3 Keys to Effective Business Development for Newly Promoted Architects
The plight of successful architects is the inevitable transition away from the practice of architecture to the business of architecture.
The ‘dis-ease’ that sets in when confronted with the new responsibility for bringing in revenue stems from a lack of knowledge around what it takes to bring in business. For most, the only exposure to marketing and business development came from updating resumes and writing project descriptions that wound up in proposals. Occasionally presentations, and showing up for interviews. From this limited perspective, it appears that RFPs are the key to generating revenue.
Unfortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth.
In real estate, the mantra is, “Location. Location. Location.” In architecture, it should be, “Relationship. Relationship. Relationship.” Positioning to secure work happens months–if not years–in advance of an RFP being issued. Viewed accurately, an RFP and proposal are simply the formal, written next steps in an ongoing client conversation.
3 Keys to Bring in Business
1 | Create a Systematic Approach to Determine Which Relationships to Cultivate
The number and complexity of client relationships your firm has established over time is mind-boggling if you think about it. You’ve got a deep list of individuals within client organizations with whom you’re currently engaged. Then there are the relationships that have gone dormant in the past 3-5 years. There are individuals you’ve worked with at various client organizations who’ve changed jobs and are now embedded within new companies that now become new potential clients. There are subconsultants and construction professionals, noncompetitor colleagues, professional association members, not to mention friends and family members who have relationships with your firm.
A list of all those folks mentioned above would be daunting to mine for business. Multiply that list by the number of members in your firm and it’s just downright overwhelming.
The first step is to prioritize the relationships. I typically recommend beginning with the following 3 categories:
- Current Clients
- Dormant Clients
- Prospective Clients who are aware of your firm
Let’s look at each.
Nurturing meaningful relationships with this core group of contacts is the gold mine for your firm’s business development. In a healthy, well-run architectural practice, clients who are happily engaged account for 70-80% of the firm’s ongoing, repeat work. By skillfully growing deeper and broader relationships within current client organizations is the fastest and easiest way to generate new business for 4 reasons:
- The client knows you and has confidence in you.
- The engagement process is already worked out so it’s easy to keep doing business with your firm.
- Your staff is regularly in touch with the client, making it easy (with some training) for people to mine for new work.
- Because you are integrated into the client’s organization, you’re able to identify ways to be of help that the client may not be thinking about.
There’s good reason to begin your pursuits with current clients. First, your firm is engaged in the relationship, so your staff is speaking with the client at multiple levels within their organization. That means that asking for information doesn’t have to come in the form of a cold call, or even a warm call. Second, you have a good understanding of the organizational structure and can identify who the key decision makers are pretty easily. That step in a prospective client organization can be hard to discern. Finally, your firm is “preapproved”. All of this makes it significantly easier to prospect for new work.
And that’s the crux of the issue: carrying out the prospecting.
Over the years, there tend to be two reasons that firms miss the opportunity to proactively build business with exisiting clients. The first is that they feel greedy, “Well, we’re already working with them and we’re not very far into the project, so I can’t go in asking for more work.” That defense isn’t wrong, it just tends to linger until the project closeout is complete. There is a window of time when it just makes sense to start asking about continuing the working relationship. The appropriate timing falls into the 75-90% complete phase of your work, whether it’s a planning project, or a project that will be built.
The second reason architects tend to miss the prospecting opportunity is that they’re not quite sure how to do it. It’s delicate, isn’t it? To ask for work. What does it sound like? “Well, when this project ends we’ll have a group of folks with nothing to do, do you have anything?” That’s what it feels like. The reason it feels like that is because the ask is self-centric. You’re inquirey is based on what you need and want.
What happens if we shift our focus to a client-centric mindset? If we’re looking at the client’s business, where they are moving strategically, what their business goals are, then prospecting can come very naturally in a conversation where you’re interested in learning about where they are headed, and you’re listening to see if there’s any way you can be of help. Taking this approach feels good because it’s genuine. If you truly care about your client’s success and you know you can continue to help support their goals, it’s not selling, it’s helping.
Clients you haven’t worked with in the past 3-5 years fall into the Dormant Client category. Systematically going through this group of clients is the next easiest prospecting to do. Once again, you’re preapproved (unless it was a problem project, then that client won’t be on the list necessarily). You may have relationships with people who are still working at the organization, or you may find the contact you had there has moved to a new organization, opening the door to a new potential client.
Dormant client connections are actually kind of fun. It’s a little like a reunion, a reaching-out-to-catch-up call. I’ve had clients reconnect with dormant clients several times that have led to immediate work. Literally, the client in two cases said the same thing, “I was just thinking about you.”
What happens of your point of contact has left and you no longer have a relationship at the client organization? That’s actually not a bad situation. You find the person who filled the role, explain that you follow up with clients periodically about projects you’ve completed to see how things are going, and that you’d like to meet the new person to get to know him or her, and to learn about what’s happening within the organization. It’s not a meeting about “let me tell you about us.” It’s a client-centric meeting to see if you can be of help in any way.
Once you’ve accomplished the research, due diligence, meetings and investigations with your current and dormant clients, your focus can move outward to prospects. By phasing the business development strategy in this way, you’ll have practiced the process (of proactively meeting, greeting, listening and offering to help) with people who aren’t perfect strangers. You’re warmed up.
The biggest shift I see with clients I coach comes when they give themselves permission to be choosy. Because so many firms are waiters–they wait for an RFP, they wait to be invited–the notion of proactively, deliberately selecting the desired client-to-be is often a foreign concept. And the idea of meeting with a prospective client just to see if you’d even like to work with them seems even more outrageous. But it isn’t. The “fit” is often the intangible, unspoken reason a new firm is selected by a client. But here’s the caveat: the “fit” isn’t tested at the presentation. It’s tested well before a project pursuit is underway. And here’s the permission: you’re not only allowed, but you’re encourage to decide if the client you’re prospecting is a good fit for you.
How can you tell if a prospective client is a good fit for your firm? That’s a very worthwhile exercise to work through. Clients I’ve worked with who take the time to define the ideal client traits and characteristics, as well as the real deal breaker factors, consistently make better go/no-go decisions and are much more efficient in their abilities to “qualify” a client-to-be as one to pursue, or one to sprint from.
Typically how a propsective client treats you when you are trying to initiate a relationship will tell you a lot about how you’ll be treated in an engagement. Look for openess on their part to explore the potential fit. Notice the access you’re given to key people within the client organization. Finally, list the traits that are important to you. Find out from others who work with the client if the client pays on time, if they make price-based selections, if they value design. Then take the time to identify the deal breakers. We won’t work with clients who (fill in the blank).
Selecting specific clients-to-be is a critical process that requires a very clear understanding of your firm’s position and what clients you can help who fall within that position. How to select a health care client, a higher education institution, a religious organization to pursue is a deep subject for another newsletter. If your firm moves through your current and dormant clients first, you’ll have the time to research and select your prospects proactively and deliberately in a way that will boost your ability to successfully bring new clients into the fold.