Sunday, December 27, 2009

Uncovering the Client's Real Needs

Clients hire you because they have needs. To provide great service, you must accurately understand your client's needs. So how would you rate your skill in uncovering needs?

Evidence suggests that professional service providers aren't as good at this as we'd like to think. A recent study by found that the second most common problem that clients reported when buying professional services was that the seller did not understand their needs (30% of respondents). The most common problem (at 38%) is related: "The seller did not listen to me."

My experience with clients corroborates these findings. Not only does our lack of insight into client needs undermine our sales efforts, it compromises our ability to serve the client after the sale. Most service problems I have encountered are primarily caused by not adequately understanding the client's expectations. Many technical failures can also be traced to this same shortcoming.

So how can you do a better job uncovering the client's real needs? I'm going to devote the next few blog posts to answering that question. Let me start by suggesting that you should consider the client's needs at three basic levels:

Technical needs. Meeting technical needs is obviously the focus of your business. That's the strength of your firm, where your experience and expertise lies, and the realm in which your staff is most comfortable. When clients are looking for your help, they tend to define their needs in technical terms. But that tendency, in my opinion, is more a function of how they view A/E firms rather than how they view their real needs.

Clients generally see A/E firms as technical specialists. But more often than not it is the nontechnical aspects of a project that are most important to the client. You are able to deliver greater value when you uncover and address the next two levels of needs.

Strategic needs. These are needs that impact the overall success of the client organization. This includes political, financial, operational, and competitive concerns. Here's an important point to keep in mind: Your projects are almost always driven by strategic needs. They form the crucial "why" behind what your firm does. Failing to uncover strategic needs limits the value of the solutions you deliver.

Have you ever wondered why other professional service firms can command much higher fees than the typical A/E firm? I believe the most important difference is that most other professional firms--such as law, accounting, management consulting, and marketing firms--focus on meeting their clients' strategic needs. We focus on technical needs, often without making the connection to the strategic drivers that make our projects important.

Linking your technical solutions to meeting strategic needs can be a key differentiator. Many A/E firms talk about helping their clients succeed. But most don't seem to understand what that really entails. It requires providing a more comprehensive mix of business and technical insight than most engineers and architects tend to offer. Don't overlook your client's strategic needs.

Personal needs. Clients are people, not agencies, companies, or departments. The people involved in the buying decision--and the people you serve after the sale--bring their own personal wants and expectations to the transaction. Ignore them at your own risk. Yet firms often do.

Personal needs can cover the spectrum of the two levels discussed above, but they go further. Individual buyers hold personal perspectives on the strategic drivers behind a project. They may prioritize certain technical issues, especially if they have a technical background. But ultimately there's an element of self-interest involved. Every individual buyer, either consciously or subconsciously, is asking: What's in it for me?

If you've followed this blog, you know I stress delivering a great customer experience as integral to delivering a great project. Superior service (i.e., a great customer experience) is perceived at the personal level. Thus one of the most important aspects of uncovering client needs is discovering individual expectations with regard to the working relationship. Few of your competitors are looking at this during the sales process. You can step into that gap and create an advantage.

Meeting these three levels of client needs should be a point of emphasis at every stage of your interaction with the client--sales, proposal, interview, negotiation, project planning, project delivery. Of course, you must first uncover needs at each level, which involves asking the right questions in the right way. That will be the focus of the next couple of posts.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Could We Learn Something From McDonald's?

The rock bottom of low achievement or hard times, it seems, is to end up "flipping burgers at McDonald's." Similarly, we sometimes evoke the fast food giant's name as symbolic of low-price, low-value business--that is, the antithesis of what we aspire to in the A/E profession.

But in reality, McDonald's is the epitome of success. Their distinct business model and practices have been well documented and widely praised. Indeed, McDonald's has proven to be virtually recession proof over the years. They are currently outperforming Wall Street estimates and the Dow Jones industrial average.

The recent news that they will be offering free Wi-Fi access at 11,000 restaurants across the country in January got me thinking: Have I mischaracterized them? The move is an obvious rejoinder to none other than gourmet coffee icon Starbucks. McDonald's as the next hangout spot? They already have provided heady competition for specialty coffees--at considerably less cost.

So what business lessons could McDonald's possibly teach us in the A/E industry? I thought of a few possibilities for your consideration:

Consistency creates value. Imagine you're passing through an unfamiliar small town at dinner time. There's only two choices of restaurants: McDonald's and Maxine's Grill. Which do you choose? Most of us would probably go with the former, not so much because we like it but at least we know what we're getting. Say what you will about McDonald's, but they are generally consistent in terms of the food and the experience.

Now pick the average A/E firm. If you're a client working with two different project managers, you're likely to get two entirely different experiences in terms of service and work process. Add another office to the mix and the differences are probably magnified. I've heard several clients describe their interactions with different members of their A/E service provider as "like working with different firms" under one name.

As I noted in a previous post, the path to the "branded experience" requires first achieving consistency in how you serve clients. Most A/E firms unfortunately still deliver the "random experience." Consistency may not be the highest value, but it is a necessary step in creating enduring value for your clients.

Not every need requires a customized solution. When McDonald's founder Ray Kroc first visited a hamburger stand operated by the McDonald brothers in 1954, he was impressed by their quick service and eventually imagined a whole new industry--fast food. He simplified the menu, standardized the food preparation process, and a built an organizational culture focused on the customer. That's customer focus without customizing your order, interestingly.

In our industry, we tend to speak of "off-the-shelf solutions" with disdain. That's beneath us. Yet we address the vast majority of our own needs with off-the-shelf solutions. Why? They're generally cheaper and faster--and fully adequate for the need. Do our clients really need custom designs for everything? Are there ways we can deliver our designs and other services faster and cheaper--without necessarily eroding our bottom line?

A few years ago, one of my clients was lamenting the downturn in one of their specialty markets: Fire stations, especially in small rural communities. As budgets were getting tighter, these towns were going with less expensive (and reputedly less experienced) architectural firms.

"Why does every small town need a custom-designed fire station?" I asked, "What if you had a catalog of, say, ten designs to choose from (like those house plan books)? You could customize the facade or flip the layout to give it a different look. Then charge well below the custom design fee, but at a premium for the level of effort involved." Of course, they quickly dismissed my suggestion.

The New Normal for our business, everyone seems to agree, will include increased price sensitivity among clients (as if this wasn't already a problem!). Perhaps it's time to rethink our "product line." Could there be a greater demand for more off-the-shelf solutions delivered cheaper and faster? How might you streamline your work process and work products without sacrificing client focus or profitability?

