhaps. At least their story offers a cautionary tale about client relationships that neglect taking care of business. And that's a distinction worth noting since there are some who think that friendship is the apex of a strong client relationship. But that's not necessarily true.

Should you seek to make clients your friends? The philosophy of "friendship selling" was once commonplace, and I still encounter rainmakers in our profession who cling to that approach. There are still firms that largely equivocate client entertainment with client care. And the temptation still exists to neglect the business relationship because the client is a friend.

So what's the difference between a friendship and a business relationship? It's important to understand the distinction:
  • In a friendship, the primary benefit is the relationship itself. The two parties are rewarded simply by spending time together because of their common interests and strong affinity.
  • In a business relationship, the primary benefit is the business results derived from the relationship. That's not to suggest that affinity between the two parties is unimportant—it is. But a business relationship must deliver business value to survive long term.
Every client relationship is by definition a business relationship, whether a friendship develops or not. Yet I've witnessed several times, like in the story above, where the friendship seemed to dull the service provider's attentiveness to meeting the client's business needs. Friendship should never be a substitute for fulfilling your responsibility to help your clients achieve business success.

A couple of important conclusions to draw from this discussion:
  • Not all clients want to be your friend. Of course, you know this. But I still see sales and client retention strategies that are arguably based on a friendship model. A telltale sign? Rainmakers who seem to call everyone they know "a good friend."
  • You don't have to have a friendship to have a great client relationship. Indeed, this has become the norm. This doesn't imply an impersonal association. You still need to meet personal needs. But you can do that without a friendship that extends outside of work.
With that backdrop, let me offer a few suggestions relative to client friendships and business relationships:

Don't make making friends the focus of your sales approach. Instead, center your strategy on demonstrating your ability to give the client exceptional client service and deliver strong business value. Of course, personal chemistry and affinity are important, but are not a replacement for taking care of business first.

Don't mistake client entertainment for client service. Thankfully, client policies (and a few lawsuits) have curbed most of the excesses in this area that were prevalent several years ago. But I still encounter some who feel it necessary to regularly entertain clients to gain or retain their favor. A better approach is to delight clients in the process of working for them, not only after hours.

Don't actively pursue friendships; let them develop naturally. Despite a long history of successful friend-to-friend selling and doing business, I'm not an advocate of trying to make friendships happen as a business strategy. You can certainly take steps to cultivate friendship, but it is ultimately the byproduct of mutual interests and affinity. These conditions don't always exist with clients, or it may take an extended period for the friendship to take shape. Don't try to force friendship into every client relationship.

If friendship develops, don't ease up in delivering business value. In fact, you should be all the more motivated to do your best in this regard. Unfortunately, friendship is sometimes used as cover for less than stellar performance. Be on your guard against taking client friendships for granted. Be diligent in establishing mutual expectations, refining your delivery process, closely monitoring performance, and regularly soliciting feedback from the client. I'd advise getting colleagues who don't share the friendship to help hold you accountable. They are likely to see dimensions of the client relationship that you don't.

Don't neglect other important relationships within the client's organization. It's easy to stick with your friend, especially if he or she has purchasing authority. But there is usually value for both parties in broadening the relationships on both sides. Strive for a "zipper relationship" (multiple people in multiple points of interaction) versus the "button relationship" that often results when friendship is involved. Make your friend look good by demonstrating business value to his or her coworkers.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Engaging Employees in Meeting Financial Goals

If your firm is like most, meeting financial goals is primarily the responsibility of owners and managers, not employees. In fact, as I wrote in a previous post, most A/E firms don't even share financial information with staff. I likened this to playing in a game where only the coach knows the score. The evidence is strong that engaging rank-and-file employees in meeting financial goals is a formula for success, but perhaps not for the reasons you might assume.

The first challenge in getting staff actively involved in meeting the numbers is convincing them that it's important, or even a good thing. Profit-making has never been so unpopular in this country. Big companies, in particular, are routinely demonized in the news media. The rich are portrayed as selfish rather than successful. Even the president contributes to these negative characterizations.

