Development

aec social media – myth vs. reality.

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an honest look at audiovisual consulting.

I recently read an interesting blog posting by a small regional technology systems integrator, claiming there is a changing paradigm in audiovisual consulting where the integrator is now “agnostic” in their recommendations to their clients because of wide access to products and “real world” experience.

Almost 20 years ago, I made a similar argument in my byline column in Systems Contractor News, one of the leaders in the AV industry trade press, while I served as design director for national systems integration company. I suspected then—and know today—I was wrong. While there may be some truth to the fact that most integrators have access to most manufacturer’s equipment, “most’ never equates with “all,” nor does most necessarily or logically equate with “agnostic.” Nor does “real world” inherently equate to expertise or focus on client value.

My perspective comes from having worked most of my 36-year career in the audiovisual industry, serving in leadership roles in nationally-recognized consulting, integration, and manufacturing companies. I have also served on the executive staff of two large national architecture/engineering firms, who hire consultants and work with integrators and manufacturers, as well as serving on the board of InfoComm International, and as the founding chair of their independent consultants’ council.

Consultants, integrators, and manufacturers each serve a valuable role in the supply chain of providing effective production, presentation, and performance systems to meet our clients’ needs for communication, collaboration, and celebration. Each role is also inherently distinct. Each role has perspective and bias. Each role has value. Having served in the executive management of all three roles, I know from experience that each has a motivation to make a profit.

The true independent consultant, as exemplified by firms (Full disclosure I am a principal with The Sextant Group, one of the better ones, IMHO) that provide design expertise in conceptual planning, infrastructure design using the latest 3-dimensional building information modeling protocols, detailed systems design interconnection diagrams, functional and performance systems specifications, and thorough systems testing and commissioning. They sell value-based, solution-focused, expertise, which is based on optimizing quality, schedule, and cost for the client’s benefit. They make their profit from “selling the invisible,” as author Harry Beckwith would say. Their value comes in helping their clients develop a vision that creates a long-term lasting solution that adapts to the inevitable change of technology and, more often than not, saves money by creating a robust infrastructure and tightly specified, competitively bid, systems designs.

The systems integrator provides technical expertise in system procurement configuration, installation, setup, training, and maintenance support. They sell the products and labor to implement the design consultant’s vision. Where they serve in the role of a self-performing contractor or sub-contractor in a design/build project delivery, at the end of the day, they still make their profit from selling products and labor.

The manufacturer provides product-specific expertise in applications and performance in support of the consultant’s “need to know” and the integrator’s “need to know how.” Most manufacturers sell products in a narrowly defined niche (i.e., audio, video, control, furniture, etc.) in the audiovisual systems market. Those that offer products across multiple vertical niches (e.g., Crestron, Harman, FSR, etc.) gray the lines, but, for the most part, they rely on consultants to “specify” and integrators to “sell” their products and generate profit.

Some might argue that consultant, integrator or manufacturer may have staff who carry industry “expertise-based” certifications (i.e., InfoComm’s CTS and CTS-D), and therefore are qualified to consult. Those certifications only establish a baseline bar of knowledge. They do nothing to invalidate the fundamental business motivators of each, nor predict the application of that expertise will be focused solely on client value.

For the client, the service and product provider’s profit is not a bad thing. These are all high value roles. However, when any stray from their core competency, that value becomes less clear, and often of diminished, or even questionable value. A consultant who has a financial tie or interest to a product, system, or service they are recommending is not “agnostic.” They are inherently biased. And the client will pay a higher price for that bias in the form of their counsel and their recommendations.

An integrator who offers consulting services, claiming they are “agnostic” is either a fool or delusional. Integrators make profit from recommending and selling the products that net them the greatest competitive advantage. Their management sees the business model this way, their sales staff is incentivized this way, and their installation staff is directed this way. If they do not, they will not survive in the competitive marketplace.

Integrators have an inherent bias to recommend the products that net them the most profit, period, end of story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but saying so up front would be the honest thing. Claiming “real world” experience trumps true independent consulting is self-serving at least and disingenuous at best. Their clients are paying the price not necessarily in dollars but in potentially lower or lesser system performance.

