Lessons They Don’t Teach in College

Sep 01, 1997

Here are 10 things about the A/E/P and environmental consulting business that they don’t teach you in college. The best clients get crapped on. I hate to say it, but sometimes we treat our best clients like we treated our parents as high schoolers— we dump on them, yet they still love us. We give them our least experienced people, we rush through their work, we take them for granted. It’s terrible! There’s no excuse! We’re better people than that! Why do we let that happen? All we are doing is laying the groundwork for another A/E/P or environmental firm to steal them away. Kissing the client’s hindquarters is not usually the way to get ahead. The whole idea that an A/E/P or environmental consulting firm exists to serve clients is 100% correct. The fallacy lies in thinking that the best way to serve them is to be an order-taker who never disagrees and blindly does what he or she is told. Or thinking that the best way to ingratiate yourself with the client is by offering false flattery and praise. Clients aren’t dumb— they see right through this for what it is. There is no such thing as a manpower scheduling system that works. I wish this weren’t true. I have seen hundreds of companies attempt to work this problem out through elaborate systems. Yet I have yet to see one where it has really worked. The truth is, those with clout inside the organization can commandeer staff away from those with less clout. Or the greatest and most immediate crisis results in staff resources being directed away from lesser priorities. Common sense is not so common. There is no substitute for common sense. Degrees, registrations, and affiliations do not guarantee success or good judgment. Our industry is filled with educated, intelligent people. But only a rare few have the common sense to apply their intelligence in practical ways that benefit their organization. These people— those with education, intelligence, and common sense— get 10 times more done than those with only an education and intellect. Back-to-basics marketing is a lot more than making cold calls. Often, when an A/E/P or environmental firm needs work, the cry goes up from someone at the top that “we have to get back to basics in our marketing.” That means make more cold calls on clients and potential clients. But who said cold calling is what marketing is all about?? That’s only one piece of marketing. And if a firm really got back to basics in their marketing (doing a heck of a lot more than cold calling), then the cold calls would go a lot smoother and the close rate would go up. Back-to-basics marketing, in my mind, means not ignoring all the other elements of marketing— direct mail, advertising, original research, PR, graphic image, company brand-name identity, hiring the experts in market sectors, and so forth— the exact opposite of what most people think. Good human resources management is impossible without having a growing, profitable company. This is a fact. The whole idea that you can have great communicating managers, super performance appraisal systems, a wonderful training program, detailed career paths, and the world’s best benefits program for a firm of your size and type and that will result in happy, productive and motivated employees is absurd if you don’t have a firm that is growing, profitable, and has lots and lots of work. A high performance company is a requirement for good human resources management, and comes before all the nice stuff that is commonly thought of as HR management. The dual career path— one path for technical people who want to stay doing technical work, and one for management/marketing oriented people, is a lie. There is no such thing in most companies. And if there is, the technical career path ends a lot earlier than the one for management and marketing. When this lie is perpetuated in an organization it usually results in a firm that has a bunch of negative, complaining, dispirited people who opted for the “technical track” 20 years earlier. The reason: they peak out in terms of earnings and responsibility, and hate watching others who have served less time in the company pass them by. Cash flow is more important than paper profits when it comes to survival. We are obsessed with profits— profits in the company, profits in offices, profits on projects. That’s O.K., but we can have all of the profits we want on an accrual basis and unless we actually get paid, we’ll probably have to go out of business. Cash flow is more important, at least in the short term, which is essential if you want to be around in the long term. What’s really strange, though, is how few A/E/P and environmental firms actually forecast cash flow by scheduling every upcoming expense for payment the moment they become aware of it and predicting the date of collection for every bill they send out the moment it’s created, then looking ahead to see if there will be a shortfall. The other fascinating thing is that no standard accounting package we are aware of has a factory-designed module to do this! Open-book management comes before incentive compensation. Every firm tells me that they want a good incentive compensation plan, yet only one in 20 is giving their employees the data they really need to tell how the overall firm and specific individuals are performing. This should come first. In many cases, just giving the information out to everyone is a heck of a lot more motivational than giving out subjective bonuses that leave people wondering where they came from and why. Your company name can have real value, and your success is not all tied to individuals. What do you think it was worth to CH2M-Hill over the years to have a strange but memorable name? A lot. Was the Malcolm Pirnie overtime case bad or good for that company? Perhaps it made the whole world aware of who they are. The truth is that if you have a good name (one that people recognize when they hear it), you’ll get new work, your close rate on proposals submitted will go up, other consultants will deliver their clients to you on a platter, and people will be clamoring to work for your firm. Originally published 9/01/1997

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