One and the other

Oct 03, 2016

Project needs and client needs are two different things. If you want to win more work, figure out the human side of the equation and you’ll be rewarded.

AEC firms often approach proposals and interviews with military-type shock and awe: “We’ve done this type of project dozens of times. We’re the most qualified – and the best value.”

However, selection panels are trying to answer the question: Who do they want to work with for the project duration? As one public works director said: “We’re getting married to these people for three years!”

Selection panel members tell us that AEC firms often try to answer this question with some combination of:

  1. “We’re passionate about this project.”
  2. “We’re really great to work with.”
  3. “This is a big opportunity for us.”

Project need versus client need. The path to being the firm a potential client wants to work with starts with understanding the client’s needs. No surprise there, but the client’s needs are probably not what you think. When JTG helps teams develop proposals and prepare for interviews, the teams often identify the client’s need as something generic, such as finishing within budget. That’s important – but it’s a project need.

To find the client need, we add the phrase “… so that,” followed by the phrase(s) required to finish the statement: “We will finish the school within budget … so that the school district doesn’t have to ask taxpayers for more money … so that when the next levy comes along, voters won’t be thinking about that school costing more than planned … so that we can maintain our trusted position within the community for years to come.” The farther you take the “… so that,” the closer you get to the real client needs.

After the ribbon cutting. A team we coached for an expansion project believed the client need was “getting the building done on time.” Well, it wasn’t just a building – it was a hospital. And it wasn’t just a hospital – it was a leading cancer care facility in the Northwest.

After adding “… so that” a few times, the team concluded that getting the facility done on time meant so much more. It meant that people who had advanced cancer would be able to receive life-saving treatment without having to travel – a critical component to successful outcomes. The team inserted specific examples in the proposal on how they could shave time off the schedule, such as pre-constructed modules for the treatment rooms. In the interview the team connected every process and project phase with getting the treatment wing open so that the treatment center could help people/save lives/fulfill the mission of the hospital. In the interview, they spoke to the client need, not just the project need.

The team won the project.

How do we find the “… so that”? To make your potential client sit up and take notice, put on your journalist hat and ask yourself these questions:

  • Who? Think about the people who will live/work/study/play/drive in or on whatever you’re designing, building, or improving. And make them real: Not “the school” – instead, “The principal who takes the parent’s calls about their child’s safety …” not, “The shoppers at the mall .…” Instead, “Martha Jones, who is picking up a gift after work and needs to get to child care on time .…” A specific example with real names is more powerful than a paragraph of generality in a proposal and interview.
  • Where? Apply the same level of specificity to the location and help the reader paint a memorable picture in their head. It’s not just “a school next to a busy street;” it’s “a school next to Second Avenue, which has had 12 accidents in the past six years – a school that will continue to grow in use when the new development two miles to the south is complete in 2018. Thus, safety will be critical .…” This example shows how much your team knows and is much stronger than the generic, “We know this area well.”
  • Why? Every good story has suspense. Why was the project started, and what are the consequences of it not being completed as planned? The projects AEC firms design, build, and improve contribute to the economic growth of communities and the quality of life for those who live there. Demonstrate that you understand the stakes and how a project affects the neighborhood as a whole. Think of your client’s clients.
  • How? Successful teams have worked diligently to perfect their methods for communication, for providing design options, and for using technology. They have used internal critiques to glean information, talked with clients, and other experts. Yet, in interviews, team members tend to gloss over the step-by-step processes because they do it every day – it’s ordinary to them. Selection panels tell us, however, that evaluating these processes is how they differentiate firms that are equal in other areas. Again, details are key. For example, your firm doesn’t just get all the parties together, talk it over, and decide. You have a four-step process – explore, analyze, decide, and execute. The steps are sewn into your proposal and woven into your answers during the interview.

What is the result? The best stories have great endings, and by now you know it’s not that the project was completed on time or within budget. The ending is the resolution of the “… so that” statement. A story about the hospital expansion project above could read: “After the (name of hospital) wing reopened on time, patients were able to receive the leading-edge care that was critical to successful cancer treatment. In the first year after reopening, (X) patients were treated, including (name and picture of patient featured on hospital’s website).

The defining and differentiating details are easy to find when who, what, why, and how are answered.

Be a wingman, not a salesman. Finding your client’s “… so that” and demonstrating the processes your team will use to create results for the client will make you a valued partner. And when the selection panel asks, “Who do we want to work with?” – the answer will be you!

Scott Johnston is a principal strategist and facilitator at Johnston Training Group. He can be reached 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.