Coloring Outside the Lines

I was having a conversation over lunch today which reminded me that the more I refine my practice of AEC marketing, the more it requires me to venture into subject areas that were previously thought to be outside of my purview or pay grade.   Let me illustrate:

Let’s say I’m charged with charting a course that will get my firm to a determined revenue goal within a determined amount of time.  Among the considerations I look at under the circumstances is how profitable we are with certain types of clients or market verticals.  While gathering such information, I may learn that, for example, we tend to do civic work more profitably than healthcare.  I may also learn that, within the civic realm, we are more likely to be profitable when working with client A vs. client B.  I may also learn that profitability within this sector is much more dependent on which project manager/supervisor is leading the work than on type of project or the client.  Each of these outcomes requires a different response.

If I know we are more profitable with civic than healthcare, my response may be to work on lowering opportunity costs for healthcare pursuits.  Many of the steps that can be taken toward this end are in marketing’s wheelhouse.  If I learn that we’re more profitable working for client A than client B, I can gather and share this information to help make informed decisions about who we want to pursue and how much we want to spend pursuing them.  Some of this is in marketing’s wheelhouse too.  If, however, I learn that the real difference is based on which employee manages the job, most of the solutions that need to be employed to address the problem are not traditionally in marketing’s “lane”.  However, in my opinion, they are still marketing’s business.

Marketing has historically been an amplifier, not a creator of the firm’s “brand” – which is the cumulative perception of all the various experiences those inside and outside the firm have in their interactions with you – something we now call “human experience”.    What marketing communicates becomes what potential clients/employees/project partners expect.  Unless our billable colleagues can consistently deliver on what marketing promises, we set ourselves up to fail.  Thus, in the age of instant, on-line ratings posted on, Glassdoor, Yelp and the like, the days of “staying in my lane” are, by necessity, over.

So, how do I broach the subject when I see a marketing problem that’s not really mine to fix?  I believe the correct course of action is to present the challenge to my firm leaders with enough data to demonstrate why it’s a marketing problem.  I ask them to fix it and to keep me in the loop as they do.  I then try to focus my marketing efforts on the areas when I know we can deliver on our promise.  I also trust my firm leaders to keep me posted as they fix any problems that compromise a complete and positive customer experience.

 

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Everybody’s Least Favorite RFP Question

I was having a discussion with some colleagues about those questions/requests we get in RFPs that we hate. It’s not that we dislike them because they challenge us in ways that are useful to the client, but because they are 1) difficult and/or impossible to respond to and 2) aren’t going to give the client an answer that is worthwhile anyway.   Let me take one of these recurring requests and unpack why it’s not a good question:

“Provide us with information on all the projects the team/your firm is currently working on, who on the team is working on those projects and the stage each project is in currently.”

So, why is this a poor question?  Here are my three reasons:

It asks for a large volume of information at an early stage of the pursuit process, some of which is proprietary.

Some of our clients don’t want people to know we’re working on their projects, much less provide details about them.  Most firms I have worked for have about 80-120 projects going at a time.  Do you really need info on all of them?  Can you imagine the work required to a) get permission to disclose this info and b) gather the data to provide it?   When the ones asking are brokers or PM firms see this more as a fishing expedition than a reliable way of determining if we have the bandwidth to do the project.  If you simply want intelligence, there are more appropriate ways to ask for it.

It doesn’t usually provide reliable data.

There was a time in the AEC industry when proposals were only good for 60 days from the date of issue, when clients made timely decisions, usually within 30 days, and when projects typically stuck to their schedules.  Nowadays, it’s not unheard of for clients to issue RFPs, put projects on hold, then come back several months later wanting the same team, and the same schedule, forcing the provider to “make up” the time lost in decision making.   In addition, most firms win about 25-30% of what they go after, requiring us to occasionally hedge our bets and put the same people on multiple pursuits simultaneously.

The landscape of project schedules is a constantly ebbing and flowing river of data, with projects often accelerating, going on hold, or changing scope.   An all firm/all projects schedule we give you today would likely be inaccurate by the time you’re ready to start the project.

It doesn’t really answer the question you’re asking.

