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Monday, June 30, 2008

Signs on your truck

TileLady in Harriman, NY reports in "My husband lettered my trailer for me and it definitely gets me business. Once I purposely left my trailer in a parking lot and the next day I got a call and got a job out of it. Also whenever I'm at Home Cheapo with my trailer, people frequently walk over to me and ask me for estimates, etc. I'm not really concerned about road rage. I drive carefully and if somebody wants to pass me, more power to them!Lettering my trailer was one of the best things I've ever done!"

This thread addresses the question: Should you 'sign' your vehicle -- and if so, how.

The consensus is "yes", both for direct inquiries and as a branding strategy -- people who see your well-organized truck will be more receptive to speaking with you for business.

But there are some cautions and exceptions noted:

  • You need to watch out for road rage and you (or your drivers) had better be careful and sensitive or you will hear from them -- or the police!
  • If you wish to park your truck at home in a residential area where business vehicles are restricted, watch out for the parking and zoning bylaws!
Probably, it is worthwhile to think carefully about this stuff -- incorporating it within your overall theme and marketing strategies.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Electrical Marketplace

Tom Haggerty in Florida has introduced a well-written blog in conjunction with his site This posting in March gives some insights into his business and blog:

Is your Business Changing for 2008?
Posted By Tom Haggerty At 10:50 PM • Comments (0)

My name is Tom Haggerty and I am the owner of Electrical Marketplace. If you’ve had a chance to navigate through our website you will see that we are a large lighting and electrical supplier in Pompano Beach, FL.

I started my company in 2002 with the crazy notion that electrical contractors would buy electrical and lighting equipment online in the comfort of their homes and offices and eventually directly from the jobsite. Thanks to the dedication and hard work from our team of employees this concept has been working for hundreds of electrical contractors and maintaince personnel nationwide.

It was during my 13 year career at General Electric that I learned firsthand that businesses must operate in a global economy and those companies that could become a low cost provider of their products and maintain product quality were winning the game. Purchasing managers at GE were trained on how to utilize the internet to identify global low cost producers of key materials. As an innovator in global sourcing techniques, GE had an enormous competitive advantage in the marketplace. That experience taught me that all that buyers really needed to have was enough information to be sure that the product that they were going to buy online was going to be of high quality, it would be shipped quickly, and the cost savings would justify the planning of materials deliveries to coincide with the needs of the job.

It was on that concept that Electrical Marketplace was founded.

These days I still spend a good portion of each day talking to electrical contractors around the country and getting a sense of what is happening in their local construction markets. There is no question that our national construction forecast is weak and some areas of the country and markets are getting hit particularly hard. I have spoken with large residential contractors in areas of the country that were booming two years ago that today have downsized huge percentages of their workforce. Smaller contractors face a different challenge and find that they must adapt to the changing construction climate.

In order to adjust your business to this 2008 construction environment it is necessary to understand where the construction dollars are flowing and prepare your business to thrive. For many of our customers that has meant exploring ways to capitalize on growth opportunities with lighting retrofits, commercial and industrial construction, and remodeling.

So the question that I would like to put out is simply this…

What (if anything) is your company doing differently in 2008 to maintain or grow profitability?

The question is wise. And, with a definite lack of modesty, the answers are in this blog.

The Ee

Tag lines and other ideas from Bruce Firestone

Bruce Firestone's blog, The EQ Journal, is worthy of a permalink. Firestone and a group of colleagues cooked up the idea of bringing the Ottawa Senators back in the early 1990s as part of a plan to develop formerly underused rural land in western Ottawa (formerly Kanata).

The grand scheme ultimately succeeded but, after a series of misfortunes and upsets, Firestone's 'ownership' in the now-successful Senators and the Scotiabank Place land development are some moral rights to seats in the Founders' Box at Senators games. He now works as a real estate broker, and teaches entrepreneurship courses.

While his practical successes have been less than his entrepreneurial adventures, he has the gift of understanding the real estate and construction businesses, its limits, and opportunities. His most recent posting, Tag Lines, happens to touch on a marketing project I am currently working on.

Meaningful evaluation -- fast results are important (2)

Searching for an image to go with this posting, I came across the Amazon reference to this book Topgrading For Sales. Haven't read it yet, but will order it. For some insights into our current sales recruitment/hiring system, however, you can see this relevant earlier Construction Marketing Ideas blog posting.

Last week, one morning, I had an early lunch following my son Eric's school awards recognition. He is the best at athletic sportsmanship among his Grade 5 peers. But now I had an awkward situation. At 10:30 a.m., it was too early for lunch, but I didn't want to rush back to the office to meet the salesperson who we were evaluating. I wanted to give him a little longer to work without me breathing down his back. So I stopped and had a truly early lunch.

