With many A/E/C and environmental consulting firms experiencing layoffs, salary freezes/reductions, benefit cuts, and other cost-cutting measures, it’s more important than ever that firms invest their precious marketing and business development (BD) overhead dollars wisely.

Getting more staff involved in BD (especially project personnel), in ways commensurate with their role, career juncture, and skills is a no-brainer when compared with the alternative of relying on a few key rainmakers. But this approach also requires a commitment to training, coaching, and mentoring — a commitment that is lacking in many firms in good times and bad.

Complicating the return-on-investment (ROI) equation is the inherent challenge of measuring marketing and BD ROI, as the overall sales process for a professional services firm is non-linear, serendipitous, and circuitous. It can be a “black box,” with multiple strategies and touches contributing to a new client or new project. That said, there are a number of marketing and BD metrics that industry firms should measure. These metrics typically fall into four different “buckets”:

  • Sales volume (segmented by client type, existing versus new clients, and potentially other parameters)
  • Proposal dollars outstanding (weighted according to a realistic probability of winning)
  • Competitive proposal performance (i.e., those short-listed and won)
  • PR and positioning achievements (e.g., articles published, talks and workshops presented, project awards)

Maximizing BD ROI starts, of course with selling additional services to existing clients. Two of the most effective strategies include:

  • Treating the project delivery process as a BD opportunity by using open-ended questions to identify additional needs and other potential buyers and influencers within the client organization (and then cross-selling, if necessary).During a marketing/BD assessment I recently conducted, I learned of an instance in which the client lost a project to a competitor because the client did not know the firm offered the desired service. Unfortunately, based on my experience, this happens too often in our industry.
  • Involving past and current clients in your marketing efforts (e.g., interviewing them for a newsletter article, co-presenting with them at a conference, and teaming on award submittals).

Now is NOT the time to cut back marketing and BD to minimize overhead expenses. Any benefit your firm may accrue in the short term will be wiped out in the long run when your competitors eat your lunch. It is, however, time to take a really hard look at marketing and BD budgets to ensure that yours is not on “auto- pilot” — that is, investing time and money in strategies that may have made sense (or were less objectionable) when backlogs were hefty and work was flowing through the door. Examples of strategies that require further scrutiny include:

Advertising. As with many marketing strategies, it can be very difficult to measure ROI from advertising. In fact, one of the only ways to assess ROI is to include a separate phone number or e-mail address for each ad, and then track responses and inquiries on an ad-by-ad basis. Most firms don’t do this, and among those that do, I have yet to hear instances in which ads have yielded inquiries or leads that have justified their typically expensive cost.

Many A/E/C and environmental consulting firms advertise because that’s what they’ve done in the past and have never questioned this practice, and it’s easy to simply renew an advertisement. Further, it has a “placebo effect” that makes companies feel like they are proactively building name recognition (but at what opportunity cost with respect to more effective strategies?). I’ve even heard stories from firm principals and marketing/BD directors that their clients will think they went out of business if they didn’t see their ad. But since most ads do little to position a firm as an industry expert or thought leader, there are typically better uses for the money.

Conferences/Trade Shows. If your firm has not already done so, re-evaluate target venues and associated expenditures (e.g., booths/displays, marketing materials, and trinkets). Determine which areas can be cut back without sacrificing the value of the venue. If a venue does not attract the clients that you seek (or the individuals who can make or influence the decision to hire your firm), or does not allow opportunities to give talks or workshops or serve on committees, then attendance at that venue should be questioned due to the hefty costs associated with booth preparation, travel, lodging, and entertainment.

With respect to conferences and trade shows:

  • The first priority should be to speak or serve on a panel discussion.
  • The second priority should be to serve on a planning committee.
  • The last priority should be to have a booth/attend, unless the firm is hosting a hospitality event in conjunction with the venue and has strategically invited key past, current, and/or target clients. I recognize that some firms view it as sacrilegious not to have a booth after doing so for 20 years in a row, but if your firm is experiencing desperate times, that calls for desperate measures.

Once you’ve made the decision to attend, take the following measures to maximize ROI:

  • Limit the number of attendees at each venue. Attendance should be a privilege and a responsibility given to select individuals for the purposes of lead generation and/or professional development, not an expectation on the part of staff who are seeking an opportunity to get away, schmooze, and have fun.
  • If someone in your firm is giving a talk and you’ve decided to have a booth, be sure to leverage the two by promoting the talk (and white papers and article placements) at your booth and encouraging workshop attendees to stop by your booth.
  • Require attendees to prepare a debrief report on the venue. Such reports could contain:
    • Market intelligence
    • A listing of current and prospective clients with whom that person met
    • Resulting leads
    • Potential new hires
    • Potential new teaming partners
    • Ideas for future abstract submittals
    • Recommendations for how your firm can maximize its ROI from that venue next year

From the standpoint of ROI maximization, your firm’s goal should be to condense or “short-circuit” the BD process by hitting as many buyers and influencers at once in a manner that:

  • Conveys the value of your firm’s services (and in particular, hiring your firm over a competitor), in the context of the issues that keep your clients up at night.
  • Positions your firm as a subject matter expert and thought leader.
  • Differentiates your firm from its competitors.

Strategies that meet these criteria include:

  • Giving talks and workshops (assuming your content provides valuable information, tips, resources and/or case studies versus self-serving, boastful content). Some of the benefits include:
    • Typically, audience members with needs and questions approach you after a talk, yielding qualified leads.
    • The professional association helps promote your talk through their web site and direct marketing.
    • If approached intelligently, there is tremendous “repackaging” value in a talk or workshop. You can convert it into:
      • An article to be pitched to a trade journal.
      • A newsletter article in which several clients and prospects are interviewed.
      • An in-house lunchtime workshop for a client or prospect.
      • A talk or workshop for another target professional association by tweaking the title and content a bit.
    • They make you a better consultant. Giving talks forces you to codify your consulting message and hone your listening skills, an essential component of Q&A (which should be allowed throughout your talk, when possible). Further, talks provide an ideal opportunity to gather market intelligence that will make you more effective in the BD process.

Public Relations (PR). The A/E/C industry’s PR Achilles heel is the tendency to focus too much on “chest-beating” content such as employee promotions, new hires, and office growth. In their PR efforts, firms should focus less on company achievements and focus more on:

  • Issues keeping specific target audiences up at night.
  • Strategies, tips, and resources for addressing these issues.
  • Project case studies that illustrate how the company has tackled these issues for clients and what the take-aways are for other client organizations (versus writing about projects won and project milestones).

Even press releases and story ideas in which firm leaders, senior technical staff and/or client sector leaders are interviewed regarding key trends and challenges impacting a particular client type can be very effective. Press releases and story ideas focusing on such strategic content can:

  • Help pre-position your firm for a particular project.
  • Increase the likelihood that editors of key target publications will pick up these story ideas (because they’re more likely to connect with readers).
  • Help develop a stable of content that can be repackaged into articles for other publications and into talks for various professional association/conference venues.

Maximizing marketing and BD ROI requires an analytical mindset, a willingness to identify and track the appropriate marketing/BD accountability measures, a knowledge of how to leverage the firm’s strategies to maximize ROI, and the confidence to stick to your guns in the face of skeptics. Feel free to call (508-276-1101) or e-mail me if you have questions or need additional information.