Planning

the one constant.

Change is the one constant we can count on. Whether revolutionary or evolutionary, the dynamic of progress leads to transition. It sometimes seems that these transitions are often the hardest aspects of business to comprehend and resolve. As a wise friend once told me, recognizing that change happens “for” us, not “to” us, can help frame the challenge into an opportunity for growth.

In professional services, the vagaries of global economics means no market is “certain.” Staying the course is too often a recipe for disaster. In this era of big data and predictive analytics, there are many tools and resources that can be leveraged to identify both trends in current markets and opportunities in new markets. The savvy marketer will make it a priority to pay as much or more attention to the horizon as to the present moment. Finding the balance between now and “when” is critical to navigating the waters of change that will impact the future of the practice.

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resolution v. resolve.

It’s that time of year when we look back and find those aspects of our personal and professional lives that we know we could change—should change—to enable improved outcomes in our life and our work. And like most, developing a laundry list of resolutions is easy: spend less, eat less, and drink less and exercise more to improve health; network more, learn more, focus more and spend less to improve business. And like most, realizing the path from could to should to will is too often littered with a loss of resolve.

So this year, what will be different? In my case ‘all of the above’ top the list. However, that ‘do it all’ attitude is tempered by a new insight into the what, why, how and when I will achieve those resolutions.

For most professional service firms, it’s a little different. In most companies, the strategic goals that define the resolutions for improvement are not universally clear. Everyone in the firm has a set that most often are defined by personal need (or want) that may or may not align with the goals for the practice. If leadership has a clear vision—and communicates not only the impact and effort needed to reach a far horizon objective, but the anticipated results as well—then alignment of personal goals that support the larger effort is possible; maybe even highly probable.

I approach 2015 with a new perspective on the planning process that I believe can lead to a more effective plan. I had the opportunity to work with a client who introduced me to the concept of appreciative inquiry and a foundational structure based on identifying positive attributes of goals, strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results. Different than more traditional planning formats that emphasize overcoming weaknesses or threats, which can stratify and stultify an organization, appreciative planning focuses on five simple yet important questions:

1. What’s Important? Define goals as an outcome. Frame the outcome as benefit to your clients, your people, and the larger community in which you serve. This can be one or a series of core objectives that define the vision and mission of the practice.

2. What’s Working? Define the structures, processes, focus, markets, people, expertise, value, etc.—the strengths—that are bringing the highest value to your clients, the organization, and the industry where you practice, today.

3. What’s Could Be? This is the chance to dream, and dream big! If all things were possible (no restrictions) what would we do differently? What else could we do? This is a real opportunity for blue sky thinking can create a sense of adventure and excitement and reignite passions for the practice that may have waned with the daily rigors of too much work too little time.

4. What Should Be? What are our core aspirations? What would be the ideal? This is where dream meets design. How can you take your expertise, experience, and excellent proofs of concept, and apply them to the opportunities identified for growth? This stage identifies strategies needed to achieve the aspirations, and aligns them with the people who will be responsible for leading the effort to see them to fruition.

5. What Will Be? For the leadership, these are the results-oriented and agreed upon set of strategies and tactics for the given measure of time where resources will be focused to achieve the goals. This iterative roadmap sets the direction and identifies the highest and best opportunities for positive change.

Note that iterative and change are important aspects of the fifth phase of the planning process. We live/work in an ever more rapidly changing world, so that no matter how detailed the plan becomes, there need to be built in regular reviews and revisions to adjust to changing markets and take advantage of new opportunities as the present themselves.

Equally important is developing how the plan is communicated. For most organizations, not everyone is engaged in the planning process, so that informing your staff of the strengths, opportunities, aspirations and desired results is critical. Similarly, engaging your clients, client’s clients, and your community can have the added benefit on extending the value of your services.

Marketing is the communication arm of any practice that is best positioned to help translate the plans vision, mission, and objectives into tactical messages, with a view toward those strategic initiatives that will differentiate the practice and provide the highest customer value. Engaging the marketing staff from the outset of the planning process ensures that message aligns with core values.

With a focus on clarity and measurable result expectations—tied to realistic budget and schedule—communicating strategy should be the first resolution for each year. It sets the stage for firm-wide and personal resolutions that we each resolve to meet—and better—exceed.

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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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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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balancing act.

The role of the professional service firm is to provide advisory knowledge to benefit a client’s interests or issues. The challenge each firm faces is balancing their efforts between multiple clients—needed to maintain and grow the practice—and to serve them all with equal energy and focus. The marketer’s role is to help prioritize the identification, pursuit, and acquisition of new clients consistent with the operational abilities of the firm to serve them.