A manufacturer who offers consulting (for free) or integration (for fee) is never agnostic either, and rarely claims to be. However, they may be myopic. They only know what they know. The client may benefit from a bespoke solution, but it will be at the expense of a concept narrowly defined and integration that is not part of the manufacturer’s real skill set.

To further muddy the waters, manufacturers almost always incentivize their dealers, represented by the systems integrator’s management and sales staff, to promote their products. The integrator counts on the fact that client won’t know that to maintain their annual purchasing (profit) margin, the integrator’s management commits to selling x-dollars of a manufacturer’s products each year. Nor will they know that the sales person is getting a “spiff” in the form of a free trip to Hawaii because they just “recommended” (read “sold”) a particular product to a customer x-amount of times.

Similarly, clients are usually unaware that the manufacturer underwrites the integrator’s marketing budget with cooperative spending accounts (Beware of “sponsored content” used to embellish the integrator’s credibility that is really just an advertisement for someone’s product.). Some might call that collaboration; I think “incestuous” is more accurate, but certainly never “agnostic.”

To be fair, there are no “perfect” consultants, as there are no perfect integrators, nor manufacturers. Many consultants may be independent, but lack the expertise or experience to truly lead their clients toward well-planned, future-proof, technically appropriate and responsibly budgeted solutions, not just document, like stenographers, what their clients say they want. The field is ripe with consultants who deliver limited detail, poorly defined, or worse, gold-plated solutions, designed to “see what happens.” Even worse, some consultants rely on the integrator to cover their shortcomings and use their relationship with the client to ensure that happens. I’ve had the displeasure of representing clients in litigation against the former and working for the latter in the past. Neither was exemplary of an industry where the majority serve their clients well.

And I’ve dealt too often with a few manufacturers who over-promise and under-deliver on products that were touted as the new, new thing, guaranteed to not only meet but exceed a client’s expectation at a reduced budget, but did neither.

One of my old bosses, a retired colonel from the Army’s Corps of Engineers, used to say to me, “Stay in your own lane!” whenever I would offer commentary outside of my role in the firm. His perspective may have come from the old command and control paradigm, but was usually right because I did not have the “real” perspective of the operations or financial managers who were my peers that I was second guessing.

In this case, I’ve walked in all three lanes, so When it comes to AV systems design, integration and product production, I believe he could not have been more right. These lanes of consulting, integration, and manufacturing provide our clients with the optimal mix of expertise and beneficial high value technical solutions.

My advice to client’s seeking counsel, “Be aware of the differences and work collaboratively with each leveraging their unique expertise and contribution to your project for the highest value.”

For more on this topic, please see John Cook’s perspective at The Sextant Group’s True North.

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resilience.

One of the biggest challenges for the professional service firm is learning from losing. Most of us familiar with the request for qualifications/interview/select/negotiate/award (RFQ) process, know that odds are decidedly not in our favor. Like baseball’s best .300-average hitters, a great “hit rate” is usually about 30-35 percent. But that also means that more than half the time you are not on the winning team.

The measure of the strong practice is its resilience to loss. Unfortunately, many firms see this process as just a numbers game. Thinking that by submitting on as many RFQ opportunities as possible, the percentages will average out is what makes Las Vegas casino owners smile. While a strong portfolio of experience and resident experts may get the attention of a client during the submittal review, it is rare that those same qualifiers will alone win the work.

When a project is lost, whether at the submittal stage or at the interview, the best course of action is not to keep cranking out qualifications statements for under-qualified opportunities, but to continue to develop the relationship with the clients you actually want to work with. Spending time and money on to really know and understand a potential client’s needs, more often than not, put you a step ahead of the competition.

So if that loss was for a client you really want, set up a meeting to debrief. Talk about the plusses the wining firm had, not the minuses of your submittal or interview team. Learn what they value, and take it to heart.

The criteria I have found best for identifying new potential clients is creating a list of those companies who look like my best (i.e., most revenue, most profitable) clients. Mindlessly chasing anything that moves is a waste of time and talent.

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the architecture of image.

I am happy to announce that my new book, The Architecture of Image: Branding Your Professional Service is now available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Bookwire. The book will also be available at the bookstore at SMPS’ Build Business Conference in Orlando, FL, July 31-August 2.

