Knowing who you are selling to

Jun 09, 2008

Architects, engineers, planners, and allied professionals by and large have a really hard time defining exactly who they want to sell their services to. The unfortunate truth is that most will sell their services to anyone who will pay (or promise to pay) for them. This is a terrible tragedy and almost never a good way to run a business. And, as the economy gets worse, it will become even more common in this group of firms I am reluctantly forced to call “an industry.” Why is it such a bad strategy to work for anyone? While not the purpose of my article, I will remind you that not every client listens to your advice, not every client will pay their bills, not every client is doing right by the environment, community, etc., and not every client is one that you working for will enhance your reputation. There are many, many reasons why you don’t want to sell your services to just anyone. Narrowing the focus in terms of desired clients and client types is always tough. And really getting to know all you can about your targets is even tougher. Finally, passing that information down to all of your people is harder still. Yet, the extent that you can do these three things will determine how quickly your firm will become a force in that particular market sector or sectors. Consider the following: Do you know what is most critical to your clients? If you don’t, you won’t do the right thing. Every market sector and every single client has different priorities and preferences. You better understand these or your services will miss the mark. Some of these priorities can be determined through questioning but more will be learned over the course of doing work for the client. Be sure to have a system for not losing this information. Do you have post-mortems on projects? Where does the information learned go? Do you ever simply sit down with a group of people who have worked for that client or client type to talk about what their wants, needs, and preferences are? It goes far beyond price, quality, and schedule, though those are all critical factors. There are other factors. Long ago, when I worked at Carter & Burgess in Ft. Worth, Texas (now known as Jacobs Carter Burgess), I can remember, for example, that we had a client who would not allow anyone with any facial hair to work on their projects. While that’s wacky, in my opinion, it is good to know if you want to work with them! Do you know who the real decision-makers are in your targeted clients? This is so important to your success yet often overlooked. Architects and engineers tend to keep talking to the people they know vs. those who they really should be talking with because it’s easier to do so. Make it a point to get in front of the real decision-makers so you can learn their wants and needs and peculiarities. Doing this could require more than a call or e-mail in an attempt to set up a meeting. It could be that you need to think of a hook or idea that will save them or make them money or provide some other benefit and presenting that is your reason for the meeting. Either way, you need to be in front of the real decision-makers so you can get to know them and show them how tuned in you are to them. Get involved— I mean really involved— with the organizations your targeted clients belong to. There is just no better way to understand the driving forces impacting their companies than to be active participants in their industry, professional, or trade associations. The leaders of your firm need to set the example here. You cannot relegate these involvements to your already overloaded mid-level, project-directed staff. This is something I see a lot of companies doing. Then they wonder why nothing happens! Do research and share the results with staff. Have presentations on what is happening in the organizations and markets you serve to the rest of your staff. Hold internal meetings with agendas driven by your market sectors vs. disciplines or offices or internal staff categories (i.e., “principal,” “associate,” “project manager,” etc.). All of these things will help get your people more closely aligned with what your clients really want from a firm such as yours. Originally published 6/09/2008

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