Nine more things to change in your firm

Nov 15, 2020

Best practices may be safe, but they won’t differentiate your firm. Make these changes and your firm will stand out.

If there is one thing working in the real estate development business has taught me, it’s that rarely does the shortest path to success lie in following “the other guy.” Yet, that seems to be what most A/E firm owners are hellbent on doing. Firm owners are obsessed with wanting to know “best practices,” which by their very nature are proven techniques and tactics used by other firms. Best practices may be safe, but won’t necessarily be differentiating.

The response to my October 25th article in The Zweig Letter, “Things You Don’t Do in Your Firm but Should,” got me thinking about what else firms could be doing that they aren’t. Here are some of those things:

  1. Raise all of your billing rates. If you want to have the money you will need to pay to get really good people, you need to charge more. If you want the cash necessary to be able to afford to give your people the training they really need, you need to charge more. If you want to have the money to afford the best IT systems, you need to charge more. This is so fundamental. The key in business – especially for smaller businesses, but larger ones, too – lies in filling niches better than anyone else and charging accordingly for your real expertise. Get out of the race to the bottom with your competitors price-wise.
  2. Send out a minimum of 1,500 press releases a week. I know this sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t that hard. Get PRNewswire or some other service that makes it easy to build a really good press list. Get all the email addresses for print media editors, podcasters, broadcast, and electronic media people who put out stuff your target clients read, listen to, or watch on a single list. Include your local newspapers, national news media, and professional society and trade association publication editors. Have at least 500 names on that list. Then three times a week, send them something. It doesn’t have to be much. It could be notice of an award you have won, a new project you are working on, a project you finished, or quotes from one of your firm’s leaders or experts in something. Do this every single week for a year. That’s 52 weeks times three releases going to a list of 500 or more, or 156 releases a year. Once you get in the habit you will find you can do these quickly and the result will be a lot more name recognition and resulting new project opportunities.
  3. Overhaul your website. Most of them are pretty bad. Besides the stale graphics and sterile employee mugshots, they do little to differentiate one firm from another. Yet your website is the first place 90 percent of potential new clients will go to learn about you. So make it interesting! Make it interactive. Add a weekly poll. Show all of the press you are getting. Pepper it with client testimonial quotes that float into the screen. Feature clients. Share the original thinking of your key people with links to your blogs and podcasts. Have videos from the field. Show people using facilities you designed. Do something that changes daily and gives people a reason to go back.
  4. Make all new company vehicles unique and immediately recognizable. Why do so many firms in the business invest in company vehicles for their managers and let them get whatever they want within a certain budget? Or why do they have vehicles for their field people and then get the most boring white pickups with either black or blue lettering, so theirs look like everyone else’s in the same business? It’s not good marketing. I would have all my principals in some kind of unique car or SUV in a color that not everyone else picks. What’s new? What’s weird? What reflects your taste and philosophy? My field vehicles would be pink, purple, electric blue, some shade of green, black, or brown, instead of boring white, silver, or grey, so ours would be immediately recognizable as my people moved around town or visited a job site. I’m big on wraps, too.
  5. Make “revenue factor” the most critical performance metric you monitor and track. Revenue factor is defined as net service revenue divided by total raw labor. You can do it for the firm overall, or any office, division, or team. It’s so simple. It tells you everything and is not easily manipulated, as are utilization (just charge hours to a job, billable or not) and labor multiplier (don’t charge time to a job you are actually working on to “protect” the multiplier). I don’t know why firm owners don’t put a stop to this by simply looking at the ratio of revenue to total raw labor cost, billable or not.
  6. Hire a female outside BOD member or advisor. I’m not trying to stereotype or generalize here but let’s face it, guys – especially us older white guys – when put in a group don’t always see everything we should, and we don’t always make the best decisions. Get a woman on your board – someone who is strong and successful at doing what they do – and my guess is your highest level discussions will go down some new paths and take you in some new directions from where they have traditionally gone. And that could be pivotal to your future.
  7. Get rid of most of your non-billable activity codes. The more of these you have, the more time people will charge to them. And what do you do with all this information on non-billable activities that you track anyway? Think about all the time wasted by people filling out their time sheets trying to figure out if they should charge their time to “corporate business development” or “project development,” or whether their training in how to use a particular piece of business software is considered “technical training” or “management training,” or some other such nonsense. Who cares? All you need is PTO, holiday, marketing, training, and “other non-billable” or “unclassified time.” That’s it. Keep it simple!
  8. Train your people in how to properly use email. I’m talking about the need to respond quickly, the downside of wasting everyone’s time with “reply to all,” why using “out of office assistant” when we all get our email on our smartphones wherever we are connotes a lack of service, and more. People need training unless you just enjoy seeing time (and money) wasted every day on email.
  9. Have the CEO or managing partner write a daily internal email to all employees. This is something I would do, especially now when so many people are working remotely. Tell them all the good news you can along with your thoughts about the company and its future. Keep it short, optimistic, and pithy. People will appreciate being kept informed and feel like they are part of something.

Those are my thoughts for now – check in next week for more! And please email me with any questions or comments at

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

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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.