One of the key determinants of any architecture, consulting engineering, or environmental consulting firm’s ability to get work at decent fees is how well “positioned” it is. Positioning means becoming established as an expert service provider to a specific, targeted client sector (or sectors). Some firms are positioned in only one sector, others are positioned in a number of sectors. When a firm has done its positioning properly, all it has to do is react well to inquiries and decide how fast it wants to grow. There’s a difference between a firm that is a generalist and one that has multiple specializations. All of the bunk heard lately about the demise of the mid-size firm is just that. The demise will be of generalist firms that are not positioned as experts in particular client sectors. And we don’t mean being an expert in HVAC design, for example— that’s not a client sector. Clients building hospitals and those building warehouses don’t want the same HVAC systems. What we do mean is being positioned as an expert serving health care clients, or an expert serving warehousing and distribution clients. With the exception of new market sectors which require the use of emerging technologies (e.g., the asbestos market in 1979), discipline expertise is not what clients are buying. In mature markets with many established competitors, clients look for understanding of their business, their priorities, their needs, and how they want things done. Discipline knowledge is a commodity. Knowledge about a unique industry or a unique company is a rarity, and clients gladly pay a premium for it. How does a firm position itself? Organization structure and project assignments. One way to be perceived as an expert is to be an expert. An expert is someone who knows just a little bit more than the next guy. An organization structure that has standing teams, each focussed on serving one group of clients with similar needs, breeds specialized expertise. Or you can accomplish the same thing by regularly assigning certain people to work on certain types of projects, although that system tends to break down over time. Serving the same types of clients over and over will result in your people being able to better anticipate what their client’s needs are. A perfect example of this type of structure is St. Louis-based Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum’s (HOK) Sports Facility Group. It works equally well in smaller firms. Conduct research that gives you unique information. A perfect example of this is the annual multi-state solid waste survey published by the 80-person civil/environmental firm Draper-Aden Associates, Blacksburg, Virginia. When they started doing their survey, solid waste was a small part of their business. Now it’s a major component. Send out information that benefits the client on a frequent basis (and frequent is the operative word here). This doesn’t mean braggardly communications. It means things that clients will read, circulate, and keep. In addition to surveys, you can provide technical bulletins, legal bulletins, articles that you have seen in other publications, articles on the client’s own organization, and so on. A great example of this is the Focus newsletter put out by New York-based Horton-Lees Lighting Design, which covers all kinds of topics from bulb selection to lighting maintenance. Get published in publications that your clients read. That may not be the ASCE News unless your client belongs to ASCE. It might be magazines like Municipal Engineering or Healthcare Today. Elliott + Associates, an Oklahoma City architecture firm, was on the cover of Architecture magazine recently, but will probably get more positioning mileage out of firm president Rand Elliott’s article in Cellular Marketing magazine. Attend functions that clients attend, not just those that your peers and competitors attend. Be active in their organizations. Get involved, and become a recognizable face behind a name. Host seminars that provide information or training that benefit clients. CON-TEST, Inc., a 170-person East Longmeadow, Massachusetts-based environmental consulting firm, started out doing seminars for free and now has over 50 course offerings which they sell to clients at a profit. Hire people out of the client’s industry. Consulting engineering firms have been using this strategy for years to get work out of state DOTs, since in most states, unless you have someone who used to work for that state’s highway department at one time or another (or someone who has worked for them as a consultant for years), it’s almost impossible to get any good work. The same strategy works for other market sectors, including various private sector markets. None of this stuff is new, but not many firms do it. Fortunately, that will just make your positioning efforts more effective.Originally published 5/15/1993
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.
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