Monday, April 27, 2015

Why Employees Leave

The economy continues to make a slow recovery. That's the good news. The bad news? Expect employee movement to pick up as well. Voluntary turnover dipped during the worst of the recession. But as business picks up, more employees will be leaving for greener pastures.

What can you do about it? Start by understanding the reasons why employees might leave your firm. There is a good deal of misunderstanding about the causes behind voluntary turnover. While most companies conduct exit interviews, they often fail to uncover the real reasons for an employee's departure.

The Saratoga Group has conducted thousands of independent exit interviews and has found significant differences between what employers and employees report as reasons why people choose to change jobs. For example, their interviews revealed that 89% of managers felt that employees left mostly for more money. But 88% of departing employees said they left for reasons other than money.

The Saratoga study identified seven main reasons why employees leave their job:

The job is not what they expected.
Expectations play a critical role in both the employee's decision to take a job and his decision to leave. When initial expectations are not met, the process of "disengagement" begins (see below). The problem often begins when the employer fails to establish realistic expectations during the recruiting and hiring process. Obviously, you want to do your best selling the job to a coveted candidate. But overselling or failing to disclose the less desirable aspects of the job can cost you later. A key aspect of the interview process should be confirming mutual expectations about what the job entails and the work environment.

The job is a bad fit for the employee.
Research by the Gallup Organization found that poor job fit is the top reason for employee disengagement—when interest and productivity drop. Disengagement usually precedes an employee's voluntary departure. (Remarkably, Gallup found that 75% of workers are not engaged on the job, costing the U.S. economy an estimated $250 to $350 billion a year in lost productivity!) Again, the problem begins in the recruiting and hiring process, but can also surface later when the firm fails to find the best fit for the employee's evolving skills and interests.

There is a lack of feedback and coaching. This is a common shortcoming, resulting in lower productivity, quality, professional growth, and job satisfaction—leading ultimately to higher turnover. Feedback and coaching obviously help employees develop their skills and performance. But it also communicates that the company cares about its employees and wants to invest in their future with the firm.

They see little opportunity for career growth.
This contributes to turnover among all employees, but especially among younger and "nonprofessional" staff. Younger employees often are looking to advance at a faster pace than their older colleagues did. Most firms I've worked with lack clear career paths, the very thing younger professionals want. We need to also reconsider the traditional time line for moving people into management roles. Other industries, for example, are promoting capable technical professionals to project management roles 3-4 years out of college.

Many nonprofessional workers in our industry feel trapped in their current jobs, with little perceived opportunity for advancement. The A/E firm culture often seems to undervalue the contributions and potential of those in administrative or technician level jobs. Yet many of these individuals not only add tremendous value to the team, but have substantial untapped potential to take on larger roles if given the chance.

They feel devalued and unrecognized. Compensation—both salaries and bonuses—play a role here, but as noted above, it's much less than commonly thought. A greater factor is a general sense among employees about whether they are properly appreciated and valued. This is more often demonstrated in non-monetary forms, such as listening to employee concerns, inviting their input on decisions, formally recognizing their successes, caring about them as people, entrusting them with appropriate freedom and authority, and giving them opportunities to grow and advance.

They feel overworked and stressed out.
There is growing interest among employees (especially younger workers) in maintaining a work-life balance. At the same time, Americans are working longer hours and on-the-job stress is increasing. Work-related insecurity associated with business downturns, mergers, and reorganizations certainly hasn't help this situation.

The problem clearly affects our profession. Long hours, pressure, and extensive travel all can contribute to employee turnover. Firms are attempting to respond with more flexible hours and policies, but many firms are still short-staffed emerging from the recession. Even apart from the economic downturn, many managers have long favored some degree of understaffing to maintain higher utilizations. Yet the net benefit is dubious if this increases turnover and its associated costs.

They are unhappy with their boss.
According to Gallup's workplace research, a poor relationship with the boss is the number one reason why employees leave. Gallup concluded, "People join good companies but leave bad bosses." In other words, there's little a company can do to create a great workplace if they have ineffective bosses—those who don't invest time in or show concern for their employees.

In my experience, too many firms in our business fail to give this matter appropriate emphasis. They ignore the problem of deficient bosses, especially if these individuals have strong technical credentials. If you're serious about reducing turnover, this is a good place to start. Establish specific expectations for those in supervisory roles, provide appropriate training and mentoring, and track performance by routinely getting feedback from those they supervise.

