Taking the plane off auto-pilot

Jul 15, 2015

Don’t let the current market surge allow you to become too busy or lazy to effect needed changes, and don’t underestimate the time and resources this will require.

shutterstock_225113527​Have you ever been at the controls of a plane when autopilot is turned off? I had an opportunity to do this many years ago on the small, single-engine company plane that my previous firm owned. As I held the controls, I assumed that if I just held them steady where they were, the plane would remain on course. That was not the case. When the pilot turned off the auto-pilot feature, the plane immediately started to dive and moving the controls was much harder than I was expecting. After about 10 seconds of terror – that felt like 10 minutes – the pilot took the controls and steadied the plane. As I was discussing a part of our business with Mark Zweig last week, I used the analogy of taking that part of our business off auto-pilot. As soon as I said it, the story above came to mind, and it made the analogy even more powerful. All of us have experienced the auto-pilot scenario at some point. Whether it is one part of our business or the entire firm, being on auto-pilot is easy and maintains the status-quo. The chances of turning the auto-pilot feature on are enhanced when we get busy or lazy. Auto-pilot takes us to a destination at a steady, direct course. In the context of our business, it can also enable market trends and changes to go unaddressed, allowing many problems to accrue. In my experience, every part of the business is subject to this risk. As a consultant, I see many marketing departments that are stagnated after being on auto-pilot for so long. They become simply a proposal grind that is never-ending, often yielding market benchmark results that are unacceptable, in my opinion. Here are some issues that tend to manifest from auto-pilot status.
  • Your boilerplate marketing material is out of date. I am referring to those standard introductions and descriptions of the firm and its services. Nearly every firm I work with as a marketing consultant has an outdated – or even irrelevant – boilerplate. It’s not unusual to find material that is 10 or more years old! I am not a fan of boilerplate text because it never gets looked at and just fills up space. Our lives are now bombarded with “content” – from social media to other marketing mediums. Firms should strip all standard material out of marketing materials and only say the most powerful messages that can influence purchasing decisions. Less is more!
  • Cover letters are not saying enough. Studies show that your clients’ attention spans and ability to recall facts from your marketing documents is highest at the very beginning of their review. This means the cover letter of a proposal needs to give the most attention to crafting a powerful message that speaks directly to the reader. However, instead of doing this, we often reuse cover letters and just change the project name and contact information before including standard boilerplate material. We also start every letter with “we are pleased to submit this proposal for the above referenced project” or something similar. To maximize your chances of getting the attention of your client, write a powerful and personal letter from scratch for every submittal.
  • You marketing staff is too busy. As the current market surge continues, I am seeing an unfortunate trend in nearly every firm I work with: Marketing departments are doing more proposals than ever with no end in sight. This is the enemy of creativity – and of these critical support roles to provide the level of service they are capable of. More proposals means they are in more of a sales-support role and critical marketing activities are not getting done at all. True marketing is essential for building and maintaining a strong brand to empower the firm to achieve critical growth into new areas, both geographic and service. If you had 30 percent growth over the past year, have you added 30 percent more marketing resources? I doubt it. Scale up your marketing department with the rest of the firm. If you have an ambitious growth and/or diversification plan, you might need to add even more marketing resources proportionate to the rest of your business.
As this historic market surge continues in our industry, I am seeing many departments and firms going into auto-pilot mode. The reason for this is our focus is shifting to completing the incredible volume of work that firms have right now. This stretches all resources and commands an “all hands on deck” atmosphere. Meanwhile, we are not spending the time necessary to look ahead and plan for that upcoming weather system that could cause us turbulence. Even worse, there might be a mountain ahead that we could crash into. Not putting critical business functions into auto-pilot mode while we all work to get this work done is difficult to resist. It’s more important than ever to do it now, while you have the financial resources to invest. Once a downturn comes onto the horizon, it is too late. Take the controls now and change your altitude to a nice climb, taking your firm to new heights. Be looking far ahead now and steer your plane to avoid the things coming that will certainly cause your firm turbulence or even casualties.
CHAD CLINEHENS is Zweig Group’s executive vice president. Contact him at cec@zweiggroup.com.

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.