Six steps to finding new clients
The best way to find new work is to master these business development habits
For the busy architect, finding new business is often a natural progression of doing good work. To grow as a firm, however, a portion of time should always be devoted to acquiring new clients to replace any unavoidable turnover. Here are some insights that can make a difference in improving your business development bottom line.
Understand your brand
Regardless of whether it's formally developed and documented, every firm has a brand; you just might not be in control of it. Taking that level of control is the first business development (BD) habit to master. A strong brand identity conveys information about a firm’s core essence. It positions the firm in the client’s mind and is expressed visually, verbally, and experientially. Brand messages are the key attributes that clients need to know about a firm, and brand voice is how those messages are expressed to the target audience.
Your brand manifests itself in all interactions with your firm. Be deliberate about what those are, and be relentless (and consistent) in living and communicating the brand at all times. This includes little things like email signatures, one of the most overlooked and underutilized brand touch points in our email-centric world. Have standards for how they should look, and enforce them.
Do the same with your presentation boards and drawing sets, not to mention your marketing materials. Make sure everyone in the firm is clear about your brand, its messages, and what it means. Take time during new employee orientation to explain this, and periodically review it, so all employees understand the value in being the best possible brand ambassadors.
Invest in training
In design firms, it’s too often assumed that the extroverts with good people skills can handle all the business development for the firm. In reality, that level of sales acumen is an acquired skill which can be taught to technical staff who have had little or no formal training in that area.
But it takes time and money. To develop good practices and avoid years of potential missteps, make a point of investing in basic sales and public speaking training. The Toastmasters program offers an inexpensive and convenient way to sharpen speaking skills; many other options exist for basic sales training, both online and in person.
Mentoring staff new to the BD process is also a good way to train others, so consider including two employees on each sales call to increase learning opportunities.
Start relationships early
Once potential clients are identified, start the relationship building process early; don’t wait until there is a defined project. Do your research, and make the first visit heavy on listening and light on talking. Then, armed with information, figure out a way to share something of value. This can be simple advice, technical information, a connection or resource, or even an article of interest that relates to a client’s pressing business issues.
Research shows that the earlier a firm is invested in a relationship, the more consistent the flow of information. This is another way of saying “know more than the competition and use it to outsell them.” After investing the time and energy in that first visit, be relentless about staying in touch with hot prospects, both directly (face-to-face) and indirectly (email, mailers, etc.). Make the BD process ongoing, deliberate, and consistent during both busy and light workload periods.
And don’t hesitate to use third-party bridges to get an introduction; ask those who know the prospective client to introduce you. Be prepared, however, to pay it forward in the future.
Use capture planning
Capture planning is a tool for pursuing high-value complex opportunities with long sales cycles and committee decision-making, usually in context with federal procurement. It is a written, action-oriented plan designed to positively position a firm in the buyer’s eyes before a proposal is requested.
The elements of a capture plan include intelligence gathering of key client issues and project drivers; competitive analysis to discern differentiation; and development of a sales strategy that offers unique information on client decision-making criteria, personalities, and preferences, all written and documented as action items. The capture planning process encourages teamwork and helps to keep everyone both involved and accountable.
The basics of capture planning can help design firms stay on top of the BD process and document the steps to a winning sales strategy. Capture planning can be done for either a client or a project; a good habit is to do them for must-win proposals that will make or break a year’s success.
Make better go/no-go decisions
The Great Recession caused many design firms to abandon decision-making and chase every available project; now that some normalcy has returned to the marketplace, reinstate a go/no-go process and use it regularly. If relationship building has started early, the information needed for better and more strategic go/no-go decisions should be available.
The issue is rarely if a firm can do the work, but whether a firm can win the work. The go/no-go process helps to remove the rose-colored glasses and let you be brutally realistic about the investment and odds needed for certain projects. And don’t just submit proposals so a client can get to know the firm; redirect those resources towards something with a better chance of success.
Prepare and rehearse
If all of the above is done well, opportunities to interview for work should flow. But that doesn't mean you can ignore preparing and rehearsing for competitive interviews. Take the capture plan and any intelligence gained to build an interview framework around strategic selling points, then use those to sell, not tell, in structuring an interview. Craft the message around the benefits your firm provides, not its features.
Finally, rehearse to properly manage your timing, body language, and transitions. Don’t spend all that upstream effort doing the right things in business development, only to fall short with the win in sight. Make preparation something your firm takes seriously, and watch it pay dividends in increasing win rates.
Solid business development is a process done well over time. It’s slow and steady, targeted and consistent. When applying these ideas to your firm's operations, the payoff gained can be big indeed.
This story originally ran in the AIA Practice Management Digest for May 2016.
Karen O. Courtney, AIA, FSMPS, is the chief marketing officer for Fanning Howey, a national education design practice.