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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Getting started in construction marketing: Some ideas from experience

This image, from the home page of Bruce Giese Construction Company, Inc. in Port, Orchard, WA, is about as far removed in business as you can get from places like Hill International, Aker Solutions or Honeywell, but the small residential contractor and multi-national ICI businesses share some important things in common. The Giese website notes: "As with all our undertakings, we set high expectations for all business relationships. We trust our clients will be more than satisfied with their custom homes long after the tools are put away.
You probably already know that when it comes to referral- based businesses like ours, a referral is the highest complement that can be earned from a client or an associate. And just like us, our clients are impressionable which is why we chose to surround ourselves with the best employees, local subcontractors and suppliers available."

Crystal Stowe, marketing co-ordinator with Hill International in Washington, D.C. posted this question on the SMPS Listserve:
I'm fairly new to the industry. So far, I've joined SMPS and CMAA. (ed: Construction Management Association of America) I'm constantly writing down new terms/acronyms and names of other companies and people we may team with/compete against. My boss has also been very helpful in sharing info he's learned over the years. Does anyone have any other tips to help submerge myself in this industry faster?
Here are some responses from other SMPS members with years of construction industry marketing experience:

From Ellen C. Moore, CPSM, Communications Manager, Sales and Marketing Manager, Proposals and Estimating, Aker Solutions, in Houston, TX.

Network. Establish a network, expand it at every opportunity, and work at developing and maintaining relationships with the contacts in your network. Of course, this is to be done over time, but from my own personal experience of 19 years ago when I first came into this industry and to SMPS, START NOW!!! I found my initial network of others in similar jobs at other AEC companies to be absolutely invaluable in the first 5 years of AEC industry experience. Not to say they are not still valuable, but when I was working very hard to establish a toe hold in the industry, that network was absolutely essential.

Read. Read every word of every proposal you co-ordinate. Read it until you understand what it all means. If you don't know, ask. Read the SMPS Marketer (magazine) every issue. Read ENR magazine. If your company doesn't receive it, or won't pay for you to receive it, pay for it yourself, and consider it an investment in your career. Read press releases posted on your company's website. If your local SMPS chapter has a newsletter, read every word of every issue.

Attitude. At my company, we say "Attitude is Everything." Personally, I believe it 100%. What does that mean to your career, short- and long-term? Short-term: Accept responsibility for proactively educating yourself about your company, your previous and current projects, your key people. Know your company's mission statement and core values.

Mentally develop and rehearse a 60-second "elevator speech" about what your company offers. Know your clients. Equally important, know your competitors, especially locally. Do NOT expect or rely on your company to provide ALL your education about the AEC industry and your own business. If you have to spend a few of your own bucks occasionally, do it. After all, it is YOUR career.

Long-term: Be responsible. Be accountable. Be credible. Somehow it seems to have become unfashionable to go "above and beyond." That baffles me. It is in going "above and beyond" that I have taken my own measure and come to like and respect what I've found there. Don't do it foremost for others; do it for yourself.

Team. I hate the phrase "team player." What do we SAY that means vs what does it REALLY mean? After almost 24 months of proposing in an extremely high-dollar, high-visibility, high-volume, high-stress, extremely high-pressure environment, I have a MUCH clearer idea of what team means, for me and for the people who report to me. Maybe this sums it up best: I have personally managed 8 major (gigantical) tenders to sell engineering design, manufacture, and qualification (testing) of subsea oil and gas production equipment in the last 24 months. Because of forces and issues beyond my control (or even, the control of my boss), in order to make the nonnegotiable submittal deadline for each of those proposals, MY TEAM AND I WORKED AT LEAST 26 CONSECUTIVE HOURS ON EVERY ONE OF THEM. No, I don't believe that is a desirable or efficient way to work. No, I did NOT enjoy it, and I know my team did not. I am NOT an adrenalin junkie. I AM 56 years old, so a 26- or 33- or even 38-hour shift hurts, but I don't believe I should walk out at 5 or 8 p.m. and leave my team to work alone. But, if we miss deadlines and miss work, eventually my company will not be able to pay all my coworkers here in the US, and somebody will have to go home with a pink slip. I don't ever want that to happen, if I can help prevent it. One way I can help prevent it is to be sure we do NOT miss submittal deadlines. And, out of those 8 proposals, we have won work on 5, and of those 5, we won SUBSTANTIAL contracts on 3. And, we all lived to celebrate.

Long-term: Never stop expanding and nurturing the contacts (links) in your network. As your network expands, nurturing the links takes ever more time and effort. Just do it. Never stop learning about the industry, the movers, the players -- and the losers (and why they lost).