Collaborations between marketing and operational leadership ensures that growth strategies focus on winning new work with clients who’s needs align with the capability of the service firm to excel at providing solutions. In a challenging economy—marked by fewer potential opportunities and increased competition—marketing strategies must focus on building and winning work within the firm’s “sweet spot” and not be lured into wasting energy on low probability pursuits.

At the same time, operational focus must ensure that equal and excellent effort is put forward to meet existing obligations for all current clients, regardless of size or stature. Every client deserves your best. Regardless of size or scope, the result of right practice pays dividends. Referrals and references, kudos and awards, repeat business and extended engagements result from delivering exemplary service to each client, based on their goals and objectives, and your ability to deliver the desired service.

This combination of strategic focus and operational excellence is the hallmark of the successful professional service firm. Those who learn to balance the two can succeed beyond expectation.

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to go or not to go.

That is the question. However, in these days of limited opportunities, the answer always seems to be “go!” Should it be? That’s the real question.

Competition for professional services, even in good times, is defined by the functions of expertise, experience, and the ability to differentiate and deliver “relevant” solutions. It is even more so today, with limited resources on the client side to originate projects, and increased competition (by multiples unheard of in recent past) on the provider side.

As a result, the tendency of many firms in dire need to generate revenue is to chase any request for qualifications or proposal no matter how far afield from their core competency or serviceable geography. Worse, the chase proceeds with little or no knowledge, let alone relationship with the client’s decision makers. At what cost?

It would be one thing if the marketing effort to create a statement of qualifications or fee proposal, preparation of technical solution “ideas” and the ultimate presentation materials (and time and expense of technical professionals) was “free.” But it is not. Calculating your average “cost of goods sold” (to use the manufacturer’s parlance) would show that those costs can easily run into the tens of thousands (on larger pursuits, hundreds of thousands) of dollars.

With no prior relationship with the client, no prior knowledge of the project, no experience with that type of project, no knowledge of the deliverable expectations, schedule or budget, and no forethought to the availability or capability of internal resources (i.e., people) to first “win” the work, and then “do” the work, the chances of actually winning the work is at best “slim to none.” (Note: you can use those 5 questions to create a simple go/no-go checklist that will save you time and money!) No matter how good you think your portfolio of experience is, it pales in the light of relationships.

Put that same budget to client development and the results are markedly different. One 20 year study showed that service providers, who invested six to nine months of strategically orchestrated “time” to developing depth and breadth in the “relationship” with a client, won subsequent work 80% of the time. More often than not, they understood the client’s business better, they knew the key client personnel on a personal level, and they were in a position to share “for free” honest, advisory expertise to help that client better craft the program for the project.

Invest your time and money in that approach, and “go” will always be the answer. And, winning more work, the result!

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front row on a roller coaster.

One of the marketing challenges of small (and many large) professional service practices is to not fall into the comfort of the “next big win.” Back in the day, having charted my own 25-person firm’s monthly ‘new business’ and I noted a surprising anomaly.

We’d win work, then we’d do the work, then we’d look for more work, win that work, then we’d do that work. And on, and on, and on. At the end of the year, quarter or month (didn’t really matter), our revenue stream looked like a roller coaster ride.

And when times were good, that was OK. But in a challenging economy, relying on the last “big win” is a recipe for disaster. In fact, the strategy necessary to build a truly enduring practice is to embed marketing and business development into every aspect of the practice. Not won and done, but won of many!

This takes a different kind of strategic discipline than most professional service firms (and the technical staff that provide the “service”) have as a core competency. It takes a mindset (maybe a mind shift) that says for every 80% of your “billable” time, there should be 20% dedicated to the firm’s marketing and business development effort. Not a big price to pay, but one that most don’t put as a regimen or a requirement for their staff.

When everyone says, for 8 of every 40 hours (and yes, I know we all put in much more than that; but you can do the math), we contact our current and past “successful” clients (i.e., profitable) and we reach out to new potential clients (who look like them in business practice). We schedule time to talk, time to meet, even (for all you business developers), time to play golf, catch a game, or support their favorite charity (as a volunteer, not just a donor).

This roller coaster phenomenon comes from getting so excited by the recent adrenaline rush of the last ride that we forget we still have a long line to wait in before we get to experience the next one.

As much as I enjoy the adrenaline rush of the front row on the roller coaster, I’d much prefer a steady and consistent ride of a practice that values marketing and business development as a core competency that is as valuable as our technical skills, and the resultant steady and stable revenue graph.

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