Not surprisingly, one poll found that 42% of Americans believe there should be a limit on how much profit a company can make (did you know that oil companies make about half as much profit margin as A/E firms?). A Pew survey found that more millennials favor socialism than capitalism (although another survey suggested that they didn't really understand the difference).

Do these trends matter when you're trying to engage employees in the profit-making mission of your firm? I think they do. Even without the bad publicity, you might struggle to get employees to take ownership for financial performance. After all, what's in it for them? Don't think that the promise of a slightly bigger bonus is going to motivate the average employee to really care about the numbers.

There are probably some entrepreneurial types in your firm who enjoy the money side of the business. But most need a different tact to get them excited about revenue, profit, and cash flow. Here's what I suggest:

Learn to describe the real value of what you do. Most employees, especially the younger generations, are looking for meaning in their work. They want to feel that what they do matters—beyond making money for the company. Unfortunately, many technical professionals struggle to connect our work to its true value. We tend to be task oriented rather than goal oriented. We're prone to focus on what we do rather than what we accomplish (for proof, read your firm's project descriptions).

The old fable of the quarry workers illustrates this point: A man comes upon three quarry workers and asks them what they're doing. The first worker replies, "I'm cutting building stones from this rock." The second says, "I'm earning a living to support my family." The third understands the real value of his work: "I'm building a beautiful cathedral." 

When your employees believe they're "building cathedrals," it puts the firm's financial performance in a whole different context. Profit then isn't just money in the owners' pockets, but a measure of value delivered. Define what success really means for your company, and the financial metrics become a way to keep score. And most people love to win.

Educate employees on what the numbers mean. Just as many millennials couldn't accurately describe the difference between socialism and capitalism, the chances are that most of your staff don't understand the financial terms that are important to management. So teach them. But do so in the context of value, success, and winning, not just profit-making.

Benchmarking against the industry can be useful in this way. To talk about how your firm is performing compared to similar firms can bring out the competitive nature in your people, increasing their interest in meeting the metrics. But don't just settle for equaling industry medians; strive to be better than average. That will generate more staff enthusiasm for the quest.

How you present the numbers also matters. Avoid spreadsheets for broader employee consumption. Most don't really understand how to interpret them. Charts and graphs are preferable. Besides being easier for most people to understand, they also are better for showing trends—important in gauging progress towards your goals.

Show the connection between what employees do and financial results. An employee may see her main duty as creating a quality work product, but fail to understand the business impact if it takes her twice as much time as was budgeted. A senior professional may not recognize that his doing a task that a less experienced and less costly coworker could have done can erode project profit or delay payment.

In most A/E firms the connection between project work and financial results is a vague concept to the average staff member. For many, simply having a better understanding of how their efforts benefit the bottom line can increase the perceived value of what they do. It can also motivate them to look for more efficient and profitable ways to do their work.

Don't ignore overhead staff in this discussion. They may not do billable work, but they have vital functions that contribute to the firm's financial results. Avoid talking about nonbillable time as a drain to the bottom line; instead describe it as an investment—one that must be wisely allocated (hence, not too much of it). The firm simply cannot be successful without expending nonbillable time on winning new work, collecting payment and paying bills, maintaining the IT system, hiring new employees, etc.

These are what I consider some useful steps in getting staff more involved in meeting your firm's financial goals. There are others. Have any ideas you'd like to share? Or any opinions on what I've written here? I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Displacing the Incumbent

One of my constant themes regarding business development is the need for discipline: Budget your time. Pick your best opportunities and give them appropriate attention. Don't waste your time on proposals you have little chance of winning.

Given this philosophy, you might expect me to discourage pursuing a client where there is a seemingly entrenched competitor. Not necessarily true. For one thing, the incumbent might not be as unbeatable as you imagine. For another, in this economy you're only going to grow your business significantly by taking work from competitors. Are you up to the task? 

Why the Incumbent's Advantages Might Not Be Insurmountable

Of course, the incumbent firm has many advantages—relationships with key decision makers, a track record of success, inside knowledge of the client's business. But there's cause for hope:
  • One survey found that over half of clients are open to switching their A/E service providers.
  • Another survey concluded that only 16% of clients gave their A/E service providers an A for service.
  • Still another survey indicated that less than one quarter of clients would recommend their top professional service providers.
Then there are our own experiences. Nearly all of us who have been in this business several years have worked for that long-time incumbent firm that got displaced at one point, or the firm that pushed the incumbent out (or both). It's clear that the prevailing 80% repeat business rate in our industry is not a wholesale endorsement by clients. The reasons for not switching may have more to do with convenience than real satisfaction. Therein lies your potential opportunity. 

