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Market Research Strategies in Uncertain Times #2: Finding Leads
Finding leads that one can act on right away is a difficult task, especially during tough economic times, but these strategies can help.
By Frances Gretes
July 9, 2009
Editor’s note: This is the second in an exclusive series by industry research specialist Fran Gretes.
The most frequent question architects ask these days is: How can I get new business? In a desperate effort to keep their studio doors open, they are chasing every lead and responding to every request for proposal (RFP) without examining the “who, what, where, and why.” Finding leads that one can act on right away is a difficult task, especially during tough economic times, but the strategies discussed here can help. Long-term planning for new business and investigation of potential clients will be addressed in future articles.
Lead-finding services and websites that publish RFPs are important to track, but in tandem with other actions such as deep diving, reading subtext, skillful recognition of opportunities, and development of clues into real prospects.
Among the drawbacks to using only services and sites that announce RFPs are: 1) Everyone is using them and chasing the same projects. 2) Sometimes RFPs are published by mandate, but a favorite architect has already been pre-selected. 3) By the time RFPs are published, it is usually too late to develop a relationship with the potential client. 4) Published RFPs are usually for public projects only. 5) Without research, a strategic plan that establishes parameters, and a clear go/no go policy, firms are tempted to go after far too many leads.
Swamping the marketplace with boilerplate proposals just to be “in the game” is not the answer. Try a new approach. Play detective when you search for leads, be creative in the way you apply the information that you gather, and follow up consistently and with determination. If you target fewer and identify better suited prospects, you will have time to customize your proposals and have a better chance at winning.
By slipping into a new mindset that involves research and critical thinking, your success rate will soar. Before you begin: Segment your markets (education, healthcare, developers, etc.), establish parameters of what you think you are capable of handling (size, cost, location, etc.), and devote a certain amount of time each day for lead finding and investigation. You may be surprised if you think about where you currently get most of your information from and how you keep current. You may need to widen your world.
Steps to Finding Leads: Explore – Associate – Question – Eliminate
Exploration beyond the boundaries of architecture allows you to see the larger picture. Making unlikely associations and connecting dots enable you to see ideas in a new context. By asking questions such as “why,” “what if,” “so what,” and “should we” at various stages of your searches, you will contain the research within the scope of your goals, capture what is significant, and eliminate what is superfluous. Architects apply these critical thinking skills when they design a project, but they may not use them when looking for new business. By applying these actions to the proven search strategies listed below you can protect yourself from being overwhelmed by huge quantities of distracting information and will recognize the “cream that rises to the top.”
Since lead-finding is so time-consuming, try to generate lead streams by setting up alerts, subscribing to specialized newsletters and talking with people who are well informed. These strategies are recommended:
· Set up news alerts using strategically chosen keywords. Various websites offer this service for free, with Google being the best known and having the broadest reach, but they are limited. Serious lead trackers should consider also setting up alerts in Factiva® or Nexis®, subscription-based services that retrieve full-text news from thousands of sources worldwide. The quality of your results will depend on the precision or cleverness of the search terms you choose with any of these services.
· Subscribe to mailing lists to receive newsletters related to your markets. Most are free, but some may be worth the subscription fee. You can sign up at websites of associations, companies, government, tourist or economic development boards, universities, and news bureaus.
· Bookmark and scan sites that publish upcoming RFPs or competitions. FedBizOpps may be the best known, and now the most heavily searched because of the surge in public procurement, but it is only one of hundreds. Whenever offered, sign up to have announcements automatically sent to you. You must track routinely.
· Seek out and be receptive to ideas from many disciplines – especially those that influence your target markets. Be alert to political, social, economic, environmental, business, and scientific trends because they provide early clues to changes affecting the built environment. Read and listen to: newspapers; trade publications; other business-focused publications; general news periodicals; reports or newsletters from think tanks and universities; specialized publications in the sciences, economics, or the arts; and broadcast media, both national and local news. ArchNewsNow is highly recommended as a quick filter for the latest design news and competitions. Although leads are not the focus here, the articles are intelligently selected from international sources to present only the most important news. To find out what sources people follow in a particular industry, refer to The Encyclopedia of Business Information Sources (published by Gale), which is available at most public libraries.
