Strategic Business Development for Architects
These days clients are receiving 60-75 proposals when they used to receive 20-25. More firms are throwing their hats in the ring because of fewer opportunities. If the first exposure the client has to your firm is receiving your proposal, keep reading.
This Practice Clarity Newsletter covers how to get in front of the RFP process by proactively building relationships that lead to work, so that your proposal and presentation are simply the next steps in your ongoing conversations with the client to be.
Here’s how to get in front of the RFP process in 7 steps.
- Achieve clarity about your architectural practice.
Proactive Business Development begins with having a very clear understanding of own your firm. The clearer you are about who you are, what you do, for whom and to what benefit, the easier it will be to drive the business development process.
Defining your firm in a Position Statement helps to set the strategic direction of the firm, and also tells clients that you have experience in their business sector. If you don’t have a Position Statement that defines who you are, what you do, for whom and to what benefit, it’s important to commit the time and resources to develop one.
Once you’ve arrived at a clear definition, you’re ready to begin planning.
- Plan your business development strategy.
To create a meaningful strategic plan for growing your practice, it’s best to look back at the last three years, and then look forward for 2-3 years.
As you look back, analyze where your work has been coming from. Note consistent client relationships, dominant market sectors, specialized services. Look at the profitability of projects and services.
As you look forward, identify trends you’re seeing in the industries you serve. For example, if you design service call centers, what’s happening in that market segment? Are technology service centers off shoring, while banking call centers are remaining stateside? What problems are your clients facing that can be solved through facilities expansions, renovations, or additions? Is the development of new technologies or new equipment going to impact the delivery of services that your client provides? If so, how will that impact their facilities.
Once you’ve considered this information, it’s time to make some decisions.
In small to mid-sized architectural firms, the people responsible for bringing in revenue tend to be the principals, and occasionally project directors. Since nearly all firms this size are structured so that principals are still billable, it’s hard to imagine setting up a plan that asks an individual to sell to more than one market sector. Not only is time too precious, but the depth, volume and technical knowledge required to be an expert in a given field continues to grow exponentially. Keeping up in one field of information and cultivating relationships in one field is a tall enough order for an individual
If we work from the premise that you’ll have one principal per market sector, you begin to see the capacity of your firm’s ability to effectively market and sell. One principal, one sector. Three principals, three sectors, etc.
A look at market sectors
If you ask an architect what his or her firm does, the person will likely recite a list of markets served, “We design healthcare, government, higher education, and office buildings.”
So typically I find that the plans architects make for growth list broad market categories like those mentioned.
If you ever hope to get in front of the RFP process, drilling down into each market segment to define your deeper expertise is critical. Let’s take on example from above: higher education.
The higher education market can be broken down in any numbers of ways. The most common break down I see is by type:
- 2 year, 4 year, Colleges, Universities, Private Universities, Public Universities, State Colleges, Speciality Schools, Technical or Trade Schools, Virtual Schools (like Phoenix).
Anyone marketing to higher education knows that it isn’t enough to have general campus experience. Firms are developing deep expertise in specific campus facility types such as, residence halls, laboratory and research facilities, libraries, performance spaces. As an example of how to define the segment more deeply, let’s work with the scenario that your firm has specialized experience in sports and recreation facilities? The segmentation might be:
- Division I, II, II, IV; Intercollegiate; Intramural; Aquatic; Arenas; Outdoor facilities vs Indoor facilities; Shared community facilities.
Let’s think a little bit differently. What if you’re interested in historic preservation on campuses? What if you worked with the premise that the campuses that have the richest stock of historic buildings tend to be the oldest liberal arts colleges across the country? If so, what metrics could you study to find that market segment? Could you consider:
- Enrollment size; Rankings of liberal arts colleges; Tuition fees (higher vs lower); Date of campus origination? Number of buildings on the State Historic Register?
The more specific you can be in defining the market segment you plan to approach, the more focused your efforts will be; the easier it will be to identify targets within the refined segment; and the more manageable the plan will be to implement.
Identify targets within the segment.
Once you’ve decided on the deeper market segment, the next step is to identify targets. Starting from existing clients, then dormant clients, list the institutions with whom you’ve worked. These are mature client relationships that can be cultivated to learn more about the market segment and potential work.
How to leverage existing relationships without “selling”
Working with the higher education example again, let’s say you’ve provided historic renovation and restoration for UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. The process is to contact the people you’ve worked with to learn more about possible restorations or perhaps seismic retrofits.
Ask for a meeting to “catch up,” and have a comfortable, friendly conversation. Please don’t show up with a brochure or quals package and flip through the pages to show what work you’ve recently completed. No one like to be “sold” to; not to mention that this is why architects tend to dislike business development. If it feels like you’re selling something, you are, and that’s just plain uncomfortable.
When the talk shifts to business, rather than ask if there’s work–which is an uncomfortable question for both parties–it’s much better to ask if there are other people on campus whom you should get to know? Ask for referrals to them, or see if you can be introduced now (if it’s just a walk down the hall). If it’s suggested that you contact the person you’ve been referred to, ask if you can use the person’s name, or even better, ask if the person you’re meeting with will call the other individual to let them know you’ll be calling.
