What should you do when good people say bad things about your industry?

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GTA Construction Report CoverReaders here are well aware of how the public perceives much of the contracting industry: The stories of rip-offs, crappy work, unethical business practices, and bid manipulation/gaming (and change order practices) could fill several volumes.

Equally, we certainly have opinions about others: Contractors gripe about crappy designs and badly written specs (and then put in their change orders to capture profits from the mistakes); designers and owners complain about poor workmanship, failure to deliver on schedule, and quite often disputes arise over scope of work . . . This business can (and often does) descend into a mess of litigation. Check at your local courthouse for filings — and you will probably be surprised (as I was initially, not now) to find a huge percentage of disputes relate to the AEC industry.

Then, of course, we run into the stories about what the AEC community thinks about the marketing and publishing industries. Since I never identify any business or organization negatively in this blog, I’ll have to be vague, but  you don’t need to look hard to find complaints about lead services, search engine optimization deals, and — closest to my business — publishers playing around with supply-chain relationships to encourage subs to “support” advertising features.

Ouch.

This is our business and how we make our money.

However, if you read through the threads of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (smps.org)s Certified Professional Service Marketer (CPSM) listserve, you’ll find, every few months, members asking about publications proposing feature profiles about their practice and/or projects, in exchange for the opportunity to invite subs and suppliers to participate as supporting advertisers.

Almost inevitably, several members will volunteer with observations about how unethical the practice is, often retelling stories about abusive and unethical behaviour by the publishers.

I cringe. The stories are undoubtedly true. We have some pretty scuzzy competition, who go for the one-strike-you-are-out approach to business. That is, these publishers don’t care about burning relationships, because they’ll just go out and find other suckers to rip off.

(Have you ever seen this sort of stuff in the contracting business?  Yep, it isn’t exclusive to publishing, though as contractors you would say these are the minority and the fly-by-nights generally don’t hurt your business that much, because ultimately the customers discover you can do your work well as you repair the bad guys’ messes. Same here.)

That is why I really enjoyed this posting on the listserve.  I’ll ask for permission to identify the posting business, but, until I receive it, won’t identify the organization here. (The comments don’t reflect badly on the organization, so I feel safe in republishing the material here). This posting shows the nuances and issues affecting our business and how a local practice decided on a strategy which, in my opinion, is fair and responsible:

SCENARIO 1:

We have two local publications that write articles about local construction projects. Are they pay to play? Well, in a sense. The only way that these publications can stay in business is through advertising – as with any trade publication! These publications provide a valuable service to the local A/E/C community as well as to buyers of A/E/C services. The articles are always well-written and generally the writer brings out additional “flavorful” information that helps us round out our own project descriptions that we use for marketing. And, the building owner (client) loves that their building project has been profiled.

I love it when one of our projects gets profiled in one of these local publications for all of the above reasons. Do I give the publishers a list of vendors and subconsultants? Absolutely, with a clear conscience because as was discussed in a previous thread, this is one way that subconsultants can help share the cost of the marketing effort because marketing continues AFTER the project is complete. In the case of our 2 local publications, advertising rates are very reasonable – a subconsultant can place a small ad at a very reasonable rate and savvy subconsultants, from a business standpoint, should look at this as an effective, economical way to get the word out that they were associated with a particular project. The same pool of prime consultants who might hire them will be reading these same journals.

However, in most cases, the MAJORITY of those subs do not advertise and we don’t pressure them in any way to feel as though they must in order to get future work from us.  And, by having a long-term relationship with the 2 publications, we are confident that their sales tactics are not such that they give the impression that the sub must advertise in order to maintain a positive relationship with us, the prime. So, in my opinion, it is “win-win.” The publishers are providing newsworthy, valuable information to the local market and, hopefully, bringing in enough advertising revenue to continue doing so. 

SCENARIO 2:

A national glitzy magazine that may publish 4 times a year and has project layouts with coffee-table-type photographic layouts comes to us and wants to “profile our firm.” In this case, the advertising prices are enormously expensive, are not widely read by our local market and focus on the firm and not any particular client/project. They ALWAYS use high-pressure tactics on the subs to buy an ad. We NEVER participate in these pay-to-play schemes because we consider them very one-sided ego boosters for the profiled firms and onerous advertising burdens to our valuable partners who would not be spending their marketing dollars wisely in this case.

I certainly can relate to these observations, because we operate more in the “Scenario 1” than “Scenario 2” space. As the writer indicates, our business thrives because of repeat business — and we don’t get that business by abusing relationships, especially with sub-trades and suppliers.

Of course, we still run into problems with the bad apples — and that makes our marketing challenge harder because of well-developed negative perceptions of our industry because of the competition’s behaviour. The solution, of course, is simple. If you do your work well enough, over a long enough time, you’ll build a strong network of satisfied repeat and referral clients, with some strong centres of influence and recognition. And when you do, you can overcome the image and branding challenge set up for you by the negative public perception of your industry.

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