The premise: The brand of the professional service firm is one of the most misunderstood and often under-utilized tools used to build market share and increase business. Your brand is critical to establishing and sustaining your firm’s image in the market, and critical to the creation of a successful and enduring professional practice.

In the book, I explore how culture, collaboration, and communication create, develop, and sustain an enduring brand. Beginning with a fundamental discovery process, building on collaborative values, and becoming finite, definable and reportable results, this book will help you establish a culture that values the power of your brand. Sharing insights, best practices, and examples from some of the leading brands and marketing thought leaders in the AEC industry, The Architecture of Image provides your firm with the understanding and tools to establish an enduring brand in the professional service marketplace.

I’ve been very pleased with the initial response to the publication, and am happy to share some of the first reviews:

“Park has captured for all of us in the AEC industry the essence of what it takes to be successful developers and marketers of our brand–a heretofore little understood concept in the industry. His book should be required reading for every client-facing member of our firms from new grad to CEO.”

JOE BROOKS
Director of Corporate Marketing
Burns & McDonnell

“As a nationally recognized master of marketing A/E services, Park takes a fresh and fascinating look at the whole concept of branding. His book guides you to a highly effective approach to evaluate and implement a brand strategy. A must read!”

PATRICK BELL
President
Patrick C. Bell & Company

“Dispelling the myths of what branding isn’t, Park provides a laser focus on what many have found to be an elusive and mysterious concept for professional service firms and gets to the heart of the matter of effectivebranding. Drawn on real-world experiences from his exemplary career and those of other marketing legends, the examples provided, advice cited, and recommendations made can make an immediate and lasting difference.”

JUDY L. HRICAK, CPSM
Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer
Gannett Fleming

You can also order an autographed copy from my website, craigpark.com. I also provide a presentation on the subjects covered by the book, including profiles of some of the AEC industry’s leading brands. Contact me for more information.

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connecting clients and communities.

One of the best ways to build brand recognition for your professional service is to get involved with your clients’ communities. In any professional service, you will have clients that represent the vertical markets in which you choose to practice. Most in marketing and business development focus on those — finding places and ways to interact, network, and connect. Business and professional associations —from the licensure societies that accredit professionals to B2B associations like local chambers of commerce — are where your clients go to interact with their peers. These meetings provide natural and logical places to network.

Networking — the social aspect of making connections — is important. But to be truly effective the marketer and business developer needs to get involved. Volunteerism, for the benefit of the professional organization, is one of the hallmarks of personal and professional leadership. Making the effort to provide service, support, and resources for the association helps the organization meet its mandate for member benefit. Serving on a committee or task force, stepping up to chair a strategic effort, or being elected to a board of directors, all provide excellent ways to both help and build positive visibility.

However, that volunteer effort, while certainly viable, often overlooks the potential to serve your client’s clients, and by extension, their communities. Serving in your client’s clients associations provides not only the value of the volunteer, but connects you to the core issues facing their markets, organizations, and communities. It has the added benefit of raising your visibility to a level of contributor well beyond that of just your professional service.

Get involved with your clients and your clients’ clients communities! It is a very worthwhile brand building effort.

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facts tell, stories sell.

One of the most impactful business development strategies is storytelling.

However, in this era of ‘big data,’ professional service firms — and particularly their marketers and business developers — rely primarily on facts and statistics to convey their value proposition. There is nothing more scintillating to a client than hearing that a firm is ‘over 100 years old,’ has ‘20 (or more) offices,’ has ‘500 licensed engineers,’ or has constructed ‘more than 1M square feet’ of new buildings in the last 10 years. Oh, and by the way, we are ‘always’ on time and on budget.

Just kidding!

Too often, these mind-numbing, eye-glazing factoids have replaced real narrative about the challenge, the approach, the solution, and the benefits, as ‘proof’ of the ability of the firm to provide real and sustainable value for their clients. Why? Facts are simple to remember and to regurgitate. For the non-technical marketing and business developer, facts are the ‘easy’ answer. Writing value-based narrative is increasingly a lost art. And, again too often, the original storytellers (those involved in the development and delivery of the service) are gone or weren’t asked.

