It’s great to be needed, but it’s not really where you want to be. The position you should really seek to attain is to be wanted.
If you look at the architecture and engineering business (notice I didn’t say “AEC” because I don’t think “construction” is part of the same “industry”), I think we could all agree that clients of firms in this business generally hire you because they need your services. They don’t necessarily want those services – but they need them.
Clients need A/E firms so they can get their property rezoned, so they can get building permits, so they can get competitive bids from contractors to build something, and much more. I never fully appreciated this fact until I became a developer about 15 years ago. Even though we had in-house design, we still needed structural engineers to stamp retaining walls, civil engineers to do drainage plans, geotechnical engineers to give soils data to the structural engineers, land surveyors to do topographical surveys for the civil engineers, and registered architects to stamp tenant improvement plans in commercial buildings we owned. All necessary stuff.
Most of the time, as a developer, I was guilty of all the same sins I complained about in developer clients when I was on the other side of the fence inside an A/E firm selling services. Price was a major consideration. Shortly after price came reliability. Would the A/E firm get done what we needed done? Time is money. And as far as architectural services for building design were concerned, my number one criteria (after price) was would the architecture firm do what I wanted them to do, or would there be a battle because they wanted to do what THEY wanted to do?
All of this is fine – it’s great to be needed – but it’s not really where you want to be. The position you should really seek to attain is to be WANTED – wanted because you have something no one else has, or no one else can do as well as you do. The reason this is important is because it takes the focus off price.
If you want to be wanted versus just a necessary evil competing with other firms on price, here are some things you need to do:
- Have something unique to offer. This is so important and fundamental. You cannot do everything the same way everyone else does and create the same kinds of products everyone else does and then expect to be wanted. You have to do something unique and better. That takes a push for constant improvement and innovation in both your process and your outputs. Our business works against “new” and “innovative.” There’s risk associated with that. It may not work. It may cost more to design or take longer to build because the contractors aren’t familiar with it. But that is a risk you may need to take to create real value for your clients that their other providers can’t or won’t do.
- Build a lot of awareness of your firm and your work through PR. I’m talking about being in the media constantly. Being in the mainstream media is always better than the industry-specialized media. When the public at large knows who you are and what you do. Make your firm principals into public figures that people know (or want to know). Make your people people that clients want to do business with because they think they will learn something from you. Make your people people clients want to hang out with because they are interesting and smart and funny. You can do that but you won’t do it with just another boring project description. Focus on the people. It takes a relentless and consistent effort to come up with “man bites dog” kinds of press versus “dog bites man” kinds of stuff.
- Get people talking about you. Again – this will only come from your real effort to do something new and better, and from selling the personalities you have leading your firm and your projects. Taking the safe and expedient route every time will not accomplish this goal. Of course, not everyone will like you or your work when you do this. That’s OK. This is a real big hurdle to overcome for most people in this business who are trying to please everyone and never offend anyone. And yes, taste is subjective.
- Have some big successes you can point to. Project cases – what the problem or opportunity was – and what you did for your clients and how that translated into benefits for them – are at the heart of selling successes. I find most firms’ project descriptions do not accomplish this. They instead list facts about the project but little of the back story on how the project developed and even less about what happened after it was built. Not the way to really create desire for what you do. You want clients reading these cases and saying, “Wow – THESE are the people we should be working with!” I won’t say it is easy to develop good cases for firms in this business. I’m not sure why that is the case, but it is usually a battle to get these done properly.
- Be selective about the clients you work for. Not all clients will enhance your reputation. You have to be willing to say “no.” The only way I know how to accomplish this is to have more clients who want you than you can serve. If you cannot drive demand beyond your ability to supply it, you will take work from clients you should not be taking. Make them want you by being hard to get. Being too easy doesn’t necessarily make them want you. We all want what we cannot have.
- Be willing to walk away from anyone who abuses you in any way. This is so important because the collective morale of everyone in your business depends in large part on you and what kind of behaviors you will tolerate from your clients. If you make it absolutely clear that no price is high enough to subject yourself and your people to abuse, you make your firm more desirable to work with for (good) clients.
Creating “want” versus need may seem counterintuitive. Being in a business that clients need is usually enough. But the question is do they need YOUR firm, or just A firm? You should want to achieve the former versus the latter. And that’s going to take doing things differently for most firms in the A/E business.
Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.