Friday, December 27, 2013

Top 10 Blog Posts of 2013

Another year has whisked by and the traditional year-end look back is upon us. Thanks to readers like you, this blog continues to attract an expanding audience. Part of that is due to the multiplying effect of social media. The posts at the top of the list below, for example, benefited from being linked to or retweeted by others on Twitter, including some who had thousands of followers.

Hopefully I can continue to publish content that others find not only worth their reading, but sharing with others. For the present, here is a second helping of my top ten most read blog posts of 2013, listed in order of popularity:

1. Common Strategic Planning Mistakes. Most A/E firms don't do strategic planning, and a majority of those who do are disappointed with the ultimate results. Perhaps that's why this post hit the mark with so many readers. But the problems with strategic planning are hardly limited to our industry. Most of those who read this post appear to have come from outside the A/E business.

2. Client-Centered Project Management. The popularity of this post came as a pleasant surprise. I've long advocated making the client experience a central element of doing project work. But I've seen very few firms build this into their project delivery process. After providing my first-ever workshop on client-centered project management to one of my clients, I wrote this summary about it and drew a much larger audience than I anticipated.

3. Understand Your Clients? New Study Casts Doubt. I'm convinced that most A/E firms overestimate how well they know their clients. That conclusion comes from working with many different firms and interviewing hundreds of their clients. This post referenced a recent study of A/E firm clients by the marketing firm Hinge, which focused specifically on the buying process. They found a number of things that contradict conventional wisdom about what clients are looking for.

4. Cultivating Creativity in Your Firm. The post-recession world is different enough to challenge any business-as-usual thinking. We need to rethink our strategy and practices in order to succeed in the years to come. Is your firm consciously promoting creative thinking to address these new realities? This post outlines some proven techniques for doing just that.

5. Creating a Rainmaking Culture. Business development has long been the domain of a select few people in most A/E firms. That needs to change as firms scramble to claim their share (or more than their share) of fewer market opportunities. This post describes some basic steps for creating a culture in which rainmaking responsibilities are more broadly shared.

6. Writing Compelling Project Descriptions. The project descriptions I read in proposals or marketing materials are generally pretty weak. They describe not a project but a scope of work—pretty boring stuff. That this post was so popular suggests that I'm not the only one who sees a problem here. 

7. Create Value by Meeting Clients' Strategic Needs. Why don't A/E firms command fees comparable to most other professional service firms? I think much of it relates to our failure to explicitly address strategic needs—those needs that pertain to the client's overall business or mission success. It's not that we can't; we just tend to focus on technical issues while largely ignoring issues of greater importance to clients.

8. Do You Really Need an Elevator Speech? Ever considered what you should say when someone asks what your firm does? First impressions do matter, but does the classic "elevator speech" really resonate with clients? I suspect not. The best approach, in my experience, is to avoid the sales hype and quickly shift the focus to the other party.

9. Can You Escape the Commoditization Trap? I hear a lot of folks in our industry complain about being perceived as commodities, but very few really are doing anything about it. This post offers some ideas for those who aren't resigned to being just another undifferentiated A/E firm.

10. Tangibilize Your Intangible Strengths. If you want to understand why the commoditization trend has overtaken us, just ask A/E firm leaders what separates their firm from their competitors. What you hear most often are traits—like responsive, high quality, trustworthy—that are difficult to demonstrate or prove to prospective clients. There are ways to tangibilize many of these intangible qualities, if you're willing to work at it.

If you've found any of the suggestions in my blog posts helpful, I'd love to hear about it. That's ultimately what this blog is about—helping firms like yours be more successful. If I can help in any way in that regard, don't hesitate to ask. I'm happy to share my insights, whether you choose to hire me or not. Best wishes for the coming new year!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Could More Admin Support Improve Profitability?

In the A/E profession, we have typically associated administrative personnel with overhead. Hence, conventional wisdom is that keeping your admin staff as small as possible improves profitability.

But is this necessarily true? It probably is if you continue to use admin staff in traditional ways. But there may be more creative ways to use admin personnel—and even hire more of them—that can increase your profits.

When I stepped into the operations manager role with my previous employer, I inherited a small risk assessment group that served our clients throughout the western U.S. They were notoriously overworked, consistently putting in 60-80 hours per week. I told the group's manager that I couldn't allow that to continue. We either needed to hire more people or find some way to distribute the workload.

In exploring what their work entailed, I discovered that much of it was doing risk calculations. "Is that something that we could train our admin staff to do?" I asked. The group manager thought that we could...and we did. 

We solved two problems at once: (1) we relieved our risk assessment group of some of the more mundane aspects of their work and reduced their hours (which I believe enhanced their productivity) and (2) we dramatically improved the billability of an admin group that had chronically failed to meet their utilization goals. Plus we billed them at significantly higher rates than for their usual project clerical work, with a higher return on investment than we got with our risk assessment professionals.

In other words, we improved our profitability.

But our expanded use of admin support didn't stop there. We assigned a project administrator to each of our largest projects. Much of the work this individual performed had previously been done by the project manager—documentation, accounting, tracking, coordination, communication. Again, we charged a higher-than-usual rate and achieved a higher ROI than we could with the PM performing these tasks.

I gave my administrative office manager a copy of my position description and asked her to spend a few days determining which of my duties she thought she could perform. She assumed several of those responsibilities (and actually was probably better suited for them than I was), freeing me to spend more time on higher-impact activities—like developing new business. Other managers followed my lead.

Eventually we had the highest headcount of admin personnel per capita of any office in the company. And we were the most profitable.

This approach somewhat parallels the use of paralegals in law firms. Paralegals do administrative and research tasks that enable lawyers to spend more time on higher-end responsibilities like client work and business development. It has been well demonstrated that paralegals can significantly improve profitability. With profits declining in many law firms in the post-recession economy, there is a push to expand the role of paralegals because of their higher ROI (compared to many associate attorneys).

If increasing admin support truly can improve business performance, why haven't more firms taken this approach? I think there are a few common obstacles you have to overcome:
  • You need to hire quality admin personnel. This advice seems obvious, but firms often choose economy over quality when it comes to admin staff. Saving a little on salary can cost you more, especially if you forgo opportunities to involve these individuals in more billable work.
  • You need to banish the notion that only specialized professionals can do project work. There's a sentiment in our business that only degreed engineers, architects, or scientists can do the work. But there are many aspects of project work (and project management) that can be capably handled by "nonprofessionals" with proper training and supervision.
  • You need to bill appropriately for the value of the tasks being performed. Just because admin staff are doing the work doesn't mean you need to charge admin rates. I understand that some clients—such as federal agencies—can make this more difficult. But in most cases you can negotiate alternate billing categories. It can be a win-win scenario: The client pays less for the task, but you earn more.
So where do you start? I'd suggest an inventory of tasks that could potentially be performed by admin staff that are currently being done by your technical professionals or managers. Then determine how to shift the work appropriately. And, as noted above, you may need to create some new billing categories.