Today, there is such a focus on the structure and the data contained in ‘customer relationship management’ systems as the ‘be all, end all’ resource for ‘knowledge’ that the stories have gotten lost in the database. And, with the rise of visual media (i.e., film and television) and instant, mass communication (i.e., the Internet and all of its resources; combined with the era of instant access of the ‘bring your own device’) has had a noticeable impact on both the narrator and the narrative.

To get back to effective storytelling, communicators, whether marketer or business developer, must engage with the consultants, designers, engineers, and project managers, and the clients, who are involved in each project at the outset. Start a dialogue, document the progress, and create a story worth telling, and hearing. Nothing ‘sells’ like a good story.

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everything changes… get used to it.

Welcome to my first blog posting of 2013. In the past I’ve written about patience and impermanence, but thought it was timely to revisit Buddha, the marketing strategist.

One of the basic precepts of Buddhism teaches that impermanence is reality. Nothing stays the same. Change is constant. When you realize that circumstances — often situations well out of our control — can have a significant and sustained influence on our business, it can help focus our strategic marketing efforts on flexible, adaptable and agile programs. Realize that the same influence of impermanence impacts in equal measure our clients (and our clients’ clients). This, in turn, implies the need to be ever mindful of the social, technologic, economic and political factors surrounding our marketplace.

It is easy to overlook big picture shifts that happen at a glacial pace. The subtle can be much more insidious than the gross. Disruptive changes — whether catastrophic like major weather events or innovative like a new discovery or technology — are far easier to grasp and respond to. When the shift is long in coming, elusive or amorphous it can be harder to make the necessary adjustments. Take the demise of Kodak as an example. Their failure to acknowledge the slow but steady change over the last two decades from film to digital forced their bankruptcy and forever changes the market’s perception of their value.

A second Buddhist precept is acceptance. However change manifests it is critical to not react by “hunkering down” and hoping (more often praying) that this will all be back to normal “real soon now.” One only need to read the volumes on the “new normal” economy triggered by the 2008/09 “Great Recession” to realize that those firms that hunkered were quickly surpassed by those that took immediate action to restructure, redesign, and reposition to capture a smaller, but still relevant market share.

Once you accept impermanence, you can act effectively and accordingly. Increasing the frequency of your market planning, monitoring closely the direct and indirect influences having an impact your clients, and even more closely monitoring the communication efforts of your competitors, and prepare our firms to move quickly when circumstances change.

Patience is the third of the Buddhist virtues, as it is in many other cultures and philosophical paradigms. Though impermanence may force radical action and acceptance may help rationalize the need for change, adopting a patient perspective provides the foundation for long-term success. Rarely do new strategies have immediate impact. Focusing on consistent communication of value — defined in client-facing terms and based on the new realities driven by change — positions your firm for an enduring and profitable future.

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fundamental foundational focus.

As we start a new year, I’ve found myself going back to the fundamental business development processes that I learned from early mentors.

1) Know your market. Expertise, experience and proven excellence define your niche (and be happy for that). The challenge when opportunities are slim, is chasing after anything that smells like work. Unfortunately, many succumb to fear and waste good energy on bad behavior. Revisit your vision and values and spend time researching clients (and their clients) who align with your strengths. Knowledge trumps unfocused activity every time.

2) Respect your network. Everyone in professional services, regardless of specialty, are in the same boat: fewer projects, more competition, and downward fee pressure. Invest time connecting and reconnecting with those you know, whether they can bring you business (or lead you to business). Learn what they see, share what you know, seek commonalities, consider jointly beneficial strategies.

3) Tell your story. Even with fewer projects, there are still projects to talk about. Leverage the media (“All PR is good PR!”) and share challenges, benefits and proofs with your clients, potential clients, and their clients, and their communities. When times are slow, building your media network is as critical as building your pipeline.

Spend each day researching what’s new, calling old friends, and sharing stories (and get in some billable time too, please… lol!). A few years ago, we were saying “It will be heaven in 2011.” Well, that didn’t exactly pan out. Last year, we were saying “Stay lean until 2013.” That is still good advice. Put your time, effort and money in simple, focused efforts that will pay off in the long run. That’s where your priorities should be.

