As COVID-19 turns business as we know it—and our global communities—upside down, there are no easy answers or sure projections. While some AEC and environmental consulting firms have not experienced a disruption to projects, others are seeing warning signs and are increasingly nervous about what’s next and some are already slashing costs to contain the bleeding.
Multiple industry surveys reveal that the business impacts, like the virus itself, could vary widely and may well get worse before they get better. I’m hearing from many firm leaders who are doing their best to balance the day-to-day pandemic response with planning for project delays and revenue declines.
None of us knows when our business life will return to any sense of normalcy, but we do know this: firms must prioritize their relationships with current and prospective clients now so that those relationships come out stronger on the other side.
Effective client relations in the era of COVID-19 means demonstrating that you’re nimble, you’re focused on solutions and service—and that you care. As I often say, your clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Now’s the time to demonstrate that as much as possible.
Don’t disappear. It can be tempting to focus all your efforts on getting your own ducks in a row as you cope with practice and project management during a pandemic. Many firms are dealing with uncertainties and serious challenges right now, and passively putting BD and client outreach on the back burner may even seem like a necessity. Do not make this mistake: your visibility and leadership matter—to your current clients and your future bottom line.
Lead with empathy. In times of crisis, it is even more important to remember that your B2B marketing and business development strategies are really H2H, or human to human. And as humans, we are all swimming in new territory, personally and professionally. Be empathetic and responsive to where your clients and prospective clients are right now. What are you doing to help? To take care of your people? In addition to telling them in individual conversations, put this information on your web site. (Microsoft offers a great example.)
Provide useful information. You may want to think twice, though, about sending out that mass email that assures your clients that you’re taking safety precautions and transitioning to remote project management. Everyone’s inbox has been stuffed with these messages, and most of them amount to stating the obvious – we all need to be doing those things. Instead, use your space in their inbox wisely: reach out individually to your key client contacts, or have practice leaders send out practical, client-focused information to individual market sectors.
If you are emailing your clients en masse, make it about them, not about you. Give them news they can use – specifics such as whether you’ve curtailed site visits, what you’re doing instead, and how they can best access your people. Give them helpful resources for running their business such as engineering and environmental consulting firm AE2S (Grand Forks, ND) did with their guidelines for protection of water utilities and appearing on client-focused podcasts.
If you’re already managing a remote workforce, remind clients and instill confidence that their work continues as planned, such as 60-person structural engineering firm LeMessurier (Boston, MA) did by including this message in its response to inquiring clients: This approach will not have an effect on our design and construction community because LeMessurier is a telecommuting company. Our infrastructure and team-based collaboration enables our client services to be performed from outside the office walls… Our firm is focused on service, and we will continue to provide our consulting services from beyond our office walls, without interruption.
Focus on being of service versus selling your next project. Be proactive in reaching out to your clients, and not just in relation to current and upcoming projects. Be the partner that you’ve positioned your firm to be. Call or email all of your current and recent clients to find out how they are faring, what challenges they’re facing in this new landscape—and then add value by offering them something that could help. Perhaps you can share resources, gather valuable data or research, or provide the additional flexibility and creative thinking they may now need, such as architecture firm tvsdesign (Atlanta, GA) did with their checklist for hotel-to-hospital conversions.
Lean into your thought leadership and market position. Your firm has plenty of specialist knowledge that your clients want, and if you’ve been doing your positioning work, you should already have demonstrated a good understanding of their business. Continue to put that knowledge out there. But don’t assume that you know what they need right now. That may have changed. Get out your best probing questions. Survey your clients. ASK.
For example, the healthcare practice at 1,100-person Cannon Design (Buffalo, NY) moved quickly to set up a web page of practical information for its client organizations, and sent out a guidance email advising clients that they’re working on creative solutions and inviting those clients to connect and ask questions or brainstorm.
Stay in communication. In the current climate, that may mean more cell phone calls, more texting, more video. If you’ve been tracking leads or upcoming RFPs/RFQs, get in touch and follow up. Has this been delayed, or is it still a go? Will the process change? How can you be of service to them right now? Share resources, relevant updates and practical tools on your social media channels.
As we all navigate the impacts that COVID-19 will have in the near and long-term, it’s a good time to ask ourselves a few questions, too:
- What lessons have we learned from past business interruptions that we can leverage?
- What can we do differently right now that would have a strong impact for our clients?
- What creative solutions can we come up with for our clients’ “new normal”?
- What can we put in place now that we’ll carry with us out of this crisis?
What’s happening on the ground in your firm and in your markets? Let’s share strategies at firstname.lastname@example.org or (508) 276-1101.
P.S. Looking for a resource to help healthcare workers and communities get the PPE and medical supplies they need? Check out this Online PPE/Medical Supplies Index Google Doc.