Let's Do Lunch

How engineers should approach their jobs

Taking on bad business is one of the worst mistakes engineering and other technical consultants make. They accept commissions that are too large or too small, that present too much or too little of a challenge, or that require a degree of experience they have yet to achieve. They accept fees that discourage excellence. They accept contractual terms and conditions that require them to serve as guarantors of a perfect outcome. They agree to work with clients and client representatives that they know (or should know) to be problematical. It's axiomatic that any one of these situations can seriously aggravate risk, meaning that technical consultants have no right to complain when the mother of all biohazards strikes an impeller blade.

So why do they do it? Why do they do what they know (or certainly should know) is wrong? Put simply, because they believe they are lousy salespeople. And because they believe that, they are lousy salespeople. Because, first and foremost, good salespeople must believe in the product or service they are selling. And in the case of technical consultants, the product or service they are selling is themselves. Accordingly, their actions seem to say, "We're no good. Therefore, if we do not accept bad business, we may get no business at all. That's why we accept assignments we don't have any experience with, at far too low a fee, offered by slugs who don't pay but nonetheless demand we provide a degree of assurance that causes us to put our homes and first-born at risk should we or anyone else associated with the project – including the client or its representative(s) -- mess up.''

Suppose, for the sake of discussion, that you are a good salesperson and you know it. With self-confidence like that, do you waste your time selling to people and organizations that do not appreciate what you have for sale? Who won't pay on time or at all? Of course not! You understand that there are "a lot of fish in the ocean," and, that being the case, and you being a good angler, you might as well fish for what you want.

Is that the way it is for engineers and other technical consultants? Of course. For a given area of practice in almost any given geographical marketing area (GMA), a firm would do well to have a 5 percent market penetration. If that's your situation, 95 of every 100 projects you'd be eligible for would go to others. Surely, some of those projects would be offered by exactly the type of clients or client representatives you'd like to work with. And by applying even rudimentary marketing and sales skills, you'd be able to bring them "into the fold" and dismiss those that create aggravation and risk, despite your best efforts to turn them around.

The notion that "I can't sell" is laughable from the get-go. Bearing in mind that professional service selling comprises consultants selling themselves, just about all consultants have made at least one major sale: They have a job, something which people cannot have unless they're able to convince a prospective employer they have what it takes. Most of the same consultants also go out on dates from time to time and -- gasp! -- some are married!

To a very real extent, professional service selling does not involve much selling at all. It typically requires consultants to perform the research and planning required to be in the right place at the right time and to address appropriate topics. Throw in a handful of learned (knee-jerk reactionary, no-thought-required) responses (what you get from training as opposed to education), and -- voila -- a sales star is born.

The biggest problem with selling like that is the being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time part, because it requires consultants to move away from their comfort zone. As close as I can tell, that comfort zone comprises a chair in front of a computer keyboard and screen. Have lunch with a client representative? Yes, it happens from time to time, but only when a proje c t is ongoing. How dreadful it would be to have lunch (or breakfast or dinner) with a client representative between projects! Oh, the horror of sharing a meal or happy hour with the representative of a prospective client! Ditto with respect to the representative of a contractor or some other industry or professional colleague or ally.

Fact:You have about 1,000 opportunities each year to "break bread" with people who are essential to making sales, and that's just Monday morning through Friday afternoon (leaving Friday evening through Sunday evening free for family time). How many of those opportunities do you use each year? If you're like most technical professionals, the number is likely to be less than 25.

Suppose you were to ramp up your business-social activities. Would it boost your selling success? Of course it would. You'd be able to sell yourself to people in a position to buy. You'd be able to sell yourself to people in a position to recommend. And you'd be able to reinforce relationships with people who already deal with you.

But wait a moment: Am I mixing apples and oranges? Am I talking about sales or risk management? Aha! In many respects they are the same thing. From a risk management perspective, understand that organizations don't make the decision to sue; people in an organization make that decision. And the decision to sue isn't something arrived at because you've made a mistake. Litigation results from attitudes, not errors and omissions. Face it: Technical consultants make millions of mistakes every year, yet only a comparative handful lead to disputes and litigation. Why? Typically because about 80 percent of all projects are performed for 20 percent of all clients; that is, those clients and client representatives with whom consultants enjoy amity and goodwill. And that same amity and goodwill often lead to the better scopes and fees that make errors and omissions less likely to begin with; that can facilitate the trust and communication required to respond effectively when unanticipated problems occur.

