Marketing and Business Development 2010: Use Your Windshield – Not Your Rear View Mirror

Marketing and Business Development 2010: Use Your Windshield – Not Your Rear View Mirror

Friday, January 29, 2010 | | Other Voices

“Chances are, the new economy will not return to its former vigor. Architects must develop strategies that look to the future, rather than relying on solutions that worked six months ago. Prospective clients will likely pay in cash and drive hard bargains. Do not be false or opportunistic in your outreach; but do join boards that would benefit from your commitment. And remember that the telephone will not ring if we stare at it.”

Michael Bernard, Principal
V-Practice Consulting

The Architect’s Take introduces our new special guest columnist, Michael Bernard, AIA, Principal of V-Practice Consulting, a San Francisco-based design practice management firm.

A friend of mine, the director of business development at a national, multi-office AIA Gold Medal firm, recently offered insight into the current protracted economic slump in the design and construction industries. We shared guesses about how much longer the recession would negatively affect our profession. My colleague suggested that we might be facing a situation analogous to “hospital sick” syndrome. In this analogy, a gravely ill person begins, gradually, to feel better. A person who has been gravely ill for a long period of time may, upon feeling the slightest improvement, impatiently exclaim, “Wow, I’m feeling better now!” and begin to engage in activity as full health has returned. However, the convalescent patient is not fully recovered. Instead, the renewed activity taxes the patient’s strength – causing a relapse.

This is not a call to be glum or to moan about gloom and doom. This is a call to develop strategies that look to the future rather than relying on solutions that worked two years ago, or even six months ago. Eventually, the economy will turn around – I truly believe this. I am, and always have been, at the “Pollyanna” end of the optimist continuum. However, chances are that the old economy will not return to the vigor it once exhibited. Our marketing strategies must be “present tense” and adaptable to the idiosyncrasies of short-term economic ups and downs, despite the overall upward direction.

Look to the future for new business strategies.

Look to the future for new business strategies.

We have to approach the twelve months ahead of us with thrift and a strong sense of market savvy. We might hear from colleagues about renewed enquiries and auspicious activity suggesting that a contract for design services might be imminent on previously dormant projects. We might see promising indications of a comeback in the residential design/construction industries.

But just because other design firms may appear to be experiencing improved conditions doesn’t mean that the economy will find its way to our doorstep without our persistent personal efforts. Architects who are indefatigable business developers, who have incessantly cultivated their networks, and who are not daunted by the state of the economy, are the scrappy survivors who will benefit from the current gradual increase in residential remodeling. (I put myself in the same philosophical boat. Welcome aboard.)

Clients will have a harder time financing their projects.

Clients will have a harder time financing their projects.

Prospective clients who intend to pursue home improvement projects will likely pay for the remodeling – with cash. Those would-be clients who dream of remodeling, and who think they will go to a bank and get a loan – they may well be disappointed to find that they will not be able to obtain financing. This reality thins the client herd substantially. And those who have cash drive hard bargains. (Which is why they have cash)

Clients with cash may bargain more aggressively.

Clients with cash may bargain more aggressively.

Looking ahead, what does this mean for the small design firm? Here are some thoughts:

  • After a two year period of slow (or no) business, we understand all too well that the telephone will not ring if we stare at it.
Countless generations of girls and women already know that telephones never ring when stared at.

Countless generations of teenage girls already know that telephones never ring when stared at.

  • As a result, you have to market your firm more than ever. Make your value apparent to a prospective client immediately. In fact, remind your entire network of that unique value. If your focus is on residential design, you may never have had to compete with other architects for the one-time residential client. And now you have to do so.
  • Devise a business development strategy to reach prospective clients through means other than stating plainly that you want their business. Think of new opportunities to publicize your firm’s work, such as interviews in widely distributed neighborhood newspapers in your market area. Consider mailing or emailing quarterly postcards advertising your work to clients, consultants and contractors. Follow up these valuable communications with links to the firm’s website and telephone calls to prospective clients.
  • Think of ways to be the only architect in the room. For example, join boards and organizations that would benefit from your commitment, advice and perspective. Do not join if your interest is false or opportunistic. Benefits to all parties diminish if the contribution is inauthentic.
  • Husband your resources and focus on long-lead marketing efforts that result in new business. Make economies where you can in order to subsidize this effort. This is a formidable challenge for small practitioners – and such marketing efforts may require the resources you have set aside for just this purpose. But keep in mind that the lag time between meeting a client and signing a contract may be longer now than it used to be.

Look ahead – way down the road. For the sake of the argument in favor of thrift and long-lead marketing: assume that business will remain flat (or worse) for the first 3 to 6 months of 2010. What marketing and business development efforts can you make that differentiate your firm from other contenders?

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