A true meritocracy elevates performance. One of the fascinating facts about McDonald's is how many of their top executives started at the bottom. Reportedly, 20 of their top 50 executives once served as regular crew members. Two of the past three CEOs worked their way up from flipping burgers to running the company. How? McDonald's places great emphasis on having a meritocracy.

If you're not familiar with the term, it refers to a work environment in which employees are promoted solely on the basis of their achievements and performance. Like your firm--or is it? The fact is many firms fall short of having a true meritocracy. There are commonly artificial, if unintentional, barriers to advancement. For example, relatively few nontechnical professionals attain the status of principal. Most non-degreed individuals, such as administrative staff and CAD technicians, have limited career options.

Of course, you could argue that few of the above exceptions ever merit moving very far in the organization. They may lack the right skills or knowledge specific to our business. But do we sometimes simply assume they can't develop these attributes because of their education or background? In many firms there is something of a class distinction between "professionals" and "nonprofessionals." Not exactly endearing terms to create a sense of uninhibited opportunity, is it?

Then there's the other side of a meritocracy--dealing with underperformers. Rare are the firms that don't struggle with this, failing to address lingering performance problems, especially among their most credentialed employees. Research and experience show that this has a deleterious effect on the office. It drags down morale, and ultimately the performance of others. But companies with a true meritocracy demonstrate much higher levels of employee engagement, performance, and retention.

Continuous improvement fuels excellence. The changes may not be evident to most of us, but McDonald's is characterized by a culture of continuous improvement and ongoing modifications to the business model. They've had a few slip-ups along the way, noticeably in the early 2000s when growth slowed and other problems arose. But they eventually find a way to trump the competition and keep the customers coming.

Change is one of the foremost challenges facing A/E firms coming through and out of this recession. Evidence suggests that we are facing a prolonged period of uncertainty and change. Client needs will be evolving and the best firms will evolve with them. Does your firm have a change-ready culture, one committed to continually improving how you serve clients and perform your work?

That, I believe, will increasingly become the standard for success. A sustained culture of continuous improvement isn't something that comes top-down from management, although leaders must lead the change. It's a grassroots effort, with staff at every level thinking about how they can do their jobs more effectively and serve the client better.

In this regard, maybe even we can learn something from a company we often think of as residing at the other end of the scale of "professionalism." Perhaps the point is that success is based not on what you do, but how well you do it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Rethinking Shortlist Interviews

I spent most of last week helping an engineering firm prepare for an important shortlist interview. While each interview is different, there are some common themes in my approach. Some of my advice seems to diverge from the conventional wisdom in our industry. Yet I've enjoyed good success and my discussions with clients have validated my ideas about the process. So I'm devoting this post to sharing some of what I've found works:

Remember, it's all about comfort. Clients, of course, claim that other, more objective criteria are in play. But it ultimately boils down to how comfortable the client feels about the prospect of working with your firm. Acknowledging this will guide how you approach the interview, as the points below illustrate.

Strive for authenticity over polish. Many presentation coaches focus on performance--a well-crafted message, smooth delivery, professional presence, etc. I don't want to dismiss the value of good execution, but you can make a polished presentation and come off as phony. That won't help you create comfort. One of my foremost objectives is helping the presentation team be themselves--genuine, confident, enthusiastic, trustworthy.

Engage your audience rather than talk at them. The client asked for a 25-minute presentation, but do you really want to waste that valuable time talking at the selection committee instead of with them? In my experience, you can typically add some dialogue to your presentation by asking a few well-placed questions. This makes the interview seem a little less formal and imposing, which should put your team in position to better show their strengths. For more on this strategy, check out this earlier post.

Don't rehash your qualifications. You made the shortlist, so you're qualified. One of the most common mistakes is to spend much of the interview making a sales pitch. Unless the client specifically asked for such information, don't go there. Talk instead about your understanding of the client's needs, your proposed solution, and how you're going to execute the project. In other words, focus on the client instead of your firm.

Talk about the working relationship. Almost no one does and yet this issue is at the forefront of the client's concerns: What's it going to be like working with these guys? Will they be responsive? Do they understand what we expect? Obviously, if there is an incumbent, these questions become even more relevant (they already know what to expect from the incumbent). If you really want to be different, talk about your process for delivering great service to the client (see this post for more).

With time limited, say less and slow down. Most presentation teams I work with start out trying to cover too much ground in their allotted time and add more detail than necessary. Inevitably this forces them to rush through their presentation. A better approach is to do more with less. Narrow your content, avoid unnecessary elaboration (often a sign of nervousness), and talk slower. Adding a couple of seconds of silence at strategic points in your presentation increases audience attention and comprehension.

Don't go overboard with speaking parts. I've seen teams try to fit 4-5 speakers within a 20- to 25-minute presentation. It's awkward and usually puts some people in speaking roles who aren't very good at it. A better approach is to involve some team members informally, by asking them prerehearsed questions. They can then demonstrate what they know with more confidence and credibility than struggling through a formal speaking part.

Make sure your visual aids are really aids. PowerPoint has gained a bad reputation for a reason: Most people don't know how to use it effectively. When you throw 5-6 lengthy bullet points on the screen at once (which is common), your slide is competing with rather than assisting you. Keep this point in mind: People can't read and listen at the same time. Don't use your slides as notes. Bring up one brief bullet point at a time. Better still, use graphic images to illustrate your points.

Prepare for the most difficult questions the client could ask. Firms often focus all their attention on the presentation and ignore preparing for the Q&A. That's a mistake. The presentation is usually pretty open-ended; the client's not really sure what to expect. But the Q&A portion of the interview is planned by the client, often to test the competing firms. Sometimes their questions are related to specific concerns they have about your firm, and if you stumble in your answer it serves to reinforce those concerns. So try to identify those tough questions in advance and have your answer ready.

Take measures to counteract your vulnerabilities. The shortlist interview is as much a process of elimination as it is one of selection. The client is looking for both positives and negatives in an effort to distinguish your firm from the others. So you are wise to consider where your firm might be perceived as deficient and determine how you can combat those concerns.

I prefer a frontal attack. Suppose, for example, that you are preparing for an interview with a new client and the incumbent is also shortlisted. Do you simply ignore mentioning the obvious hoping the client won't notice? I don't think so. I'd suggest saying something like, "The incumbent obviously has an advantage we don't--they've had the privilege of working with you. Let me tell you what steps we propose to close the gap between them and us in terms of the working relationship." Such honesty, in my mind, helps build trust.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Favorite Free White Papers

I admit it; I'm cheap. I drive a car with almost 200,000 miles on it. I frequently eat at Subway when I'm traveling. I actually buy clothes on occasion at Walmart!

