Monday, November 29, 2010

In Sales, Persistence Pays Off

There are myriad reasons why technical professionals falter at selling. Many are uncomfortable with the role. Others yield to utilization pressures. Some lack the requisite competencies. But perhaps the most prevalent reason for lack of sales success is simply failing to give adequate effort.

One study purportedly found that 80% of sales are closed after the fifth sales call. But 90% of salespeople quit after the fourth call. While I've been unable to track the original source of that finding, it correlates well with a recent study by BPM Forum that found that over 80% of sales leads are never followed up on, are dropped, or are otherwise mishandled.

This problem is particularly acute among professional service firms, in part because--according to of sales leads are "long term," meaning they take at least several months to close. Busy technical professionals are prone to give up the chase too soon. Oh, they may well get involved again once the RFP hits the streets. But by then they've missed the opportunity to position their firms for success.

All this points to an important reality: Persistence pays off in sales. That may be stating the obvious, but we can certainly benefit from being reminded again. Better still, perhaps we need to take some specific steps to help us outwork and outlast the competition:

Have a plan for each key sales opportunity. The discipline to execute effective sales tactics starts with planning. Outline how you intend to contact different buying influences, build critical relationships, fill information gaps, and position your firm as the go-to resource. This plan must be periodically updated as new information is uncovered and the situation evolves. Of course, having a plan is one thing, but carrying it out is what really matters.

Be selective as to which opportunities you pursue. To do sales right takes time, and you only have so much of it. You won't beat the competition by simply chasing more sales leads, but by outworking them on the ones you target.

Stay in regular contact, both directly and indirectly. Client research by BTI Consulting found that clients notice when professional service sellers are sporadic in their contacts. They perceive it as a lack of commitment. So you want to sustain the conversation with the client. But don't waste the client's time simply to make an appearance (a common occurrence). Always bring value to every sales call. To avoid overstaying your welcome, supplement sales calls with periodic emails that forward helpful information to the client.

Advance the ball with each step of the sales process. While regular contact is important, each meeting or phone call with the client should represent a deliberate step towards closing the sale. Don't fall into the trap of simply "touching base" with the client on occasion. Instead, consider how to take the relationship a step further each time. This is where the aforementioned plan really comes into play--not just a task list, but an evolving gameplan for each encounter with the client.

Budget sales time. The best way to resolve the inherent tension between selling and being billable is to specifically budget time for sales. Then treat it like a project commitment. Track "sales utilization"--how much of the allocated budget is being spent as intended. Match expended hours with completed activities, just as a project manager would.

Have your "sales team" meet regularly to encourage follow-through. In many firms, taking on sales responsibilities is largely solo duty. That can make the inevitable delays and disappointments all the more dispiriting. That's one reason I favor organizing the sales team and having them regularly interact to discuss progress, share commitments, offer support, and hold each other accountable. That will help you sustain the sales effort over long periods.

Stay engaged even when the project is not imminent. As noted earlier, most sales leads in our business are long term. That can work to your advantage because most of your competitors are likely to either (1) mishandle or neglect the lead over the long haul or (2) arrive on the scene only as the RFP is approaching (or has already been released). If you stay involved with the client, providing support and nurturing the relationship over many months, you will have effectively screened out most of the competition.

Skeptical? One of my clients, a large international engineering firm, has found that while their normal proposal win rate is about 35%, it jumps to 70-75% when they develop and execute a "capture plan" that spells out most of the steps I describe above. Makes you wonder why they can't convince more of their client managers to take this approach. And what's your firm's excuse?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Can Clients Count On You?

The essence of your firm's brand can't be created in the marketing department. It's lived out in the experiences clients have with your firm. To provide great service, you must prove yourself trustworthy--that is, deserving of the client's complete trust.

That starts with consistently keeping your commitments. We all realize this, yet failing to keep the promises we make is all too common in our industry. Some of this is inadvertent, some due to neglect, some simply because project managers care too little.

I suspect that most everyone in our business wants to be viewed as dependable. Yet how are we doing? In a survey conducted in 2008 by Morrisey Goodale, only 17% of clients gave their A/E service providers an "A" grade for "follow-through."

Firms fared even worse with two of the three most basic promises we make to clients: To do (1) quality work (2) on time and (3) within budget. Only 14% of clients gave an A grade for quality, 12% for schedule compliance, and 20% for budget control.

So is being dependable something you can take for granted? I don't think so. Below are some things to consider in being someone your clients can always count on:

Don't promise what you can't deliver. Project managers often feel pressured to agree to client requests even when there's considerable doubt they can be fulfilled. And some PMs are quick to acquiesce to seemingly whatever the client asks. Such attempts to please the client for the present usually lead to disappointment later. Worse still, the inability to keep your word compromises your trustworthiness in the eyes of the client. This can ultimately poison the relationship.

So the advice is self-evident: Don't do it! Your good faith efforts to satisfy the client in the moment too often result in broken promises later. If you value your integrity, guard against agreeing to anything you're not reasonably confident you can deliver. Think long term. A happy client in the middle of a project is a desirable thing, but a happy client at the end is even better.

