Monday, March 2, 2009

Finding New Work Is Not Enough

In recent months, I've facilitated several meetings devoted to discussing potential new business opportunities. That, of course, is what you would expect in a severe recession. Nearly all A/E firms are revisiting backlog, unused contract capacity, active leads, and prospective new clients and markets. They're overturning every stone in search of additional work.

What I'm not seeing so much are firms rethinking their business development approach, much less revising it. Is just finding more work enough to survive this economy? Or do you need to focus more attention on how to win more of it? Just doing more of what worked in good times is not likely to gain you a greater share of a shrinking market. Everybody is stepping up the effort. You need to work smarter, not just harder.

If you've followed this blog, you know I've suggested a number of out-of-the-mainstream strategies for boosting your business development success. Check out the archives if you've just recently tuned in. Today I'd like to focus on some business development fundamentals that too often are neglected in our industry. These should be an integral part of your discussions about new sales opportunities:

Focus on improving your relationship-building skills. I commonly hear that "this is a relationship business," but typically get befuddled looks when I ask, "So what is your firm's strategy for strengthening its critical business relationships?" Too many firms seem to take client relationships for granted, even when it's evident that their relationship skills are somewhat lacking.

According to a recent survey by, over half of A/E firm clients are open to switching from their current providers. That statistic cuts both ways, of course. In today's business climate, your existing clients are probably getting more overtures from competitors than ever before. What are the chances of one of them showing more interest and attention to your client than your firm does? Have you taken steps to better serve your current clients?

On the other hand, you may well have better odds at displacing a competitor than you thought. The recession is pushing many clients to challenge the status quo, to make big changes, to look for better value. Your firm could be part of the solution. But don't make the common mistake of trying to position your firm with new clients based primarily on your technical qualifications and capabilities.

It's a relationship business, remember?

Anchor relationships in trust. Building trust is the foremost objective in selling professional services. Why? Because you're not selling products; you're selling people. So from the client's perspective, it's not just "What can you do for me?" but also "Can I really depend on you?" "Do you have my interests at heart?" "How well will we get along?"

Research indicates that there are three primary components of trust: (1) concern, (2) competence, and (3) candor. If your firm is like most, you tend to place the greatest emphasis in the sales process on demonstrating your competence. That's important, of course, but it's not the differentiator that the other two are. Candor refers to your honesty and trustworthiness. Technical professionals typically get high marks for candor.

It's showing concern where we really come up short. According to one survey of clients, only 35% of professional service sellers demonstrated genuine concern for the client. This is a clear opportunity for your firm. How can you do a better job showing that you care about the clients you're talking to? Make this a key part of your business development strategy.

Have a process for converting leads to sales. Technical professionals often recoil at the thought of adding still another process to their work life. I can empathize. But firms that have a consistent and effective way of managing their sales opportunities have a clear advantage. One study found that 70% of sales leads are either neglected or mishandled. What's the rate in your firm? With fewer leads to be found these days, how many can you afford to fumble away?

A word of warning: I've seen several firms go overboard in their zeal to create a comprehensive business development process. Don't loose sight of both the (1) purpose and (2) practicality of any approach you might try to codify. The primary purpose should be to enable, not enforce. Focus on the few activities that will yield the greatest results. Keep it as simple as possible. Don't ask for more information than is needed, nor more than you can reasonably expect to get.

The most important part of your process should be a concentrated and orchestrated effort to win your key sales opportunities. Don't treat all qualified leads equally; give your most important ones special attention. This will involve assigning an "account manager" and "account team" that are responsible for planning and executing your win strategy. You might find the article "Plan to Win Key Sales Opportunities" helpful in this regard.

Show persistent interest in the client. Selling in our industry is often more about chasing projects than building relationships. When the client has an imminent contract opportunity, we're suddenly interested in engaging the client. Otherwise we're likely to limit our contact to the occasional "touching base sales call," if any contact at all. Think clients don't notice?

Be selective; give more attention to fewer leads. That's what it takes to consistently out-sell your competition. Then commit to regular interaction with the client, always bringing something of value to every conversation. Make helping the client, not making the sale, your primary motive for calling on the client. I'm convinced that's the main reason we're not more consistent; it doesn't always serve our short-term self interest.

Building relationships, however, takes time (as reflected in the normal sales cycle in our industry). But it's well worth the effort. Think about it: Where does your most profitable work come from? Probably from those clients you have the best relationship with. Relationships are the foundation of a sustainable A/E business. Sales create backlog which your firm burns every day. But relationships continue to fuel your firm's success over the long term.

So in tough times, don't just focus on finding more work. Take steps to win more than your fair share of what you find. The quality of the relationships you build will take you farther than even the strongest resume or the most persuasive sales pitch. That's one constant in this fast-changing economy.

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