The unprecedented global economic slowdown is affecting virtually every country, market, and service offering. While you can’t avoid it, you can’t afford to stand by and ignore it either. The Obama administration’s $790 billion economic stimulus package will surely help. In addition, some states are proposing their own economic stimulus packages. But to survive and thrive, engineering, architectural, and construction firm leaders will have to develop plans that should include a delicate balance of controlling costs while increasing visibility in the marketplace.
That was the recurring theme recently expressed by several of the A/E/C industry’s chief executives and marketing professionals from around the country. This is not the first economic downturn that we have experienced, and it will not be the last. Firms that have survived previous recessions have emerged leaner, stronger, and better. Two overriding "lessons learned" were to stay positive and to do everything you can to keep your firm’s name in front of clients and prospects.
Following are eight more specific ideas that your firm can use to survive and thrive in the current economic downturn:
1) Get everyone in the firm to contribute and to cross-sell your services. Whether it be enacting cost-cutting measures, offering greater client service, or bringing in new business, it’s clear that everyone in the organization is going to have to contribute. Paul Schmidt, P.E., vice president with URS concurs. "Our marketing strength lies in our ability to emphasize cross marketing of our services among disciplines," he said. "Providing additional services to the same client offers them economies of scale and added value. We do not see a major shift in our marketing strategies, but we do see a rising importance of all employees’ participation, especially in the marketing and business development process."
2) Tweak operations to peak efficiency levels. Look for ways to be more efficient, to do more with less, and to improve your processes. Luke Ebersold, CPA, construction industry partner with Connecticut-based Blum Shapiro accountants and management consultants, commented, "Often you find that when times are good, no one really spends time figuring out why. When times are bad, though, a company needs to review all of its processes to become more efficient."
Apply best practices, reorganize, and refocus if necessary. Short-term quick fixes—such as layoffs—should be used cautiously. Ted von Rosenvinge, founding principal of Connecticut-based GeoDesign, explained his point of view. "We have refocused and stepped up our marketing efforts in concert with our strategic plan, but we are also looking at ways to leverage our technical staff via tactical use of support staff to make us more efficient."
3) Be adaptable and versatile. Listening to and learning about clients’ needs and project opportunities should be top priority because they also are trying to survive in this tough economy. Be ready to adapt to these needs and assist them with their survival strategies. Linda Mastaglio, principal, Thoughts, Words & Images, a public relations firm based in Texas, added, "Smart firms adapt, let go of strategies and systems that have lost their impact, and embrace new ways of thinking and behaving."
This may involve diversifying your geographic territory, your service offerings, or the markets you serve. Continue to invest in training staff in terms of technical skills, but consider adding client relations, public speaking, and writing to the mix. Wendy Burke, vice president of client development at Linbeck based in Houston, said, "We are investing in staff development, we are focusing even more on marketing, and we are spending as much or more on marketing than in the past. We’re also looking at other geographic markets and considering adding new services to our mix. We’ll transform as needed to keep up with the changing demands."
Rick Holshouser, vice president of corporate development for the automotive-energy-transportation sectors for S&ME in North Carolina, reported, "S&ME has recently completed its five-year strategic plan. From this plan, a business development advisory group was formed to recommend the markets that S&ME should pursue, the specific clients to target, the geographic areas that merit exploring, and any changes in personnel or support."
4) Become actively involved in key professional and industry associations. Involvement in professional associations arms you with vital information on the market and clients, as well as establishes an active, connected network. Simply attending the meetings can be a great benefit. As Patricia Quinn, business development representative from Connecticut-based Petra Construction Corporation put it, "It can take you six-weeks’ worth of phone calls and visits to achieve what can be gained by attending one industry meeting." When you add to it volunteering on committees to support the organization’s mission, sponsoring events, and speaking at programs, you are positioning yourself to be a thought-leader on the topic and the first one that comes to mind when such services are needed.
5) Create opportunities for personal contact and cultivate trusted business relationships. It’s good to use electronic tools to maintain contact, but look for ways to meet face-to-face with clients and prospects. "Creating opportunities to establish personal contact is very important," offered Kelley Johnson, a Massachusetts business development consultant. "Participation in professional organizations, hosting a booth at select trade shows, and speaking at conferences establishes professional credentials [and] are great ways to position yourself to talk directly to clients right at the event. But it also opens the door to set up a one-on-one appointment to discuss a potential project in more detail."
Mary Beth Morris, P.E., marketing director for Tighe & Bond, also in Massachusetts, agrees. "We host our own seminars and invite existing and target clients [to increase our face-time]," she said.
6) Write educational articles for industry and business publications. This is one of the least tapped tools to position you and your firm as a trusted advisor. If you don’t have time to write the article or don’t know how to pitch the idea to the various publications, hire a consultant. He or she can help come up with an appropriate angle for the story, interview you, then draft an article with your byline that you can edit to make your own. This type of effort recently helped one of my engineering clients secure a large project. During the client interview, the engineers were able to show a freshly published technical journal article that they authored and that directly answered the selection panel’s question.
Paul Hoffman, owner and CEO of Hoffman LLC in Wisconsin reported, "We have been increasing our efforts to publish articles that demonstrate our depth of knowledge, thereby growing our credibility and increasing our brand recognition. By maintaining the top-of-mind awareness of our firm, we demonstrate that we’re the technical experts, rather than just a service provider."
7) Maintain contact with clients and prospects even if they have no immediate work. Eventually, companies will start to rise from this economic slowdown, and you want to be immediately positioned to help them when they are ready to contract out a design or construction project. Nearly every firm leader interviewed said they would be spending more time and money on marketing at this time. Much of it will be done through speaking engagements, feature article writing, client service enhancements, sponsorship of professional association activities, and client entertainment. A recent poll conducted by the Society for Marketing Professional Services found that 30 percent of the respondents spend 10 percent or more of the marketing budget on client entertainment, the highest percentage named for any one category. Whatever marketing tools you use, be sure to maintain a consistent message to your target markets.
8) Go overboard on client service. Stay on top of your game. Don’t give competitors an opportunity to step in. Ken Blanchard’s book, Raving Fans, does a great job of explaining ways to keep clients committed to your firm for the long haul. "We are known for our client service," explained Susan Labas, senior associate and director of marketing for van Zelm Engineers based in Connecticut. "But in these times, we are going to be paying particular attention to it and are approaching it in a very collaborative way, including architects as well as owners."
Surviving and thriving in a slow economy is challenging, but we are not blazing totally new trails. The strategies shared in this article are sound and proven ways to keep your company healthy during lean times while positioning it to emerge even stronger when business picks up.
Theresa M. Casey, FSMPS, CPSM, is founding principal of On Target Marketing & Communications, based in Columbia, Conn. The firm specializes in the engineering, architectural, construction, accounting, and legal industries. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 860-228-0163.