Do any of these reasons hit close to home at your firm? If so, there is clear justification for making investments in creating a more competitive workplace, and all the more as the economy continues to grow. For ideas, you might check out my previous post, "Seven Steps to a Winning Workplace."

Friday, April 17, 2015

Who's at the Top of Your Org Chart?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Art of Contractual Indemnity

I'm pleased to welcome Matthew Copus of Hall and Company and Ryan Kohler of CCM+S as guest posters this week. They write on a topic of interest to A/E firm leaders and business developers—how to avoid bad contract terms.

An unfavorable indemnity clause signed today can create a catastrophic risk at some point in the future. There is an alarming trend of both private- and public-sector owners including onerous indemnity clauses in their contracts, and the magnitude of the risk transfer associated with these terms is on the rise. Every individual who signs contracts for your firm should understand the risks involved in accepting these clauses.

The Impact of Obligations Assumed Through Contract

California may be the most troublesome state for indemnity and defense issues. In the 2010 case UDC v. CH2M Hill, a jury found that CH2M Hill bore no responsibility for any damages claimed by a homeowners association in their lawsuit against UDC the developer. But the court nevertheless ruled that CH2M Hill had to pay more than $500,000 for UDC's defense costs due to an unfavorable indemnity and defense provision in their contract—even though the jury agreed they had met the standard of care!

Given that other states often follow California's lead, this line of reasoning may start to spread east. Many states currently have rules that bar contracts between A/E firms and government agencies requiring indemnification or defense beyond the designer's negligence. But these same states may have a more lax requirement for contracts with private parties. Regardless of the state you work in, the fundamental principle to keep in mind is: If you sign a bad contract, bad things can happen to you!

If your firm becomes liable simply due to contract language on indemnity or defense—in other words, without any breach of the standard of care—your insurance company might deny coverage for that claim. The claim arguably arose out of a "contractual" liability, not a breach of the standard of care typically intended by professional liability policy terms. Most professional liability insurance policies for A/E firms specifically exclude claims arising from contractual liability. That's the last thing you want to hear when facing such a claim.

The Duty to Defend

If your firm accepts an indemnity clause with a duty to defend, you may be agreeing to pay for the other party's out-of-pocket defense costs. The terms of professional liability insurance typically do not include defending your client. You should also understand that in some states (including California) the duty to defend is part of the duty to indemnify. The contract doesn't need to even mention this obligation if there is an indemnity clause.

The default contract interpretation reads the duty to defend into the indemnity clause. Therefore it is not enough to simply strike the mention of duty to defend in the contract. If your contract has an indemnity clause, you need to have it state explicitly that there is no duty to defend.

What Should You Do When Negotiating Indemnity Provisions?

Consider the following strategies: 
  • If possible, eliminate the indemnity provision altogether. In the absence of an indemnity clause, you are still responsible for damages that you actually cause, which is fair.
  • Make the indemnity agreement reciprocal.
  • Tie an obligation to indemnify to a "finding" of negligence by a court or arbitrator. If the contract has two separate obligations or clauses (one to indemnify and one to defend), both obligations should be tied to a finding of negligence.
  • Make it clear in the language of the indemnity clause that there is no immediate duty to defend.
  • If the client won't agree to strike the duty to defend language, try to break the indemnity clause into two paragraphs: (1) one paragraph agreeing to indemnify the client only to the extent of your negligence, and specifically excluding your duty to defend; and (2) the other paragraph addressing non-professional services that may include the duty to defend (since it doesn't fall under your professional liability policy). This can be a delicate operation, so have your attorney and insurance carrier review the clause before proposing a change to the client.
  • Lastly, if dealing with a public agency that refuses to make a single change, check with the laws of your jurisdiction. Some states have softened the impact of unfair indemnity provisions by making the onerous clauses void and unenforceable. So you can at least argue that the provision is void should a claim and demand for indemnity arise.
The best advice regarding contractual terms remains constant: Don't sign contracts that unfairly shift disproportionate responsibility for problems beyond your control. Do your best to serve the client and provide quality work, but don't assume responsibility for the negligence of local public agencies, developers, and third parties.

Nothing contained in this post should be considered legal advice. Consult with an attorney before acting on any legal matters that might be addressed here or in any article.

Contact the authors: Matthew Copus, Hall and Company, (360) 598-5016; Ryan Kohler, Esq., CCM+S, (626) 243-1100 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

How to Make Your SOQs More Client Focused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.