Better Plans

Mar 06, 1995

I visited one of my favorite client companies the other day. It’s a mid- to large-sized consulting engineering firm that has been around a while. The principals are entrepreneurial. The staff is pretty good, too, in terms of credentials, experience, and balance. The firm has relatively low turnover and sound financial management. The problem is that while the firm is profitable and its backlog has grown some over the last year, it really didn’t cash in on the boom market that some firms in the design industry enjoyed throughout 1994, and are still enjoying. The firm grew— but not enough to satisfy the company president and majority shareholder. In reviewing their managers’ FY 1995-1996 preliminary business plans, I quickly identified where some of their problems are. I thought it was great that each manager developed a plan that included a meaningful analysis of his or her backlog to come up with revenue goals (most firms never do this). But it was immediately apparent to me why they aren’t making more headway than they are, marketing-wise. Let’s take a look at what I saw in these plans. And if some (or all) of these things sound familiar to you, it’s probably because many design and environmental consulting firms have similar problems. None of the business plans included a comprehensive definition of the market that the manager’s unit served in terms of client type, size, and location. This is so fundamental— you simply will not sell your services until you define who it is you are trying to reach, and then make systematic efforts to get your name in front of them. Yet, only one in an hundred design professionals will do this. The majority of their PR efforts appeared to be aimed at peers and competitors instead of at clients. They got some really nice press this past year— including a magazine cover— but the bulk of it wasn’t where their clients would see them. This is a recurring theme for most firms in the design business, large and small. Their PR does more for internal morale than it helps bring in work. In some cases, the sales goals were much too low. I think you should always plan to sell more than you plan to bill. A certain amount of work always falls off, and you should try to end the year in better shape than you start it. I certainly can’t understand why anyone would plan to sell significantly less than they were going to bill over the course of a year, yet I routinely see this in business plans for units of all kinds of firms, large and small. Selling less than you are billing means you are chewing up backlog faster than you are replacing it— and you cannot afford to do that for long if you want your firm to survive (or grow). One of the managers had an action step that revolved around sending out qualification documents to new potential clients. I confess that I didn’t see what it was that this firm actually planned to send. But I had visions in my head from other firms I have worked with who Federal Expressed 4” thick GBC binders jammed full of staff resumes, project descriptions, listings of CADD hardware and software (most of which is undoubtedly obsolete), and so forth, and got no response! Think about it— who is really going to get something like that from someone they don’t know, spend the time to go through it, and then actually pick up the phone to call? My guess is that this approach won’t even garner a 1/10 of 1% response rate! And it’s very costly. But it’s also pretty common. If no one ever shows you a better way to sell yourself, can you be entirely blamed? Probably not. Another manager highlighted a goal to complete a brochure that featured glossy photographs of past projects in his specialty area. While it might be nice to have a pretty brochure, other things that should have been accomplished weren’t going anywhere. He never once tried sending out (on a schedule) technical bulletins with information that would help his client. He hadn’t done a good newsletter that included interviews (with photos) of his clients and potential clients. Nor had he formally studied any particular problems faced by his client group and reported back to them on these issues. Yet, this guy has some unique, differentiated talent to offer his clients— if he could only get that message out. Their association involvement plans were only aimed at groups that other design firms belong to. I think it’s great to get involved in professional associations inside our profession for personal development reasons, but we also have to spend adequate time “schmoozing” with our clients and potential clients. One great way to do this is to join groups they belong to, where we can see lots of them at once! I’m sure the time we spent talking about this stuff won’t all be wasted, and my client’s managers will incrementally improve their ability to consistently sell work over the course of this year. But will you do what’s necessary to make it happen in your firm? If you aren’t happy with the results you’re getting, maybe it’s time to do something different. Originally published 3/06/1995

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