Those who ask this question really want to know if the team we’ve assigned to them has the bandwidth/availability to do the job and will be with the project for the duration of the project.  Probably they’ve been victims of bait and switch in the past, which we agree is the best way to get a project off on the wrong foot.  Possibly a decision was made on another RFP before you decided so now the people you wanted are unavailable.  In either case, there are effective ways to ensure the team you’re offered is the team you get.  One way I’ve seen recently, which I think is genius, is to require the service provider to guarantee the submitted team for the duration of the project and requiring that all staffing changes be approved by the client in advance.  That way, if a service provider has to switch staff because someone leaves the firm, become incapacitated, or gets committed elsewhere, you can at least have a hand in selecting their replacement.

So how do I recommend AEC firms answer this question?

I recommend firms offer a schedule and team and promise that team will be available for the project according to the schedule submitted with the proposal – and stay true to their word on this issue.  Those providers who bait and switch intentionally make all of us look bad.  If you have a client who insists on detailed active project data, I recommend saying something like: “This question asks for a substantial amount of proprietary information.  If our firm is selected for this assignment, we will provide detailed data at that time.”   At least that way, the volume of work it takes to produce such data accurately will be worth the effort.

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Making the Important Urgent

Most AEC marketers spend a lot of time sprinting from deadline to deadline in a sort of one person relay race.  It can be empowering to give yourself over to a proposal or interview presentation wholeheartedly and satisfying to cross that task off your list when it’s done.  The problem with focusing only on the urgent is that tasks that are important but don’t necessarily have hard deadlines tend to slide further and further out on our calendars until they drop off entirely.  For example, one year our resume updates, which should be completed in February, didn’t get done until Thanksgiving week.

The strategy I use to ensure that important tasks don’t get lost among the urgent ones is to keep all my tasks on a spreadsheet on which I also log the day the task was assigned.  I keep track of the status of each task, indicating when I’m waiting for input from somebody else to advance the ball.  If a non-deadline-driven task is not completed within 30 days of arriving on my spreadsheet, I give it a firm deadline that is sometime within the following two weeks.  This gives my deadline-driven brain a reason to fold the task into my current workflow and, usually, results in being able to check it off the list.

I also have a strategy for the tasks that require input/feedback from someone else.  My strategy is to gently nudge that person weekly for four weeks.  After that, assuming the person I’m nudging is also the one who assigned the task to me, I explain to them that, if they can’t make time to give me the input I need within 48 hours, I’m crossing the task off my list.  I find this approach either spurs them to action or helps them realize that the task isn’t really as important as they thought it was.  Either way, it brings closure to the task and gives me a credible response when and if, a few months down the line, they suddenly wonder why the task wasn’t completed.

We all have tools like this to help us manage our own time.  What’s one of yours?

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Soft Speed Bumps

Occasionally one of my marketing staff or one of my professional practice partners will take an action or go down a path when both I, and often they, know better.  For years this frustrated me.  How can someone I’ve trained to do something one way or who has agreed to do something one way and has for a while, suddenly get off track?  What I’ve learned is to watch out for what I call “soft speed bumps”.

Soft speed bumps are those deviations from the “norm” that happen not because the person doesn’t know what they should do, but because they’ve become emotionally or intellectually distracted in some way so they revert to a comfort zone that moves them off the path.  For example, I am not naturally detail oriented.  When I need to go over, for example, a proposal or a spreadsheet with a fine tooth comb, it requires all my resources of anal retentiveness (which are admittedly small to begin with) to accomplish the task successfully.  If I’m tired or stressed or overwhelmed, my detail orientation is the first thing to go.

The example I run into most often with professional practice staff comes up when they need to focus on strategy for a business development pursuit or proposal, and instead get fixated on redesigning the graphics in the document.  I understand that, as architects, design is in their comfort zone much more so than reaching out to a potential client to make a cold call or doing the research to find out what kind of strategy will give us the edge over a competitor.

