Marketing, Relationship Building and the Technical Product

Many engineers, architects and other AEC technical professionals simply don’t understand how the marketing function really operates, nor do they instinctively grasp the importance of relationship building to a professional services firm. These people need the kind of insight that the following cautionary tale provides.

The managing principal of a small civil engineering firm had worked hard to cultivate his relationship with a municipal client planning a major transportation project. It was the kind of project that the firm had completed successfully before, and it was also of sufficient size to nearly carry the firm for at least a year, maybe two.

He knew the project was coming because he’d worked on a similar stretch of this state route adjacent to the project site. The need to redo the roadway was clear, and it was the only remaining stretch of this particular corridor that had not been reconstructed in recent years. This project would surely qualify for federal and state funding at some point, probably sooner rather than later.

When an old friend with the municipality contacted this principal to let him know that they were planning to pursue the project, the principal immediately began priming the pump.

He contacted relevant board members and sent a marketing package to all stakeholders to illustrate the firm’s experience and qualifications. He scheduled and delivered a presentation on the government funding mechanism that would finance the project. He later gave another presentation on the technical challenges of the project and how his firm would tackle them. Both presentations were rich in illustrations stressing key points that would drive the design process — safety and efficiency issues that the laymen decision-makers could relate to and understand.

When the community decided that it would invest a relatively small sum on a justification report/traffic report to get the ball rolling, this principal wowed the town’s leaders with yet another informative, provocative presentation. Where the two other consultants invited to present did just enough to get by, this principal threw everything he had into the presentation, differentiating his firm in the process.

The firm easily won the initial project. Now all they needed to do was impress the town with a stellar first-phase report to ensure government funding and this project – worth possibly $20 million in construction – would help this firm ride out the recession.

He handed this simple project off to his 30-plus-year senior transportation engineer, with whom he had shared his vision throughout the process, and gave explicit instructions to do an A-plus job. He monitored the report’s progress with occasional check-ins and meetings.

Before continuing, you should know that the municipality dragged its feet for a couple of weeks before committing to the initial project, making an already compressed deliverable schedule extremely tight. This did not help with the planning or review of the deliverable and gives a measure of slack to the senior engineer.

Be that as it may, when the principal initially read the project report draft, he was disappointed to find that all the added attention and extra miles that were the hallmark of his pitches to the town boards were absent. At the very moment that he rose from his desk to walk over and deliver his critique to the senior engineer, an e-mail popped into his Outlook in-box – it was the primary contact at the municipality expressing similar disappointment with the report.

The senior engineer had already submitted the report for review, as the schedule dictated. The principal’s first thought was, “All that time and effort, wasted.”

Technically accurate as it was, the report lacked the big-picture view that the town appreciated during the courting phase of the process. Ultimately, the key to unlocking state and federal money for this project was the articulation of the need to upgrade the roadway for safety and efficiency reasons. The need was acute and obvious, but you wouldn’t know it from this report.

This kind of situation is common in the AEC industry. A principal or marketing professional does all the right things to create and build a relationship, turning a target into a client. Only to have the rug pulled out from under him or her because of a sub-par technical product or surly project manager who can’t seem to understand the importance of good client relationships.

When you have to work your tail off to win a client over, and you let that client down by failing to deliver on your promises, your chances of winning them back are almost nil.

How can you prevent this from happening in your firm? The easiest way is to hire people who “get it” – who understand the importance of treating client relationships like the precious currency they are. Some call it an “ownership mentality.”

Since you can’t always find these people to fill project management or other technical roles, the other option is to clearly communicate with your staff how the process works and, more importantly, how it affects them. The senior engineer who delivered the report probably thought it was fine – it was technically correct, free of major formatting or grammatical errors and contained enough evidence scattered throughout its pages to provide the town with the justification it needed for the project.

What the engineer failed to comprehend was that the report didn’t tell a story – a compelling story that would win its readers over, making a convincing case that this project was a priority among priorities. The report also wasn’t visually impressive; it was, in fact, drab. It failed in all the ways that the principal’s earlier presentations succeeded.

Technically, it was right on the money. Even the client said so, as disappointed as he was with the product. But the disparity between the principal’s impressive display of technical and political insight and the bland, basic report could leave the town’s leaders with the mistaken belief that this firm is all flash and no camera.

As a result, this critical anchor project that the principal could almost taste is now likely lost. Sure, he subsequently worked with the senior engineer to revise the report and resubmit it with some of the flair and punch the first submittal lacked. And he can try to pull the project out of the fire by re-injecting himself into the process (to the extent his busy schedule allows). But to this particular client, the memory of being let down is likely to linger into the next phase as the town decides who gets to design the major project.

You may think your people realize how much work goes into building a client relationship or how easy it is to destroy that good will; it seems so obvious to you. Can’t they see that every AEC firm relies on this kind of relationship marketing to get the work the technical staff performs? As this principal found out the hard way, that’s an assumption you can’t afford to make.

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