Assessing the Opportunity

The time to decide whether you should try to unseat an incumbent is not before you even talk to the client. Nor is it after the RFP is on the street. Unfortunately those are the two circumstances when many firms make a decision. They either write off the client before ever meeting with them. Or they decide to propose on a project (with an incumbent) they knew little to nothing about before the solicitation was published.

In both cases, the mistake is not talking to the client at the right time. The right time is before the procurement process is underway, when clients are generally more open to exploratory meetings with other service providers. You want to contact the client when you're in position to offer help without appearing motivated purely by the RFP. You're also likely to get a better assessment of the incumbent's position when the client isn't concerned about generating a good response to their solicitation.

How to Displace the Incumbent

I find it interesting that market research across multiple industries has found little correlation between customer satisfaction and loyalty. The vast majority of customers who switch products or service providers indicate they were satisfied before they made a change. 

So why did they change? Because they found something they thought was better than what they had been using. That's the simple secret to unseating the incumbent. Sure, changing A/E firms is not as easy as changing toothpastes. But demonstrating a difference in your favor may not be as difficult as you thought. Here are some suggestions:

Don't contact the client until you've uncovered a need. The basis for your initial contact (and subsequent ones) should be to offer your help—typically in the form of information, insight, or advice relating to a specific problem or challenge. If you don't know how you might help, the client has little reason to talk with you. So use your network, the internet, or any other sources to learn all you can about the client before making the first call.

Offer your help unconditionally. Even your offer to help (your entree) may be met with reluctance if the client is reasonably satisfied with the incumbent. It may be viewed as merely a ploy to gain an audience with the client. You want to convince the client otherwise. Imagine the client says, "We're already working with another firm." You could respond, "That's fine. If I can be helpful, that in itself makes it worth my time if it's worth your time. Helping people like you is why we're in business." Your response should allay fear that your desire to meet is motivated primarily by self-interest.

But look for signs of mutual interest. Besides delivering the help you promised, the goal of your initial meeting with the client is to determine if there's interest in continuing the conversation with you. The best way to confirm this is to try to schedule a follow-up meeting to provide further help. Of course, agreeing to keep talking doesn't necessarily mean the client is open to a change. 

With each subsequent meeting, you should be seeking increasing commitments on the client's part, helping gauge their interest in a possible business relationship. These commitments might include things such as introductions to other decision makers, a visit to one of your clients' sites, a meeting at your office, a strategy workshop, etc.

Seek opportunities to fill a void. One of the first steps in displacing the incumbent is often helping the client in areas where your competitor isn't. In talking with the client, actively seek to uncover unmet needs. The support you provide in this area will initially be part of the sales process, but eventually could lead to contract work. Once under contract, you are then much better positioned to overcome some of the incumbent's advantages.

Above all, out-serve the incumbent. Many clients feel that their A/E service provider isn't as attentive or responsive as they'd like them to be. In my experience conducting client surveys, inadequate communication is the number one client complaint. See an opportunity?

Once you have gained access to the client by consistently offering something of value, you can begin outworking the incumbent in serving the client. It's often not that difficult. But it does demand discipline and focus—which brings me back to my core philosophy of business development. Pay attention to the details of client service and watch your sales opportunities multiply.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Training on a Tight Budget

As the competition for talent heats up, smart firms are taking steps to better attract and retain quality employees. How about your firm?

Providing training is one proven method for winning over employees. Besides the usual intended benefit of improving performance, training makes people feel more valued by their employer. One of the primary reasons employees leave is because they don't feel valued enough.

Training also supports people's innate drive for improvement and mastery, one of the primary factors that motivates employees. The acquired competency that comes with training and experience enhances career opportunities as well.