By the way, you shouldn't stop with looking at better ways to use admin support. This exercise applies the principle of leverage, which is surprisingly little discussed in our industry. Leverage is basically distributing the work optimally among staff such that your ROI (and profit) is enhanced. In the wake of staff reductions during the worst of the recession, many A/E firms today are poorly leveraged (i.e., they're top-heavy). Expanding the use of admin staff should be but one step towards trying to maximize efficiency and profit-making potential across the organization.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Build Your Capabilities with Independent Affiliates

I once worked for a firm that had a nationally-recognized risk assessment practice. They owed much of their reputation to a group of college professors who worked with them on a part-time contract basis. Same for a mined land reclamation consulting firm that became one of my first clients. They partnered with a few professors whose reclamation research was known around the world.

Another firm I worked with picked up a former Exxon project manager who had directed multimillion-dollar oil shale development projects in western Colorado. When the oil shale boom went bust, he wanted to stay in the area and supplemented his part-time work with us as a substitute high school teacher. Given his credentials, high billing rate, and reasonable cost, he made more money for us per hour than any of our 500+ employees.

These are just a few of the many examples I could share from my experience working with what I call "independent affiliates." The proper legal term is independent contractor, but I use affiliate to designate a special class of independent contractor who has notable expertise, is well connected, and can help you expand your business. This person essentially serves the role of a strategic hire without all the risk. In return, you offer the independent affiliate the reputation and resources of your firm, another source of revenue, and the freedom to continue to pursue other business opportunities as well.

This type of win-win partnership is a no-brainer strategy that I've recommended to most of my clients, yet very few of them have followed my advice. I've heard various reasons for this: They can't find the right people for their needs. They have concerns about the associated liability or legal issues. They prefer making a strategic hire versus counting on someone outside the organization. In most cases, I suspect they simply haven't given enough attention to exploring the possibilities.

Independent affiliates have not only proved valuable in the past, but they appear to be part of a growing workforce trend. The latest Workforce Trends Study by the staffing firm Yoh found that 75% of employers surveyed anticipate increased dependency on the "non-employee workforce"—defined as consultants, independent contractors, and temporary employees. Independent contractors now comprise about 23% of the U.S. workforce. This trend has long been forecast (e.g., the popular 2002 book Free Agent Nation), but has no doubt been accelerated by the Great Recession.

So the demand across multiple industries seems to be increasing, but what about supply? The data I've found seems contradictory. One article says that the number of self-employed "has skyrocketed;" another says the number of self-employed Americans is at an all-time low. One study found that 40% of workers classified themselves as "free agents" in 2012, compared to only 26% in 2008 (I'm not sure how that relates to the 23% figure above). My own experience suggests that the weak economy has pushed many professionals into the ranks of free agent, even if they've not yet established a formal business entity.

In any case, I remain convinced that looking to partner with independent affiliates makes good business sense if you can find the right candidates (which means looking for them!). Here are a few ways that independent affiliates might help you grow your business:

Move into new markets. With some markets still struggling to recover, many A/E firms have given renewed emphasis to moving into new ones. That can be difficult to impossible without adding new capabilities, so in the planning meetings I've facilitated there's frequently discussion about making a strategic hire or acquisition. These are certainly viable strategies, but they're costly and risky. About 70% of acquisitions fail to produce anticipated results. And I would guess that a substantial number of A/E firm strategic hires prove disappointing.

One civil engineering firm took a different tact. Wanting to break into the industrial market, they partnered with a sole proprietor engineering consultant with a wealth of industrial experience and contacts. The consultant benefited because he lacked the resources to pursue the larger industrial contracts that he enjoyed. Eventually the firm was adding junior staff to meet the growing needs of their new industrial clients.

Expand your geographic reach. Our firm had a strong environmental management systems New Haven, Connecticut. I was having little success selling those services in the Rocky Mountain region. So I contracted with a solo consultant I'd met in Denver to support our firm as an independent affiliate. We began opening doors with existing and new clients, largely using our firm's resume but with his local expertise. While he managed the work in our region, much of it was performed back east.

There was admittedly a good deal of time spent selling the partnership before it yielded any new work. That's to be expected any time you're entering new markets or service areas. But one significant advantage of this arrangement versus a strategic hire (which we had considered) was that the upfront investment of our affiliate's time didn't cost us anything. Individual agreements may differ on this, but most of the independent affiliates I've worked with count business development time as the normal cost of doing business.

Strengthen your capabilities. Interested in pursuing a big contract opportunity but realize that your firm's resume is weak in one key area? Most firms in this situation subcontract another firm to shore up that shortcoming. But an independent affiliate has some advantages, if you don't need to extra manpower another firm would provide. You may earn a higher fee from the affiliate's work. Coordination can be easier since you're dealing with an individual. It may be easier to portray the affiliate as an extension of your project team (although you want to be upfront with the client about the nature of your relationship).

Expand your staffing capacity. One of the greatest challenges of running an A/E firm is matching your staffing to an ever-changing work load. Assembling a cadre of independent affiliates can provide some extra capacity for those temporary surges in workload where staffing up isn't warranted. Of course, affiliates are usually more senior personnel who may be too expensive to perform the bulk of typical project tasks. But I've seen firms have success with this approach in addressing the variations in their work load.

Outsource some strategic overhead functions. Some firms may find it advantageous to outsource some aspects of overhead functions like accounting, HR, IT, and marketing to save costs. But there can be some strategic merits as well. Many HR directors, for example, are too busy with routine day-to-day tasks to focus on critical long-range goals such as recruiting strategy, new hire orientation, performance appraisal, and professional development. An independent affiliate with expertise in these areas may enable you to accomplish much more than would be possible otherwise.

I have served in this kind of role on several occasions. For example, I was hired as business development director on a part-time contract basis for two years with one engineering firm. We were able to restore growth and profitability after years of underperformance. One of the advantages I brought was the inherent credibility that often comes with hiring an outside expert. I was able to push needed changes in their BD practices that they had failed to accomplish on their own. I've had similar experiences with other firms: Overhauling project delivery and quality assurance practices, installing a behavior-based safety process, leading implementation of other strategic initiatives.

Despite the benefits of using independent affiliates, let me warn you to be familiar with the rules associated with hiring them. The IRS is currently cracking down on companies that misclassify workers who function as employees but are designated independent contractors. This may scare some firms away from considering this option. But the free agent nation isn't going away. Many successful firms will learn how to leverage the advantages of using these individuals to rejuvenate and build their businesses.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Why Would You Recommend a Competitor?

