Don't Let Things Slip

Feb 02, 2011

By Mark C. Zweig It’s funny how firms in our business— many of which have been around for 20, 30, 40 or more years— can get to a certain level and then start to let things (i.e., certain business practices) slip. There is a wide variety of reasons as to why firms do this. Staff changes and institutional knowledge is lost. Competent folks are replaced with less competent ones. Management gets too happy and complacent. Arrogance and a feeling of invincibility set in at the top. People get lazy. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that the firm stops doing the stuff that once made it successful. It never ceases to amaze me how long it takes for the inertia of a once well-run firm to wind down. The effects of this slippage may not be felt for years. Eventually, however, a price will be paid. Then it will take years to reverse the slide and regain the momentum that makes a firm enjoy consistent success. Some firms can never regain it. Good people get the sense they are on the Titanic and the thing is going to sink, so they make a decision to start over somewhere else. By now you are probably wondering what kind of “slippage” I am talking about. It comes in many areas. Here are some examples:
  • Billing and collection. It’s easy to stop doing the things that lead to faster billing and collection, especially if you DON’T have a cash shortage. We see this over and over again. Draft bills are allowed to languish at the PM level. Calls to clients by accounting so many days after the bill goes out to see if it has been processed for payment stop getting made. Stop work orders aren’t being enforced. Extra services agreements aren’t processed when the client requests the services. All of this stuff is critical and you cannot let it slip.
  • Maintaining the client database. This is another area where we see slippage. While 10 or 15 years ago firms made a major push to build and maintain their CRMs so they could do direct marketing, many of those databases are now woefully out of date. Since direct marketing efforts were scaled back, first in good times (too easy to get work without it) and later in the recession (couldn’t afford it), the client database became less critical. Plus today, everyone is mobile and doing more on their smartphones, which just makes it more likely that their personal contact directories are growing but not the company’s. You have to reverse this trend and get back to building your central client and potential client list so you CAN market and don’t lose the value of individuals’ marketing efforts when they leave.
  • Holding design reviews. Sure, they take time to do and everyone is already overloaded, since the firm probably cut back on staff and is doing more with fewer people. That said, HOW is the firm going to get better at what it does if you don’t have your very best people spending some quality time helping others learn what they know? It is essential and you cannot let this knowledge go without being passed down while those experts are with you. Not to mention that you simply have to do your BEST on every single job to avoid losing a client today. No one can afford to lose a good client when new ones cost more to acquire than they ever did.
  • Having consistent PR efforts. I really see this so often. A marketing director leaves or an outside PR contract isn’t renewed. The net result is that press releases stop going out on a regular basis. The firm stops being in the media spotlight. And then some other firm eventually becomes the one that is talked about. The inevitable result over time is fewer project opportunities, fewer good people seeking employment there, and more.
  • Sending out client gifts and thank-yous. Budget crises, time crunches, retirement of the older folks with better manners— all of these things are factors that lead to the stoppage of practices that the firm may have once used religiously to say “thanks” and “we appreciate you” to clients. It takes a long time to feel the effects of not doing these things but the effects WILL eventually be felt.
  • Considering new shareholders or partners. As the last few years have been tough, some companies in our business have stopped or frozen their ownership transition plans. Of course the inevitable effect is an eventual turnover among the very people who are probably the most effective and the firm can least afford to lose— those who are just below principal or partner level. Don’t ignore your best people and the cultural expectation we have in this industry of many individuals to be owners in their firms some day.
  • Maintaining project files. Companies set up filing schemes on servers that work great as long as they are maintained, but eventually certain rogue principals or project managers are “too busy” to stick with the system and start doing their own thing, which of course means storing critical documents on their local hard drives, making the company vulnerable to loss of information. You cannot let it happen.
  • Reviewing progress toward goals in the business plan or plans. What is the point of doing these business plans if you just stick them in a drawer or put them on a shelf? Put them to use. You have to remind everyone of what they said they would do and see (publicly) if that’s actually happening as you go through the year.
I could go on but by now you should have the idea. Be sure you aren’t letting things slip— things that may have once helped make you great— before it is too late! Want to hear more from Mark Zweig - and each week? ... Read more.

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.