So there's a compelling case for the importance of training. Unfortunately, many A/E firms fail to make it a priority. This is particularly true of smaller firms that think they can't afford it.  

The evidence suggests that A/E firms trail other industries in providing training to employees. The latest annual survey by the Association of Talent Development found that corporate training investment across multiple industries has increased substantially in the last decade, now averaging 36 hours per employee annually. I haven't been able to put my hands on recent data for our industry, but I suspect that we're well below that average.

If you would like to increase the training you provide to your employees but have a tight budget, here are a few cost-saving strategies to consider:

Plan training well in advance. Your office undoubtedly receives a regular stream of mailers promoting various training programs. It can be hard to resist the impulse spending when something good comes along. Reduce the temptation by conducting an assessment of your staff's training needs every 6-12 months, and budget accordingly. Pick specific training programs in advance to the extent possible.

Utilize local colleges. Many colleges have departments that offer training at costs substantially lower than private-sector suppliers. Some of the best bargains can be found at local community colleges, which are increasingly providing high-level training in areas such as management, marketing, and technical skills. In some cases, the same trainers used by pricey training firms also work through colleges at a fraction of the cost.

Share the cost with another firm. Rather than pay the full fees for having a trainer come to your office, split the cost with another company or two interested in joining you. This can be an especially attractive option for small firms that lack the staff size to warrant a volume discount or earn an affordable per-person cost. There are also intrinsic benefits in training with another firm, such as sharing ideas on issues of mutual interest.

Control incremental costs. Ask the training vendor for a cost breakdown for their program, then seek to negotiate specific items. For example, the trainer may charge $20 each for three-ring binders. Offer to buy your own. You might be able to make copies of program materials yourself at significantly less cost. It's also a good idea to look into training at your office, or another economical location, rather than leaving the meeting place arrangements to the trainer.

Use "real-time coaching." Provide on-the-job instruction and reinforcement so that staff members can learn and be billable at the same time. Instead of sending them to a seminar on how to do better project planning, for example, bring the trainer in to teach them as they are planning an actual project. Besides saving money, this approach increases learning and practical application. 

Train your own internal trainers. You may already have individuals in your firm who are competent in training and mentoring others. Take advantage of their skills. Other inside experts may first need outside help in developing their training abilities. This requires an upfront investment, but can save money down the road. Plus internal trainers have the advantage of being more familiar with your firm and your business.

Create or purchase computer-based training programs. This self-directed option has grown tremendously in recent years. While I'm less confident in the effectiveness of this approach compared to other options, it probably still deserves a place in your training arsenal. Like training the trainer, this may involve a sizable initial investment, but over the long run could be very cost effective. Computer-based learning works best when coupled with some kind of follow-up like testing, on-the-job exercises, or discussion groups. 

These are but a few of the possible affordable alternatives for training your employees. Others include webinars, videos, assigned readings, and even the internet. The point is, you don't have to scrimp on training just because you're small or money is tight. And failure to provide adequate training will likely cost you more down the line.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Does Sharing Financial Data Improve Performance?

I'm working with a family-owned engineering firm that has tentatively decided to take a bold step: to start sharing financial information with all their employees. I must confess that it's been hard for me to understand their reluctance to do so. Most A/E and environmental firms that I've worked with over my career have practiced some degree of what's known as open-book management (OBM).

But I've been surprised to learn that my client is in a substantial majority. According to one survey of 1,300 chief financial officers with private companies, only 7% shared financial data with all employees. Another 17% shared this information with only select employees, while 76% provided no such data to their staff.

OBM is more common in the A/E industry, with 21% of firms sharing financial information with all firm members according to Zweig. Yet 36% of "fast-growing firms" practice OBM compared to only 8% of "no growth firms" and 13% of declining firms. Is there a trend here?

Zweig reports that 81% of firms that were Best Firms to Work For Award winners shared revenue data with all employees, whereas 65% shared profit data. Meanwhile, 85% of companies in Inc. Magazine's 2010 Top Small Company Workplaces practice OBM, as do 40% of Inc.'s Top 500 fastest growing companies.

