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Three Problems With Relationship-Based Business Development

If you talk to enough architects, you’ll quickly realize there’s a belief in the A/E/C world that relationships are the name of the game. Not that long ago, one respected marketing and business development consultant told me that 80% of new commissions come through relationships.

I don’t want to discount relationships. They’re important to us on a number of levels and, yes, if you run an architecture, engineering, or construction firm, a good portion of your work probably does come to you through some sort of relationship.

As a business development strategy though, you need to understand that things are changing.

First problem with relationships: They go away
It used to be that if you had a good relationship with the right person, all that client’s work flowed your way. In fact, when I was still working in architecture firms, I had a client who made all the facilities decisions for an extremely active and well-funded local organization. For almost 20 years he funneled all that organization’s work to us. Then he retired.

Your relationships are with human beings. They retire, change jobs, get promoted to different positions, basically experience some sort of change that makes that business development relationship less valuable to you. The relationships effectively go away.

Second problem with relationships: They’re just one person
It used to be that if you had a relationship with the right person, you could count on them to award the client’s or the prospect’s work to you. Today, decision making teams are getting bigger. There’s rarely one decision-maker. In fact, the average selection committee today is at least 6 people.

It’s not enough to have a relationship with one person. Now that your oldest, best client has a selection committee, your relationship with the Vice President isn’t enough. Your track record working with that client isn’t enough. There are 5 other people on the selection committee and that means that everyone you’re competing against may have a relationship with someone on the committee. In a simple vote, your relationship with one person on an ever-expanding selection committee loses.

Third problem with relationships: They make us lazy
Back when you had that relationship with the ultimate decision-maker, you could rely on them to advocate for you. They knew you, they’d worked with you, they trusted you and that was probably enough. Today, they’re not the ultimate decision-maker anymore and you haven’t equipped them with the tools they need to persuade the rest of the committee on your behalf.

Relationships are based on trust. In a one-to-one context that trust is usually built on experience over time. You don’t have that time anymore. Today, your clients and prospects learn about 70% of what they want to know about you before you even know they’re interested. What’s worse, you’re trying to gain the trust of a committee instead of the one person you’ve known for years. You can’t sit back and rely on that relationship to go in and carry the room. In a multiple-decision-maker world, where your prospects think you and all your competition looks the same, sounds the same and acts the same, you have to make yourself the clear choice and gain fast trust.

It’s up to you.
Keep building relationships. That still has to be part of your business development strategy. But go in with your eyes wide open. There are three keys to making the most of your business development relationships:

Have a clear message.
You need to clearly state what your convincing advantages are … the reasons why your prospects should choose you. Those advantages have to be clear enough (and stated enough) that those advocating relationships can repeat them just as easily as you can.

It’s not about you.
As experienced and qualified as you are, the decision-makers and selection committees are only interested in the firm that addresses their pains, threats, and fears. In order to gain fast trust, you have to demonstrate that you understand what’s keeping your prospects up at night and make your messaging all about them.

Have a conversation.
What it takes to get in the room is not the same as what it takes to win the room. That old-school relationship may have gotten you to the short-list interview, but now you’re in a room with 5 other people sitting, arms-crossed wondering why they should pick you.

You don’t know them; they don’t know you. Remember when you first met that person that’s now “your relationship”? It started with a conversation. Don’t talk about yourself like everyone else does. Win the room, and the project, by starting a conversation with them, about them. They’ll feel like you understand them, you’ll build fast-trust, and you’ll differentiate yourself from your competition.

Are you relying on old-school relationships or building fast-trust that differentiates your firm and makes you the clear choice for the right projects and the right fees?

If you don’t know how to answer that question, connect with me here on LinkedIn and let’s start winning the room.

A Year in Review: Great year. Did we set ourselves up for failure?

What a year! Congratulations to everyone in a professional services firm that just finished their best year ever. I count myself as blessed because so many of you, so many leaders of firms (whether accountants, or architects, or attorneys, or contractors, or engineers) shared feedback about your firm’s successes and struggles and what you see trending in the industry. Thank you for that.

As I look back at the year, there were certainly a few common threads that wove through most of the stories I heard.

Obviously, one of the common threads was that most everyone is very busy. Another was that many are also struggling to attract and/or retain the talent they need to get the work done. In a way, those two sentences could summarize the state of professional services industries today.

There’s another thread I’ve focused on quite a bit lately because it worries me… a lot.

Even though most of the firms I talked to are busy, maybe busier than they’ve ever been, there’s an underlying current that, if they’re willing to admit it, worries almost every one of them.

Here are a few notes I jotted down during conversations this year:

  • We’re busier than we’ve ever been, but we’re less profitable than we’ve ever been.
  • We’ve won more projects than ever before, but we submitted for a record number too. Our win percentage is actually down.
  • We’re so busy and we’re hurting on the talent side so much that we’ve put a hold on developing new business. I’m afraid not being able to perform will hurt us more than passing on a few projects.

I don’t want to dwell on the negative… it has been a great year, but these kinds of comments leave me wondering: How will you leverage this year’s success for even more in the coming year? I hope this year wasn’t the setup for a disaster to come.