When we run into soft speed bumps with our staff or our colleagues, our goal is to gently guide them toward the tasks we need them to do.   I find this requires three steps:

  1. Check in with yourself using your emotional intelligence.  When I start to get annoyed with someone, I first ask myself why I’m annoyed.  If I’m just cranky today, I let things go.  Then I check to make sure I have accurately communicated what I need to make sure I didn’t set them up to fail.  If neither of these is the case, I pull on my big girl pants and figure out how to respond like the professional I am.
  2. Check in with them using your emotional intelligence:  A simple, “How are you today?” or a “You seem distracted.  Everything OK?”, gives the person you’re talking to both a heads up and an opportunity to talk about it.  Sometimes, you learn what’s bugging someone and can help them let off a little steam so they can focus on the right task.  Even if they don’t share anything, it gently let’s them know they need to refocus.
  3. Figure out how to make the task manageable.   Seasoned marketers are usually  immune to the anxiety of the cold call and can do strategy in their sleep.  This is not true for professional practice staff or new employees.  I will see if I can help break a task down for them and ask questions to guide them in the right direction to make the task more manageable for now, which should also provide a sense of mastery that will lessen their anxiety for next time.

When we take the time to figure out why someone got off track, it is much easier to figure out how to effectively get them back to centered and back on track.

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Three Key Questions That Are the Hallmark of Outside-In Thinking

If I had to sum up the most important thing I have had to teach my AEC colleagues over the past twenty years, regardless of which type of firm I work for or type of clients we serve, it would have to be the following: “Learn to think outside-in rather than inside out.”

Thinking outside-in involves framing every solution, communication and interaction based on the value it delivers to the intended recipient.  Because architects, engineers and contractors have been my clients,  it has been important for me to learn how they work, what matters to them, and how they assign value to my efforts.  When I got my first job in this industry, as far as I knew, a lintel was something I ate and a dentil was something I ate it with.  Nowadays I’m far better versed in both the terminology and the practice of serving clients in the built environment because the more I learn, the better I do my job.

Similarly, I spend a lot of time teaching my architects, engineers, and contractors to think outside in.  Those who do this well routinely ask themselves three key questions.

How will this make my client look to their boss?   Recently  I hired a vendor to help me with a project and scheduled a meeting for us about four weeks out with three of my key leaders to review our findings.  I contacted this vendor four days before our scheduled meeting with my bosses to confirm their attendance.  What I learned was that he hadn’t yet met with his supplier since he was just back from vacation and wouldn’t get the information I needed for another 10 days.  This meant I had to postpone my meeting with my bosses for two weeks.  How happy am I with that vendor right now?

So What?  Often when I’m prepping my colleagues for an interview, one of them will  introduce himself or herself, saying something like, “I’m Chris and I just became a licensed architect” or “I’m Pat and I was just made an associate at my firm”.   My challenge is, “How does the fact that you just received (that license, certification or title) deliver value to the client?”  If you can’t find a way to communicate to a client why a piece of information matters to them, it’s not a relevant piece of information to share.  It’s the same when choosing projects to share.  Your most recent work may be the coolest to you, but it may not be the most relevant to what the client is trying to achieve.

Now What?  Change is an expectation-resetter.  As a marketing person, sometimes Robbie asks me to do something that bumps a project I already said I’d do for Marty from the top of my priority list.  Sometimes my colleagues are asked by a client to do work that falls outside the scope of the contract.  When I have to bump Marty’s project for Robbie’s higher priority, I let Robby know that I had to bump Marty and I let Marty know how long the project will be delayed and why because it resets expectations.  When a client asks for work that is outside of scope, I instruct folks to say, “We’d love to do that for you!  First we have to determine the effort involved and send you an updated fee so you can sign off on it before we start that work, OK?”  This is the best way to keep your project on track, keep your client happy, and not lose your shirt in the process.

While it takes effort to see the world through another person’s eyes, it is, in my view, the essential skill for good marketers and project professionals.  Keeping these three questions in mind makes it much easier to see outside-in.

 

 

 

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5 Ways to Make Swag Meaningful

Wandering through another expo center at another conference made me think about swag: those little tchochkies, geegaws and giveaways we all create as gifts for clients and staff and tools for subtle name recognition.  Over the years I’ve created a lot of it with both hits and misses and think I now have some ways to make sure the swag we pick is meaningful, useful, and unlikely to end up in the circular file after a conference is over or in the Goodwill donation bin at home.