There seems to be a significant correlation between doing OBM and being successful. And it makes perfect sense. Sharing financial information with employees promotes trust and collaboration. It gives employees a better sense of connectedness to the company's success. It enables them to make more informed decisions about how help improve performance and profitability. It improves employee engagement, retention, motivation, innovation, and corporate sustainability, according to a white paper published by the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Research directly linking OBM to improved financial performance appears to be lacking, but the anecdotal evidence is abundant. Spend some time reading on the topic and you'll learn of many companies who attribute their success at least in part to becoming more transparent in sharing information with workers. It's easy to see how OBM would help increase employee engagement, and the financial advantages of having a more engaged workforce are well demonstrated.

Clearly, the decision about whether to use OBM or not is a reflection of the firm's culture. One author suggested the change from keeping financial data private to sharing it with employees denotes a shift from a patriarchal culture to a participatory one. I think that's an apt description. The former is akin to playing in a game where only the coach knows the score. It's harder to build a high performing team when such information is withheld.

So if your firm is in the majority but you're open to, well being more open, where do you start? Here are a few suggestions:

Determine what information to share and how often. Despite the name, OBM isn't an invitation to open your books completely. Certain data, such as individual salaries, should be kept private. The fact is that you can achieve many of the benefits of OBM while sharing only limited information. The most important data is that which employees can act on—helping meet sales targets, reduce expenses, increase efficiency, for example. Sharing financial data quarterly keeps staff informed, but monthly updates probably have a greater influence on performance.

Educate employees about what the numbers mean. Most are probably not adept at reading balance sheets and interpreting financial trends. OBM advocates advise executives to focus on increasing overall business literacy among their staff, explaining what makes the firm successful and giving the numbers meaning. That's more reason for being selective in what is shared, to avoid overwhelming with too much data that people don't really understand.

Sell the importance of profitability. We live in an age when profit is under assault, characterized as a benefit enjoyed only by the affluent. Fortunately, 9 in 10 A/E firms have some kind of bonus or incentive compensation program in which profits are shared with employees. So that makes it easier to sell them on the importance of making a profit. But there are other purposes that profit fulfills relative to keeping the firm healthy and employees happy. Make sure that message is communicated along with the numbers.

Provide context. Explain marketplace trends, industry benchmarks, and what the firm's numbers over time indicate. Show employees how their work contributes to the bottom line. One of the greatest advantages of OBM is giving staff members as sense of ownership and control over how the company fares.

Don't withhold bad news, but maintain optimism. There is often concern that sharing the truth about poor performance with employees will be harmful. Won't they get discouraged and maybe even consider jumping ship? That's possible, but aren't they also a critical part of the solution?

The best approach in most cases is to share the bad news but couple it with encouragement that the firm is facing the issue head-on. Describe what corrective actions are being taken, or even better if appropriate, solicit staff input into what should be done. Of course, if laying people off or closing business units is potentially part of the solution, you'll have think hard about how much information to share in advance. 

Promote a culture that handles transparency responsibly. Many firms don't share financial information because they fear it may cause conflict or rivalry between offices, departments, and managers. If that's true, you're better off focusing on negative cultural and structural influences than withholding valuable information. OBM works better in firms committed to community and collaboration. Chances are your decision to share financial information indicates a desire to strengthen those cultural attributes. Don't let a little bad behavior discourage you from pursuing that goal. Instead, fix the root of the problem.

Monday, January 12, 2015

10 Steps to Revolutionizing Your Rainmaking

Forecasts of up to 10% growth in 2015 construction starts harkens back to the prerecession salad days. But many A/E firm leaders and business developers still aren't feeling it. They continue to struggle despite the reported market growth, finding that the competitive dynamics have shifted against their favor. They need a jump start, or even a makeover in how they approach winning new business. Maybe your firm needs the same.

That's what this post is all about, 10 steps that you can take to revolutionize your rainmaking and dramatically improve your success rate. Yes, that's a bold claim. But I can attest to the efficacy of each and every step, through both my experience and research. The real revolution, though, comes in combining these steps in a cohesive, game-changing business development strategy. Here's how to win more than your share:

1. Stop selling and serve buyers instead. There's a reason most technical professionals are uncomfortable with selling: They've been on the other side of the transaction! If you don't like being sold, what about prospective clients? The best way to sell is not to sell. Serve the buyer instead. Focus on meeting needs. Become a trusted advisor, a valued resource. Never waste the client's time, but always bring something of value to every sales call. 