Years ago I was meeting with the environmental manager at a large manufacturing plant in Colorado when he asked if our firm provided air monitoring and modeling services. "Yes, we do," I responded, "but our nearest office with that capability is Chicago. And we've never done any air work in this state." I then suggested a competitor for the work.

When my boss heard about this, he was unhappy. "Why would you recommend a competitor? We could do that work!" 

"Sure, we could do the work," I replied, "but not nearly as well as [the competitor]." Then I explained why referring a competitor was the right thing to do: We had been pursuing this client for a few years and had only a couple very small jobs to show for it. It was highly unlikely we could have won the air monitoring contract anyway. And we would have missed an opportunity to demonstrate that we had the client's best interests in mind.

Given how tough it's become to win new work, you might question the logic of ever recommending a competitor for work that your firm could perform (or any kind of work). My boss certainly did. Besides the immediate contract in question, helping a competing firm might enable them to establish themselves as a preferred provider, thus limiting your future opportunities with that client as well.

That's certainly possible, but my experience has shown otherwise. When you're in the early stages of building a relationship with a prospect or client, the most important task you have is to demonstrate your trustworthiness. Particularly in the sales phase, clients are inclined question your motives, just as you do when you're in the buyer's role: "Does the seller have my interests in mind, or primarily his own?" It's clear that most buyers suspect that sellers are driven primarily by self interest.

Recommending a competitor is an effective way to demonstrate that you can be trusted to act on the client's behalf. While it may seem you're sacrificing self interest in the short term, usually it ultimately works to your benefit. This principle was illustrated in the classic movie Miracle on 34th Street. When Kris Kringle, working as Santa at Macy's, advises a customer to go to a competing store, the customer tells the toy department manager that she has now become a loyal customer. The practice of referring customers to competitors when appropriate becomes store policy and customers flock to Macy's. Why? Because they trust the store to give them the best service, even if it involves being sent to another store. Soon other stores adopt the same practice because it has become so successful for Macy's.

In contrast to the movie, I don't advocate referring competitors as a competitive strategy, rather as a simple matter of doing the right thing. Treat customers well and they'll tend to come back to you. That's been my experience, and I'm sure it's been yours too—whether you're open to recommending your competitors or not. The point is, when clients believe you care more about them than your short-term self interests, it typically works to the benefit of both parties.

What about the client in the story I opened with? The truth is they never became a substantial client, mostly because they didn't outsource many services that fit our capabilities. But we became the first firm they typically turned to for advice on environmental issues. And the environmental manager referred us to a couple of his peers that became significant clients for us.

Now I need to clarify that I'm not advocating referring competitors just because they're more qualified than your firm. There's almost always someone with better credentials. And there have been many times that I've pursued and won work that my firm (or I as an individual consultant) had never done before. But there was a common thread in almost every such case—a client who trusted that we (I) would do the right thing for them.

So why would you recommend a competitor? Because in some cases it's the best advice you can offer. And in my experience, it usually leads to opening doors to far more opportunities with that client than what you might have passed on.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Is Your Marketing Full of Empty Claims?

More is less when it comes to hyping your firm. Yet most of us who have ever penned marketing copy have been guilty of making statements that don't stand up to scrutiny. The odd thing is how often we resort to the same empty marketing claims as our competitors to try to differentiate our firms.

For example, consider the over-used phrase "full-service engineering firm." What does that mean, anyway? Is there a minimum number of engineering disciplines or services you have to have to qualify as a full-service firm? Perhaps the phrase simply clarifies that you're not a "partial-service engineering firm."

Type "unique architectural firm" into Google and you get over 477,000 hits. There are only 105,596 licensed architects in the U.S. To be fair, you could say that there's no other firm exactly like yours, hence it is unique. But I don't think that's what is implied when you market your firm that way.

A few other examples of hype that I found in a brief survey of A/E firm websites (emphasis added):
  • Our projects deliver long-term, far-reaching benefits for their communities and serve as the genesis for future community-focused development. 
  • Our goal is to raise the standards of professional consulting engineering by hiring industry professionals who understand the complexities of building and maintaining modern infrastructures.
  • We provide pioneering solutions that better our community and safeguard the environment.
  • Our firm is an award-winning leader in engineering design.
  • [The firm] accomplishes this through unparalleled customer service—from pre-design to post-design construction follow-through.
Okay, maybe I'm making too much of throw-away phrases that no one takes seriously. But isn't that the point? When you use empty marketing claims that are not really to be believed, what does that do to the value of your marketing?

Let me suggest that you avoid all such language in your marketing, proposals, and sales conversations. Meaningless claims of distinction only diminish your message. A few guidelines:

Avoid absolutes unless they're true. This includes words such as unique, unparalleled, complete, and full. Absolutes are commonly used in marketing copy but are rarely accurate. That only erodes the substance of of your marketing claims—even your true ones.

Back up your strongest claims with proof. If, for example, you claim your firm was one of the "pioneers in sustainable design for Virginia public schools," you need to back that up with evidence. Stating the obvious? You might be surprised how often such claims are made without proof. And even if the claim is true, it only evokes skepticism without substantiation.

Be diligent in compiling the evidence. A key reason firms make empty marketing claims is that they simply don't have the proof to back up what they think is true. You say your firm saves clients money or minimizes construction claims? Can you produce the numbers? Providing a handful of examples out of the many projects you've done won't cut it. If you want to make such boasts, get serious about compiling the data to support it. Most A/E firms don't.

Make sure your claimed distinction isn't routine. I often see firms boasting of their 80% repeat business rate as evidence of exceptional client service. But that's the norm in our business, in my experience. And it's not necessarily a good measure of client satisfaction. Your high repeat business rate could indicate weakness in winning new clients. Avoiding such useless claims is easier if you benchmark your firm's performance against competitors.

Beware of bloated adjectives. Much of the marketing hype we create involves the overuse of superlative adjectives like excellent, outstanding, exceptional, best-in-class, and industry-leading. I understand the temptation to use such words (I've used them many times myself), but the truth is they are at best useless, and perhaps counterproductive to your intent. Many marketing experts advise eliminating most adjectives from your marketing copy. I think it's wise to generally avoid what you might call "elective adjectives" (adjectives that aren't really needed to clarify your writing).