1) Remember your audience – Employees are interested in different kinds of things than clients.  There are also gender, cultural and generational differences that affect the popularity of some choices.  Be mindful of the recipients of your items, as well as the venue in which they’ll be used (and to which they’ll need to be transported.)  One of my recent missteps is a mini wooden Jenga-like game that everybody loves… until they have to cart 50 of them to a conference.

2) Be consistent in your identity – Ensure that your branding is consistent across gifts and giveaways.  It’s all too common to design different items for specific purposes (e.g., a conference, event or anniversary) and end up with hodgepodge of mismatched leftovers that are more likely to be donated than distributed.  The best way to make sure your swag has legs is to mark it with a consistent graphic identity.

3) Leverage economies of scale – While there are a few vendors who can make swag at reasonable prices in small quantities, (see 4imprint for example) this is the exception rather than the rule and you usually end up sacrificing either cost or quality.  I may have one principal who really wants a golf shirt and another who really wants customized name tags, but I have to weigh wants against costs and breadth of usage.

4) Respect quality – My go-to requirement when selecting gifts and giveaways is that the item has to be something I would use in spite of the fact that it has a logo on it, not because of it.  If it’s a good enough item to make my competitor annoyed that they can’t use it, I’m probably in the zone.  I have a tote bag I still use from a firm I no longer work for because eight years later,  it’s still the perfect bag.

5) Reflect values – If, for example, your firm has a mission to be environmentally sustainable, it makes sense to source products for giveaways that include recycled content and minimize off-gassing.  If your firm focuses on design, your swag should reflect high design as well.  What you give away says as much about you as how you conduct business so it should resonate with your firm’s overall values.

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5 Words of Advice About Networking

Our big summer client party is coming up soon and, though I’m ready for networking, I know that not all of my colleagues find it the most comfortable thing to do.  Thus, here are five tips for those who don’t do too much networking on how to be an ace at it during your next client shindig:

Party like a professional – Even at a party, whenever you interact with clients, project partners or colleagues you do so as a representative of your firm. Thus, its advisable to keep a close eye on how much you drink so you always keep your wits about you.  Work events are not a good time to cut loose.  You want to be memorable for your sparkling wit and charming personality, not for your ability to pass out sitting up or swing from a chandelier.

Dress to make your clients comfortable – Nobody wants to be the one person in shorts and flip flops at a black tie party.  Nor do you want to be the only one in a suit at a luau.  My rule of thumb is to pay attention to how my clients dress on a day to day basis, compare that against the dress code for the event, and dress accordingly.  That said, you’ll never be chastised for being just slightly better dressed than average but you might be for dressing down a bit more than is expected.  No matter what the dress code, as long as you’re covered from your shoulders to your knees, you’re probably 75% of the way toward professional.

Keep the conversation polite – Yeah I know. Even if you don’t like small talk, try at least. Avoid talking about religion and/or politics.  Don’t swear. Don’t complain about your work, your clients, your colleagues or your competitors.  I find it helps to focus more on being interested in what others have to say than in trying to be interesting yourself.   Usually safe topics are your kids/pets,  vacation plans, hobbies, cool projects you’re working on our interesting changes in how business is getting done these days.

Be inclusive – Everybody gets shy now and then and most people, upon entering a networking event, aren’t sure who to talk to.  Look around for people who are standing by themselves and introduce yourself.  If they’ve just arrived, introduce them to someone you think they might enjoy talking to. If you’re engaged in a conversation and someone is hanging around at the edge of your group, widen your circle to invite them in and catch them up on what you’re talking about so they can join the discussion.  If you don’t know anybody, walk up to someone, chat a while, then let them know you’re new here and ask them to introduce you to someone new and offer to do the same for them.

Exit conversations gracefully – Don’t be “that guy” at networking events who walks from person to person handing out and collecting business cards then moving quickly onward.  If your conversation is not productive or you’re running out of things to say, let the person know you enjoyed meeting them and excuse yourself to get a drink or “powder your nose” or greet a guest who has just arrived.  If you’re talking solo to someone, try to introduce them to someone new and let that conversation start before you exit so they’re not left standing alone.  When in doubt, pay attention to how others exit smoothly and follow their example.

Networking is like anything else.  Practice makes perfect.  Even if you don’t love it, you’ll probably get to like it.  Give it a try.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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