Real differentiation in your A/E firm

Nov 29, 2020

Answer these questions and many more, or you will, at best, be a decent copy of a firm or firms that do as well or better than you already do.

Let’s face it. Even though there are tens of thousands of companies that make up the “industry,” most A/E firms of any one type (MEP, architecture, civil/survey, etc.) are actually pretty similar.

They used to have a name based on a founder or founders, but today it’s just letters that represent the founders’ initials. The prices they charge their clients are comparable. The scope of services they provide is about the same. What they pay and how they pay their employees is fairly consistent across firms. Their management structures are similar – they have principals and project managers and various specialized design or technical people. They probably have a board of 50-year-old – or older – guys that spends most of its time looking in the rearview mirror. Management tracks and promotes “utilization” as its most critical performance metric. They win one out of 10 jobs they go after by putting out a whole lot of proposals and qualification documents and waiting for “their turn” at the feeding trough. They have a marketing intern who handles “social media” who pre-COVID posted lots of pictures of employee birthday parties and baby showers, but now posts pictures of computer monitors for Zoom meetings with virtual happy hours and employee dogs at home instead.

You get the idea.

Then you take this giant pool of similar companies, each of which has at least one principal or top manager who espouses the latest flavor-of-the week pop management or marketing idea using a million cliches like “pivot,” “best practices,” “out of the box thinking,” “level 5 leadership,” and more, and no wonder everyone’s profitability, growth rate, staff turnover rate, and client satisfaction levels is so consistent across similar firms. But is running a business in this manner really the way to break through and create something wholly different and unique that excels at what it does and achieves a completely different level of success from its peer companies? I think not.

And if you think I am picking on architects and engineers when I paint this picture, don’t think it’s much different in any other industry. There are usually a few leaders and then a whole bunch of followers.

So be different! Take out a clean sheet of paper. How should you be organized to deliver the best of what you have talent-wise to your clients? How can you get paid for what you know instead of just getting paid for what you do? What problems are your clients grappling with that you can help solve? What kinds of things are you doing but could change – things that demotivate your people and waste their time and psychic energy? How can you make your marketing distinctive and memorable so you drive up that one-out-of-10 win ratio? How can you get clients to pay better fees? What can you do that distinguishes your social media in a meaningful way? How can you create buzz about your firm in your chosen markets? Is that “alphabet soup” company name of yours really that great? How can you actually inspire and motivate your people, and get everyone focused on making the company perform at a new level?

These questions and many more must be raised and answered, or you will, at best, be a decent copy of a firm or firms that do as well or better than you already do. Focus on being outstanding. Focus on being different. Focus on being a unique firm in a sea of sameness. I’d bet if you did, you will find all kinds of new success!

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.