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You Survived Part 2: Mapping the Path to your Next Project and a More Predictable Workload

It is essential to establish a specific, easy, and brief Go/No Go decision process, allowing you to quickly determine where to invest limited marketing resources.

By Michael Bernard, AIA, and Nancy Kleppel, Assoc. AIA
October 4, 2011

This is the second in an exclusive series of essentials to carry your firm through the recession, and on into a productive and successful future.


Once we have embraced the idea that growing a firm is possible, desirable, and, to some degree, something that can be deliberately addressed, it is only a short step to mapping out an effective marketing and business development program. Firm principals engage in Strategic Marketing to identify the markets in which they want to participate, developing new initiatives to pursue. Business Development is taking this information and getting out there with it, researching opportunities, cultivating relationships, and communicating firm objectives and accomplishments to a targeted audience.


Regardless of firm size, each employee has a different job description with respect to executing the marketing plan and everyone must be involved.


Principals set goals for bringing in new business and senior staff must participate in pursuing these endeavors. In larger firms this vision is maintained by the marketing staff and executed in collaboration with the technical staff. The marketing team develops the message and then must find the right forum for communicating firm expertise. In smaller firms everyone must wear all hats simultaneously.


Marketing and business development initiatives require daily deliberate, methodical, targeted, and consistent outreach efforts, which should be carefully tailored to the market sectors in which you work. In either a down or robust economy, there is a consistent need to allocate scarce time and resources to these efforts. The most successful endeavors are characterized not only by the adoption of a range of new tasks, but equally by a significant shift in attitude, recognizing that this is a part of everyone’s day-to-day responsibilities. It is essential to periodically step away from project work to map out the future for the firm. The greatest success is found when firms embrace marketing and business development as regular components of sustaining the firm, involving the full staff to carry the message forward. Specific tasks are guided by practicality and common sense, and good habits are easily fostered.


To begin, principals and marketing staff must develop a strategic understanding of the firm, its strengths and its distinguishing elements, bringing this knowledge to the surface. What are you good at? What is the nature of your expertise? What types of projects have historically comprised your portfolio? How do you distinguish your firm from your peers?


Firm leaders must articulate this information and then communicate it across the firm.


Goals, strengths, achievements, and recent initiatives must be disseminated internally, providing employees at all levels with a detailed and clear understanding of your firm’s marketing message and empowering them to regularly communicate this on their own. Staff must be trained to understand the attributes and subtleties of the firm, its competitive advantages and its mission, and they must also know how to recognize potential project opportunities in the earliest stages. Most importantly, everyone must communicate at the highest possible level and with a unified voice. In this way, everyone will be able to contribute to maintaining the optimal billable workload while simultaneously being engaged in achieving greater success for the whole firm.


The next step is to learn about the marketplace and potential clients therein, and then to go out to meet them. Engage in proactive research into your targeted market and review a broad selection of general business information in your community. Be curious and learn to connect the dots. Over time, a consistent approach will result in regularly occurring interactions with the largest possible group of potential clients, colleagues, and project stakeholders. A strategic marketing and business development plan will allow you to cultivate opportunities, to pursue specific projects, to leverage and promote built work. Full participation will have the added benefit of allowing younger staff members to foster relationships with junior managers on the client side, further strengthening your client relationships.


Comprehensive financial planning, as previously discussed, will allow you to project the amount of work, and the number and the mix of projects the firm will take on and accomplish over specified periods of time. This in turn creates goals for marketing and provides metrics for staffing, serving as a check against periodic progress overall. Firm principals and management should be aware of the volume of work required to maintain current staffing and the progress being made towards securing it. Strategy and tactics develop around this information and firm business planning evolves naturally, in an integrated fashion.


None of this should be done in isolation nor should the product be treated like secret information. Everyone in the firm should know the marketing objectives and the necessary steps to achieve them.


Competition: Part of planning is familiarity with your competition. Engage your staff in ongoing research about competitors to learn who is doing what in your professional community. Conduct a survey of who pursues the same kind of work you are doing, or the kind you might like to do, what they have to offer, and how you stack up against them. This is easy to do. Research competitors’ websites and publications, attend lectures, track projects awarded and who they go to, and try to draw some conclusions as to why. Once you have established a basic understanding of your market and your competitors, periodically, add more firms to the group with which you are familiar. Assign appropriate research responsibilities to staff at all levels. Over time you will develop a broad understanding of who is doing what, who you need to compete with, and how to do so.


Setting priorities: It is essential to establish a specific, easy, and brief Go/No Go decision process, allowing you to quickly determine where to invest limited marketing resources. Start by tracking and quantifying the cost of a typical proposal, in terms of staff time and direct cash expenditures, to determine the volume of proposals you can afford to produce each fiscal year. Understand that the cost of entering a new market, one in which your firm does not currently have a strong presence, can be considerably more than pursuing work in a familiar one. Establishing this presence could require twice the business development resources as pursuing work in a market in which you are already participating. This will help to determine whether your business development budget is adequate for the current market. Prioritize the specific projects you choose to go after and think carefully about those you ought to forego. At the same time, an understanding of the competition will allow you to ask appropriate questions to facilitate these decisions, referencing their strengths and experience, evaluating your relative position, and the likely value of a specific project to the firm’s overall business plan and strategy.