My favorite price is free. As a musician, I have an extensive collection of free software synthesizers, effects plugins, and loops and samples--very few of which I use. I also regularly download various free business white papers, most of which I don't ever get around to reading.

That's not to say I'm not discerning. Like you, I only have so much time to read. I feel cheated when I spend time reading something that doesn't have anything new or interesting to say (which describes most of the content you find on the internet). So I thought it might be worthwhile to save you the trouble. Here are a few free white papers that I heartily recommend:

Profits Under Siege: Growing Your Practice in Tough Times (Harry Mills). This paper contains some excellent insights on strategy and marketing for professional service firms. I've shared this with several of my clients, some of whom have found Mills' ideas an intriguing way to assess their clients and business model. I also recommend the author's book The Rainmaker's Toolkit, from which this white paper is excerpted. Download

Leadership That Gets Results (Daniel Goleman). From the world's foremost authority on emotional intelligence comes a helpful guide on understanding your natural leadership style. Goleman describes six styles and how they affect others, drawing from research on how leaders impact business results. Download

Getting Marketing and Business Development on the Same Page (The Bloom Group). A/E firm leaders don't think much about thought leadership or intellectual capital. They should. This white paper outlines how combining an effective content-driven marketing strategy can greatly enhance the firm's sales efforts. Download

The Customer Experience Journey (Bruce Temkin). Your brand is rooted in the direct and indirect experiences clients and prospective clients have with your firm. Those experiences should thus be the centerpiece of your differentiation strategy. This white paper draws on research in other industries, but the lessons learned are no doubt applicable to your business. Download

Avoiding the Traps in Selling Professional Services (Neil Rackham). Selling consumer products and professional services are distinctly different activities, but technical professionals don't always understand those distinctions. This white paper spells it out, noting that building trust is foremost in selling our services. Download

Putting the Professional Back in Professional Services (Greg Moore). This is another sales-oriented white paper from Huthwaite organization (check out other white papers on their website). The author explains how professionals create value for clients during the business development process. Download

Potential for What? (The Hay Group). Most A/E firms face the daunting challenge of developing the next generation of leaders (and owners). Do you know what you're looking for? This white paper provides guidance on how to identify leadership potential and readiness among your staff. Download (requires registration)

Kill Your Sales: The 6 Most Costly Mistakes You Are Making in 2009 ( RainToday is producing some of the most helpful research and insights relative to selling professional services. If you haven't signed up for their free newsletter, you should. This report outlines the most common reasons that professionals fail at selling and what to do about it. Download

Have any other white papers you would recommend? Leave any suggestions in the comment box below.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Is Differentiation Really Worth Pursuing?

Mired in a recession, A/E firm leaders have renewed their interest in the topic of differentiation. Two years ago, the industry was on a roll. Most firms were doing quite well without being distinct from their competitors in any meaningful way. Now facing the prospect of a long, slow recovery, the need to be different seems more compelling.

But is differentiation a reasonable goal? There are certainly skeptics. For example, in his article "The Myth of Differentiation," consultant Mike Schultz writes, "Much as firms might hear otherwise, being different isn't much of a factor in winning or keeping clients. Often, the 'we're different' message affects them negatively." He mentions performing a quick Google search on the phrase "unique consulting firm." It yielded almost 4,000 web pages. For this reason, claims of distinction are understandably dismissed by most clients.

Bruce Marcus is another skeptic. He writes, "Professional service marketers talk of differentiation, which, frankly, is baying at the moon...differentiation is overrated, and is perhaps, like branding, a myth." He questions the ability of professional service firms to claim distinctives given the nature of their business. "You can't say, 'Our firm gets better mileage' [an objective differentiator]. But neither can you say, 'We do better audits.' Or, 'We write better briefs' [meaningless subjective claims]." Few professional firms can offer evidence to support their differentiating messages.

On at least one point, I must agree with the skeptics: Saying you're different doesn't accomplish anything. And this is the extent to which most A/E firms have pursued differentiation. They make unsubstantiated claims of being different. Almost everyone does. So why should we think that clients take such marketing messages seriously?

According to a study by Suzanne Lowe, 81% of professional service firms reported that they sought differentiation as part of their marketing strategy. But she found that "a majority thought of differentiation as simply an exercise in image enhancement." The differentiation tactics most commonly used also tended to be among the least effective. (I refer to a few of these in an earlier post entitled "The Deceptive Distinctives.") Generally, the most common "differentiators" are also the easiest to implement.

By contrast, Lowe found, "The reality is that when it comes to differentiation, the more complex and organizationally deep the differentiation strategy is, the more competitively potent it is." That reminds me of an interview with Dell Computers CEO Michael Dell that I read years ago. He was talking openly about the manufacturing and distribution strategies that had given his company the edge on its competitors. The interviewer asked if he was concerned that the competition might steal their business model. "They can't do it," he replied, noting that the real difference was rooted deep in Dell's organizational culture.

"The strongest competitive advantage," writes Dena Waggoner in the Encyclopedia of Management, "is a strategy that cannot be imitated by other companies." That's real differentiation! So what does this mean for your firm? Is differentiation worth pursuing? Is it even achievable?

Probably not for the average A/E firm. Few firms have the management fortitude to create a truly distinctive company. It's hard work. It has to be. If differentiation was easy, then everyone would be doing it--successfully. Which means, of course, they wouldn't ultimately be successful at it because all their competitors were doing it too.

Does this mean that differentiation is beyond your firm's reach? Not necessarily. Differentiation in our business is largely relational rather than positional. Developing a reputation in the marketplace as a notable firm can be very useful. But success in our business is really forged at the relationship level. If you want to be distinctive, excel at building lasting, profitable relationships. Out-serve the competition, client by client by client. Then leverage those strong relationships to create new ones.

Real differentiation isn't about what you say, it's what you do and who you are. It's how you deliver distinct value to your clients. It's not easy to achieve. But it's even harder for others to replicate.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Test of Time

Among the challenges facing those in management roles, perhaps none is so daunting as the lack of adequate time to do all that needs to be done. Nor is there a challenge that is so overlooked when it comes to management attention.

Time is our most strategic asset. We can't do anything without it. And what we are able to do is limited by the amount of time available. So we must make wise choices. Like any limited resource, we should strive to put time to its best and most productive use.

There is ample evidence of misused time in the average A/E firm. Unnecessary rework, inefficient work processes, rambling meetings, urgent matters pushing aside more important ones. These foibles not only impact the bottom line; they detract from the workplace environment. Stress levels are at the breaking point in many firms, and out-of-control time demands are often at the hub of the problem.