Identify or create tangible distinctives so you don't need to resort to empty claims. The best marketing copy is simply sharing the unadorned truth about a genuinely different company. If you struggle to avoid hype in marketing your firm, you might benefit from doing an inventory of distinctives:
  • List everything you can think of about your firm that's different or rare in your business
  • Rate or rank the items on your list according to their marketing value
  • Write down the evidence you have to support each claim on your list
  • Eliminate from your list anything that lacks adequate proof (or determine how you'll produce that proof)
You might be surprised what doing this inventory reveals. We often write marketing copy by rote without reexamining the substance of our claims. There's a good chance that you have a marketplace distinctive or two that you've been overlooking. Or you have proof of a distinctive that you haven't been using. Or perhaps you'll learn you really don't have much to brag about. In that case, it's not all bad. That revelation could serve to motivate your firm to do something about it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Building Your Proposal Storyline

The best proposals tell a story. There's something about stories that make them a powerful device for persuasion. Stories engage our imagination, connect with our experiences, and evoke our emotions. Thus they are far more effective in persuading people than facts and marketing claims.

So how do you tell a story with a proposal? On the surface, it may seem that the RFP doesn't give you much room to construct a central narrative. But in most cases, the basic story elements are present. In my previous post on storytelling, I referenced a Fast Company article by consultant Kaihan Krippendorf who outlines the classic "story spine:"
  • Reality introduced—We see the idyllic life of the Hobbits living in the picturesque Shire.
  • Conflict arrives—The mystical ring is uncovered, putting the Hobbits in danger; so four intrepid souls leave on a journey to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom.
  • Struggle ensues—On this journey, the four Hobbits and their newfound associates face many grave dangers and seemingly insurmountable challenges.
  • Conflict is resolved—They ultimately are successful in completing their mission, destroying the ring and defeating the evil forces of Sauron.
  • New reality exists—Peace is restored to Middle-earth, and the lives of the story's heroes are forever changed (for the better, of course).
You could, of course, fit almost any story narrative into the same five-point structure. But a proposal? Yes, it's certainly possible as long as there is a project involved (it's much more difficult for an indefinite delivery contract submittal). Think about it: With a little imagination, almost any project fits within the basic story spine (although the RFP usually picks up the story at point two):
  • There is a problem or shortcoming to be solved (conflict)
  • There are several negative consequences and challenges involved (struggle)
  • A solution is developed (resolution)
  • Life is better with the project completed (new reality)
Now let me apply the story spine to a specific proposal I worked on to better illustrate how you might use this strategy:

I was asked by an engineering firm to help with their proposal for the design of a large rural wastewater collection system. The state had imposed a deadline on the County to take failing septic systems out of service and deliver the sewage to one or more area wastewater treatment plants. The project would require several miles of sewer line and pump stations.

As I usually do, I encouraged the team to develop a compelling proposal storyline. This narrative would help weave together all the sections required by the RFP into a cohesive whole. Here is the basic story spine we came up with:

Conflict: There is a regulatory deadline to vacate all septic systems within certain neighborhoods and deliver the sewage to one or more existing treatment facilities.

Struggle: With a conventional planning and design approach, it would be very difficult to meet the aggressive schedule. The County has also failed to reach agreements with area local governments that have treatment facilities that might be used. Because the design will have to accommodate future growth, there is concern that low initial flows in the oversized pipes will create odor and maintenance issues. Pipes of a certain size will also trigger the need for an environmental assessment, adding substantial costs to the project.

Resolution: We propose an expedited, collaborative planning and design process that will also facilitate reaching agreements with surrounding local governments. The design team has devised some creative design features to avoid the odor and maintenance problems. We also will be able to keep the pipe size below the threshold where an environmental assessment would be necessary.

New reality: Our proposal describes in detail how our firm will satisfactorily meet the deadline. And our design innovations will reduce the proposed construction cost by about $1.2 million.

Outlining your story spine is the critical first step in building your proposal storyline. But you still have to write your story into a nonlinear proposal structure that's not all that conducive to storytelling. How do you make it work? Here are some principles to keep in mind:

Stories involve actors, actions, and interactions. Most proposals, however, downplay these story elements. Many exclusively use third-person references to the entities—not the people—involved. There is often a corresponding prevalence of passive voice, removing actors from the action. 

So one of the easiest ways to build story into your proposals is to plainly describe people doing things and interacting with each other. Don't write about your project approach in a way that suggests a technical manual. Instead write the story of how the project will unfold, describing how the principal actors will make it happen.

Stories are personal. They engage us imaginatively and emotionally, in large part by revealing the thoughts and feelings of the people involved. How is that appropriate in a proposal? Well, you can share your thought process. In fact, clients welcome it. Too often we dispense our recommendations without explaining how we came to those answers. Inviting clients into your thought process not only helps you connect with them on a personal basis, it gives greater credibility to your solutions.

You also want to judiciously include feeling words in your proposal narrative. "You shared your concerns about..." "The facilities manager is understandably frustrated..." "The user group was excited about the latest changes..." "We've really enjoyed the previous projects we've done together with your agency..." There are undoubtedly emotions associated with the project. Why would you exclude them from your proposal? Remember, emotions drive persuasion.

Make sure to use second person in your proposals. Several studies have concluded that the word you is the most persuasive word in the English language. That makes sense, because it's personal.

Stories have dramatic tension and release. If you want to provide more valuable solutions, help clients understand how big and complex their problems are. Most proposals I review spend too little time describing the problem, the consequences, and the challenges. They jump right into the project approach without adequately addressing the needs driving the project, or the challenges that could interfere with its success. 

Perhaps you want to avoid any semblance to the salespeople we've all encountered who play up the problems to try to make a sale. But done correctly, there's real value in explicitly connecting your solutions to the problems you're solving. From a story perspective, it creates the dramatic tension that practically begs for release (i.e., your solution). Downplay the problem and you risk diminishing the perceived value of your solution. Isn't the story's hero measured by the magnitude of the obstacles he has to overcome?

Don't forget to link both problem and solution to human impacts. It's not really cost or performance that elevated the problem; it's how it impacted the client and their constituency. Thus the solution delivers human benefits as well as technical or financial ones. Fail to make that connection and you rob your proposal story of its real impact (not to mention the heart of the story, which is always ultimately about people).

Building a storyline into your proposal is a powerful way to differentiate it from your competitors. I'm convinced that weaving a story into the proposals I've worked on has played a large role in achieving a 75% win rate over the last 20 years. Try it and see if you don't get better results. After all, doesn't everyone like a good story?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Planning an Effective Presentation

As a business leader, making effective presentations is a requisite skill. Winning new clients often requires making a persuasive presentation. You may find yourself making a presentation to the public to gain their support for your project. You make internal presentations to train, inform, or influence employees. Perhaps you speak at conferences and workshops to build your reputation as a thought leader in your industry.