Clarify the client's expectations up front. Fulfilling the established scope, schedule, and budget is necessary in providing great service, but it's far from doing enough. You must also satisfy expectations that usually go unstated unless you ask. So by all means ask. This is a step I call "service benchmarking."

In conducting client surveys over the years I've learned that most service breakdowns result from a misunderstanding of expectations. Sometimes expectations aren't clearly established even in the client's mind. It works best for both parties when they are defined and shared at the outset. To be perceived as dependable, you need to first understand all that is being expected of you.

Don't overlook the importance of keeping commitments internally. External service and quality problems are nearly always hatched in the office. You can tweak policies, procedures, and practices in an attempt to achieve better output. But one of the most effective solutions is simply to embrace the principle I mentioned earlier in reference to clients: Keep your commitments. One example is the common problem of failing to meet internal milestones. This is one of the most significant factors impairing quality and on-time performance. Being dependable for the client requires also being dependable for colleagues.

Exceptions happen, but don't be too quick to excuse them. No matter how dedicated you are, there will inevitably come times when you make a mistake, miss a deadline, or otherwise fail to meet expectations. Clients are usually forgiving, and that can become a problem. For example, I know PMs who are routinely late with deliverables. Why? Because whenever they ask clients for an extension, they almost always get one. Thus the habit is formed.

Let me suggest that just because the client says it's okay to break your word doesn't mean it's really okay. Each schedule extension--or other accommodation for your failure to do what you said you would--chips away at the client's perception of your trustworthiness.

Agree in advance on how to deal with contingencies. Yes, the client's dissatisfaction sometimes results from unforeseen circumstances over which you have little or no control. When the unexpected happens, however, you will be greatly served if you've taken steps in advance to manage expectations. For example, have you and the client agreed on a process for managing changes? Have you jointly assessed project risks? Do you openly talk about potential or developing problems?

Such proactive steps help shape the client's expectations of your firm when things take an unanticipated turn. Then your dependability in such situations can be judged more by how you respond than by the outcomes you can't fully control.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What Are the Best Marketing Tactics?

I've noted in this space before that I think marketing (as contrasted with sales) is grossly undervalued in our industry. I suspect this is due in large part to the fact that few A/E firms do marketing well. One of the best ways to confirm this conclusion is to look at which marketing tactics are deemed most effective in other professional service sectors. I think you'll find that none of these is commonly used in our business.

In preparing for work with one of my clients, I recently researched best marketing practices for professional service firms and other B2B marketers. I looked at surveys conducted by, The Bloom Group, MarketingProfs, Junta42, BlissPR, and the Association of Management Consulting Firms. These surveys asked marketing professionals to rate the effectiveness of various marketing tactics.

A couple notable observations emerged from my research. One was a remarkable correlation between the surveys. There was general agreement as to what worked well and what didn't. That, of course, lends added credibility to the ranking of tactics provided below. The second thing I noticed was the clear advantage of various forms of content marketing. I've written on this topic before, and have pointed out that this is not common practice among A/E firms.

Following are the eight marketing tactics, listed in order, that a compilation of these surveys indicates are most effective:

1. Seminars and other in-person events. There's no better way outside of project work to demonstrate your firm's insight and expertise. This category includes both firm- and third-party-sponsored seminars, and both paid and free sessions. "In-person events" can be a rather broad category, but here refers to issue-driven, educational events such as roundtables, forums, and workshops.

2. Conference presentations. If you want to avoid the expense and hassle of sponsoring your own events, the next best choice (other than having someone else sponsor your seminar) is to speak at industry conferences and trade shows. By the way, this has been by far the most effective marketing tactic I've used in building my business.

3. Webinars. While their educational value can be questioned, webinars are clearly an increasingly popular alternative to attending conferences and seminars. They're relatively cheap and convenient, and should be part of your marketing arsenal. Providing your own is better, but working with trade groups and other third-party sponsors can also be effective.

4. Articles in third-party publications. The key to success with this tactic--besides writing good stuff, of course--is placement in publications that your clients read. Print publications are still important, but the growth of online sources is far outpacing the traditional medium (and most print publications are also available online).

5. Search engine optimization. This tactic is all about increasing traffic to your website and any other internet venues (e.g., blog or social media sites) where your firm can be found. Some technical know-how helps (which may warrant hiring some outside help), but much of it involves strategically enhancing your firm's web presence.

6. Articles posted on your website. This one surprised me, a tactic with an obvious caveat. If you're only generating minuscule traffic to your site, posting articles there won't help much. The implication is that this tactic must be part of a larger strategy to enhance your website's popularity. Placing good content there (which is rare among A/E firms) is key, as well as doing some search engine optimization.

7. PR pitches to journalists. There's some benefit in sending out press releases, but having reporters and other journalists contacting your firm's experts as valued sources is even better. Or having them write an article or do a news spot about your firm. The downside--which you're aware of if you've ever been interviewed or been in the news--is the difficulty in controlling the message. So as with item #6, I present you the results with a little reservation.

