Rich Friedman talks branding at A/E Advisors CEO Roundtable

Posing the question, “What’s so special about your company?”, marketing strategy consultant Richard Friedman challenged the assembled AEC firm leaders to consider how their firms were truly different from competitors during a session at the recent A/E Advisors CEO Roundtable in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The key point in Friedman’s session is that every firm differentiator needs to pass the “So what?” litmus test — as in, if you recite the reasons your firm is better and the client thinks or says, “So What? How does that help me?”, your “differentiator” really isn’t one.

That came clear when Friedman asked the CEOs in the smaller-firm session (150 or fewer employees) what differentiated them from the competition. Many of the answers were the same as their competitors may have offered — great client service, responsiveness, repeat clientele, and so on. While these factors are important, Friedman noted, they are not true differentiators. Consider the comment about repeat clientele; since an estimated 80% of all AEC projects are for repeat clients, the satisfied customer angle doesn’t hold much water as a differentiator.

A few firms did have true differentiators. For example, an engineering firm CEO whose company focuses exclusively on airports explained that a high percentage of people in his firm — himself included — fly planes. So they are not only consultants to airports on runways and facilities, they are primary users!

Friedman cautioned that many firms seeking to communicate a differentiator will mistakenly focus on features of their firm (e.g., size, location, client satisfaction rate), rather than on the benefits they can provide to the customer (e.g., innovative project delivery, streamlined communications, specialized expertise).

A number of participants suggested that client surveys are a great way to learn how customers perceive your firm’s differentiators. A client survey can help a firm identify its “brand” as defined by customers and peers. The consensus was that this approach is most effective and efficient done over the phone by a third party interviewer.

Another technique that the CEOs liked was the strategy of debriefing a prospect after winning a project, not only after losing one. When you’ve won the project, the environment is likely to be much less tense and more amicable than when you’ve lost. You can find out not only what you did well and where you could improve, but also how your competition did in those areas.

Among the action plan items to come out of the session were:

* Recognize that your project delivery process can be a very compelling differentiator in a crowded playing field (e.g., how they communicate with clients, continually asking how they’re doing).

* Brainstorm your firm’s differentiators and value provided (in the context of the client’s needs) before every proposal.

* Structure your marketing and business development plans and implementation around client sectors, if possible.

Rich Friedman is managing principal of Friedman & Partners, a marketing and management consulting firm based in Massachusetts. The firm’s web site is http://www.friedmanpartners.com/.

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