Given the importance attached to the presentations we make, I marvel at the haphazard way many of them are put together. The process often starts with creating PowerPoint slides without a clear vision of what it is we're trying to communicate. Our presentations often lack any evident structure, reflecting the stream-of-consciousness manner in which they were prepared.

We can do better. Let me suggest a basic process for planning presentations that get the results you need:

Define. The first step is to establish what you want your presentation to accomplish. In other words, what specific impact do you want it to have on your audience? How do you want them to respond? Don't settle for a simplistic, generic objective like: "We want them to award us the contract." Sure, that's the outcome you'd like. But what is your presentation's role in making that happen? What do you need to convince them of? What do you need to clarify? In what way do you need to change their thinking?

Of course, to answer these questions, you'd need to know something about your audience. That's where presentations often go astray first—failing to understand what the audience wants, needs, or is interested in. So planning an effective presentation starts with learning all you can about the people you're presenting to.

Design. With your purpose identified, now you want to determine what key messages need to be clearly communicated to achieve that purpose. Typically, I would suggest no more than 3-5 key messages. These are specific points you want your audience to understand and remember. They deserve special attention in the context of your presentation. In fact, your presentation should be built around these few key messages.

One of the best ways to distill the essence of your presentation and identify your key messages is to do what I call the "Two-Minute Drill." This involves imagining you only had two minutes to do your presentation and planning it accordingly. What results will likely reveal the main points you need to build your actual presentation around.

There are many ways you can structure your presentation, but I typically advise using the outline illustrated in the adjoining figure:
  • Call to Attention—Open your presentation by giving your audience a compelling reason to really tune in to what you have to say.
  • Key Messages—These constitute the high points in your presentation, the few things that are important to take away from what you have to say.
  • Supporting Points—What you need to say to illustrate and validate your key messages.
  • Call to Action—A strong close that is designed to influence your audience to respond in a certain way.
Develop. Now that you have the structure of your presentation, it's time to build out it's content. As noted earlier, many start the presentation planning here, creating slides or pulling slides together from prior presentations. Collecting content before your outline is completed is okay as long as it's exploratory, like doing research for a term paper. But beware of locking into content choices before you've gone through the process of defining your purpose, key messages, and presentation structure.

I encourage you to design your Call to Action first, since it's last in your presentation and more likely to be remembered (assuming it's memorable!). The result of your Two-Minute Drill is a good place to start. Plan on two minutes for your Call to Action. Write it down and memorize it so you can deliver it convincingly.

Next move to your Call to Attention. Have something really interesting—even provocative—to open your presentation with. Your audience wants to know "What's in it for me?" So it's important to connect with their interests or needs at the outset. Give them good reason to pay attention to your presentation while their attention level is normally at its highest.

Your key messages are anchor points in your presentation. They should provide the high marks in the contours of your talk. You want to avoid the common "flat presentation" where all content is seemingly treated as equally important (or worst yet, equally unimportant to your audience).

In organizing your content, list supporting points for each key message. Order these by importance. I suggest assigning your supporting points to one of three categories: (1) what you must say, (2) what you should say, and (3) what you might say. Usually, you will have more things to say than time to say them, so organizing content from most to less important can be helpful in deciding what to retain. Be judicious about keeping anything that falls under "what you might say."

Deliver. Your planning and preparation should put you in position to deliver an effective presentation. Most presenters I've observed in our business spend too little time getting ready. It shows. There are a few natural speakers out there who can wing it and be pretty effective, but most of us require a good amount of upfront work to be competent at it.

In terms of delivery, there are a few objectives that I think deserve your attention:
  • You should strive to come across as authentic and confident as possible. When I coach presenters, I want to see comfort before polish. I don't want to encourage people to essentially recite a script, trying to get all the words right. I want them to look natural and comfortable. That's more persuasive than perfection.
  • You want to engage your audience interpersonally. That means relating to and involving them, speaking with them instead of at them. Plan what questions you will ask to encourage audience participation in your topic. Take an informal poll: "How many of you..." Above all, you want to convey that you care about your audience.
  • You want to show your passion for your subject. How many dry presentations have you sat through where the speaker didn't look particularly excited about the topic—and neither did the audience? I've sat through my share. Passion is contagious, and persuasive. That's one reason you need to get comfortable with your presentation, because it's hard to convey passion when you're uptight.
  • You want to practice until it feels natural. How much practice will depend on the individual and the situation. Of course, how you feel is less important than how it looks like you feel to the audience. If it's an important presentation, get some feedback from a colleague or friend. Even better: Videotape yourself; that's probably the harshest critic you'll face.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How Many of Your Clients Are Promoters?

Getting referrals is your best marketing strategy. That's the conclusion of two major studies of professional service marketing by RainToday and Hinge, respectively. I suggested some strategies for increasing referrals in this previous post. But how many of your clients are ready to recommend you? You should find out.

Why? Because it can be a very useful metric and it's relatively easy to track. Many of the world's leading companies are tracking recommendation rates—a measure called Net Promoter Score—including Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, GE, eBay, Costco, and Samsung. NPS was introduced in 2003 by Fred Reichheld of Bain & Company and soon attracted a large and prominent following. It was the culmination of Reichheld's research into which metrics best correlated with customer loyalty and revenue growth.

NPS is centered on a simple question: "How likely is it that you would recommend our firm to a friend or colleague?" Customers answer with a score based on a 10-point scale, with 10 meaning "very likely" and 0 indicating "very unlikely." Reichheld defined three categories of respondents depending on their scores:
  • Promoters (scores 9-10). Loyal enthusiasts who will continue to use your services and recommend you to others.
  • Passives (scores 7-8). Satisfied but unenthusiastic clients who are open to switching to competitors.
  • Detractors (scores 0-6). Unhappy clients who not only won't recommend you, but are likely to speak negatively about your firm to others.
Your Net Promoter Score is calculated by subtracting the percentage of detractors from the percentage of promoters. Passives are not counted except in the total sample size. Thus if you surveyed 100 clients and 62 gave you a score of 9 or 10, and 18 gave you a score of 6 or less, then your NPS would be +44. And, yes, you can have a negative NPS, and many companies do.

Now, if you're a bit skeptical of the measure, you're not alone. Many experts in the field of customer research have been critical of NPS. For example, one of the strengths of NPS is its simplicity, but that simplicity can mask very different results. If 20% of your clients are promoters and you have no detractors, that's quite a different scenario than having 60% promoters and 40% detractors—although the NPS would be the same in both cases.

Does the demarcation of the three categories give too much weight to "detractors"? It would seem to, especially when you consider that many people are reluctant to give anyone or anything a perfect score of 10. On an 11-point scale, it would seem that a score of 7 or 8 would carry more weight. Plus condensing an 11-point scale down to essentially a 3-point scale would seem to demand a larger sample size to get representative results.

