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Market Research Strategies in Uncertain Times #4: Client Research - The Secret to Turning Prospects into Clients

If you carry on a dialog from an informed position, you will project confidence and immediately earn a position of trust.

By Frances Gretes
October 14, 2009


Editor’s note: This is the fourth in an exclusive series by industry research specialist Fran Gretes.

 

No matter how talented an architect you are or how many leads you pursue, you will have a tough time winning new work unless you thoroughly understand your prospective clients and can shed light on their needs. Your primary goal should not be to win new projects, but to turn prospects into clients who will continue to work with you. By discovering the keys to their motivations, preferences, and modi operandi, you will be able to respond more effectively to them and optimize the value of your services.

 

Client relationships are built on trust and the best way to establish trust is to demonstrate that you understand and care. By showing unique insights into their industry or situation and introducing talking points that help to harmonize thinking, you engage your prospect and establish rapport.

 

Research will help you find the motivations and develop the insights. Although most firms conduct some form of research before they meet a client or submit a proposal, it is usually done sketchily as an afterthought. Unfortunately many firms analyze the purchase of a new office printer more diligently than a prospective client. Charm, talent, or exciting graphics will get you only so far in a presentation or proposal. If the interaction with your prospect is not research-based and client-focused, you will have a tough time competing.

 

To derive the most benefit you should prepare – and continually build upon – a client profile that answers the questions “who,” “what,” and “why.” Only then can you prepare your tactical responses – the “how.” Remember that every client is unique. The more you understand how they think and what they really want, the easier it will be to plan an honest, targeted approach that captures their attention and makes them want to work with you. If you possess this knowledge you have the advantage. If you do not, you will probably lose to your competition that has done their homework.

 

“Who” is your prospect? To become knowledgeable about an organization and contribute a point of view you need to research the industry, ranking, financial health, reputation, culture, size, structure, trends, competition, and other topics. Also essential is knowing who the individuals involved in the selection (procurement) process are: evaluators, decision-makers, stakeholders, and other influencers? In addition to their names, you should try to uncover: titles, areas of responsibility, level/type of influence or decision-making (weak, decisive?), key characteristics (pragmatic, visionary?), age, gender, technical proficiencies, favorite topics, personal agendas, professional and social networks, needs, expectations, level of understanding of the architecture process, and relationships with other architects, etc. Keep in mind that public and private personas are often quite different and behaviors are affected by group dynamics.

 

For some people the priority is the product (quality design), but for others it is schedule or cost. Also, some clients may not be experienced in working with architects and do not understand the process, while others are used to working only with their friends. Although this information is usually difficult to find out, it is extremely important in influencing the outcome.

 

“What” do they need? The client’s needs are not always stated in the Requests for Proposals (RFP) and often change during the design process. It is up to you to determine what they think they need, what they really want, and what they really need. Do they really need a new facility or can they upgrade what they have? Is their budget realistic? Does the program fit the site? The greatest value you give to your clients is your expertise in analyzing their issues and crystallizing their real objectives.

 

“Why” are they planning construction and why should they talk to you? Organizations may be contacting architects because they are expanding, merging, or downsizing; responding to industry trends or regulatory changes; re-branding; repositioning; or trying to attract donors or talented employees, for example. What are the “hot buttons”: image, quality of design, budget, keeping up with the competition, marketability, lifestyle changes, environment, philanthropy&hellip? Why did they contact you, who else are they considering, and why? You need to be aware of what has transpired regarding this project prior to your initial contact.

 

You also want to pay special attention to protocol. This word, applying to diplomatic formalities and various codes of etiquette, is derived from two Greek words meaning: “the first sheet glued onto a manuscript.” It should also be the first page of your client profile, particularly when working abroad. Websites such as International Business Etiquette and Manners and Kwintessential will help you impress prospects with your good manners and understanding of their culture.

