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 at 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.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Why Leaders Are Way Better Than Bosses

Those appointed boss usually feel empowered. I felt intimidated—and that ultimately made me a better leader. When I was asked to step into the branch manager role for a 35-person office, I was leaping over several people on the organization chart that I considered my senior. One was a principal in the firm (and the former branch manager).

I couldn't envision myself telling these people what to do. Instead, I would need to persuade and inspire them. In other words, I would need to be more leader than boss. It worked. The office performed very well and was an incubator for several operational innovations (thanks to my dual role as leader of our corporate quality and service improvement initiative).

That experience reinforced my convictions about leadership, that the real power is held by those you lead. Sure, you can force them into compliance. You're the boss! But you cannot make them give you their best efforts. That comes only voluntarily. Your role as leader is to evoke their want-to rather than enforce their have-to.

Much has been written in recent years about employee engagement. Studies show that an engaged workforce produces greater profit, growth, shareholder value, quality, innovation, customer service, and loyalty to the company. These results flow in large part from discretionary effort, employees willingly going beyond what is required to deliver more of what is possible.

Leaders induce discretionary effort; bosses extract compliant effort. Leaders motivate; bosses mandate. All else being equal, employees who want to follow you will always outperform those who have to. That's why converting bosses into leaders is so important for any firm. Here are some steps you can take to further make that transition:

Prefer asking over telling. We teach our young children the value of asking nicely then sometimes forget the lesson when stepping into a position of authority. The principle still applies in the workplace. But there's another reason to master asking good questions...

Seek advice as much as you give it. The most successful leaders never stop learning, so they don't hesitate to ask others for insight. That includes their employees. The strength of working in an organization is the variety of perspectives, experiences, and talents available. But these assets need to be effectively tapped, which strong leaders do by empowering others and seeking their input.

Exert your authority judiciously. Pulling rank over employees is necessary sometimes, but doing so routinely dilutes the contributions they could make if able to exercise some discretion. This a step of faith that many bosses are hesitant to take. They think they strengthen their impact by asserting their authority more. But the opposite is actually true. Willing followers are far more productive than those compelled to follow.

But set standards and firmly uphold them. This is where many collaborative leaders get in trouble, by letting employee discretion spiral into dysfunction. When values and standards are on the line, it's time to assume your role as boss. You cannot tolerate willful violation of these core principles or they will lose their power to guide organizational behavior.

Teach others to follow by your example. Bosses exert tremendous influence on the workplace environment. Gallup research found that the number one reason employees leave is dissatisfaction with their boss. One of your foremost duties as a leader is to help other bosses grow into effective leaders. And the best way to do that is by your example.

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.

Thursday, April 30, 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.