Monday, December 20, 2010

Helping Clients Do More With Less

Economic forecasts show improvement in 2011, but it's a relative measure. Predicted modest gains in construction-related activity are generally offset by the much larger losses that took place over the last two years. It will be a long slow climb back to the levels we enjoyed in 2008.

Last week I suggested that growth-minded A/E firms that can't buy market share are going to have to take it from competitors. That is a much different strategy than competing for your share of a growing market, as was the case before the recession. I don't see many firms ready to take market share in the coming year.

But perhaps your firm is happy to simply hold its own in 2011, experiencing minimal growth as the market begins to recover. It might not be that easy. As clients' budgets have decreased, their needs have changed as well. They are preparing to get more from less, to stretch limited resources as far as they can to address their pressing needs. Is your firm prepared to help them in that quest?

I must confess that I have a better understanding of your clients' evolving needs than I have insight into how you can make money meeting them. The best I can do is to suggest some ways you might respond to those needs. You'll have to determine how to make an adequate income doing so. With that disclaimer, let me offer some ideas for helping your clients do more with less:

Stay engaged with your clients even when they don't have upcoming projects. These times may test your commitment to client relationships. Will you continue to nurture those relationships even if there's no short-term financial payback? Some A/E firms apparently aren't, as they've stopped calling on cash-short clients. But this is a great time to solidify your relationships (and steal a few from your competitors). The fundamental role hasn't changed: You're there to help your clients, even if that involves a good measure of free advice.

Help your clients characterize and prioritize their needs for the foreseeable future. Many of them, of course, already have a pretty good handle on this. They likely have a facilities or capital improvement plan; some have gone a step further with asset management planning. But those plans probably didn't account for a substantial shift in revenue and funding. You might be able to provide valuable guidance in rethinking facility or infrastructure needs and how best to address those in the evolving financial climate.

Provide operational assessments and consulting. Many clients will have to make do with current facilities that were planned for replacement. That may require some creative thinking with regards to possible operational changes or low-cost modifications. As an outsider with relevant expertise, your firm may be better positioned than the client to objectively assess these situations and offer makeshift solutions. The fact is that all organizations can benefit from retooling their operations to eliminate waste and inefficiency, and tight budgets can provide just the needed jolt to make that happen.

Explore strategic alliances to better serve your clients' changing needs. This is always good advice, of course. But the slogging recovery creates new opportunities to package complementary services and products to help clients. For best results, you probably need to step outside the box of convention. Examine your clients' emerging and unmet needs, even if they're not directly related to your current services. Consider what kinds of expertise is needed to meet those needs, then explore how you might merge that with what your firm can do.

Provide more affordable off-the-shelf solutions.
I was talking with the administrator of a rural county recently who questioned the need for custom designs for facilities like a fire station, branch library, or vehicle maintenance shop. He wondered why he couldn't choose a basic design from a selection of prototypes, similar to how people use house plan books. I remember pitching the same idea to an architectural firm in Minnesota that had designed fire stations for many small towns in that state, but had seen that market decline dramatically. Of course, the notion was met with scorn.

But don't the times call for more economical alternatives? And should we use our specialized expertise to provide them? The problem of course, is giving up the 7% design fee (or whatever) that we've grown accustomed to. But as this administrator observed, sticking with old business models may well mean these projects don't happen at all for the foreseeable future.

Are there ways you can help your clients do more with less and still meet your own financial needs? I don't have the answer yet. But the question is certainly worth exploring further. Any suggestions?

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