Marketing Mistakes

Aug 26, 1996

I gave a talk last week at a meeting one of our clients had for all their market sector leaders. This is a successful company that we do quite a bit of work for, and the people they gathered together are as good a group as you’ll find anywhere in a firm in this business. They asked me to speak on what is working and what isn’t working marketing-wise for A/E/P and environmental firms. During the course of my presentation, when I made the statement that it’s not a good idea to send out a bunch of flossy and glossy, general firm brochures with a note card attached reading: “Just though you might appreciate this— Bob Johnson,” one of their strongest principal/sellers immediately accused me of contradicting myself. He said that’s what I constantly advocate in The Zweig Letter. If only one reader of our newsletter thinks that’s what I believe, it’s one too many. Sure— I do believe in direct mail as a tool that any firm can use to position itself and reduce the perception of risk for a client to hire them. I have seen it demonstrated time and time again, and although it’s not a short-term fix or panacea, I know it works. But I don’t think many firms do it properly. In fact, most don’t even do 10% of what they should be doing. Here are some of the marketing mistakes companies make: They have a brochure that tries to sell the firm as capable of doing anything and everything for anyone. The larger the firm, the greater the likelihood they will have a brochure that is set up something like this: “Health Care projects: ABC & Associates is a leading designer of Health Care Facilities, blah, blah, blah. Transportation Projects: ABC & Associates has designed many important highway and roadway projects throughout blah, blah, blah. Industrial Projects: ABC & Associates serves a wide variety of industrial clients, blah, blah, blah. Military Projects: From the Corps of Engineers to The U.S. Air Force to the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, ABC & Associates has provided outstanding multi-disciplinary services, blah, blah, blah,” and so on. The intent of a brochure like this is to communicate that the firm is expert in serving a particular client type. But in reality, it communicates to the client the exact opposite. It makes the company look as if they aren’t specialized in anything. These brochures almost scream, “We work for everyone and aren’t specialized in serving clients like you. If you hire us, you’ll probably think you’re buying experts but we’ll really give you whoever is available at the time.” They hire the local politician/state government official/chamber of commerce chair/county commissioner, etc. because of their “connections,” and expect them to sell big projects. I can’t tell you how often I get calls from CEOs of companies in our business who want my opinion on whether or not they should hire one of these people, but it happens a lot. My response, after getting the details on this person whose assignment will be that of “goodwill ambassador” (alias, bird dog), is almost always the same. How much work will he or she have to sell to cover salary, benefits, expense account, travel, company-issued Ford LTD, club memberships, etc., based on your firm’s average profitability on projects? And how likely would you say it is that the person will sell that much work? Sometimes these people don’t listen to me the first time we have the conversation, but then I’ll hear from them six months or a year later and they’ll tell me I was right. They’ll say that hiring “Bob Firmhandshake” turned out to be a big mistake, that “all he did was spend money,” that “he didn’t know a thing about our business,” or that “he didn’t have a good work ethic,” and the whole thing turned out to be “a $100,000 mistake.” They pay commissions based on sales. Occasionally, firms will try out some sort of commission structure as a means of compensating their people who bring in the work. This, too, almost always backfires for multiple reasons. First, it may be difficult to determine who really is responsible for the sale. It’s often a collaborative process in this business. Who brought in the lead? Who met with the client? Who wrote the proposal? Who attended the presentation? Second, there’s the issue of profitability. I mean, what’s to stop a slick salesman from selling dollars for 85 cents? You can sure sell a lot of dollars that way! Third, what do you do when the second, third, or fourth project comes in from that client? Do you have to pay another commission? If you don’t, will that demoralize the person who brought the client in for the first time? Last, what does paying commissions for getting work from new clients only say to your employees? Does that imply that existing clients aren’t as important as new ones? Is that what you really want to reinforce? They run ads in the state professional engineering directories, ENR, or other industry magazines and newsletters. Has anyone ever had a call that went something like this: “We saw your ad in the back of Rebostatic Oscillators Quarterly, and as a matter of fact, we do have a need for a consultant right now?” Of course you haven’t. No one reads those box ads in the “professional services directory,” anyway. Usually, when you do a little probing, the response comes back: “We didn’t want to look conspicuous by our absence. ZH43C, D.E.F. Associates, and Stodge Engineers are all in there, and we didn’t want to be left out.” What would you say to your kids if they laid that logic on you for why they should be allowed to get a tattoo or pierced nose? There are so many things that companies in this business do wrong marketing-wise, I could literally write for a month on the subject. Just the other day, I came up with a list of 30 for my two-hour talk! The important thing for our readers to understand is that just because everyone else is doing something a certain way, it doesn’t mean you have to fall into the same trap. Originally published 8/26/1996

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.