Are we really resigned to a professional life of incessant "putting out fires?" Or is there a better way? Stephen Covey's firm studied how various organizations make use of their time and found that the most successful ones spent the bulk of their time on important-but-not-urgent tasks. The average performers, by contrast, spent most of their time on urgent-but-not-important tasks. So some firms seem to have found a way out of the compulsive firefighting business.

Yet what tasks are you doing now that aren't important? Ah, there's the crux of the matter. We can readily identify some things as more important than others, but most of us are prone to assign some importance to virtually everything we do. So how then can we shift more time to those critically important yet not urgent activities? A few thoughts:

Focus on eliminating wasted time. If we find it hard to agree upon what tasks are urgent but not important, we might at least reach consensus on where there is waste. What about correcting mistakes? Preventing mistakes can make more time available for our priorities. What about taking more time to complete tasks than is necessary? Better planning and efficient work flow can free up more time. I'm convinced that there is a substantial reserve of time available to the average A/E firm willing to make the effort to eliminate waste and inefficiency.

Redirect time to high-payoff activities. I discussed this in my earlier post "Creating Strategic Capacity." Firm leaders, in particular, need to take a hard look at how they spend their time and offload activities that don't really merit their time and attention as leaders. By definition, leaders should not be consumed with the tyranny of the urgent. It is their role to focus on what really matters, which more often than not is not an urgent matter. Best way to allot time for such activities? Make appointments and keep them like any other. Don't consign your highest value tasks to leftover time.

Devote appropriate time to helping others be more productive. Managers by definition accomplish goals through the efforts of others. Yet too many of them spend the vast majority of their time on personal tasks to the neglect of the office, department, or team for which they are responsible. Effective managers multiply their productivity by giving adequate time to helping others improve their productivity. That's what I call the Time Investment Principle.

Preserve blocks of uninterrupted time for important tasks. I would urge you to do a couple of exercises: (1) track how you spend your time on the job for one week and (2) track interruptions at work for another week. (You might find the Time Tracker and Interruption Tracker at my website useful for these exercises.) These two exercises will make you more aware of how fragmented your time usage is, and hopefully provide added incentive to do something about it.

In fact, the whole office should be striving to improve in this area. Colleagues can work together in minimizing unnecessary interruptions. Some might find it helpful to post "office hours" for this purpose. I've also found it very productive to locate the project team in the same space (such as a conference room) during critical periods of a project where they can both focus better and collaborate more.

Make productive use of nonbillable time.
We typically try to manage our collective billable hours. Nonbillable hours, on the other hand, often receive little management attention. Yet these constitute "investment time" where strategic initiatives are implemented, new business is procured, work processes are improved, training and mentoring takes place. I advocate budgeting and managing this time like project time. Check out the article "Investing Nonbillable Time" for more insight on this issue.

Giving greater attention to how you and your colleagues use their time could be the most important thing you do in the months to come. It's a precious, limited resource. By all means, treat it as such. The benefits go straight to both your personal and your company's bottom line.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Focusing on Your Key Client Relationships

The Pareto Principle is evident among most A/E firms, with roughly 80% of their revenues coming from 20% (or less) of their clients. Obviously these few client relationships are critically important to the well-being of our firms. Yet relatively few firms have adopted a key account management approach.

The stakes are high. The loss of a key client can have a devasting effect on a firm. Over the years, I've witnessed the defection of a few top 5 clients, resulting in millions of dollars in lost revenue--and several staff positions. In one case, the firm lost over $70 million in anticipated backlog.

Surprisingly, there were no dramatic failures in any of these situations. No design busts. No blown schedules. Not even the loss of a key staff member. The shortcomings were much more subtle--and cumulative. Misunderstandings. Inadequate communication. Perceived slights. Differences in expectations.

The fact is that any of these situations could have been easily avoided. These key client accounts simply needed the management attention they deserved. They needed a disciplined, collaborative approach to ensure the firm was giving appropriate care and attention to their most valuable clients. Such an approach might look something like this:

Appoint an account team. Your most important client accounts should never be entrusted to a single individual. Even the best client managers can make mistakes, or have blind spots, or leave your firm! They may be too close to the work or the client to have an objective perspective. The collective brain power of an account team increases your chances of having a sound account strategy and taking good care of the account. This team should have a leader (account manager) and meet at least monthly. What should they be working on? Raising the level of service. Ensuring the success of current projects. Planning how to position your firm for new work with the client.

Develop a key account plan. This brief written document outlines how you intend to strengthen the client relationship, address any service deficiencies, position your firm for new work. Have the account team spend a few hours developing the initial plan, then update it periodically as things progress and new situations arise. The following outline for your key account plan is suggested:

1. Describe the Client
  • Overview of the client (size, services, organization, etc.)
  • What are the client's priorities? What are the projected expenditures?
  • What are the client's major challenges? How can we help the client be successful?

2. Assess the Relationship

  • What work have we done for the client? How have we performed?
  • What is the current state of our relationship with the client?
  • Who are the key decision makers? What is our relationship with each?
  • What are the critical success factors for each? Do we know?

3. Evaluate our Positioning

  • What are our relevant strengths, differentiators, weaknesses, vulnerabilities?
  • Who are our primary competitors? What is the current standing of each?
  • What is our current positioning relative to our competitors? Where do we need to improve?
  • How can we improve performance on our current work with the client?

4. Define our Strategy

  • What are our goals in terms of services, projects, revenue, etc.?
  • How do we leverage our strengths?
  • How do we mitigate our weaknesses and vulnerabilities?
  • What is our single best opportunity at this time?
  • What are the next best actions we need to take to strengthen our position?

Give top priority to improving service to your key clients. There's a tendency sometimes to take our best clients for granted. We work hard to win new clients and address problems with existing clients. But when things seem to be going well with our top clients, we may not give them the attention they deserve. Don't let your guard down! There's always someone trying to displace you, and they may be providing that next level of service and attention. Never be satisfied with the status quo.

Be sure you're getting regular feedback. Only about one-fourth of A/E firms formally gather feedback from clients. Feedback is the bedrock of great service. You can't be sure you're serving your clients well if you don't ask. Certainly, you want to be certain that your top clients are fully satisfied with your performance and service. For more insight into how to do this, check out this earlier post.

