Why Firms Don’t Believe in Marketing

Oct 01, 1992

After countless management consulting assignments involving turnarounds and strategic business planning for A/E and environmental consulting firms, it has only recently become clear to me why so many companies in this business don’t believe in marketing— because the person at the top is too good at selling. Sound contradictory? It’s not. Selling (or business development) is only one part of what we mean by the broader term “marketing.” CEOs definitely believe in selling. They know if the work stops flowing in, the company is dead. Some of these people (many of them close clients) will argue that’s all marketing in an A/E or environmental firm is— selling services. But there are several failures with that line of thinking. The first problem becomes apparent when you start talking with the top people in a firm about how to generate more opportunities to sell their company’s services. Because the CEO is usually a natural salesman (one of the reasons he or she probably got to the top of the firm), it’s hard for them to understand why more of their people don’t just get out from behind their desks to call on new clients or on the firm’s past and present clients to sell them something. They go to great lengths to try to get their people to do this. They develop elaborate calling schedules. They institute complex incentive compensation plans. They threaten their people with loss of employment. All these things would be fine and dandy were it not for the fact that only one out of every 20 professionals in this business really knows how to sell, and even fewer than that will actually do it. This lack of willingness to face the reality of the situation results in countless changes to the organizational structure, people being hired and fired in an attempt to find those who can sell, and one heck of a lot of frustration on the part of the CEO who simply cannot understand why more people don’t just “get out there.” The second problem comes from a lack of planning and a lack of patience. Engineers, architects, and scientists, by and large, hate to plan. They are doers instead. As a result, they don’t usually crank up their marketing programs until it’s too late. Those at the top also tend to be impatient (maybe that’s another reason why they got there)! They don’t want to take the time to thoroughly research a market sector, develop a multi-pronged approach to establish their firm as the expert service provider in the field (selected hiring, papers, newsletters, seminars, research projects, teaming relationships, and so on), and then implement all of this when it may take a year or more to see any results from it. And if they have ever tried this approach, it probably failed from insufficient resources being allocated to it or from pulling the plug too soon. They would rather just get out there and sell! Successful people are not always open to new approaches— why should they be? Those who are good at selling personally don’t see the need for all of the “other” marketing activities— who needs them? But over-reliance on the personal selling activities of one or a few key people can be disastrous. Because it’s based on what one or a few people do, selling alone usually doesn’t produce consistent results. The firm is more subject to “boom-bust” cycles tied to the rainmakers’ activity and morale levels. It also makes the firm more vulnerable, since any of these super-sellers can move to another firm or start their own company and become the firm’s toughest competitor. In the long run, relying on personal selling is also less cost effective. Add up all of the hours of professionals’ time charged to business development, plus the travel and entertainment expenses, plus the foregone revenues from not being billable, and you’ll see it’s awfully expensive to have professionals chasing all over the place. In spite of this, most A/E and environmental firms who think very little about committing vast resources to selling efforts will debate endlessly on whether or not to do anything proactive in the way of direct mail or PR. I’m not saying we want to discourage our sellers from selling. We need them to sell. But we have to start spending the money doing other things if we want to consistently create enough opportunities for our sellers to close. And we have to stop trying to make salesmen out of people who have no interest in or aptitude for selling. Originally published 10/01/1992

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