Once you have begun to establish your firm as a market driven organization, find ways to get involved earlier, developing a strategic understanding of where opportunities lie. For instance, if you learn about an RFP in the media, the contract has likely already been awarded. Rather than wait to hear about projects already underway, look for the places where transactions occur or for changes in the business environment that will necessitate design services. When buildings change hands or leases are signed there is almost always an adjacent pool of capital available for necessary improvements. Often it is right in the middle of the transaction, between an owner and a prospective tenant or a broker, and often it takes the shape of financing for improvements to building appearance or condition in anticipation of a sale. This is as true in good times as in bad. In addition, pay attention to changes in the local and regional regulatory environment. Often new regulations will require work to be done, and this can be tracked and marketed effectively.


While the business climate is constantly changing, there will always be a need for a structured and continuous approach to marketing and business development. We cannot anticipate what the future will hold, but it won’t be a symmetrical reflection of the past. Whatever it will be is so ill-defined that we have significant opportunity to map it out ourselves. In the absence of readily available work we need to create ways to get work, figure out new ways to use skills we already possess, and look at existing tools and media outlets, current relationships, and opportunities (electronic, human, or otherwise) that lead us to work. This may not land us a project immediately, but over time we will get closer to the work we need to survive.


In the meantime, ask yourself the following questions, which require thought and reflection. We evaluate our employees; why not evaluate ourselves and our practice?


1.      Identify the strengths in your practice (areas in which your firm excels):

a.      Design quality and identifiable “style”

b.      Design process

c.      Communications (Marketing, Business Development, Public Relations)

d.      Web presence

e.      Technical skill

f.        Quality Assurance/Quality Control

g.      Client relations and retention

h.      Staffing: Search, recruitment and interview strategies

i.        Staffing: Mentoring


2.      From the categories above, identify areas where improvements in practice can be made.


3.      Identify design practices that you consider to be your competition:

a.      What are their strengths?

b.      What are the similarities between your firm and theirs?

c.      What are the differences?

d.      What are the areas you see from your perspective where your competition could improve their performance?


4.      Market Sectors:

a.      Re-confirm which market sectors you want to pursue.

b.      Are these areas in which your competitors or peers also work? What makes your approach unique?

c.      How do other firms approach their work in comparable market sectors?


5.      Extracurricular activities that support or enhance business development:

a.      Memberships or participation on Boards where you are the only architect.

b.      Launching a blog on a special topic germane to your practice.

c.      Affiliation with professional and local organizations that expose the firm to business development activities.


Next: create an inventory (or database) of your clients, especially the golden ones. With whom do you want to make contact first? With which existing clients do you want to pursue work in other market sectors? Because this is a business proposition, your client may be delightfully surprised that you respect them enough to want to pursue other opportunities. If they are not, you have lost nothing.


For example: if your current market specialization is residential work, think about your top five clients. If the client is a couple, in what business or activity sphere does each person operate? Think beyond the project you have at hand and consider how you can break into other markets. If your client is a parent at a school, are there other parents at the school whom you could solicit for work? If the client is a leader or director in a financial investment company, can they make referrals or are they willing to discuss potential opportunities to collaborate?


At the very least, engaging clients in this manner will keep you moving in a constructive direction. Such an exercise helps to increase the ease with which we ask for – and pursue – new business.

This strategy is not navel-gazing. It is not desperate nor is it defeatist. It is survivalist. We can’t rely on the tried and true. We need to constantly seek engagement in new things, understanding what they mean to us. We shouldn’t be married to the way we have approached business, either out of tradition or as a default. Rather, we must be fully cognizant of the way that things change and be able to track, implement, and work with the changes as they occur; our perception of the value of our clients can help us move forward. We will address the continuous need for navigating change in the next You Survived, titled “Navigating Change.”


See also:

You Survived: Introduction: Your Firm Survived the Recession - Now Foster a Thriving a Practice.


You Survived: Part 1: Regaining Profitability - and Moving Ahead
Take control of the financial life of your business, uncover hidden revenue streams and new service offerings while charting a more stable course for the future.


About the authors:


Michael S. Bernard, AIA, Principal, Virtual Practice Consulting, serves as strategic adviser to design and construction firms. Since founding his consultancy in 2006, Michael has collaborated with firm owners to address the range of vital functions, including: development of revenue and growth models appropriate to the size of the firm; strategic business development and marketing; and mentoring of key staff to foster their development as effective project leaders. His clients also include landscape architects, interior designers, lighting designers and general contractors. Michael is adjunct professor in the Architecture Department at the California College of the Arts, San Francisco. He recently completed his term as a Director on the Board of the AIA California Council, where he continues to act as Architect-Adviser to the Academy for Emerging Professionals.


Nancy Kleppel, Assoc. AIA, Principal, Nancy Kleppel Consulting, has pursued a career in architecture for more than 25 years. Beginning in the office of William Rawn Associates, she went on to a professional architectural education at Harvard University’s GSD and spent several years in practice. For the past 15 years Nancy has been directly engaged in the essential issues that drive firm growth and success, including marketing, business development, and firm organization and management. In 2003, she founded a consulting practice, providing integrated strategic marketing, business development, and communications services to a broad mix of clients in design, architecture, engineering, and the arts.



(click on pictures to enlarge)

David R. Tribble