Become a trusted advisor and valued resource. In their book Clients for Life, authors Sheth and Sobel describe the path from "expert for hire" to "steady supplier" to "trusted advisor." Obviously the latter is the more secure position. Many firms serve only as a steady supplier even for their top clients. That leaves them vulnerable to being displaced. Trusted advisors are indispensable. They provide valued insight, not just expertise. They work collaboratively with the client, not just perform tasks. Are you a trusted advisor with your top clients? If not, determine what you need to do to become one.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Creating Strategic Capacity

A minority of A/E firms regularly do strategic planning. A much smaller minority actually execute their strategic plans. Why do firms struggle so with follow-through? There are multiple reasons, but in my mind the main problem is firm leaders who are too busy and too distracted to adequately focus on strategic efforts.

That's why I am increasingly urging my clients to take steps to create what I call "strategic capacity." This involves clearing space in overloaded calendars to work on the issues that matter most. In the typical strategic planning meeting, the meaty assignments are given to senior managers whose plates are already full. Where will they find time to work on these critically important matters? Too often, they don't.

One of my recurring themes in this space is: Don't try to tackle important tasks with leftover time. This is often done with business development. Or mentoring. Or strategic initiatives. The result is that these important, yet non-urgent activities routinely get the short shrift. What's needed is a reordering of the priorities driving our time usage.

To create more strategic capacity, let me encourage you to have your firm's senior managers go through the following exercise:
  1. Have each identify what 5-6 activities they perform that yield the highest value to the company. I'm assuming that implementing strategic initiatives will be included in this list.
  2. Ask them to estimate how much time (on average) they spend each week on these high-impact activities.

  3. Have your senior managers identify what 5-6 activities consume the bulk of their time in the average work week (it's almost certainly going to be a different list than their high-impact activities).
  4. Then have them determine how to shift more time from the second list of activities to their high-impact activities. This usually involves doing one of the following with their most time-consuming responsibilities: delegate, decrease, delay, delete. Each manager should develop a personal plan for shifting more time to high-value tasks.

  5. Set up a "project" number for each strategic initiative and track time charged to the effort. This will enable you to confirm that appropriate management time is being redirected to your firm's most important activities.

Of course, simply delegating responsibilities down the organization can create other capacity problems. That means ultimately you have to delay or eliminate certain lower-priority activities. That's the crux of time management: We all have more things we'd like to be doing than we have time to do them. That problem applies to organizations as well.

So you have to choose. Creating strategic capacity means that you are choosing to reallocate time from less important to more important activities. Research shows that this is a key attribute of the most successful companies. Will your firm be among them?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Building Your Brand

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

There is great confusion about brand. Even the experts differ on how to define it. One consultant website I discovered listed over 200 definitions of the word brand that he had found on the internet. So let me offer a working definition for our purposes, one drawn from some of the most respected books I've read on brand: Brand is the perception in the mind of the customer that differentiates a product, service, or company.

How that perception is formed is critically important. Most branding activities in our industry (and in others) are misguided. They focus on logo redesigns, graphic standards, positioning lines. These only support brand; they don't create it or redefine it. At its core, brand perceptions are shaped by the direct and indirect experiences clients have with your firm. Marketing can contribute to those experiences, but the substance of your brand is rooted in how you serve the client.

So if you're looking to strengthen your brand, don't start by turning to your marketing department or hiring an outside branding expert. Go first to the heart of your brand. Build (or at least investigate) the foundation before adding the infrastructure. Here's what I suggest:

Learn how you are perceived by clients. Since your brand resides here, this is the obvious place to start. Ask clients what they think about your firm. A few basic questions will suffice:
  • When you think of our firm, what impressions immediately come to mind?
  • What do you think distinguishes us from other similar firms?
  • What qualities among firms like ours do you consider most valuable?
  • How well do we deliver what we promise? Are we consistent and trustworthy?

You can survey clients yourself, but you'll get more accurate results if this is done by a third party. Include both existing and potential clients if you can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

How Managers Help Marketers Increase Their Value

In my last post, I suggested some ways that marketers can increase their value in their respective firms. That caught the attention of marketing guru Suzanne Lowe who responded with a post on her own blog entitled "Can PSF marketers alone make "Marketing" indispensable? No way!" Her main point was that firm managers needed to get on board if marketing is to truly succeed.

No argument from me. But I wasn't trying to address the whole marketing conundrum, simply offering some advice to a group that often feels marginalized. If you've followed this blog, you know that there's been no shortage of recommendations for firm managers regarding how they can improve the marketing and business development function.

This week I return my focus to managers, this time taking up Suzanne's challenge to suggest ways managers can help marketers enhance their impact and influence:

Create an ambitious vision for the marketing function. Marketing (as contrasted with sales) in our business suffers from low expectations. We generally don't try to measure results and usually don't have specific outcomes in mind. Even many marketers don't seem convinced that marketing can produce reliable, tangible results. No wonder managers often look here for cost cutting in tough times.

We can do better. Marketing, well executed, brings customers to your door. It reinforces a distinctive brand. It positions your firm as a formidable player in your target markets. Good marketing is a strategic asset, and that includes the marketing professionals who make it work. Enlarge your vision of marketing and you're more likely to see marketers step up and demonstrate their real value.

Establish clear priorities and stick to them. As long as marketers are subject to the beck and call of their technical colleagues, their strategic value will be diminished. You need to define what marketing activities are most important and clear the time for marketers to work on them. Sure, everyone needs to shift priorities at times to pursue timely opportunities as they arise. But you can't achieve strategic marketing goals when your marketers function purely as an internal support group to those who don't really understand marketing.

To keep the marketing effort focused on what matters most, management should team with marketers to define goals and priorities. I suggest doing this at least quarterly. Then commit a specific portion (say 60-70%) of the marketing group's time to those priorities. Important marketing tasks shouldn't be done with leftover time. If unplanned requests for marketing resources exceed the remaining allotment, I advise an executive-level decision on whether to reallocate marketers' time. This helps sustain marketing as a strategic function rather than merely a resource pool for reactive business development activity.

Empower marketing staff with appropriate policies and procedures. Having established goals and priorities, it's helpful to put systems into place to reinforce these. In most A/E firms I've worked with, the de facto priority for marketing staff is working on proposals. Unfortunately, they are too often asked to spend enormous amounts of time on proposals where there's little reasonable chance of winning. And they're often unable to persuade their technical colleagues to respect proposal schedules and guidelines. Guess who gets judged by these misguided efforts?

This is a good place to start to add discipline to your business development process, if you haven't already. You want a go/no go decision process with some teeth in it, some rules for engaging marketing staff, requirements for meeting internal deadlines, standards for the work product and process. Management needs to stand behind these protocols without being either too rigid or too flexible. Such policies and procedures help build a wall around your marketing priorities, and help marketers preserve time and energy for more productive tasks.

