Monday, November 21, 2011

Strategic Selling in AEC Part 4: Rethink and Rebuild the Sales Function

How do you start retooling your company culture to be more oriented towards sales and customer service? Given the traditional risk aversion of most firms large or small, it’s certainly a daunting task. Start by focusing on the rewards rather than the risk, and talk about sales and customer service in terms that design and construction professionals understand. Call it business development instead of sales if you have to (you will probably have to). Consider this: integrated design and integrated project delivery are well known concepts in AEC that have proven to reduce errors, save money, and deliver better performing, higher quality buildings. They’re natural evolutions in building practice that are in many ways responses to market conditions. So there’s no reason why we can’t expand the concept a bit with “integrated” marketing and customer service.

Talk to your vendors who sell equipment and are more likely to have a different sales culture. See if they have ideas on sales techniques that you can adapt. They will also be a source of project leads, and you can often team with them for project pursuits. Think of business development as a responsibility shared by everyone in the company- train even junior staff to look for opportunities for services or projects from current clients, or from unexpected sources. Cross training of sales and technical staff is also crucial- let the BD people learn as much as possible about the technical aspects of your products and services, and train technical and design staff in sales and communications techniques. Take junior staff on sales calls once in a while so that they can see where projects come from and get a personal glimpse of a real client in his or her natural habitat. Install a system for mentoring and building leadership for sales and business development activities, and celebrate the winning of projects with everyone.

Examine the attitudes in your company for personality bias around staffing for sales functions. Sales and communication skills are not conferred genetically, they are learned like every other valuable job skill, and are increasingly becoming an important aspect of more and more AEC job functions. While it does seem to hold true that certain personality types are more prevalent in sales than in technical roles, it’s unclear whether this is a result of prevailing attitudes or whether there is a deeper behavioral reason. Consider discarding traditional beliefs about who is suited for sales activities and adopt an evidence based management approach to sales functions. Much of good sales technique involves not extensive persuading and schmoozing, but being organized, doing diligent research, and providing crucial information to clients when they need it. Most importantly, it involves solving problems, and technical staff are good at this. Combining the good people skills of sales focused staff with technical skills of production staff is the ideal approach to a strong AEC sales process, and helps everyone to develop new strengths to augment their core ones.

Marketing activities should also be owned on some level by everyone in the company. Nothing is more important in marketing than your brand, your unique differentiation and reputation in the market. A strong brand greases the sales process, as clients will come to you more or less self selected for fit, saving you the trouble of digging into what they want and trying to fit it to your capability. Build a more detailed, comprehensive, and nuanced understanding of your brand, based on direct customer feedback and interaction, including client surveys when appropriate and feasible, and shared feedback from interactions with customers. Let the brand drive your marketing strategy: in fact, develop a marketing strategy if you haven’t already (most firms, large and small, don’t really have one). Build your brand with thought leadership, publishing as often as possible on hot industry topics that give clients and owners information they can use right away in their job functions. Get your brightest and most articulate people to speak, publish and present at industry conferences as often as possible. Pour great stuff into your social media channels as often as possible- blog, tweet, retweet, and post regularly.

Take advantage of the plethora of literature on sales that has been published in the U.S. – most of it isn’t AEC specific, but most of it is quite applicable to the kinds of sales typical to AEC. Send your people to sales training events and courses as often as possible.

For improving customer service, the best place to start is with the RFI process. There is much available data on the benefits of reducing RFI turnaround for all parties, and if you haven’t done it already, putting a well-oiled RFI process in place with some clear targets of reducing the total number and response time will help to change attitudes towards design upstream, and improve profit and quality overall. Instill in your company a respect for simple practices like responding to clients promptly- usually this is the biggest complaint in all customer service. Create an appropriate level of customer service – overdoing it and delivering on every single little request from every client can blow your budgets and can result in clients taking advantage of your staff. Instill a keen sense of when services are beyond the agreed upon scope, and allow project managers and staff to process small change orders and scope requests quickly if possible. Make it easy to get things done for the client, but keep an eye on project budgets. This is often hard to do, but it’s easier if staff can easily and regularly see the results of their time on their project budgets, so tweak the permissions levels on your project management enterprise system if you have one.

Periodically research, identify, and execute on new service development and delivery opportunities. This
can be facilitated by regular team meetings where project managers and even junior staff can report on upcoming opportunities based on interactions with clients. Incentivize staff to constantly identify and even anticipate client needs that can turn into billable services. Foster collaboration and trust between sales staff and “production” staff- people who produce the work need to know that salespeople understand their process and deliverables and won’t oversell their capabilities or overschedule them. They also need to trust that salespeople will help to bring in enough work to keep the company or business unit afloat, and can manage workflow effectively. Salespeople need to be able to trust that production staff can deliver to clients and nurture relationships that have taken a long time to build. I advocate for a flexible, fully collaborative team process in sales, where dedicated salespeople initiate projects, facilitate project handoff to project managers, and team up with principals and others in building client relationships and closing deals.

I believe that consummate salespeople, contrary to many prevalent mental syterotypes, are not primarily motivated by money but by the practice of service, of giving value to people and projects by making things happen. They genuinely enjoy people and love building relationships, facilitating connections, and making deals. This notion of the professional salesperson is entirely consonant with the altruistic values that motivate many if not most AEC professionals and is necessary for the revolution in building practice that is upon us with green and sustainable design. We all want to build and create and improve the world- one of the best ways to do this is to integrate best practices in sales with those in design, engineering and construction.

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