The other important question to ask is if there are others in the higher education community who would benefit from knowing about your firm’s services. This is a more comfortable question that, “Who else is doing work?” Again, ask for an introduction, or a call to the person to set up your call.
If your plan is solid, it’s also feasible to ask this client if he or she knows someone at one of the other targets on your list. For example, you’d like to begin doing work at UC Sacramento, does the person know anyone there that you should get to know.
A wonderful way to close a meeting of this nature is with a simple question. “Before we conclude, Juan, I just wanted to ask if there’s any way I can be of help to you.”
The key is to continue to build the relationship with the contented client, to ask for referrals and to grow your network by leveraging the relationships you’ve already built.
New target clients
The kinds of conversations you would have with a new target client are similar. It’s important to know what the goal of the meeting is. It’s simply to get to know the person, learn about his or her career, interests, family. Understand the person’s role and responsibilities at work. The meeting should be a mix of you making casual inquiries and asking smart business questions.
Casual inquiries begin by noticing the surroundings, “Oh, you’re a Corn Huskers fan.” Seeing a framed photo, “Are those your children?” Sharing personal information from your own life, “My kids are into soccer,” helps to break down barriers and make the meeting more comfortable. I encourage my clients to go into meetings thinking about helping to set the other person at ease.
It’s interesting to learn how a person got to the position they’re in and where else they’ve worked. You might share your work history, as well.
And then it’s to the smart business questions.
Architects are more than happy to meet with clients when there’s a project on the table. As long as there’s a pen and paper, they are great at having sketch talks. But when it comes to meeting with no project to discuss…what do you say? You ask business questions that indicate you understand the business the person is in and what issues might drive projects in their area of expertise.
Let’s use college residence halls as an example. A client of mine was heading to a university in Virginia to meet with a new contact at this targeted university. My client wanted to pitch Greek Housing, something the firm has a lot of experience designing. Here’s how I framed the “smart business question” to get at the business issue the potential client might be facing.
With high school enrollments projected to drop every year for the next decade, we were wondering the University was doing in terms of facilities to attract more students?
After some discussion generally around this, the follow up question was, “Is the University considering residence or Greek Housing improvements to remain competitive?
Because my client arrived “empty handed,” (no quals, brochures, etc.), the discussion piqued the persons interest. Indicating that the firm had a great presentation on Greek Housing, the potential client invited my client back to present to the facilities staff.
Knowing how to skillfully meet new clients and ask the right kinds of questions is the best way to establish your expertise without pushing information, but being asked for information.
There’s a technical aspect to getting in front of the RFP process that is necessary, and that’s understanding the selection process. A project does not need to be on the table to learn about how a client selects architects, in fact, it’s better if there isn’t a project.
There’s a deep seated fear in the architect psyche that we aren’t allowed to talk to the client. It stems, in my opinion, from the fact that most firms don’t go out and proactively build relationships, but reactively respond to RFPs. Therefore, the only time they try to be in contact with the client is during the time that speaking to the client is off limits. In addition, the kinds of questions that need to be asked such as budget, schedule, special issues, etc., clearly can’t be asked once the RFP is on the street.
But that’s where proactive marketing is at its best. Believe it or not, when you take the time and take the initiative to meet with a target client when no work is on the table, asking questions about the selection process is all fair game.
So what do you need to know?
You want to find out what the process is from start to finish. Where do they announce work? Do they maintain a list of pre-approved architects? Is there a financial threshold beneath which they can hire architects without going to an RFP?
Who makes the decision? What is the typical composition of a selection committee (not the people, because that often differs)? How many firms do they typically interview? What have they seen in interviews that they felt was particularly effective. Does the person you’re with have a vote? Is there influence from a Board of Trustees or outside advisors? Is there a score sheet you can see?
What architectural firms have worked for them? What did they like about the relationship? What could have been better in the experience?
Questions about finance, planning, timelines are all perfectly acceptable to ask–as long as they aren’t about a specific project. The minute you start asking what the budget is for the library renovation that’s coming up, and oh by the way, when will we get the RFP, you’ve crossed the line. The meeting is for basic understanding of how architects are hired, not about specific projects.
The RFP as next step in the ongoing conversation
If you carry out proactive strategic business development initiatives as outlined above, you’ll now be in front of the RFP process. As your relationships deepen, you’ll be able to ask more specific questions about upcoming opportunities that you haven’t earned the right to ask at your first or second encounter. You will have been having ongoing contact and conversation well before an RFP is issued for a project you’ve identified as a good fit for your firm, and the client will be anticipating your proposal.
When the stack of proposal is collected, it’s likely that yours will be looked for and set aside, while others are sifted through for elimination. This is how it works.
Architectural services are procured through relationships. Signature rockstar architects may get calls, but most architects need to work at cultivating relationships that lead to work. It’s extremely rare to win a project when the proposal response to an RFP is the first exposure a client has to your firm.
Meeting the client early, letting them know you’ve identified them as a good fit for your firm, telling them that you’d like to work with them, that you’d like to be of help to them is the how to nurture an authentic relationship that leads to work.
Employing this method means that the RFP and your proposal the next step in your ongoing conversation with this client to be.
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