 

If your prospect proves to be a good match for your firm based on the profile you have constructed and your firm’s strengths, capabilities, and goals, you are then able to prepare customized responses to each interest, desire, and characteristic. Thorough research will help you anticipate and address the multiple agendas that may be involved.

 

Resources for researching your potential client are endless and can be found online, on bookshelves, and through personal contacts. You should conduct research using all (legitimate and ethical) means available.

 

Begin with the prospect’s business or personal website if one exists. Intelligent sleuthing through specialized websites; published mentions in news, professional, ethnic, or alumni publications; and social networks will further expand the profile by unveiling personal characteristics as well as family, social, and business connections. Among the best ways to obtain information and establish linkages is to find out memberships on boards or other involvement at corporations, universities, and philanthropies; attendance at events; hobbies, interests, and litigation. Brief biographies may appear on corporate or organization sites or conference sites where the client has presented as a speaker. If you look at the press releases announcing changes in personnel, you will find helpful clues. LinkedIn, FaceBook, Twitter, blogs, and other social media sites are also rich sources of personal data. Caveat: Verify by cross-checking whatever you find because the information is frequently incorrect, out-of-date, or misleading.

 

A very interesting strategy is to create matrices or “maps of influence” that connect people and characteristics. Sources such as Muckety.com, Knowledge Maps of Market Visual, and The Directors’ Database of Corporate Board Members are useful for high-profile clients.

 

A credit report should be obtained whenever possible. Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) has the largest database of credit histories, but because it is a self-reporting service, the data is not totally accurate. Virtual Librarian offers a quick list of other credit report services. A fee is involved with each.

 

Also, you should always check out the financial health of your prospect. Financial data for public companies may be found on their websites, in earnings reports sent out as press releases, or in SEC filings. The 10-K report usually includes brief notes on top management and business strategies. There are similar reporting services for international companies, but you can begin by looking at aggregators like Kompass and Skyminder. Revenues, endowments, capital funds, etc. for private companies and institutions are sometimes announced through the media, organization, or professional association newsletters. Rankings often include reported revenues.

 

Virtual Chase posts an excellent annotated guide to finding vital records, civil and criminal records, phone directories, and much more.

 

Don’t forget to use the public library. Most offer free access to hundreds of specialized print and electronic directories and databases on companies, institutions, associations, and individuals.

 

Finally, apply the techniques of Journalism 101. Develop a list of tactful but substantive questions and talk with contacts that may include current and former employees, donors, professors, vendors, colleagues, customers, students, administrative staff, your prospect’s clients, neighbors, and others. Your prospects may be sensitive to your “investigation” if they become aware of it, but they should not be surprised because they likely are conducting their own due diligence on you. In any case, always be discreet and honest in your inquiries. Also, don’t be shy about asking your prospect some questions directly as part of your fact finding.

 

If you carry on a dialog from an informed position, you will project confidence and immediately earn a position of trust.

 

There is no blueprint on how to get the information you need because every client is different. Also, realize that often there may not be a lot of information on all of your prospects because they may be extremely private or obscure. To save time and achieve better results, you should hire consultants experienced in client research. For those firms that want to conduct their own research, here are some helpful guides:

 

Hetherington, Cynthia. Business Background Investigations. BRB Publications, Inc. 2007.

 

Houston, Brant. The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook; a Guide to Documents, Databases and Techniques. Boston: Bedford Books. Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. 5th ed. 2009.

 

King, Dennis. Get the Facts on Anyone. New York: MacMillan. 3rd ed. 1999. Most of the sources he mentions are now online, but the methodology is excellent.

 

 

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 info@gretesresearch.com.

 

See also:

 

Market Research Strategies in Uncertain Times #3: Strategic Market Research - Preparing for the Rebound 
Are you ready for the rebound? Whether you are a sole practitioner or principal in a large firm, now is the time to sketch out your blueprint of where you are and where you want to go. The mechanism for determining these positions is the strategic plan.

 

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.

 

Market Research Strategies in Uncertain Times #1: Now More Than Ever 
Why market research is so critical to a firm's success.



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