Any number of technical consultants are wont to say, "I don't have to turn client representatives into my best friends. I'm a professional. They respect that." That's head-in-the-sand thinking designed to justify a preference to stay in one's comfort zone. Any number of studies into medical liability problems show that patients who like their physicians will not take legal action even when the doctors' errors or omissions have caused harm.

Technical consultants are not physicians, of course, in that a patient is an individual, but a client almost always is an organization. As such, a good relationship with a client representative can encourage that client representative to serve as a consultant's advocate within the organization. The representative can explain to others why qualifications-based selection is better than bidding; why a more comprehensive scope of service is better than one that stints on quality; why dealing with just one or just several consultants makes more sense for the client than using a new consultant for each project; and why, when problems arise, it is better to rely on a well-intentioned consultant than a lawyer. Do you honestly believe you can obtain that kind of advocacy and loyalty by being "professional" (cold and aloof)?

How do sales tactics help reduce risk when it comes to representatives of prospective clients and contractors, among other industry/professional colleagues and allies? That should be obvious: You want to build a stable of clients and client representatives who appreciate what you do, who prefer solid scopes, and so forth, because those outlooks -- put into action -- lower risks and usually make your work far more satisfying on a personal basis. Involving yourself with representatives of prospective clients has obvious consequences. And remember that it's always wise to have good relationships with the best contractors in town. After all, they ’re in a position to refer you to the representatives of exactly the type of clients you want, just as you're in a position to recommend them to your clients. And that's more than a "one-hand-washes-the-other" situation: Fewer problems are likely to arise when you are working with a quality-oriented, top-notch contractor. And should problems occur, you are more likely to be able to work them out without dispute given your pre-existing relationship that facilitates communication and the desire to maintain that relationship.

So, does the prospect of marketing and selling give you dry mouth? How could it not? Lunch is a pretty frightening thing, after all. Do recognize, however, that you can put your toe into the water somewhat easily, by starting with professional venues rather than social ones. You can become active in a professional society or professional or industry-focused trade association. Many a personal relationship is created through shared association experience, providing that the folks involved work together on common goals over time; such as serving on committees together and, later, on the board of directors. (If you believe that you can achieve worthwhile relationships by going to an occasional meeting of this group or that, forget it.)

And something else that's also pretty safe: Take your No. 1 favorite client representative to lunch and say something (truthful) along the lines of "I really enjoy working with you. I wish I could say that about all the folks I deal with, but I can't. Tell me: Who do you know that you believe would be good to work with? Maybe a colleague in your organization, someone else in your industry, or a friend or relative?” Assuming the individual likes you, your request will be regarded as flattering, and referrals will be forthcoming. (Yes, it would be great if the person would think of you all the time and actively mention your name to everyone who could use your services, but it doesn't work that way. The individual will recommend you when someone says something along the lines of, "Do you know someone who can design my new wastewater treatment system," but those situations are serendipitously rare.)

And what does actively asking for referrals do for your risk management situation? Just this: Any given individual's circle of friends tends to comprise people who have a number of important attributes in common. Why would your favorite client representative be your favorite? Probably because the individual is honest, intelligent, understanding, and friendly. Who would that person recommend to you? Other people who are honest, intelligent, understanding, and friendly … precisely the kind of client representatives who make problems less likely, and thus help you reduce risk, increase personal satisfaction, and -- more often than not -- boost your profitability.

Here's a fact you need to know: ASFE/The Best People on Earth was founded in 1969 to help its members deal with a professional liability situation so dreadful they were unable to obtain professional liability insurance from any provider in the world. The question the founders asked is this: "Why are we being sued so much? We’re good at what we do." And it was true: They were among the very best practitioners of their kind. Nonetheless, ASFE research showed, they were not good at what they were doing, because they were more than engineering professionals. They also were in the service business. By relying on their engineering skills alone they neglected their business skills and thereby did not enjoy the lines of communication or personal relationships on which professional service business success is built. ASFE developed programs, services, and materials to help them out, and many of those focus on what would be termed marketing and sales. The result: By 1985, an independent survey showed, ASFE members were able to obtain professional liability insurance from a number of sources and they paid le ss for their coverage than just about any other design professionals. Their firms also were the most profitable of all.

So, is what I’m preaching marketing and sales or is it risk management? Who cares? It works.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2006 issue of Water & Wastewater Products, Vol. 6, No. 6.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

John P. Bachner is executive vice president of ASFE/The Best People on Earth. He authors several columns for engineers and allied professionals and is a frequent seminar leader and instructor. ASFE is a not-for-profit trade association comprising geoprofessional, environmental, and civil engineering firms, design/build contractors, and educators.

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