Here are the two things I’d like you to weigh in on:

  1. If you were very busy, ever busier than ever this year, were you more profitable than you’ve ever been or have you been working harder for less margin?
  2. If you had more work than ever this year, were your win rates actually up?

My fear is that many professional services firms, while having a successful year, have simply been propped up on a very strong economy. I hope you’ll prove me wrong, but if I’m right…

If professional services firms aren’t getting better at winning, what will happen when the economy inevitably slows down and competition gets tighter?

We’re already seeing signs that things are slowing down.

A couple more notes I jotted down:

  • We just had a project post-mortem with a client we’ve worked with for 15 years. Everyone was thrilled. The next week we found out they were looking at different delivery methods and fee-shopping for their next project… The. Very. Next. Week!
  • We’re a $1.2 Billion company and 90 percent of our work comes from repeat clients and referrals. We have a team of 6 responsible for our business development, but they’ll all be gone in the next 8 years.

If you’re responsible for developing business in the professional services world, I’ll guarantee you’ll tell me it’s a relationship-driven industry… and you’ll be right.

Relationships are important. They need to be developed, maintained, and cherished. There’s a good chance you wear “90% of our work comes from repeat clients and referrals” on your best blazer like a gold star. You’ll insert your own number between 75 and 90, but everyone says it.

It’s great when there’s plenty of work going on and those relationships are paying off, but what happens when projects start to dry up? What happens when those relationships start to fee-shop or the people that maintain the relationships aren’t in your firm anymore?

I know you’re busy and I hope that continues for a long time. Congratulations on a successful year, but please, please make sure you work hard in the coming year to get better at winning more of the right work at the right fees. It’s the only way to avoid disaster when the economy slows, commoditization is magnified and irrelevance is the lens your clients and prospects see your services through.

Finding the Role of SEM in Your Business

The question is often asked by any size of business: “Where should I put my marketing dollars?” At least one of the answers should be SEM. SEM (Search Engine Marketing) in 2019 is almost a default effort that every business needs to employ to be successful in the digital space.

That is not to say that your business should go willy nilly into the world of SEM without a plan, a direction, a set of goals, and other KPIs to ensure that you are spending your money wisely. After all, to any business owner, every dollar is important. Ensuring that the money you are putting out into the ether is bringing money back in is of the utmost importance. Fortunately, through a good SEM campaign, you can more often than not rest assured that you will generate some ROI.

There are a slew of reasons why these efforts are important for any business, but not all will be relevant to your business. However, if you can find the solution and the reason that fits your needs, that is always a good start.

Immediacy: You can start a campaign right now and start getting results the next day! This isn’t always the best route, as there should be planning and discovery that goes into any marketing effort, but if you are looking to generate more traffic, gain more brand awareness, increase the number of leads in your funnel, and more, you can quickly generate a successful campaign (with proper planning) and get moving!

Brand AwarenessIn the realm of search, you can never be certain what your competitors are going to do. Outside of regularly checking your own brand name in searches, you can ensure you stay at the top of the results by bidding on your brand. Usually, the cost is low, because your name will have fewer searches and competition than most. Searchers will also see your name at the top of the list if you include it in the ad copy, increasing awareness and association with your product or service. It is always good to be front of mind to your users.

Search Intent: When using any SEM platforms, you are gaining data on what your users are searching for. You can look in detail at the search terms that are generating clicks and conversions for your ads, which in turn shows you the search terms that people are associating with your business. This can drive more marketing efforts through your site, from new static web pages to blogs and videos that you can create on your site. It really opens up a new world of opportunity.

Mobile: By now, nearly everyone knows the large market share that mobile search has, which is propelled even more by the rise in voice search. As these numbers continue to go up, it is important that you find your users where they are. With the smaller size of the mobile search engine results page, it is important that you stay near the top. This can be accomplished with a good mobile SEM campaign, keeping you relevant to both desktop and mobile users.

Localization: Nearly all search, especially when it comes to Google, is targeted to the area surrounding the user. More and more, people are searching for terms like “near me” or “in INSERT CITY” to generate searches that are more relevant to them. This isn’t surprising, as searchers get smarter about finding the things they need and the search engines get smarter about delivering those local results. With an appropriately targeted SEM campaign, you can target the specific areas that your users are in, target relevant local search terms that your users are looking for, create ad copy surrounding those specifics, and generate more quality leads!

Small Budgets: As a business owner, especially if you’re just starting to delve into an SEM campaign, you don’t have to blow everyone out of the water with a $10,000 budget. Budgets of all shapes and sizes can be catered to and manicured for success within any campaign and as that campaign generates success and growth, it can grow with you. Don’t get scared by budget numbers.

As for which platform you should use to start your SEM efforts, Google is the general default. This makes complete sense since it dominates the search market, but there are other platforms out there you can test to find your audience and meet them where they are. Whatever you choose to do, make sure that you take the time to do your research up front, determine your goals of any marketing effort, and make the commitment that you are going to spend the time to try to make it work. If you half-ass your marketing efforts, especially when it comes to SEM, you can expect results accordingly.