Provide the professional development opportunities that marketers need. Many young marketers enter the A/E profession with a marketing or other relevant degree. Then they are schooled how to do business development by technical professionals with limited marketing expertise (or by other marketers so taught). I believe this is a significant reason why we see so few marketing breakthroughs in our business, as David Maister duly noted (see last post).

If you want marketers to excel, they need opportunities to learn from the marketing masters. Expose them to the best available workshops, books, videos, websites, blogs (of course!). Better still, find some way to offer mentoring or on-the-job coaching. Define professional development goals that propel the individual down the mutually-agreed-upon career path. Link training and development with your marketing vision and goals.

But--and here's an important point--if you want your marketing staff to learn best practices, be prepared to make some room for them to apply what they've learned. This is a fundamental shortcoming with much of the training we do. We don't reinforce (or in many cases, actually discourage) the application of what our people have learned. That limits their potential--and the positive impact on your firm.

Engage marketers in setting company strategy. I've facilitated many strategic planning meetings and I'm surprised by how often even senior marketers are excluded from the process. That devalues both the role of marketing and those charged with executing it. You can at least solicit input from your marketing group in advance of planning events. But having some marketing representation at the meeting is advised. Marketing is simply too important a function to be left on the sidelines.

My last employer regularly involved me in important strategy meetings even while I was still in a temporary, part-time marketing role. That enabled me to better understand the firm's strategy, to contribute to the process, and to build relationships with the key decision makers scattered across the country. Those experiences better prepared me to not only make substantial contributions on the business development front but to eventually step into other management roles during my ten years with the firm. Access is usually a critical step towards more success.

Consider creative ways to draw on your marketers' distinct skills. People with marketing backgrounds bring different strengths to your firm, strengths that you may find valuable even outside the marketing arena. Marketers often have good people skills and can be effective team leaders for various corporate initiatives. Some (like myself) have eventually grown into non-marketing management positions. Marketers should be strong communicators and can help with both internal and client communications. They may have skill as meeting facilitators. Many marketers are strategic thinkers and add another dimension to problem solving. They can be a valuable help to your firm's staff recruiting efforts (another form of marketing).

Wouldn't these activities pull marketers away from their primary responsibility of marketing? Perhaps. But aren't the most valuable people in your organization usually those who contribute in multiple areas? In my experience, being able to demonstrate value to the firm in other areas increased my credibility as a marketing professional.

I can think of other ways managers can help marketers succeed, but let these suffice for now. What about you? Whether manager or marketer, you probably have something to add to the discussion. Please do.

Monday, October 19, 2009

How Marketers Increase Their Value

Some time ago, consultant David Maister posted a provocative question on his blog: "Who are the marketing experts in professional businesses?" He noted that he would be hard pressed to offer evidence of any real marketing breakthroughs among professional service firms. "I can think of many professional businesses built by the professionals themselves (i.e., the marketing amateurs)," he wrote, "but it's very unclear (at least from the outside) what marketing professionals have contributed."

If you are a marketing professional, you are probably taken aback by such comments. But does he have a point? It's illuminating that among the many comments Maister received to his blog posting--including from such notable marketing experts as Seth Godin, Suzanne Lowe, and Charles Green--none really took exception! As a marketing professional myself for over 20 years in the A/E industry, I must confess I find it hard to argue with Maister.

I could point to several evidences of marketing mediocrity in our industry that seem to support Maister's point. Who's to blame for this is a matter for debate. I suspect it's a combination of marketers not getting the job done and their having too little influence in their respective firms to make a real difference anyway. The bottom line is the marketing function is not having the substantial impact in our business that we witness in other industries.

I know that many, if not most, marketing professionals in our business feel somewhat under-appreciated and, in some cases, disenfranchised. They often work on the fringe of shaping corporate strategy rather than in the mainstream. They may have marketing degrees and expertise, but find themselves merely providing specialized support to the engineers and architects who really determine marketing strategy.

The recession has provided further evidence of this diluted role. In many firms, marketers have been among the first positions to be cut. Think about that: When getting new business emerges as the biggest challenge, the first casualties are those specifically assigned to that task. Obviously, company management hasn't viewed their contributions as essential. Is something wrong with this picture?

One of the outcomes I'd like to see from this economic downturn is a transformation in our business development approach. We have relied too long on the reactive, seller-focused, sell-when-I-get-the-time-or-it-becomes-urgent model. The time has come to incorporate real marketing expertise in positioning our firms for success in the New Normal. Do we have enough capable marketers to step up to that role? And are managers ready to let them?

If you are a marketing professional aspiring for a bigger role, let me suggest the following strategies for elevating your value to the firm:

Establish yourself as the marketing expert. For the most part, engineers and architects still call the shots when it comes to determining how the company will market and sell. Some of these individuals possess strong client skills and are adept at bringing in new business. Yet many more have deficiencies in these areas, and almost none of them have real expertise in marketing. There's an obvious need here.

Unfortunately, most marketers have failed to establish themselves as the definitive experts in their own field. Some simply lack the expertise; others don't seem to know how to leverage it. Of course, it's not all their fault. Their employers don't always lend an open ear to their ideas. That's why you have to be as compelling as possible.

My boss once complained, "I hate to have a disagreement with you because you've always done all this research to back up your position."

"Then don't disagree with me," I responded (smiling, of course).

If you're going to be the marketing expert, then make yourself irrefutable. Dig deep to uncover the best practices, related research, success stories. Be sure it's relevant to our business (see next point). Win people over by impressing them with the depth of your knowledge about your craft.

Learn everything you can about our business, and about business in general. Perhaps the biggest obstacle most marketers face is a limited understanding of the business in which they labor. If you want to be viewed as a strategic asset, you need to know the business. I recommend reading extensively, asking lots of questions of your technical and management colleagues, sitting in on strategy meetings, getting involved in professional associations--whatever it takes to build your business expertise. You should also look outside our profession as well, because we can learn a lot from other industries. Yet you'll need to have a feel for what will work in our industry (and your firm) and what won't.

Develop your strategic thinking and problem solving skills. The best marketing people I've known were skilled strategists and problem solvers. Though they may have lacked technical expertise, they played an important role in defining corporate (and even project) strategy. This "outsider's perspective" can be extremely valuable. Marketers are often very good at synthesis, the ability to see the big picture and fit all the pieces of a problem or solution together. This can be the perfect complement to your technical colleagues' analytical strengths, which apply a different approach to problem solving.

Strategic thinking and problem solving skills are to some degree innate, but you can develop your abilities in this area. One of the best ways is to carefully observe those who are really good at it. Hopefully you have a few in your firm. Watch how they ask questions, search for answers, break down problems, evaluate solutions, weigh the ramifications, predict the outcomes.