BUILD RELATIONSHIPS AND LEARN TO NEGOTIATE. When I began making proposals, I made the conscious decision to be very proactive. It made my job ever more interesting. I worked (and continue to work) hard to build relationships with my internal clients (who now may be local in Houston, or virtual in Norway, Scotland, UK, Brazil, Malaysia, etc.). I negotiate: For example, I make it a point to ask engineers assigned to proposal teams how I can help them do the technical work I need from them so they can give me (my team) the input we need to develop proposals. It seems I am one of the few proposal team members to have done this, at least at my present company. It has been well-received and appreciated, even if there really is nothing I can personally do, in many cases. In some cases, a PM will say, well, I have to make this document for a client. It is something I can do, so I offer to do that task, freeing the PM to work on proposal input. After 37 years of working professionally, 19 of which have involved marketing and proposals, I am scarred but much wiser: If I can negotiate a happy ending (a win/win), I am always better off than when I have to ask somebody's supervisor (or VP or EVP) to intercede. I have done it on rare occasions and after serious thought about ramifications. But it is NOT my preference or something to be undertaken lightly, especially when the people involved sit higher on the organizational totem pole than I.

Passion. If you don't have it -- for your work, for winning, for something bigger than just you -- I suspect you will burn out and quit.

Passion is what motivates me at 4 a.m. to dig deeper inside myself to find the energy and motivation I need to finish a proposal, a presentation, or the arrangements for our participation in a conference or exhibit. After these many years, I believe passion is something you're born with or not. I can teach the logistics of proposal making, but I cannot teach passion. It lives somewhere deep within you, and it is the fuel that drives the energy you invest in your work. I feel bad for people who never find passion within themselves for ANY work.

Integrity. In my experience, integrity is what keeps good people from doing unethical things. Granted, the line is not always clearly drawn.

But, as my mother used to tell me, there is a "wee, small voice inside of you" (in me, it lives in the pit of my stomach) that screams when bending the rules means breaking the rules. I listen to my gut. It has saved me on more than one occasion. As I have indicated to several supervisors in my career, if you force me to choose, I will listen to my gut. In one instance, I walked away from a job because maintaining integrity and self-respect was more important to me than maintaining employment. Again, this is NOT something I advocate you do without serious forethought. But, sometimes it is the right thing to do. Hopefully, you will not ever have to choose.

Fun. I know it seems impossible to have fun in an arena where you are being beaten with non-negotiable deadlines, uncooperative engineers, demanding clients, and unreasonable expectations. But, I always have believed a sense of humor is a strong antidote to allowing yourself to be beaten into feeling like a victim. Victims -- by definition -- have no control over their destiny. That won't work for me. I HAVE had fun in my career. Not every day, not with every internal client. But now, being older and wiser, I create opportunities to have fun. Fun has saved my soul.

Venting. Everybody needs somebody they can talk to and know that no matter what is said, it goes no further. You know -- like those ads on TV that say "Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." Twenty years ago, I was blessed to meet in SMPS/Houston counterparts in other companies with whom I made lasting friendships. Short of giving each other proprietary information, we met at all hours, usually in establishments serving alcoholic beverages, and we talked. Sometimes we screamed, yelled, or wept. We VENTED! We got it all out, we trusted each other to keep it confidential, and we did. To this day, we remain stalwart friends, and yes, we still vent on occasion.

Bottom line. Be responsible. Be accountable. Be credible. Be honest.

Act with integrity. Take the high road. As one of my mentors advised many years ago, "Take the high road, Ellen. Nobody ever has to apologize for taking the high road." Don't allow people to walk on you, but likewise, don't walk around with a chip on your shoulder.

Understand that it's not about you. It's about something bigger than you: feeding all the people in your company. Selling -- as I have had the opportunity to see in my present company -- occurs in an arena that is brutal, grueling, tough, and unforgiving. Nothing I do in the development and production of proposals is quite as demanding as the arena in which our sales managers work. I did not believe this for a long time. Now that I have had the opportunity to walk with them, I have experienced their reality. I appreciate their skills, tenacity, and yes, their courage. They now appreciate my efforts to support them.It's a nice place to be. It took 22 months of concentrated effort, and I had to make the overtures because I was the new kid on the block.

Good luck. I wish you the best success. I never made a conscious decision to work in the AEC industry. I happened into it and worked there for nearly 16 years before stepping into a different but similar industry. Wow! Am I glad I discovered AEC! It was tough and demanding, but I believe I am a better person for it -- and I know I am currently successful because of it. I hope 20 years from now, you feel the same.

From Juliette Brown, Marketing Proposal Specialist, Western Region Honeywell Energy Services:

I just had one quick additional suggestion: Find out the names of the firms your company currently partners with, subs to, or uses as subs, and ask your peers at these companies out for lunch; then try and make it a monthly or bi-monthly thing.

These relationships will be important to keep and maintain, because these individuals will most likely a) bring your firm the most work or leads, b) be your introduction to other contractors/consultants/clients, and c) act as a sounding board and advisor for any questions, concerns, or grievances you might have.

It takes a lot more work to start a new client relationship than to cultivate an existing one, so expensing $20 for lunch every once in a while should pay off in spades for your company.

I won't publish here another, and possibly the most tangibly useful, response. The person references a specific name in the office, and suggests to give the person a call, referencing the original email sender's name. This type of personal networking and communication happens when you take the time to get involved and join your local SMPS chapter.

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