8. Email newsletter. Publishing a newsletter is among the more popular marketing tactics in our business. But many firms still prefer hard copy and the content tends to be too self-congratulatory. It may surprise you that print newsletters did not fare as well in the surveys, although some obviously prefer print over digital. I'm convinced that the email format has many advantages, including the ability to use other people's content. For more on this, check out this earlier post.

So how much is your firm employing the tactics listed above? Is it time to re-evaluate your marketing strategy? By the way, the research indicates that the following tactics are significantly less effective than the top eight:

  • Trade show exhibiting
  • Direct mail
  • Social media
  • Blog
  • Advertising
That's not to say that these should be avoided as part of your overall marketing strategy. But many firms rely heavily on tactics like these while largely ignoring the more effective ones.

Social media is a bit of an enigma and perhaps a surprise inclusion here among the less effective tactics. For one thing, these same studies indicated that firms are dramatically increasing their spending and activity in social media. It's potential is promising and still evolving. But one thing is clear; it is more potent when combined with strong content. I've addressed social media at some length in two previous posts (post 1 and post 2).

Those are the results of the surveys, at least. They generally conform to my own experiences. What about yours? I'd love to hear which marketing tactics you've found work best for your firm.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Give Your Best to Your Best Opportunities

I have a client who opened an office across the country in hope of expanding work with their federal government clients. After several months they finally landed a signature project at a military base near their new office. Obviously this was a special opportunity, a chance to gain a foothold in a promising new but ultra-competitive geographic marketplace.

Unfortunately things have not gone well on this project. There have been a number of serious quality and delivery problems, leading the client to conclude that the local office wasn't ready for prime time. The repercussions could turn out to be damaging for some time to come.

As we explored the reasons behind these problems, it was evident that the firm had failed to give the project the level of attention it deserved. It was staffed as any routine project would be, basically with whoever was available. Some team members weren't quite up to the technical challenges the project presented. The difficulties of working with a remote office on such a large project weren't fully considered. There was even confusion about who was really the project manager.

My client's troubles illustrate a common shortcoming--the failure to give special priority to a firm's most important opportunities. I suspect the problem is linked in large part to the task-oriented, crisis-driven management culture that is so prevalent among A/E firms. Devoting more attention to important versus urgent matters is a rare competency in our business.

But part of the problem is probably related to an unrealistic expectation. When I suggested to my client's management team that they would do well to single out some projects and clients for special attention, some resisted. "We should be giving A-grade service and quality to all our clients," one said to the nodding approval of others.

That's simply impractical. No firm has staff that are all equally qualified and motivated. Some project managers are better than others. There are resource constraints. Management can only focus on so many things at once. Doesn't it make sense to allocate these limited assets in such a way as to maximize the firm's success? In other words, give your best to your best opportunities.

Your best opportunities would include:
  • Important sales opportunities. New projects or clients that are particularly crucial to achieving your goals. Are you willing to forgo other sales or proposal opportunities to focus more effort on the ones that matter most?

  • Key client accounts. Most firms derive most of their revenue from a few clients. Do you give these client accounts special attention? Do you have key account plans in place to guide activity relative to these valuable clients?

  • Special projects or contracts. Such as my client's project described above. Do these get your best project managers and project teams? Do you give extra attention to client service, the delivery process, and quality assurance? Do you have periodic reviews (by experts not on the project team) of these projects?

  • Strategic initiatives. Internal efforts to position your firm for growth, change, improvement. Do you budget and commit adequate resources for these initiatives to succeed? Do you take steps to ensure follow-through on assigned responsibilities?
Of course, any of the above can compete for much of the same allocation of limited resources and management attention. So you have to be wise in choosing which are most deserving of your time and money. Let me suggest the following strategies:

Be selective. Don't over-commit. Be willing to make tough choices. Giving your best to a few things undoubtedly means cutting back or eliminating investments in other things. The volume strategy (e.g., many firms pursue on proposals) never beats the advantages of doing fewer better.

Have a plan. A good plan helps concentrate focus and resources. It's the difference between being proactive and reactive. My advice for creating an effective plan is: Keep it simple and keep it real. The goal isn't simply to come up with a plan, but to put it into action.

Wisely allocate resources. To the extent practical, assign your best people to your best opportunities. Be realistic about their availability. If you add new responsibilities, relieve them of others. Looking to the future, you don't want to neglect stretching (and growing) your other staff through challenging assignments, but make sure they receive adequate mentoring and oversight.

Track progress and performance. Always consider how best to measure how you're doing. Beware of merely defaulting to your usual metrics; they may not be adequate for these high-priority efforts. Look at both leading (actions) and trailing (results) indicators.

Do periodic third-party reviews. Every special opportunity deserves occasional reviews by individuals who are not directly involved in the effort. The frequency and timing of the reviews should be outlined in your plan. The primary purpose of the reviews is not to find fault (although there may be occasion for that), but to identify opportunities for raising the bar. Remember, the goal is to give your best.

If your firm isn't doing this already, let me urge you to start today. Pick a few choice opportunities and organize your best people and efforts around them. You can't afford, like my client, to let your best opportunities pass without giving them the attention they deserve.