A few things I’ve learned about the design and environmental consulting business

Sep 29, 2008

As someone who has worked, studied, and written about this business for 28 years now, I thought today is as good as any day to share some of what I’ve learned. Here it goes: What you want to do is more important than what the market wants you to do. If you, or someone in your firm doesn’t have a passion for a client type, project type, or technical specialty, you won’t be successful doing it. Just because there’s a good market for it, doesn’t mean you should do it. I have seen more firms go wrong here than I care to admit! Charging more for what you do beats increased project management intensity every time. There’s a limit as to how efficient you can be. There’s only so much cost you can squeeze out of any project before you run out of costs to squeeze and the project’s quality suffers. Charging more for what you do is another thing. There’s really no limit what you can charge. If you can creatively find new ways to raise prices, you will be able to do a better job and be more profitable. Every company needs to work on its brand. The brand is so important. It transcends who you have working there and who you don’t. It makes the phone ring, allows you to get the best projects, and makes you more money now and when you exit the firm. Brand-building activities need to be front and center at all times. Most companies in this business still don’t get it when it comes to making their names a brand. Some of the best sellers are the least boisterous folks. I have a friend and client who just sold a $60 million-plus fee project— more than the firm did volume-wise last year. He sells like crazy and always has. But, he fits no stereotype. He is not an aggressive fast-talker type. He is a quiet introvert who is incredibly observant and can demonstrate his insight amazingly quickly. He shows he has great ideas and is worth listening to. People trust him. Building a new office building is an almost certain precursor to financial difficulties. I have seen this many times. The firm does incredibly well for a period of years and the next thing the owners decided to do is build a new building. And, as soon as they move in, the business falls apart— almost as if God is punishing them for their hubris. If you are successful, you’ll have your detractors. The best people in any field— or specialty— will always be resented by someone. People are jealous— envious— of your success. I got an e-mail the other day from a principal in a firm that directly competes with one whose board I serve on, where the author was attacking our CEO. It’s no coincidence that the author of the e-mail’s company has declined in size and stature whereas the one whose board I serve on has more than doubled in the same time period. He’s jealous— period— of the other firm’s success! Your firm must always be in a growth mode. Anything less and you are declining. Along with that decline, you’ll see a decline in employee morale and motivation. If that continues for too long, you’ll decline even further when people start jumping ship, further damaging your image and reputation in the markets you serve. Strive to be the best at what you do. The rewards are better fees, happier employees, and more satisfying projects. Not to mention job security in bad times. I’m out of space. Another thing I’ve learned over the past 28 years is when it’s time to go! Originally published 9/29/2008

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.