But criticism aside, there's still good reason for you to consider using NPS for your firm. According to the aforementioned Hinge study, 62% of professional service buyers turn to friends and colleagues to initially identify potential service providers. Only 3% depend on the service providers introducing themselves! Referrals (and the associated perception of the service provider's reputation) also play a prominent role in which firm buyers ultimately select.

Given the significance of referrals in winning new work, why would you not want to know how many of your clients are promoters? Or why wouldn't you want to track that over time to see whether that number is increasing or decreasing? Bain has found that NPS is a strong predictor of repeat business rates, revenue growth, and profitability—despite its apparent shortcomings. The Temkin Group has also found similar correlations in their research of 19 industries.

Unfortunately, I haven't found any evidence of NPS benchmarks in professional services, much less the A/E industry. So for the time being, you'll have to benchmark against your own firm. As an internal metric, you don't necessarily have to follow standard calculation. You may prefer to use the median of scores for the how-likely-to-recommend question. But as you probably know, I'm a strong advocate for measuring client satisfaction, and some form of NPS should be part of that ongoing practice.

By the way, I just finished a client survey for one of my clients, a top-performing midsized A/E firm. They had a Net Promoter Score of 69. Can your firm beat that? You'll have to measure to find out.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Don't Confuse Goals with Having a Plan

The biggest problem with planning is lack of execution. And many plans are doomed to failure because they define goals without describing the actions needed to achieve them. I see this in plans of all types: Strategic plans, business plans, marketing plans, project plans, capture plans—to name a few.

Why do we divorce goals from actions? Because goals are relatively easy to define, while the associated actions are often elusive. For example, if you have an underperforming office, you can easily determine how much its financial contribution needs to improve. That's the goal. 

But what specifically should be done to accomplish that? Chances are if you knew, the office wouldn't be in trouble. It's simpler to put in your plan: "Increase 2014 revenue in the Atlanta office to at least $875,000, with a minimum profit of 7.0%." A statement like that alone constitutes "strategy" for an office or business line in many plans I've seen.

We can do better. Let me offer a few suggestions making your plans "actionable," thus enabling your firm to achieve more of its goals:

Determine what steps are needed to reach your goals; better still, define the process. Meaningful business goals require sustained, disciplined effort. Yet many plans only define the initial steps. That may be necessary because subsequent steps cannot be determined until the first steps are taken (to gather more information, for example).

The problem is that without a long-term process spelled out, efforts often stall after the initial actions. This is one factor that argues for doing planning in stages rather than in a single event, as is most common. Plans often lack enough information to be trustworthy or devolve into speculation about future events or circumstances. Without the structure of an ongoing process—which hopefully further enlightens and validates the plan—the effort can stumble to a halt after a few months.

Do your best to outline a process that extends over time until the accomplishment of your goal. You may not be able to define longer-range actions, but you can at least plan how you will determine them and when.

Identify obstacles and how you will overcome them. I've coined the terms "elevators" and "gravitators" to point out the importance of realizing both (1) what you need to do and (2) why you might not do it. The concept comes from the Apollo spaceship that consumed 99% of its fuel escaping the earth's atmosphere and only 1% to complete the remaining 4.5-million-mile journey. Similarly, in reaching business goals, we usually expend most of our energy just trying to overcome the inertia of the status quo.

Yet plans often ignore the gravitators—factors that work against goal achievement—and focus on elevators, those positive steps that move you in the desired direction. You should avoid defining actions without the context of those inevitable obstacles to be overcome, an all-too-common occurrence in planning. Instead, choose actions that both elevate your progress toward goals and mitigate the pull of "gravity" (the appeal of old, familiar ways of doing things).

Define intermediate milestones on the way to your targeted goals. Momentum is a powerful motivational force that catapults sports teams to victories and businesses to successful accomplishment. Intermediate milestones enable you to build momentum over time by celebrating small wins on the path to bigger ones. Indeed, John Kotter's seminal research into successful organizational change strategies found that generating opportunities for such short-term wins was critical.

These milestones should be specific and measurable, so that reaching them is unambiguous and progress toward them can readily be monitored. They should be timed such that they demand significant effort, yet are not so far apart that people lose focus and commitment. Six to twelve months seems appropriate. But progress should be measured every month when possible, with a more in-depth reassessment and readjustment every quarter.

Remember that you must actively lead the change process. This is perhaps the most common oversight in plan implementation. If your goals are substantial, people will need to change what they're doing. And such change does not come naturally. In fact, resistance to change is almost always your biggest challenge in executing your plan.

Don't confuse material changes (in strategy, systems, policies, practices, etc.) with the human transition that is always the hardest part of organizational change. Your plan should define the actions you will take to facilitate behavior change. Training alone will rarely get the job done. Nor will a management dictate. Define your change process as part of the implementation process—not just what people need to do, but how you're going to get them to do it. (For more on this, see my series on change, starting with this post.)

Carefully allocate the necessary time and resources. Plan implementation usually requires a significant investment of time and money. Yet plans rarely explain where this is coming from—especially with regards to time. In all likelihood, the people assigned responsibility for executing the plan don't have spare time waiting to be committed to this. One big reason why plans fail is the failure to budget time to work on them.

This involves not only defining actions, but estimating how much time those actions will require. Then you should allocate time specifically for the assigned individuals to complete their actions. To do this, you're probably going to need to readjust time commitments to other activities. I typically press my clients to answer these questions: "If the assignment will require x hours for this person, where do those hours come from? What is the individual going to give up or delay to create the capacity?

Would you manage a client project without budgeting time? Of course not. Then why would you approach working on crucial corporate goals and initiatives without the same discipline?

Goal setting is a vital part of any planning, but the effort shouldn't stop there. You need to define specifically how you will achieve your goals. Consider the above steps to ensure your future plans outline the necessary actions in appropriate detail. For the plans you already have in place, let me encourage you to revisit them to review their implementability. Do your goals have a clear plan of action? If not, filling that void should be the next step in your implementation process.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Clients May Not Know What They're Missing

How did Apple know that people wanted an iPad when they introduced it in 2010? I was among the many initial skeptics: "Why would people buy a miniature, underpowered laptop without a keyboard?" I wondered. Thankfully Steve Jobs and his team had much better intuition as to what would appeal to the buying public. The iPad and similar tablets have now surpassed personal computers in sales.

Four decades earlier, Ford missed an opportunity to introduce the minivan in part because their market research didn't indicate any demand for it. Chrysler, desperate for a catalyst to turn around their flagging business, took a chance on the hunch that there would indeed be a market for a "garageable van." Obviously, their intuition proved correct (although Chrysler has long since lost its status as an innovator).