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the six phases of the creative act.

Creativity is the life blood of the marketing effort. Without skillful ideation, every firm would look like every other firm—the death knell of a brand. Over the years, I’ve written and spoken about the six phases of a project, both seriously and tongue in cheek because an organized process is critical to the successful delivery of high value service.

Similarly, this process approach can be applied to the creating a new message, establishing or sustaining a position in the market, or simply identifying possibilities for new services. This process also is defined in six phases.

1. considering the possibilities
Engage regularly in a freewheeling, no holds barred, no wrong answers, brainstorming, “idea factory” meeting. Set a strategic premise (what is your goal) and then let the creativity begin. Without exception there will be some good, some bad, and some “what if we could…” ideas. Avoid setting implicit or implied limits (e.g., don’t stop at “going global” when you could be “going galactic”), and definitely don’t raise judgments or doubts for anyone’s suggestion. Inspiration and innovation often come from the least likely idea. Don’t be afraid to look outside your normal spheres of influence. Check out the completion; better check out your clients. A marketing message that resonates is driven by benefits and value.

2. freeform associative cognition
Spend some time prioritizing (but don’t throw any ideas away). Focus on three good ideas that meet your strategic goal and expand on them. What is their message? How would they be seen or experienced by the customer? How will they be extended into other aspects of your practice. How are they expressed (i.e., what medium and media)? As in step 1, there are no wrong answers—all ideas are good ideas. Look back at the early ideas (that didn’t move forward) and see if any expand, complement, or improve the ones you are studying.

3. discipline and focus
Pick one! This is the hardest step, since you probably have many good ideas to choose from. Take that “really” good idea and think through all the options to take it from concept to fruition, from inspiration to execution. What resources are needed? What budget? How quickly can you “go to market.” This is the time to set out a plan that moves from the idea forward. Most plans can be developed in just a few hours, no more than a few days, and none should span more than 6 weeks. Setting an aggressive schedule keeps the focus on the goal, and keeps the idea fresh.

4. effecting a solution
This is where the “rubber meets the road!” Buddha said, “An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that only exists as an idea.” However your idea manifests—as a new piece of collateral or e-marketing; a move into new market; or an event or promotional effort—this is the time to follow through by making it visible. This is where the idea is translated into form, where you show it to the world, and where it builds your brand.

5. retrospection
Take a breath. Sleep on it. Don’t worry. And definitely, don’t second guess yourself. Many good (even great) ideas go to market and don’t realize the impact that was hoped for. But conversely, many do make a difference, set a new high water mark for the brand, and become iconic and remain memorable. And many great ideas morph into new, new ideas that take that initial creativity and expand into even greater innovation.

6. happy feet.
Smile. At the end of the day, you’ll have developed a new, new marketing program, built on the six phases of the creative act, and will be ready to go back to number one and start again.

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collaborative intelligence.

Each year, the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) stages a major event, their Build Business conference. This building industry-focused conference, features speakers covering topics of advanced marketing and business development techniques, market-sector focused panels, and keynotes from noted thought leaders and authors. Examples of some of the best “award winning” ideas for collateral, communication, and client appreciation are featured at the conference’s black-tie Awards Gala. Details of the programs and speakers can be found at www.buildbusiness.org.

I’ve been attending these annual gatherings of professional service marketing’s leaders and thought leaders since 1989. In over 20 years, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing such business greats as Tom Peters and Dan Pink, and meeting thousands of my peers from across the country and from every sector of the building industry. What distinguishes this convention over many other industry events is the quality of the programming and the emphasis on networking, combined with the exuberant enthusiasm and optimism that you will only find in the company of dedicated marketing professionals. “Work hard, play hard” could easily be the subtext of the conference.

At the end of the three days, stimulated by new ideas, invigorated by the collaborative intelligence gained from interacting with professionals focused on growing their business, expanding their market share, and delivering increasingly differentiated service, I return to my firm prepared to “hit the ground running” motivated by new ideas and new connections.

If you’re in the professional service industry, especially if you work in a building-industry related firm, SMPS’ Build Business conference is not to be missed. Attend, learn and share!

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