How to Position Your A/E Firm for Success

By Terry Stringer posted 09-04-2014 10:26

Ever wonder why some engineering firms firms are so much more successful than their competitors? In just about any market, you’ll find that a small group of firms win the most business. What’s the difference? It isn't price. It isn't talent. It isn't customer service...  It's Focus.

These firms have figured out that better isn't always better. Different is better.

It’s been proven time and again buyers want brands that are narrow in scope. Ask any Corvette owner what kind of car they own. They’ll say “Vette” not Chevrolet. Because the Chevrolet brand is weak. Corvette is a focused brand, more powerful than Chevy. When you try to sell everything, you limit your ability to build a strong brand.

Sadly, this is how many engineering firms describe their services:

All-the-Same Engineering provides full-service consulting and support in civil, structural, environmental and geotechnical engineering with emphasis in industrial, commercial and residential development; land, planning; superstructures and foundations; hydrology; municipal management and inspection; and land surveying.

Whew! This firm does it all. But can you tell what this firm stand’s for? Neither can anyone else. Because when you try to be everything to everybody, you end up being nothing to nobody. And this is the single biggest problem facing the A/E world today. In a word, it’s sameness. And this sameness is what’s fueling a raging commoditization fire. When every firm looks and acts the same, the only thing left to compete for is price.

What Clients Don't Want

Ironically, sameness is exactly what buyers of professional services - your clients - don’t want. Did you know, “Being like everyone else” is second on their list of things to avoid? Just behind “Broken Promises”. Poor customer service is dead last on their list of things to watch out for.

Quality of service doesn't rank much better either. Customer service and quality are commodities. Thought leadership is not. So if you want to win more business, stop talking Quality. Stop talking Customer Service and stop talking Full-Service. Start being different. Better different.

Why is everybody the same?

Most business owners have a natural fear of focus. Figuring that by offering a narrow range of services will diminish their ability to grow sales. Because more services means more markets, right? That by expanding their service offerings will build their brands. In addition, firm owners often look to the competition to decide what to do rather than navigate by their own sense of what’s right. The truth is, nobody buys a product or service because it can do everything, but rather because it can do something.

Why You Should Be Different

Put yourself in your client’s shoes for a moment. For example, imagine a client that specializes in developing mixed use hotel/office buildings across the country. The client needs to procure a solid engineering firm to design the structural systems for all of their hotels and parking garages. They begin a search and find a dozen or more of All-the-Same Engineering Services, all saying the same thing, all making the same promises.

If you were that client, who would you choose amongst them? How would you choose? If everyone looks the same, you choose no one and are basically forced to keep the incumbent engineering firm you worked with on the last project. They’re not your first choice because you are beginning to question their value proposition. But until you find something better, it’s all you have. This is a common scenario.

The good news is that your competitor’s clients aren't as loyal as you feared. An existing relationship ties for last place on their selection criteria.

Enter the Specialist

Now imagine an engineering firm that has staked out a differentiating positioning strategy. One that capitalizes on their core strengths:

Site Development Engineering Serving Big-Box Retailers.

They focus on this sector because it’s what the company founders are really passionate about. And are darn good at it too. Their focus has allowed them to become the best in the industry and are considered thought leaders when it comes to commercial retail land development.

They have a modern-looking website that clearly articulates their value proposition. The minute you visit their home page you sense this company is driven by a purpose. It showcases who they are, what they do, what they don’t do, and why they’re so good at it. Their reputation for this type of work is proven by a strong portfolio of past projects. They demonstrate their unique expertise with an active blog which offers valuable advice to developers in this space.

So again, here are your choices:

  1. All-the-Same Engineering
  2. The Specialist

Who would you select? Rather than being mildly appealing to a large group of prospects, this company is intensely appealing to a select group of prospects.

These differentiated companies dominate their category and will always win the work, hands down. Meanwhile, the “All-the-Same” firms will continue copying each other, wasting time and money responding to endless RFPs and chasing after the same local clients.

The focused firm gets this:

  • Greater earning power because they know more.
  • A larger geographical market area because they draw clients nationally, not just from their own zip code.
  • Fewer competitors.
  • Better clients because they're more enthusiastic about doing business with you.
  • Freedom from life-sucking RFPs.

And those are the reasons you need to be different.

Narrow Your Focus

Narrowing your focus allows you to build a well-tuned operating model dedicated to delivering unmatched value. Take HOK Sport Venue Event (now called Populous) for example. This is a firm that was originally spun off from HOK in 1983 that specializes in the design of sports arenas. They know the value of differentiation and how it can lead to total market domination. They weren't afraid of focus. They were afraid of being left out. They were the first firm to say, "Sports arenas are what we do”.  They continue to climb ENR’s Top 500 Design Firms rankings.

You can be successful without being large and expanded. No one cheers for Goliath; they always cheer for David. A narrow focus makes your Unique Value Proposition (UVP) stronger and easier to articulate to the minds of your prospective clients. It is by far the best way to differentiate yourself.

Learn to Say, "Sorry, We Don’t Do That"

It feels counter-intuitive but contracting your range of services will actually strengthen your brand. The road to profitability is paved with strong value propositions in which a company makes a specific promise to a specific type of client.

Take a close look at what your firm is offering today. Do you offer services that are outside of your passion? If so, consider eliminating them. Focus on what you really love doing and leave the rest for whomever. You must be courageous, make that decision, step through that door, and close it behind you. Learn to say, “Sorry, we don’t do that.”