Achieving Long-term Results in a Short-term World

The latest data continues to reinforce a troubling trend – firms are spending less on longer term investments while becoming increasingly mired in short-term demands. Our research team is now collecting over 2.2 million data points on nearly every aspect of an AEC firm you can imagine. It provides a great opportunity to understand how the industry is trending and for firms to benchmark themselves against their peers, enabling them to measurably elevate their practices and results. We are now in the third year of a notable shift in several key statistics that reflect the challenges of managing today’s AEC firm. Add it all up and it provides an obvious conclusion – the industry is busy and the challenges of managing growth and profitability are increasing. Here are some things you can do today to combat the industry trends, maintaining the long-term health of your firm and honing your competitive advantage.

Focus on client experience – While the industry is becoming increasingly aware of this critical business strategy, many are doing worse than ever, according to the data. The experience of your client directly affects your bottom line and must be a great priority. Brand loyalty provides pricing power, yet if we do not carefully manage the client experience, we lose ground in our fight against commoditization. Zweig Group conducts third party client satisfaction surveys and in those surveys of your clients, we are seeing declining satisfaction scores, especially in the areas of accessibility and responsiveness. When I ask audiences in our training sessions why this is, they are quick to answer, “It is because we are too busy.”

High workload is causing many to focus on putting out the fires and thus preventing project and client managers from focusing on the needs of the client. Be careful that your flexible work practices are not eroding the client experience. Accessibility and responsiveness can be greatly affected by these policies so firms must design programs that balance employee perks while maintaining strong client service. Commit to a regular client satisfaction survey and then address every issue that comes out of the data. Asking your clients to do a survey and then not doing anything about the feedback is worse than if you never asked at all. There is a huge opportunity for firms to shine here, differentiating their services and positioning their firms to be very strong in any future economic conditions. To learn more about this or to discuss your own challenges here, feel free to contact me directly.

Spend more on marketing and business development activities – Declining investment here for three years and counting is one of my greatest concerns. The continual decrease in proportion of marketing staff to the rest of the firm is one of the best indicators we are losing long-term focus. Now is the time to be investing in more marketing and business development resources to build backlog and brand preference in a more competitive economic time. Train all your employees in business development and empower them to start finding more work now, work that will fill the pipeline for the future. Hire more creative marketing staff to work on the real marketing and branding tasks like the website, social media, and other awareness activities that will make your company a preferred choice. This is critical to do now, when times are good, so when your clients have fewer dollars to spend they spend those dollars with your firm. For more resources on how you can invest with high returns, contact Jen Newman, our managing director of marketing and business development strategies. She can be reached at jnewman@zweiggroup.com or 904-502-9999.

Deal with problematic employees – This is a particularly difficult area to address as the data is less concrete. Much of the concern here comes from feedback hidden deep in surveys, especially in the comments section, combined with the face-to-face interviews we conduct with key personnel. Overall, the stories and the data together are sending a clear message – firms are not dealing with problematic employees at the risk of losing capacity. This is one of the most difficult areas to navigate, yet produces some of the most dramatic benefits when dealt with appropriately. Partner separations and other employee terminations because of chronic bad attitudes, cultural toxicity, and other destructive behaviors, are sometimes critical to preserving the culture and protecting the brand. If you have an issue here, do not delay action another day. Take it from us, many times both parties are happier in the end. If you have an issue here that you would like to discuss, reach out to me anytime.

Commit to continuous learning firm-wide – The number one benefit valued by the staff of AEC firms for the past two years is training and development. This is supported by the overwhelming amount of data in our Best Firms To Work For survey indicating that employees believe they work for a great firm, and that this is due in large part to the training programs the firm provides. The unfortunate trend that has worsened in the last year is declining attendance at training seminars and decreased commitment to internal formalized training programs. Get serious about this and you can greatly improve your recruiting and retaining of key staff, combating the number one challenge for all firms. We have increased our investments in this area, expanding our leadership with the hiring of Marci Thompson and our ability to provide more programs as in-house options. If you would like to learn more about training program options for your firm, Marci can help you design a custom solution that’s right for you. She can be contacted at mthompson@zweiggroup.com or 202-725-4871.

I recognize the challenge of committing resources to even the few things listed above. However, you must find a way to make it happen. Many of the recommendations require concurrent or consecutive execution to realize the full benefits possible, making the challenge even greater. The value of maintaining long-term focus in this short-term environment cannot be understated. Your firm can increase your competitive advantage at a time when the industry is lowering the bar. You can become bigger, better, and stronger today, enabling you to be resilient in any conditions of tomorrow. Despite short-term issues eroding long-term focus industry-wide, you can beat the metrics and be the contrary example. If you have questions, are having similar issues, or want to share your own story, reach out to me anytime.


Chad Clinehens, P.E., is Zweig Group’s president and CEO. Contact him at cclinehens@zweiggroup.com.

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