2. Make relationship building a priority. Despite claims to the contrary, building relationships in the process of selling is still a vital objective. While you're likely to agree with that statement, your sales approach is probably more transactional than relational. That's the norm in our business. We focus on identifying leads, tracking RFPs, and writing proposals. The best firms, however, have a deliberate process for seeking and building relationships with buyers (and clients). They recognize that the secret to sustainable success is building more long-term relationships that produce a continuing stream of revenue.

3. Stop self-promotion and provide valuable content instead. The usual marketing activities suffer the same fundamental flaw as the traditional sales approach—they're self-centered. Brochures, newsletters, email campaigns, websites, advertisements, trade show exhibits, all with the same central theme: Look at us! A better approach is to divert most of that investment (say 70-80%) to creating content that informs, advises, and equips clients to succeed in their business. This approach obviously complements the service-driven sales philosophy described above.

4. Build your brand around distinctive customer experiences. Brand is all about perceptions, and perceptions are shaped by the direct and indirect encounters one has with a company, product, or service. You can't create brand in the marketing department. It's rooted in substance, not image. That's why most branding initiatives in our industry have negligible impact. If you're serious about your firm's brand (and you should be!), start by assessing the experiences clients have with your firm and devise ways to improve upon them. Then embody your brand in the way you market and sell—by serving the buyer.

5. Go beyond just meeting technical needs. Our tendency to focus predominantly on technical issues has had a profound effect on our industry. I think it's a key reason why A/E firms cannot command as high a labor multiplier (or profit) as most professional service firms do. If you want to distinguish your firm and increase the value of your services, learn how to address needs beyond the technical issues your firm specializes in. This will include meeting strategic needs—financial, competitive, political, and operational factors that impact the client's overall success. And don't neglect the personal needs of the client, including the buyer's desire for responsive service and a positive experience with your firm.

6. Encourage employees to nurture their network. Ultimately the things of enduring value that most of us take from our careers are the relationships we develop and the people we help along the way. That puts a different spin on networking. No longer should it be viewed as merely a business development activity designed to generate contacts and leads. Rather it is a commitment to build and maintain relationships (see above)—and that should be a goal for every member of your firm. Encourage them to establish the discipline of nurturing their network weekly. Relationships are the wellspring of both business and personal success. Multiply these benefits by fostering firm-wide involvement in networking, and watch your rainmaking take off as well.

7. Manage business development like project work. In most firms, marketing and sales by technical staff is done with leftover time. You would never handle project work that way. So why relegate so critical a function as bringing in new work to secondary status in your resource allocation? Business development tasks should be assigned and managed just like project tasks, with individuals' time specifically budgeted for that purpose. Since deadlines largely drive project commitments, you should also establish deadlines for business development tasks. These tasks and deadlines deserve equal priority with project activities. 

8. Involve staff at all levels of the firm. You can increase your business development effort without increasing your costs by redirecting more existing nonbillable hours to it. This is more easily accomplished when you recognize how the varied skills across your organization could be applied to winning new work. For example, administrative staff could conduct client and market research on the internet. Junior technical staff could create tools and resources for clients (as part of your service-centered approach to marketing). Spreading the effort no only enables you to get more done, but it promotes a "rainmaking culture" in which everyone is encouraged to contribute to meeting one the firm's greatest needs.

9. Increase your win rate by doing fewer proposals. Most firms submit too many proposals, pursuing opportunities they really have no chance of winning. This often results in spreading their proposal preparation staff so thin that they can't put together a strong proposal even for their best opportunities. With limited resources, you need to keep in mind that every hour spent on a losing proposal is time diverted from more productive tasks. The key principle here is this: Do fewer better. In my last job as corporate proposal manager, we compiled a 75% win rate by limiting our best proposal resources to only our best pursuits. Fewer proposals also allow your seller-doers to spend more time selling and less time working on losing proposal efforts.

