Practical Advice Everyone Can Use

Apr 27, 1998

Here’s a collection of practical advice I think anyone in the A/E/P or environmental consulting business can use in response to questions that seem come up over and over again: Where can I find someone to work in our marketing department who can grind out the newsletters, questionnaires, and press releases you are constantly advocating? I used to say that you should always look to competitors for any of these staff jobs. Get someone who has done it before, right? Now I have changed my mind. The marketing talent (not sales talent, mind you) in our industry is in many cases, behind the times. We need to go outside of our industry for some fresh thinking. Try advertising, PR, and consumer products marketers. Also take a look at the talent working in your local newspaper. Some of the reporters make excellent grind-it-out fast writers, and they aren’t very highly paid ($14K to $30K, for the most part). Reporters may even be thrilled to work for you on a part-time contract basis, giving you a chance to try them out and them a chance to try out a non-newspaper writing job. One more point with marketing people— don’t think you will find someone who is organized and can write, who is also an extrovert that will make 50 cold calls a day. They are two different animals. What can we do to speed up cash flow? Do credit checks on new clients— there are a number of low-cost Internet sources of this information. Always ask for a retainer or a portion of your fee up front. Get bills out along with your deliverables— don’t bill just once a month. Send copies of unpaid invoices out at 30 and 60 days, if the job is done. Have accounting make calls at 15 and 45 days to the accounting people in your client’s organization. Don’t rely on project managers to make collection calls unless the money is over 60 days old. One other point— I have not had good success with discounting bills for prompt payment. Some clients will take the discount and pay late anyway. What are some meaningful things we can do to improve project management? There’s a lot of information on project management for A/E/P and environmental firms, but most of it is pretty stale. I find that very few principals and managers are happy with the performance of project management in their firms. One thing you can do is reduce the number of project managers you have working on jobs. It’s not unusual to see a 200-person firm with 70 project managers— at least 70 people turn up as PMs when you print out the list of all jobs by project manager. This is just too many! They won’t all be good. So shrink to those who are the best at project management and get everyone else back doing what they can do. Also, send out a weekly job progress report on every job. Another thing to be careful of is trying to do too much at once. Fix one aspect of project management at a time, such as reducing unbilled work-in-process, instead of trying to do it all in a single two-day project management training session. Why is it important to share financial performance information? Because your people depend on the company for their livelihoods, and there is no way an intelligent person could not be curious about how well the firm is doing. It sends out a message that you trust your people and have nothing to hide from them. The other thing is, if people know what’s working and what’s not, and where the problems are that have to be solved, many times they will take action without your telling them to. If you or a small group of owners are the only ones who see this data, then you are the ones who have to solve every problem. Who wants to do that? All that does is keep you awake at night and make you indispensable. Then you’ll never get out of the job you are in or be able to sell your company and have the confidence that it will continue after your departure. How often should we review salaries? I’ll say this— once a year is definitely not enough, especially with the younger people in your firm. Sure— for those of us over 40, once a year is fine. But for a 23-year-old, it probably has to happen more often than that or they will be stolen away by some other employer. So instead of making these people go somewhere else after a year or two with your firm, why not nip it in the bud? You’ll pay more for their replacement, and it will be someone you don’t really have any history with. The other fact to consider is that younger people who are just starting out in their first, full-time career job, need lots of reinforcement. More frequent raises gives you the chance to provide this reinforcement, good or bad. Then they can either feel good about their progress, or know that they have to make some changes, and have the time to do it before having to wait out another complete year Originally published 4/27/1998

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