The art of the sale

Nov 12, 2023

Instead of trying to impress potential clients, focus on emotional intelligence, really listening, and creating relationships built on common goals and trust.

Emotional intelligence can be defined as “the ability to understand and manage your emotions, as well as recognize and influence the emotions of those around you.” This takes real self-awareness and a heightened understanding of how you are perceived by those around you in day-to-day interactions. Self-awareness is then deeply connected to empathetic social awareness – the ability to see things from other perspectives, and then develop and maintain authentic relationships.

We are social animals, in life and in business.

Too often, we focus on trying to impress our potential clients with our strengths, our accomplishments, and our intelligence. However, those among us with real emotional intelligence – those able to forge real human connections and “read a room” – are far more successful.

Why we win clients. On one hand, there seems to be a complex psychology behind why projects are awarded to one firm, and not another. All the good work, PR, and reputation building we do prior to a meeting or RFP certainly comes into play. Also, we see that it is increasingly important to our clients that we share the same values and can collaborate in meaningful ways. Sometimes, and somewhat irritatingly, it’s as simple as having the lowest fee.

What we see time and time again is that the selection most often comes down to relationships that have been built, and the understanding and trust that has been established. After all, it is people, the social animals that we are, that are choosing us to work with them – no matter how many score sheets or elaborate evaluation criteria an agency uses to convince us (and themselves) that they are impartial.

Case example: Relationships as game changers. While I was working at a large firm, I witnessed a comedy of errors on the due date of an important proposal, resulting in the submittal being delivered a few minutes late (and instantly disqualified). The firm was a trusted advisor of the agency, and had worked for years developing strong relationships. Low and behold: a few days later, the public agency cancelled the procurement, stating a clerical error, then re-issued a new RFP. Our firm was then awarded the project.

When we consider that about 80 percent of most AEC firms’ revenues come from existing clients, it becomes clear that developing and maintaining authentic and meaningful relationships should be our main focus.

How to win clients and influence selection committees. So, if relationships win work, how can we forge these authentic connections and build understanding and trust? The answer is simple, and common sense to those who have worked to develop emotional intelligence. Instead of focusing on your “elevator speech,” your firm, and what achievements you think might impress someone, strive to make authentic human connections through active listening, asking meaningful questions, and being careful not to let ego get in the way of empathy. Only then can you eventually hope to become a trusted advisor to your clients.

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was written more than 80 years ago, but some of its basic principles are as relevant today as it was when it was first published. One is to be a good listener, and to listen more than you speak – as a rule of thumb, spend 75 percent of time listening and 25 percent speaking. As true in marketing as it is in dating, people love to talk about themselves – what is important to them, their own projects, and challenges. It is critical to let them do so!

AEC firms often hear from clients in debriefing sessions that the reason for a project loss came down to a lack of understanding about the client and project – not the firm’s qualifications. As the saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” If you have a relationship with the client and prior intel about how they operate and how they think about the project, it follows that you’ll have an understanding and approach that will be impactful to the selection committee.

Case example: A missed opportunity. Early in my career, I attended a meeting with a public client which had been very challenging to schedule. The leader of my firm (I’ll call him “Architect A”) spent countless hours developing an impressive PowerPoint presentation of relevant work. When the meeting started, he dove into the show, forfeiting introductions and discussion. At the end of the meeting, we were running out of time and the client said, “Well, we also had something to share about our upcoming projects, but I guess now we don’t have time.” He was clearly annoyed.

After the meeting, Architect A announced that the meeting had gone perfectly, and that he had successfully shared all the amazing work that he and the firm had done. Although this gentleman is a highly intelligent person, he lacks emotional intelligence.

The YOU-YOU show. I have had the privilege to learn from some amazing presentation coaches and find myself coming back again and again to a golden rule from Graceworks Inc. president and CEO Carol Doscher: “Don’t make this the WE-WE show; make it the YOU-YOU show!” People want to hear you talk about them. It takes time and effort to gain the intel needed to flip a proposal or presentation to focus on the client and project, rather than our own qualifications, but that is what it takes to succeed.

Case example: Emotional intelligence in action. I recently attended a pitch presentation being made by my firm to a prominent New York developer, who jumped in and started asking questions on the first slide of a well-crafted and well-rehearsed presentation. I was a bit flustered, as we did not get a chance to share all the design ideas crafted over countless hours. Our senior partner told me afterward, “That is the best kind of meeting! We can always send them the deck afterwards. We learned a lot about their needs.” My friends, this is emotional intelligence!

At the end of the day, it’s all about really listening to other people and creating relationships built on common goals and trust. This holds true, whether we work for big firms, small ones, or in engineering, architecture, or construction. And of course, it works the same way in all other areas of our life and relationships. 

Leslie Jenkins, director of marketing and communications and senior associate at FXCollaborative, has more than 25 years of experience in marketing, business development, branding, and communications for architecture, design, and engineering firms. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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.