· Read deeply and between the lines. Leads are rarely obvious in the first paragraph of an article, but may be mentioned as an aside towards the end of an article. Also, journalists are trained to put news in context so they usually refer to a similar project, trend, or client somewhere in their articles. Clues to be alert to include such news as real estate transactions, changes in management, major donations to institutions, new campus master plans, mergers & acquisitions, changes in government leadership, demographic changes, widespread changes in lifestyles, layoffs, expansions, etc. Be open to new ideas – but also be cautious of the accuracy of sources and biases of writers.
· Read the in-house publications of your clients’ clients or consultants. If they are major players, you are likely to read about future projects or interviews with key decision makers. Market reports by real estate consultants are especially useful.
· Scan press releases. True, there is a lot of puffery in press releases, but you will still get an idea of what a company is doing or wants you to think they are doing. By comparing their announcements with what they are actually doing, you can detect changes in strategies. You will also find contact information for initiating your follow-up calls. Look for releases either on a company website or on wire services like BusinessWire in order to catch the news before it reaches the mainstream press.
· Take time to participate in the new social media. Blogs, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of online communication are often more than idle chatter. They are vehicles for transmitting news instantaneously and developing contacts. Clues (or news) about company changes may creep out from employees (or former employees or competitors) on their personal sites long before a company sends out an official press release.
· Read SEC filings of the companies you are most interested in. In particular, check the Management Discussion section found in the 10-Q (quarterly report) and 10-K (annual report) and the new events announced in the 8-K.
· Track capital budgets and endowments. Most websites of institutions or governments will reveal how much money is being budgeted or approved for future projects and how the capital campaigns are progressing. Sometimes the news is important enough to be summarized in the industry association or business press. The Chronicle of Higher Education is an excellent example of such a reporting outlet.
· Network, especially outside of your industry. Networking, as any business development expert will tell you, may be the best way to find new leads. This activity comprises industry immersion and attendance at events that your prospective client, opinion-shapers, and colleagues participate in such as conferences, workshops, and lead-swapping gatherings, but also calls and meetings that you initiate. Be sure to include thinkers, decision-makers, implementers, and interested citizens among the people that you should take time to speak with and actively listen to. These include industry experts, scientists, professors, campus and urban planners, facility managers, contractors, curators, students, sub-consultants, vendors, bankers, head hunters, real estate attorneys, brokers, secretaries, receptionists, employees, peers, family, friends, neighbors, etc. Community board meetings and chamber of commerce events are fertile ground for finding leads. The more you nurture your network, the more you will receive in return. Be aware, however, that, in addition to excellent opportunities for making new contacts and picking up leads, disinformation and “spin” are sometimes generated during networking encounters.
· Look around, pay attention, and follow up. Whether you walk through your neighborhood or travel abroad, observe carefully because you may pick up hints of supply and demand conditions or physical developments that you will want to research for opportunities. Look at a district or neighborhood the way an appraiser does – consider how the operation of social, economic, government, and environmental forces influence property values in an area and how this might attract a developer. Structures, such as armories or big-box stores, may be ripe for new uses or demolition; a block of vacancies may be a clue to assembly of properties for an upcoming sale (except during a recession when foreclosure is more likely!); changing cultures may be signs of impending gentrification; overcrowded facilities may indicate expansion plans are under discussion; changes in transportation patterns likely to affect future development, etc. Taking notice of buildings is instinctual to architects, but following up observations with research for use in new business may not be.
· Be adventurous. Do what no one else is doing, go where no one else is going, and target prospects that no one else is talking to. Your competition may not dig as deeply or expand their horizons as widely as you. This approach is risky and needs time to develop skill, but if you keep your eyes open and conduct intelligent research, many new doors will open for you.
When you find prospects that have potential, research them further until you can answer “who, what, where, why and how” and then:
· Create new information by adapting the information that you have found and what you have learned that others are doing or have tried to do.
· Meet with your prospect, confident and fully prepared.
Fran Gretes is founder and principal of Gretes Research Services, a full-service consultancy that provides market and competitive intelligence and strategic thinking skills to professionals engaged in services for the built environment. You can reach her at email@example.com.
Strategies in Uncertain Times
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