These two stories illustrate the central point of this post: Market research or customer feedback isn't always accurate because sometimes customers don't know what they're missing. There are times when you should trust your gut in determining what your clients might want.

Let's apply this premise to the task of providing great client service. I'm a strong advocate for getting feedback from clients—before, during, and after the project—on how well you're meeting needs and expectations. Most A/E firms aren't doing this, which doesn't make sense to me. But I've also seen evidence that, contrary to the popular axiom, the customer isn't always right.

Years ago, I was leading the service improvement initiative for a national environmental firm when we decided to pursue an ambitious goal—to become the "service leader" in our core markets. The first order of business was to better define the target: Who were the current service leaders? What were they doing that set them apart? What mattered most to clients in terms of receiving exceptional service? We hired PSMJ to survey existing and prospective clients to find out.

What we learned was both revealing and perplexing. There were no firms that emerged as service leaders. Instead, clients identified individuals as the difference makers. When asked what aspects of service were most important, clients most often mentioned expertise and quality. The problem was we had other data, including in-house client surveys, that indicated that neither expertise nor quality was an effective differentiator (and I continue to believe that to this day).

If expertise and quality aren't what matters most, why did clients answer as they did? I believe it's because those were the most evident benefits that the environmental firms they worked with delivered. Remember, it was individuals, not firms, that were identified as service leaders. But we asked what firms were doing that clients valued most. I interpreted the results to indicate that clients had not yet experienced the level of structured, company-wide service that we believed we could provide them.

So going with our gut, we designed a unique service delivery process that was instrumental in our winning major new contracts and significantly raising our service scores. In the years since when I've spoken at conferences, I've asked audience members representing hundreds of firms if they had a similar process. No one has yet raised a hand. So if you were looking to clients to help you design such a process or substantially increase your service level, they would have to use their imagination in most cases.

Perhaps this helps explain why only 4% of clients listed good service as an important selection factor in Hinge's report How Buyers Buy, based on a survey of over 400 A/E/C firm clients. Firms generally don't give client service a significant mention in their proposals, and if they do, they describe it in intangible terms that can't be validated.

So why hasn't your firm institutionalized a service delivery process and culture? Why isn't creating distinct client experiences an operational priority? Because your clients aren't asking for it? They may not know what they're missing. And what is your firm missing out on by not satisfying that unspoken need? I don't think you need to be Steve Jobs to see a window of opportunity.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Writing Effective Proposal Resumes

Several months ago, I reviewed an engineering proposal that weighed in at 34 pages (not bad), plus another 38 pages of resumes (ugh!). Sometimes I wonder if we forget that someone is supposed to read these things.

Or do they? RFPs almost always ask for project team resumes, but I've long questioned how much client reviewers read them. I suspect there's scant information in them that clients care about, meaning that most of the resume content has the potential for getting in the way. 

I know that's hard to hear for someone who's proudly summarized many years of work experience in a multipage resume. But unless you enjoy reading other people's resumes, I think you can empathize with the client. So the challenge is to write proposal resumes that serve their intended purpose, and nothing more. Here are a few suggestions:

Limit resumes to one page. This advice has been commonly repeated for years and most firms are getting the message. Yet I still encounter multipage resumes often enough to warrant saying it again: One page, no more! If the individual has a lot of experience, that can seem challenging. But the purpose of a proposal resume is not to give an overview of that person's career; rather it should highlight the individual's qualifications most relevant to the proposal. That can be accomplished in a single page no matter how long the career.

Make the most important information skimmable. The definition of "most important" will vary by client and project. For example, some clients are particularly interested in seeing that members of your project team worked on your firm's most relevant projects. Whatever projects you feature in your proposal should be well represented among the resumes included. Some clients are looking for specific screening criteria, such as whether the project manager is a registered engineer or how long the person has been with your firm.

Once you've identified what resume content matters most to the client (or made your best guess), you want to present that information in bullets, boldface headings, or the like to make it easy for reviewers to find. Obviously, having a consistent resume format will also help clients uncover what they're looking for.

Clearly identify the person's project role. I often see stock resumes being used that don't indicate the individual's role on the proposed project. That forces the reviewer to refer back to the organization chart, which is an extra step that you don't want to create. Years ago, one of my Corps of Engineers clients requested that all resumes be accompanied by the org chart on the facing page. That's an idea that I've used in many other proposals as well, in particular those with a fairly complex project organization.

Use no more than 3-4 lines per project description. When highlighting the individual's project experience, a common mistake is to include more information than needed. This obviously limits how many projects can be referenced. Keep project details to a minimum, featuring those that are most relevant to the proposed project. The one exception I would make is when the person worked on a very similar project with another employer. In that case, a few more lines of description might be justified since this is probably the only place in your proposal where that personal experience will be recounted.

Consider using mini-resumes instead. Over the years, I've moved away from including one-page resumes in the body of the proposal and instead using mini-resumes. These are brief, readily skimmable summaries that enable placing 4-5 of them on a page. With mini-resumes, I avoid breaking up the flow of the proposal while providing all the detail that the client really needs to assess the team's qualifications. I often supplement these with other related information, such as a matrix showing the team's experience with the different aspects of the proposed project. Usually, I'll include the one-page resumes in an appendix.

Beware of making your project team too large. While not really a resume-writing tip, this can certainly influence client perceptions of your resumes. When you have too many, the impact of each resume is potentially diluted. I've made this point before: Too much information provided often means less information communicated.

Loading up your project team can have other unintended consequences. What you thought showed depth might be interpreted by the client as being noncommittal. Client reviewers may suspect that you're flashing your best resumes without intending to actually use those people on the project. Or trying to show depth may reveal the opposite—those second-tier resumes sometimes aren't as impressive on paper.

Hopefully these suggestions are helpful. But a picture is usually better, so I'm attaching a sample resume that incorporates most of the tips above: 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Writing Compelling Project Descriptions

If we were to be brutally honest, we'd have to admit that most of the marketing content and proposals we produce are pretty boring. You can confirm that by reading a lot of your competitors' materials. Do you find it really interesting reading? I didn't think so. Now ask: Is your content any better?

Sometimes it's hard to be objective about what you write about your firm. It seems interesting because you're personally invested—as are your colleagues who seem satisfied with what you produce. But what matters is what prospective clients think. And based on the occasional honest feedback I've gotten from them over the years, I think they're bored.

So I want to spend a few posts sharing my ideas on how to generate more compelling marketing and proposal content. Today, let's start with project descriptions, which are important elements of proposals and qualifications statements, and are used to support other marketing and sales functions as well. How can you prepare better project descriptions?

