What do they really think?

Sep 18, 2022

Knowing what people really think will help you grow your business and serve your clients even better than you already do.

It’s important to know where you stand with your customers and prospects in the marketplace. As an engineer, you work with owners who may only build once or twice during their lifetime. That means you only have one chance to make that first impression. If most of your work is repeat, it’s also critical to know what keeps your clients coming back. It’s important to know what other people think outside of your own firm. This is known as branding.

Through market research, you can learn what the marketplace perceives as your brand. That’s because you don’t determine your brand – your customers and prospects do! (With that said, your firm can and does have impact on your brand, which must be very intentional.)

There are some simple ways to help you determine your firm’s brand perception and direct your marketing dollars to make the most impact. Conducting brand perception surveys is one of the easiest ways to find out what clients, prospects, and industry partners think about your firm. It does take a little time and money, but it’s well worth the investment. This primary research allows you to determine what each segment perceives as your firm’s brand. 

It’s much easier to have someone who isn’t directly involved either in the operations of your firm or in a particular project, so utilize your marketing department or find an outside consultant to conduct these surveys. It’s also recommended you keep the individual answers anonymous, so you’ll receive honest feedback.

The first step to completing these brand perception surveys is to make a target list. This should include 10-40 contacts throughout your marketplace. (If you have multiple locations, then do this for each office location.) The breakdown of your list should be:

  • 30 percent current customers
  • 30 percent prospects
  • 30 percent past customers
  • 10 percent industry partners

This range will give you valid information about your firm that will help you market and sell your services. Prospects will be the most difficult to get to respond, which is why I recommend hiring an outside consultant to complete these perception surveys. Keep in mind some of your prospects should not be familiar with your firm or even know your firm exists. These would be your dream clients.

The questions you assemble will be different for each segment, because they all have a different relationship with your firm. It’s important to have a well-rounded idea of what each segment experiences, because you may have a good perception from your vendors/suppliers but a weaker one with past customers. It’s important to know the perception from all parties that interact and engage with your firm.

Formulating the questions needs to be a strategic process, because you want to ask questions that are leading. Remember, your goal is to obtain as much information about your firm as possible. The questions for each segment are going to be different. A quarter to 40 percent of the questions will be the same for all segments, but the others will need to be modified appropriately. Seventy-five percent of the questions should be open-ended while the others can be yes/no, ranking, or rating. Open-ended questions give you helpful insights to make real changes within your firm. The close-ended questions don’t provide as much information to learn from. Sending online surveys or paper surveys often don’t get you the information you really need to make business decisions.

Perception surveys should be conducted face-to-face or over the phone. This communicates that  your firm is making an investment to conduct these surveys – and you genuinely care about respondents opinions. It’s advised to not conduct online, web-based surveys, because you aren’t going to get a lot of useful information. It’s more difficult to get people to type detailed information instead of verbally communicate with someone.

Face-to-face or phone surveys also allow the interviewer to ask follow-up questions should the interviewee not give a complete or detailed answer. It also allows the interviewer to find out why the questions were answered a certain way. This is much more effective and beneficial to your firm.

For current and past customers, you will be asking about their experience with your firm. For your prospects, you’ll ask about their experience with other firms. For industry partners, you’ll ask about their experience from a working relationship point-of-view.

You won’t need to ask prospects about the operations of your firm, because they haven’t had that experience. Getting ahold of prospects can be challenging, because they don’t know your firm. My recommendation is hiring an outside consultant to conduct these surveys.

An industry partner is a firm that works collaboratively with yours. For an engineer, it would be the architect, contractors, subcontractors, or vendors/suppliers. Interview the project team outside your firm. Although you don’t pay one another, you work very closely on projects together and have relationships with these other firms. Industry partners know your firm and work with your competitors, so they understand your industry and can make recommendations and suggestions.

Many times your current and past clients offer valuable insight on the process they’ve been through with your firm. You are too close to operations, so sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. Having a client explain the experience or make a recommendation based on their experience helps you come up with different ideas of delivering your projects. Many times, through this research, you discover their request actually costs little to no money to implement (besides setting it up and communicating with employees). Other times, the client comes up with some crazy ideas – but use those to generate other more realistic improvements that you can implement.

The individual survey results should not be shared with anyone besides the person conducting the interviews. This guarantees anonymity for the contact being interviewed and he or she will likely be more honest with their answers. The interviewer can then assemble a summary and raw results to share with the team. Depending on the size of your firm, the summary should be shared with all employees. This allows your employees to learn more about your company and how they can play a role in the firm’s brand. They may also find helpful tips to working with clients, as far as what does and doesn’t work.

Perception surveys aren’t for the faint of heart either. There may be some surprising or even hurtful words shared, but know that these will only help your firm grow and improve. It takes some self-reflection and you must be realistic with yourself. There are times where someone shares something that may not be true about your firm, but remember that is their perception. You can change their perception, but it will take some time to do so. You and your employees must be neutral and open-minded when reading the summary and results of perception surveys. Knowing what your clients really think will help you grow your business and service your existing clients even better than you already do.

Zweig Group offers marketing, branding, and business development advisory services. Our team is led by professional services marketers who’ve spent their careers creating innovative, award-winning brands and results-driven
strategies to build business in the AEC industry. Click here to learn more! 

Lindsay Young, CPSM is a marketing services advisor with Zweig Group and president and founder of nu marketing. She can be reached at lyoung@zweiggroup.com.

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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.