Forgotten fundamentals of marketing

Feb 03, 2020

“The companies that really make an effort to understand and embrace basic marketing knowledge will continue to grow and prosper regardless of the markets they serve.”

I have always said that the A/E business is a good 10-15 years behind the rest of American industry when it comes to marketing. But what I have discovered in the 15 years since the first time we sold the company (Zweig White) and I started teaching entrepreneurship at the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas is that many privately-held companies of all types have plenty of room to improve their marketing and selling strategies, processes, and activities – not just architecture and engineering firms.

Why are we so behind? Besides the fact that many firms still don’t employ full-time, professionally-trained marketing staff, it’s the owners who are the problem. They don’t realize marketing is both an art and a science – and that it is a discipline with a body of knowledge just like whatever their own discipline base is. They also don’t really believe “it” (marketing) works to improve their business so they see spending money on it as a cost to be minimized rather than an investment in their company’s future ability to sustain itself. In their minds, the probability of their success as a business lies more in the economy overall and that of the specific markets or industries they serve.

This is a dangerous belief, as many signs point to potential slowdowns coming in many markets. If management thinks there’s little they can do to avoid workload declines in their firms it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They will decline. And any company with owners who think they can manage that decline and stay profitable are kidding themselves. It is rare to see a firm in this business that cuts costs and shrinks quickly enough to stay profitable through significant revenue declines.

It seems to me nearly everyone who owns or manages an A/E firm could benefit from a basic “Introduction to Marketing” course at their local business school. It certainly could provide some foundational knowledge about marketing that would impact everything they do.

Here are some crucial marketing fundamentals many of our readers could benefit from:

  1. Marketing is wide-ranging and affects everything the firm does. The “marketing mix” or recipe for any firm is made up of varying amounts of “the four Ps” – product (what we are actually selling – in our case, service), place (where we provide services), promotion (activities to promote our services – what most people think of when they think of marketing), and price (what we charge for what we do). A/E firms typically cut out their marketing experts (if they have them) from all decisions other than promotion. That is a mistake that can quickly drive the firm off-course. Marketing considerations should be a part of nearly all decision making.
  2. Who are you trying to sell to? This is so important. Just having great service capabilities does not mean clients will beat a path to your door. Specialization is the rule today. Clients of A/E firms want service providers with experience solving specific types of problems in organizations like their own. The great news about knowing this is it makes it easy for you in most cases to determine who these potential clients are, and to identify who in those organizations can hire you. Build that list. Nothing will happen until you do, other than you reacting to whatever clients happen to come through your door.
  3. What are their needs? We all too often assume we know what the client really wants. Then, when they try to tell us, we ignore it and do things the same way we have always done them. That is analogous to the contractors who build from our plans ignoring those plans and instead doing what they “always do” or did on their last job. We don’t like it when that happens. It takes a lot of digging and people who are open to listening and learning to get at a client’s real needs. But you will never figure them out if you don’t make a serious effort to do so! And once you know these needs, act on that knowledge and keep making efforts to find new needs because times do change. Just because you knew your clients’ needs last year doesn’t mean you know them today. You may even figure out they need help with services you don’t currently provide.
  4. Who is best to sell it/do it for them? This is so important. Who do we think is best equipped to successfully sell work to and serve a given client. Even retail automobile dealers understand that they have to match prospects with the salespeople who are most likely to be able to strike up a relationship with them, yet A/E firms too often take a “one size fits all approach” and if a client has a need for mechanical engineering services, whomever is in charge of that automatically “gets” that client. It’s crazy. You have to match personalities. It takes some management and ability to generalize (stereotype – sorry) quickly to do this effectively.
  5. What are the best ways to reach them? Not everyone receives information the same way. That is why there are so many different social media platforms – each is different and appeals to a different audience. It is also why we have telephones we can make calls on, as well as email, texts, tradeshows, personal meetings, professional or trade association meetings, blogging, print media, YouTube video, and a million other options for getting content out to clients and potential clients. As A/E marketers, we need to employ EVERY one of these methods to reach our targets if we want to maximize our chances of success.

One thing I know for sure: The companies that really make an effort to understand and embrace basic marketing knowledge, and that implement these concepts firm-wide will continue to grow and prosper regardless of the markets they serve.

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

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.