Our firm celebrates its 18th anniversary this year. We have had our ups and downs, but on balance we have been happy with our performance. We do good work, have a lot of repeat clients, and don’t lose many employees to competitors. We pride ourselves in having an active professional development program for staff and have been investing in technology on a regular basis to remain current.
We recently completed a formal strategic planning process for the first time in several years that included a self assessment of our firm’s strengths and weaknesses. Our major weaknesses seem to fall primarily in the area of marketing. Besides our repeat client work, we mostly react to leads and RFPs that fall in our lap. It is the consensus of our planning group that we need to be putting more time, effort, and attention into marketing. What does "more" look like?
Marketing is one of four basic operating components common to all organizations. Finance and administration, human relations, and the actual professional services you offer your clients are the other three. Think of each of these components as links forming a chain. Over time, an organization’s ultimate success will not be determined by the strongest link, but rather limited by the strength of the weakest link.
Hopefully, part of the strategic planning process involved thorough consideration of your circumstances, study of trends among your clients and competitors, discussion of the pros and cons of various options, and creation of a clear vision of what you wish your firm to look like a couple of years hence. Along with the three other components, marketing must develop and fulfill a series of specific initiatives and activities that move the firm toward accomplishing this vision. These actions become the core of a marketing plan. Since each of the four components of your practice are linked, plans for each area need to be coordinated and synchronized with the other areas.
To begin elevating the importance of marketing, someone has to accept ultimate responsibility to see that it occurs. Marketing needs a champion in a position of sufficient authority to make sure the process stays in motion and receives proper attention and resources. In smaller firms, it is often a part-time job led by a principal who may or may not have support from others. As firms get larger, dedicated marketing administrative staff is often added to assist the principal in charge. At the largest firms, marketing directors are often trained marketing professionals who may or may not be technical professionals but who lead the process and report to management.
Good marketing requires two-thirds listening and one-third talking. The primary responsibility of marketing is to gather and manage knowledge and information that is relevant to the current and future direction of the markets, services, and geographies the company has elected to pursue. A firm puts that gathered intelligence to work to create advantages that help it compete and obtain its goals. This information needs to be shared routinely across the entire organizational chain. What is learned from the marketing process often helps to shape the direction and plans of the other components of the organization. Managing this knowledge has become easier with the advent of database and marketing software—products that are specifically designed and formatted for use by consulting firms.
Marketing is also used to inform and educate your intended marketplace of who you are and why you are different from firms competing against you. This can’t possibly be accomplished effectively without first listening so that you can tune your message to the intended market-specific interests. Additionally, tailor a set of initiatives and tactics to keep in touch and maintain relationships with existing clients. Firms use numerous tools and techniques to accomplish this such as surveys, personal visits, brochures, blogs, websites, trade shows, et cetera. Remember this: A firm will never be better than the quality of its client base. A firm saddled with marginal clients will be limited in what it will ultimately accomplish as an organization.
It is typical for those involved with marketing also to manage and participate in the selling end of the process. Tracking leads, scheduling sales calls, writing proposals, finding suitable firms for partnerships when necessary, and organizing rehearsals for key presentations are just a few of the basic selling tasks commonly associated with a well-organized marketing operation. Getting the wholehearted participation and support from all staff in the organization is important. Train employees until it becomes second nature for everyone to keep eyes and ears open for opportunities.
Marketing activities should be budgeted and tracked like any other significant project. Develop specific goals and expectations to help measure and evaluate the effectiveness of the program over time. Marketing is not cheap. According to numerous industry surveys, spending can be as great as 10 percent of a firm’s annual billings. This includes the payroll associated with time spent on marketing and sales activities along with the out-of-pocket cost for marketing materials, travel, websites, entertainment, and other related expenses. Try to keep the mix of what is spent at 70-percent payroll and 30-percent non-payroll. Professional service marketing is more time-intensive than it is material-dependant.
Finally, marketing is a process that develops a certain momentum when continuously applied over long periods of time. The amount of time and effort directed toward marketing activities should not fluctuate with current firm workload. Pick a consistent level of effort that is appropriate to support the firm’s long-term vision—and then stick with it.
David Wahby is president of Wahby & Associates (www.wahby.com), a management consulting firm serving A/E clients. He can be reached at 616-977-9756 or via e-mail at email@example.com. Get answers about design firm and project management, finances, marketing, and related topics by sending your questions to Q&A, c/o: CE News, 330 N. Wabash, Suite 2525, Chicago, IL 60611, or by faxing them to CE News at 312-628-5878. Include your name and telephone number in all correspondence. Your name will not be used in connection with published questions.