Architectural, engineering and construction sales and marketing: What are the limits?

sales and marketing aec
AEC sales and marketing initiatives are much like this structure in the regional/national context. (Can you guess this image's setting? If you can, leave a note in a comment.)

Most leaders at architectural, engineering and construction businesses don’t like to think at all about sales, and consider marketing to be an obscure, often expensive, and frustratingly unbillable add-on.

They associate “sales” with pushy people who don’t really know about the subject matter, or commission-hungry grabbers. They associate marketing with expensive branding efforts, overpriced and ineffective advertising, and overhead costs that don’t really do much for the practice or business.

There are reasons for these attitudes. Consider the traditional approaches to finding new work in the professions or trades. Within the trades, you generally either seek out public or are invited in private opportunities to bid for jobs. The exercise here is mostly an estimating and job-pricing exercise; you win the work if you come in low, and you are profitable if you can figure out work processes to save money or perhaps uncover errors in the bidding documentation to allow you to make up the losses later with change orders.

Architects and engineers, meanwhile, receive RFP (request for proposal) invitations, or they find them in the public domain. Here, the work is to figure out a creative, responsive, and effective response that allows you to bill at a reasonable rate and still be profitable. (Perhaps the one place where “marketing” creeps into the picture is at the desk of the proposal co-ordinator, often an administrative employee with little marketing training.)

There are workarounds to doing “real” sales and marketing, that is, with specific job descriptions, budgets, and plans. Principals or “Rainmakers” (seller-doers, or principals with connections) bring in the new business, even though they would never consider themselves to be salespeople. And there are “business developers” — a two word-phrase to avoid the use of the word “sales” who scour for leads, hang out with potential customers, and maybe set up rudimentary sales campaigns. There of course is a reliance on word-of-mouth and repeat and unsolicited referral business, and this is often enough to keep the business or practice afloat — considering the long project cycles and that a few good repeat clients can indeed generate plenty of ongoing revenue.

Are these avoidance attitudes towards sales and marketing wrong? I find it hard to push against what works for many businesses in this industry. And I appreciate a couple of painful facts.

  1. The long sales cycle means that it is hard to get enough feedback, quickly, to truly assess the competence/value of your sales and marketing efforts; and
  2. Practices and businesses usually have the free cash flow to pay for business development/sales and marketing initiatives when they don’t need them (in other words when times are good), and don’t have the cash when times are difficult (like in a recession when billable hours drop like a lead balloon.)

In other words, we need the concepts and techniques behind sales and marketing when we don’t have the funds; and they don’t “work” at first because of the long cycle and fact that it takes time to get everything right.

You have to be counterintuitive to do it right — invest the funds in sales and marketing well before a recession, prove their value (even though you don’t need the work) and be confident that it makes sense to stay the budget course on sales and marketing when things turn south and you need to cut corners and costs to survive.

Yes, this is the nasty and frankly under-told fact-of-life about the role of sales and marketing in our industry.

How should we deal with the situation?

We should respect that business development and marketing budgets should be tightly managed, in good times as well as hard. I think principals should appreciate the incremental value of strategic business development/marketing plans and focus on areas where they can achieve the highest return at the lowest cost, including relevant client-focused association activities, solid proposal preparation training, and developing systems for client referral and retention. You can certainly also improve your online presence with an effective website and social media strategy.

If you keep the costs under control, then the ROI becomes meaningful — and much easier to sustain through the inevitable cycles within this industry.

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