Focus on outcomes, not scope. Every project is intended to meet specific client needs, yet we often describe them as merely a set of tasks and features: "We conducted an engineering analysis." "The renovation included 2,200 square feet of additional office space." But what was the basic problem that we solved? What operational goals did we achieve? Our project descriptions often neglect talking about results, which is what most clients care about most.

Tell a story. The project narrative is almost always far more interesting than the scope of work. People are naturally drawn to stories, so you should describe the project in such manner. The most basic elements of a good story are: (1) conflict introduced, (2) struggle, (3) resolution. So your project description should start by answering the basic why question: Why was the project needed? What was wrong or lacking? Then describe the struggle: The challenges involved. The special skills or approach needed to meet those challenges. Finally, as noted above, talk about the outcomes—how the "conflict" was resolved.

Don't ignore the nontechnical aspects. Our profession delivers significant human and societal benefits, but we often focus only on the technical aspects in describing our project experience. That's unfortunate, not only because it tends to devalue our work, but it fails to align with how most clients view projects. Your project descriptions should address how you met the client's strategic and personal needs—financial savings, operational goals, satisfied users, competitive advantages, great customer experience. 

Make it brief, skimmable. Most project descriptions I see have more detail than necessary. Adding more information on paper often means that less information is communicated. You shouldn't feel compelled to include every facet of the project, only those that matter most (see previous tips). Then present the main points in skimmable fashion, using bold headings, bullets, callouts, photos, graphics, etc.—don't expect your descriptions to be read word for word. Consider creative ways to present information visually with a minimum of text, which leads to my next tip...

Don't settle for less than quality visuals. I know this is easier said than done for firms that can't afford to pay for professional photography or graphic design. But there are steps you can take to upgrade your visuals without spending a lot. For example, find a talented student who's available for a low fee. Or pick someone in your firm who has the ability, but perhaps needs a little training, better equipment, or simply a formal assignment (a lot of the poor project photography you see was never intended to be used for marketing purposes, but that's all that is available). Keep in mind, of course, that there's a higher standard for architecture and planning firms that may demand spending more for quality visuals.

Highlight the project elements that are particularly relevant. I often see boilerplate project descriptions used in proposals, for example, that make no reference to the project being pursued. Worse still, the prospective client would have to dig to discover relevant aspects. Always make it easy for your audience to see the connections. Make those points readily skimmable, perhaps using a matrix to illustrate them. And as I touched on earlier, the common elements need to be more than scope related. They should also align where possible with similar client concerns, needs, goals, and expected outcomes.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Fair Trades for the Buyer's Time

Years ago when I had the epiphany that I really didn't like selling, the thing that most convicted me was the feeling that I too often wasted the prospect's time. No one told me that, but upon honest reflection, I knew it to be true. How? Because I had been in the buyer's role myself and I knew my approach to selling wasn't much different from those who I felt had wasted my time.

Salespeople routinely ask for our most valuable asset—our time. And what do we get in return? A sales pitch? An introduction to the seller's company? Perhaps a little bit of helpful information. I'm assuming that buyers of A/E services are much like me; they want a fair return on the time spent with sellers.

I call that fair return an entree. Typically your entree will involve providing information, advice, or help in addressing a client need or problem. That concept seems straightforward enough. But when I do sales training and ask participants to come up with an entree for their next sales call to an existing prospect, I often get answers that appear to fall short of a fair exchange. Let's consider some examples of both ineffective and effective entrees:

Ineffective Entrees

Show and tell. Many firms prepare presentations on various technical subjects and case histories in hope of impressing prospective clients. But they often miss the mark, especially if the show and tell occurs too early in the sales process. Sharing your insights work best when you can directly relate them to client needs and aspirations. Remember to keep the client, not your firm, at the center of the conversation. For example, instead of simply presenting a case history, use your clients' experiences to illustrate how the prospect's problem might be addressed.

Interrogation. On the other hand, you want to avoid going to the other extreme of asking too many questions without offering helpful information or advice. Many sellers seem to think that asking questions is client-centered because it indicates interest in learning more about the client. But without a mix of helpful information and advice, your asking a lot of questions is not likely to be perceived as working in the prospect's interest. An effective sales conversation should be a careful balance of give and take—with an emphasis on giving.

This can really help you—if you hire us. Perhaps the most common mistake I see in defining an entree is to attach strings to it. For example, "let's tell them about how our proprietary modeling software can help them plan their project." There is certainly a time and place for describing your distinct advantages as part of the sales conversation, but that doesn't make for an effective entree. Why? Because the benefit is conditional and thus is likely to be viewed as self-serving. Far better to offer some help that doesn't require the prospect to hire your firm.

Let's do lunch. There are surely still some prospects who enjoy a free lunch, but many will consider this an intrusion on their personal time if there isn't more than food to be gained. Asking a potential client to lunch is fine as long as you don't assume the client's reward is the meal (or the opportunity to spend time with you). You must still deliver a more valuable entree than what's on the menu.

Lunching one's way to the sale is particularly popular among those who practice the friendship approach to selling. That method works well for some and some clients seem to appreciate it. But I'm convinced that most clients prefer a profitable business relationship over a friendship that doesn't deliver business results. In other words, beware of thinking that your greatest sales asset is your likability.

Effective Entrees

Been there, done that. Prospects value your past experience when it's specifically related to their own needs. An effective entree usually is offered something like this: "I read about the difficult engineering challenges you're facing with your facility expansion. We dealt with a very similar situation working with Acme and wondered if you'd be interested in learning how they dealt with those issues." The subsequent meeting should involve a mix of clarifying the client's needs through well-planned questions and sharing relevant aspects of your experience and expertise.

Here's what others are doing. Don't limit your entree to your own experience. As an expert in your field, surely you're familiar with other projects and problems that are relevant to the prospect's need. If not, do your research. Most clients are more interested in hearing what their peers are doing than what you or your competitors are doing. So there's no need to link your entree to your firm. Be prepared to share the very best practices and insights that can help the prospect—no matter where this information comes from.

Here's a resource we're willing to share. Occasionally, you may find yourself in the position to offer some kind of tool or resource that can help the prospect. This might be data, maps, site information, a checklist, a planning guide, a spreadsheet. You might want to develop some tools that would be widely valued by prospective clients. Keep the principle of reciprocity in mind. When you are helpful and generous with information, that often creates a sense of obligation to reciprocate. It's a powerful sales tool.

There are, of course, multiple variations on the entree approaches summarized above. The common theme is a respect for the prospect's valuable time, enough so that you take steps to avoid wasting it. This helps build the trust that is so critical to sales success. Offer fair trades for your sales prospects' time and see if that doesn't make the time you spend on selling far more productive.