Impact the content of the message, not just the presentation. Marketers often depend on their technically-minded colleagues to give them the core content for their proposals, brochures, and other marketing materials. The marketer is then relegated to the role of editing and graphic layout. But the strategic value of the marketing specialist increases when you significantly impact the content. This is when I really began to excel as a proposal writer, when I could reinterpret, reframe, revise, and challenge what my colleagues had written. Why is this important? Because marketers should be better communicators and bring a different strategic perspective, as noted above. This obviously requires experience, but you can start working in this direction at any stage of your career.

Earn the right to say no. Many in marketing roles have little more say over their work assignments than administrative staff. This is probably necessary early in your career. But eventually you have to be able to have some say over what you work on and how you go about it. The reason this is important is because you are the marketing expert--at least, that's what you need to be. Marketing will not be the strategic asset it could be as long as engineers and architects are dictating how it's done. But since this is a technically-driven business, you have to earn the right to drive the marketing agenda. This comes as your colleagues see that your ideas and strategies work.

Build your network. The power brokers in our profession are those who have strategic relationships. If you are not in a sales role, you can still network to develop relationships with potential clients. Or you can focus on nurturing other important relationships--with teaming partners, subcontractors, vendors, etc. To really succeed as a marketer, you need to distinguish yourself both in what you know and who you know. Get involved in professional associations, be consistent in keeping in touch with those in your network, become known as a helpful resource so that others want to talk with you.

Above all, demonstrate that your ideas work! I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating. As a marketer in our business, you generally have to work harder than your technical colleagues to gain respect and make a strategic contribution to the firm. This requires that you be diligent in increasing your knowledge, developing your skills, and learning and applying best practices. There is no substitute for success when trying to establish your indispensable value to the company.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Simple Steps to Better Writing

For an industry that readily admits its limitations when it comes to communication skills, it's interesting how often our business and technical success is determined by our ability to communicate.

For this post, let's focus on writing. We write proposals that enable us to win new work--or not. We write correspondence that can help sway a regulator's position, potentially saving millions of dollars in costs. We write reports that recommend specific solutions and solicit the buy-in of critical stakeholders.

Even our best technical ideas can flounder because of weak writing. Or succeed because of strong writing. Which is it in your firm?

Developing competency in writing takes considerable effort and experience. But there are a few relatively simple steps you can take to yield immediate improvement:

Start with an outline. Most technical professionals don't, and it shows. In developing an outline, first clarify what you want your document to achieve. Inform? Influence? Instruct? Weak writing often starts with a lack of clear purpose. Once you know what you're trying to accomplish, identify three to five key messages needed to achieve that purpose. Then arrange your content to support those main points. This is a departure from the common "pull the table of contents from the last one" approach. Perhaps it's time to rethink how you organize your documents.

Use simple, concise language. Much technical writing is plagued by overly long sentences, vague wording, and overuse of technical jargon. Try to keep sentences to no longer than 20 words. Avoid long paragraphs as well. Minimize the use of jargon; use commonly known words instead where possible. State your ideas as clearly and simply as possible.

Use Microsoft Word's grammar checking feature. While it's not perfect, this feature can help you improve the clarity of your writing. I also recommend that you make use of Word's readability statistics feature (to access it, click on the Microsoft Office Button > Word Options > Proofing > Show readability statistics). Strive for the following:
  • Passive Sentences (should be no higher than 30% for technical writing)
  • Flesch Reading Ease (60-70 recommended; should at least be over 50)
  • Flesch-Kincade Grade Level (7.0-8.0 recommended; no higher than 10.0)

Put the most important information first. This is the classic journalistic standard of the "inverted pyramid." Start each section and subsection with the most critical information first, followed by supporting information in descending order of importance. This increases the chance that the reader, who likely isn't reading your document word by word, will capture the key content.

Always include an executive summary. One study found that only 10% of managers read the body of technical reports, while 100% read the executive summary. This is where you want to synthesize your most important observations, findings, conclusions, and recommendations. The length of the executive summary will vary depending on the size of the document, but keep it as short as possible.

Use ample headings, subheadings, and bullets. Long blocks of text impair reader interest and decrease readability. Break up text into shorter sections with informative headings. Present complex or multiple issues in bullet form rather than long paragraphs.

Graphically present key information where possible. Figures, graphs, drawings, and tables (if not too complex) are effective ways to communicate key messages, especially to readers who will not read the document in detail.

Have someone review your draft. This is commonly done with reports and proposals, but is often neglected with other writing that serves key objectives. Correspondence with clients, regulators, and other outside parties should be always be reviewed by someone other than the author. Same for important internal memos and correspondence. And don't overlook email, which has become the predominant way we convey written messages.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Creating an Email Newsletter

The best marketing serves customers. That's a fact lost on most marketing professionals. They churn out the usual self-serving promotional hype that's easily ignored in our marketing-saturated world. If you want your marketing efforts to attract inquiries from potential clients, you need to provide content that clients value.

One of the simplest yet potentially most effective tools in your client-oriented marketing toolbox is an email newsletter or ezine. To be sure, there are advantages to printed newsletters, especially among us Baby Boomers who tend to favor hardcopy over electronic delivery. My generation also represents most of the decision makers you're targeting. But there are several disadvantages to print as well:
  • It's expensive
  • Therefore firms tend to publish less often
  • Your firm has to produce all the content
  • You can't track what happens to it after it's delivered

An email newsletter overcomes all these shortcomings, which in my opinion makes it the favored option. So how do you get started? Having produced a monthly ezine for several years now, let me offer some suggestions:

Identify the issues that your clients care about. This is one of the biggest advantages of focusing on a few key markets; you can become intimately familiar with your clients' world and tailor your services (and marketing) to fit their needs. You can also readily target your newsletter. Whatever your market mix, find out what topics your clients are likely to be interested in reading about.

The content of my ezine, like the content of this blog, usually is inspired by conversations with clients and work assignments. I do spend time researching issues relevant to the A/E business. But most of my ideas come with little extra work, just listening to what my clients are concerned about.

Search for the best insights, information, and resources you can find on those issues. I advise using the internet because it yields several advantages over printed content, as I'll note below. This, of course, can be time consuming. But it doesn't have to be. A few shortcuts to keep in mind:

  • Find web sites that routinely post content relevant to the targeted issues. For my ezine, I've bookmarked several sites that regularly post new content: Industry-related publications, top blogs, consultant web sites with extensive articles sections, even competitors' sites. I draw from these sources on a regular basis.

