Differentiating your firm in a crowded field

Jan 08, 2018

After 14 years of teaching entrepreneurship at The Sam M. Walton College of Business at The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, I have learned there are two paths to entrepreneurial success.

The first path – and the one most think is “best” – is to invent something new that has never been done. The problem with this option is that it’s extremely difficult to do! On top of it, the market may not even realize they need whatever it is you have created.

The second path is to do something differently – something in a market that already exists, and for something that people know they need. A good example of this was Domino’s and their “30 minutes or its free” delivery pledge. It moved them to the top of the pizza business practically overnight.

Most of us in the AEC business are on the second path. If we want to have growing companies that are valuable and ones we can extract value from upon exit (one of the requirements of entrepreneurship – it’s NOT about maximizing income along the way), we need to find some way to differentiate ourselves over our competitors.

The key to figuring out how to do this lies with your clients. At Zweig Group over the past 30 years, we have interviewed countless clients of AEC firms. Their insight is invaluable. Here are some examples of problems and complaints we commonly hear:

  • “The problem with ABC Company is Joe Blow over there never returns my calls” (or “is super slow to return my calls”).
  • “ABC Company’s top people are good at selling us but when it comes time to do the job we rarely, if ever, see them. Instead, we get all their neophytes that we end up training.”
  • “ABC’s quality is not what it used to be. There are so many problems with their plans.”
  • “When there is a problem with something, ABC never accepts responsibility. They rarely do anything to make things right without forcing it out of them.”
  • “The people at ABC haven’t the faintest idea of what things actually cost to build. Their people are just too far removed from actual construction.”
  • “The right hand at ABC doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Poor internal communications.”

Then, when you talk with firms’ employees – in this incredibly competitive job market – you get another list of complaints:

  • “No one tells me how I am doing/the firm is doing.”
  • “I don’t know what it takes to get ahead here.”
  • “There’s no one telling me what to do on this project.”
  • “All they care about is utilization.”
  • “I want more training.”
  • “I hate my cubicle.”
  • “As a parent, they need to give us more flexibility to come and go during the day.”
  • “The owners here don’t even say ‘Hi’ to you in the halls.”

Again, there are many more. It wouldn’t be hard for you to come up with an expanded list just from talking to your people.

My point is this: Work on dealing with these and all the other oh-so-common problems, taking real action and creating steps and systems to avoid them. When you do, you’ll be differentiating yourself over the dozens of firms you compete with. And then and only then will your long-term success – and your eventual ability to cash in on the value you’ve created – be assured.

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

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About Zweig Group

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.