Transforming Your Firm Through Selling

Feb 20, 2006

I recently witnessed a transformation. An old-line A/E firm that had been on the decline for about four years decided they’d finally had enough. Their top management reallocated their energy and efforts to one thing— sales of new work. And it worked. They sold 50% more this fiscal year than they did in the previous year. The result has been a real turnaround for these people. There is now a future to talk about. Morale is vastly improved. Even the old-timers have a new spring in their step. The attitude of everyone is completely different. My prediction is that this will translate into even more new jobs as the firm’s people gain new confidence. As an outside observer, it’s really exciting to see. How can you employ what these people and other firms did that has transformed their companies through more sales? Here are some ideas: Get the CEO focused on selling. It’s crucial. No one can make more of a commitment to a client than the CEO. No one knows more about the company and its capabilities than the CEO. And no one is in a better position to do what it takes to sell a job than the CEO. Plus, it’s good for the CEO to demonstrate to everyone in the company that he or she still plays a vital role that helps put food on the table. Make sales the topic that is first on the list at every management meeting. If you want everyone to stay focused on this crucial activity, you have to keep it front and center in their minds. Making this first in reports, first in meetings, and first in conversations about the firm’s current state of affairs makes a big difference in companies where this has traditionally not been the case. It says “selling is important here.” Take a hard look at what you are going after and what your close rate is. A lot of A/E/P and environmental firms come to the awareness that they have a lot of opportunities, but aren’t closing a sufficient number of them. Often, the first thing they discover is that they are pursuing too many projects and ones that they have a very low probability of success with. This then hampers efforts on the smaller number of projects they could win if they applied themselves. The typical response is some sort of bureaucratic go/no-go process. I have never been a fan of those, but instead think the key leaders of the firm, office, or other business unit ought to have the knowledge and authority to make these decisions on their own. Anyone who is charged with selling and profit and loss responsibility ought to have the go/no-go power. But a poor closing rate has other causes as well. Many times, proposals are simply not looked at by those at the top of the firm. They are a hassle to prepare. The marketing department churns out dozens of them each month. The problem is that they, like most of us, fall into ruts. Marketing departments also face the same talent shortages we see in most technical or design discipline areas as well. They need help from the best sellers and those who are closest to the customer— the principals— to make sure their proposal and qualification documents are saying the right things. Selling has to be celebrated. Announcements of jobs, champagne toasts, spot bonuses, pizza lunches, ringing bells— these things and more all contribute to the excitement of selling in an A/E firm. They are essential to making this activity one that everyone wants to be a part of. They keep the company from feeling like a government agency or, worse, a funeral parlor. These activities and rituals are very uncomfortable for some design and environmental professionals who run companies. That’s why they aren’t that common. But you need to overcome that attitude and do it anyway if you believe selling is the key to your future. I honestly don’t think many firm owners would disagree with these common-sense ideas to sell more work. So if you aren’t doing them, one has to ask “why not?” Originally published 2/20/2006

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.