Differentiation in a crowded field

Apr 30, 2018

It is a widely-accepted idea that one of the defining characteristics of a successful enterprise working in a mature market is differentiation from all the other firms that provide similar products or services. Yet, in spite of this, so many architects and engineers are running their businesses so mired in tradition that they are afraid to do something that hasn’t been done a hundred times before. The result is predictable – they look like everyone else.

There are so many ways a firm can be different. Here are some examples:

  • Pricing. Why price your services like everyone else – as either a percentage of construction, hourly, cost plus fixed fee, or fixed fee? Are there any performance-based options that might be more attractive to a client and more valuable to you? If so, you might want to consider trying them out so you’re different.
  • HR strategy. Do you have to do annual or semi-annual raises like every other firm? Do you have to use performance appraisals like every other firm? Do you have to pay referral fees to employees like everyone else does? Do you have to have set work hours like every other company? Maybe raises should be any time they’re deserved. Maybe you should drop performance appraisals, not pay employee referral fees, and instead donate to a charity or cause in their name, and let 95 percent of your staff work any hours they choose. I know that may sound crazy, but maybe it isn’t.
  • Information sharing. Do you still share financial information only on a need-to-know basis? Maybe you can share everything with your people and they’d be more careful with their time and other resources as a result. And maybe they’d learn something about the business of your business they wouldn’t learn otherwise.
  • Bonus program. Is once a year, deciding who gets how much in a meeting of the firm’s principals, really the BEST way – the most motivational way – to dole out bonuses? So what if every other firm does that. Maybe you should be doing it monthly and come up with a formula that distributes the money for you.
  • Marketing. Maybe every other firm does the same stuff – such as having open houses, announcing who gets licensed in the local business news, putting out a quarterly newsletter, and going to trade shows and professional meetings. But is that the best way to market your firm? Maybe your money would be better spent buying everyone a new red Prius with a full body wrap, sponsoring a local TV show, renting billboards, and doing other things. “Differentiation” means being different!

There are MANY other ways an A/E firm can differentiate itself as either an employer, service provider, or both. No company’s work environment or offerings have to be viewed necessarily as a commodity unless they choose to operate as such. It’s time to differentiate!

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.