  • Subscribe to free email newsletters. Ideally you're looking for those in the format I'm recommending, where the content consists primarily of links to various internet articles and resources. You can choose the best content from these newsletters and link to them in your own publication. The one reservation I can think of is drawing from newsletters that a substantial portion of your audience might also receive.

  • Use Google Alerts. This can be a valuable tool, but use with caution. If you're not careful with search terms, you can be easily overwhelmed with too many email notices from Google. Start small and increase the scope of your search terms as you become more comfortable with it.

Of course, I highly recommend writing your own content. This is key to establishing your firm as content experts. But the advantage of email newsletters is that you don't have to produce all your content, or even any of it if you choose.

Select one of the many email marketing services. These services provide several tools that are really helpful in producing an email newsletter, including templates, list management, delivery, and reporting. The reporting function is particularly valuable. You can track how many open your newsletter, forward it, read which articles, and refer back to it multiple times. This enables you to evaluate which topics generate the most interest and the least. Some of the more popular email marketing services are Constant Contact, iContact, GetResponse, Stream Send, and Bronto. Here are a couple of reviews of these services to help you make a choice: TopTen Reviews and Star Reviews.

Design your email newsletter. The email marketing services above all provide a variety of templates for your newsletter, or you can import your own HTML. The important decision is how to organize the content. I suggest doing what I do in my own publication: Provide an introductory paragraph with a link to the full article. This makes your newsletter easy to skim, with a minimum of scrolling. You might choose to have different sections within your newsletter. I have three: Feature Articles, Industry Trends, From My Blog. You can check out my ezine here.

Commit to a publication schedule. Most firms I know that publish a printed newsletter do so only every quarter. I recommend monthly, which is much more achievable with an email newsletter. This is one of the easiest ways to get your firm in front of existing and potential clients on a regular basis. Only about 30% of my subscribers open my ezine (which is twice the industry average), even though they requested it. But every month they receive a publication they know has some useful insights and information, if they took the time to read it.

The point is: My ezine still pays off, even among those who don't read it. I've picked up several new clients who heard me speak at a conference, requested to be added to my mailing list, then called me when the need arose--sometimes years later. The ezine was the only contact I had with them. I've learned that whether they read my ezine or not was not a significant factor in getting the call. It was the monthly "reminder" they received in their inbox.

Any reason not to do an email newsletter? The most common one I hear is lack of time. I can empathize. But if I can publish a monthly ezine as a one-man shop, can't your firm? I promise it will be worth your time.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Project Management as the Product?

Bruce Lynch of PSMJ has an interesting post on their blog this week: "Why design isn't king anymore." He draws a parallel between the proliferation of web content and the plentiful availability of A/E design services. The result of abundant supply in both cases is a product of diminished value.

Great content, like great design, is still vitally important. But can you imagine the internet without Google (or other search engines)? How less valuable would all that content be if we didn't have such a tool to sort through it all? It's not content that makes the most-visited web site; it's the site's ability to make others' content more useful.

Is there a similar role in our industry? Program management comes to mind. Clients sometimes hire firms to provide overall guidance and coordination for large, complex programs. Construction management can serve a similar role in the construction phase of projects. But most A/E firms don't provide either service. Is there a Google-like, value-added service opportunity available for them?

Yes there is--project management. You doth protest? I realize that project management in many cases has been more commoditized than design services. Some clients seemingly don't want to pay for it, banishing it as a line item in the project budget. So how can I mention this as a value-added service?

Consider the role of the project manager. He or she (with the project team's help) diagnoses the problem, pulls together the best available resources to address it, develops the right solution, then delivers it to the client. The PM is an integrator, drawing from multiple disciplines, perspectives, and skill sets, and bringing the right mix to the client.

With a little imagination, that's not too far from what Google does for us on the internet. We plug in the search terms (problem) and Google tries to bring the best match (solution) to our desktop. It employs a team (multiple computers, web bots) to filter thousands of possible sources (potential alternatives) to narrow our choices, using ranking criteria, and help us arrive at the best answer.

Design services are delivered through the PM somewhat like internet content is delivered through Google (work with me here). Sounds good in concept. So why isn't project management more highly valued by clients?

First let me suggest that clients don't value project management more highly because they usually don't see it done all that well. In a recent survey by Morrisey-Goodale, project management received an "A" grade from only 7% of clients, the lowest score among 13 service factors. Project managers, not surprisingly, didn't fare much better, with 12% receiving the highest grade.

Complaints about project management are widespread. In client surveys I've conducted for various firms, the vast majority of criticisms relate to the project management role. Project managers commonly fail to communicate adequately, clearly understand client expectations, respond promptly to client concerns, and effectively coordinate with their project team.

These shortcomings, I believe, contribute substantially to the commoditization of our core services. Think about it: If a trip to the store yields slow service and poor product knowledge, what do you expect? Great prices. On the other hand, there are many examples of stores that can charge more for their products because they provide great service and expert advice.

Are those not attributes of the strong project manager--great service and expert advice? Will clients pay a premium for a premier project manager? Yes, many of them will. If you're like most firms, your most profitable clients are usually those who have a solid relationship with the project manager. That relationship is the value-added product that too many A/E firms seem to underestimate.

Obviously, it won't be easy to persuade clients that your project management is a premium product. They've been programmed to expect too little. You'll have to demonstrate the difference. Let me suggest some core qualities of the high-impact project manager:
  • Trusted advice. Provides great counsel, broad insight, problem-solving ability. Doesn't necessarily have to have extraordinary expertise, but knows how to effectively pull together the know-how and skills that are needed.

  • Client focus. Makes the client, not the work, the center of every project. Understands the client's business, technical needs, personal expectations. Tailors service delivery to the unique needs of each client.

  • Proactive communication. Keeps in regular contact with the client, providing advance notice of changes or developing issues or concerns. Makes the same commitment to the project team, including outside subcontractors and stakeholders.

  • Active collaboration. No mavericks here; understands the value of cooperative problem solving and solution development, both with the client and with the team. Integrates multiple perspectives, disciplines, and services to deliver the best possible outcomes.

  • Disciplined performance. Routinely tracks progress and metrics to ensure that the project fully satisfies contract requirements and client expectations. Minimizes surprises, delays, budget overruns, mistakes.

  • Inspired team contributions. Knows how to get the best out of project team members, providing strong leadership and motivation to perform at a high level. Develops people as part of doing projects so that their value on future projects grows.

There are other attributes I could name, but these comprise a worthy goal. A tall order to achieve these? Yes indeed. But you don't have to perfect these to stand out because most firms seem to accept the status quo for project management. You can go further and make project management your most prized product. Then see if the value of your design services doesn't increase as a result. You might call it the Google Effect.