10. Make your proposals client-centered and user-friendly. If you want to distinguish your proposals from everyone else's, this is a good place to start. The vast majority of proposals focus on the submitting firm rather than the client (yes, I understand that RFPs encourage this) and almost none of them are skimmable. The prevailing theme of your proposals should be how you will address the client's needs, concerns, aspirations, and priorities. Don't let RFPs fool you; clients care more about their interests than your firm. So keep the focus of your proposals on what what matters most to them.

Making your proposals skimmable not only makes them easier for clients to review; it facilitates good communication. Few clients read your proposals front to back, word for word. Yet most firms write them as if they think clients read them that way. If you make your proposals concise, skim-friendly, and easy to navigate, clients will notice. It's the competitive advantage that no one is talking about.

So there you go: 10 steps that can dramatically improve your rainmaking success. Radical ideas? No, mostly common sense that is strangely uncommon in the A/E industry. Your firm can take advantage of this shortcoming and stand out from your competitors. That is the objective, right?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Top Blog Posts of 2014

I was complaining to my wife about the latest "year in review" magazine edition I had received in the mail when I remembered that I always finish the year by reviewing my top blog posts over the previous 12 months. Oh well, there would seem to be a sizable audience out there who appreciate the look-backs even if I don't. So for you, I offer my 10 most popular posts of 2014. 

And let me take this opportunity to extend my heartfelt thanks to the growing number of you who read my blog regularly. Blogging on a weekly basis can be a real hassle at times, but you (and especially the feedback I receive from some of you) make it all worthwhile. May you have a prosperous new year. If I can help in any way, don't hesitate to ask.

1. Is Your Sales Approach Aligned with the Buyer? This post was a surprise first-place finisher, recalling how I felt bereft of good ideas when I wrote it. But the story I told to illustrate the point seemed to resonate, indicating that I'm not the only one who has experienced different buyers in a single client organization being in different places in the buying process.

2. Does Free Advice Devalue Your Services? I've debated this point with clients and colleagues for years, and the popularity of this post suggests that the debate still rages. It's an important question for those of us who are convinced that the best way to sell is to serve the buyer. My experience and research debunks the myth that helping prospective clients (for free) ultimately hurts your firm.

3. Hiring the Right Rainmaker. Many A/E firms turn to hiring a dedicated seller (or more) to make up for the shortcomings of their seller-doers. It makes sense, but is not a decision without risks. In my experience, more rainmaker hires disappoint than meet expectations. This post offers advice on how to make this option work for your firm.

4. 3 Dimensions of the Client Relationship. There are still many in our profession who seem to think that building client relationships through the sales process is all about making friends. But the other two dimensions of the relationship are more important—and often overlooked.

5. Creating Skimmable Proposal Content. This is the most important proposal differentiator that no one talks about—making your proposals easy to read and navigate. This post outlines a process for helping technical professionals, who tend to be overly verbose, create proposal content that can be readily skimmed by client reviewers (which is what they're going to do with or without your help).

6. Investing Nonbillable Time. Many firms mistakenly characterize nonbillable time as a hindrance to maximizing profitability. Nothing could be further from the truth. Putting nonbillable time to its best use is critical to sustained profitability and business success. Unfortunately most firms fail to take the steps necessary to do this.

7. Selling: It's Not About You. We all dislike the apparent self-interest observed in how most salespeople approach us. But do we repeat the same mistakes when we step into the seller's role? In my experience, yes. This post describes how to avoid the widely disdained sales stereotype, starting with shifting the focus from yourself to the buyer.

8. Why You Should Be Hoarding Content. Why aren't more A/E firms embracing content marketing? Because most of them are content poor. But there are many benefits of developing the practice of constantly accumulating good content that go beyond simply supporting your marketing efforts.

9. Collaboration as Competitive Advantage. Our industry recognizes the need for a more collaborative, cross-disciplinary planning and design process. But success in this realm is still rare. You can take advantage of this shortcoming by following the steps in this post in making collaboration a differentiator for your firm.

10. Is Advertising Worth It? Companies in other industries spend billions on advertising, so it must have value in our profession—right? Surveys of professional service marketers don't give much credence to advertising. Your marketing dollars are probably better spent elsewhere, as this post explains why.