My cellphone rang, and Chase -- himself returning from his son's school awards ceremony -- briefed me about his doubts about the new candidate. This is in line with our evaluation system for prospective employees. Instead of the conventional interviews, we put individuals who pass early screening and testing to work -- and then invite feedback from current employees about whether they are right for the organization.

I suppose the poor job candidate had two strikes out when I met him at 11 a.m., but I quickly realized the new person just didn't get it. He had handwritten the 'correct' rates over a rate sheet for another publication (instead of simply asking Amanda in the next room for a print out of the correct document). But the thing that really troubled me is that he didn't understand the nature of effective selling and calling. He said was used to working in organizations with training programs and with some time he would learn. I told him we don't have training programs. We use common sense.

I asked him if he had thought about why he was calling the names on the list he had and whether he had sought to build a relationship with the company which had originated the list. He said he hadn't. He, it seems, didn't get the basic concept that if you work with a referred group of potential clients, it is vitally important to really connect and relate to the person who provides the referrals. (We provided the necessary information to allow for the completion of the single phone call that would have provided this information.)

"Nope, this isn't going to work," I thought, as I found my voice -- and frustration -- rising. So I made it clear to him that I didn't think he would work out, but I would give him a choice. If he thought he could figure out what to do, and wanted another chance, I would not mind giving him another day and a half -- fulfilling my original commitment for a three day assessment. If not, he should leave now. I told him to think about it for a few minutes and to get back to me with his decision.

He left the room; and five minutes later returned saying he would leave now. I breathed a sigh of relief. In addition to saving about $200 on the evaluation (we pay for the candidates time for this stage of the process), his desk space would not be wasted, potential clients would not be irritated by his nuisance sales calls, and I could get on with the business of finding someone right for the company.

Effective selling, I tried to explain to the person who won't work for us, is not about pounding the phone, calling people you don't know, cold, without any relationship or connection. Effective selling is often seemingly inefficient. You get involved, you connect in the community, and you put aside your "where is the next order" mentality to support causes and associations that are relevant to the business. (And this is NOT plastic 'networking' where you size up everyone as potential clients or 'waste of time' people -- you simply do your best to contribute, share and support the worthy associations and causes.) Effective selling, I tried to explain, is building your brand -- and representing that of your company. That reference really went over his head.

I then phoned Leslie Greenwood in Sault Ste. Marie, who provided the list of names to the candidate under evaluation. She had kept half the list for her own evaluation, and had sold some ads already. Leslie knew the secret of the connection -- she respected the relationship with the company that provided her the list, and that just one conversation at the start of the process, with the company that provided the list, would be more valuable than anything the sales candidate could do. We'll salvage the list, and the sales. And we went back to the drawing board -- and inexpensive/free Internet recruiting sites -- to look again for the right person for the work.

StockLayouts -- a useful resource

You can click on the image, or simply go here, and get directly to the StockLayouts site. They offer inexpensive templates to allow you a professional look for your design elements.

A few days ago, I posted a reference to StockLayouts and used one of their images to describe the service. Technically, the posting violated their copyright/licensing agreements, so I sent them an email letting them know of my initiative and offering to remove the reference if they had any objection.

Their response -- the rational one -- is they invited me to sign up as an "affiliate marketer", that is, they will pay me for anyone who goes to their site from here.

(FYI, I am certainly not living off the ad revenue and affiliate marketing income from this blog -- total direct income here is less than $50 per month.)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Starting your own blog (1)

This image is from Look Before You Leap with a Business Blog at Word Sell, Inc. Another useful resource is a 2005 Business Week article -- updated earlier this year -- describing the trends and potential of blogging for business.

If you want to start your own blog, you can use templates from Wordpress or I've been using Blogger (a division of Google) for some time and the system is quite easy to adapt -- you can if you wish structure things so the blog runs off your own website with your own domain; but you lose some of the template convenience in exchange for brand purity (a limited advantage, I think, which is why I haven't worried about it.)

The question, then, is what do you do with the blog template to make it work. I've found a couple of resources that could be helpful. Chris Garrett's has useful insights and materials. And The New Rules of Business Blogging by Linas Simonis provides some useful insights. (I'm breaking some of Linas' rules with this blog's frequency, but enjoy it, so there.)

Your main restraint -- and challenge -- in business-focused blogging is to combine the interests of your business with some real personality. You can't just hand this work over to the PR of communications department, so if you are not naturally a good writer, you might find blogging is not right for you. Great blogs combine passion with useful information.

Focus: Yourself and your business

Consultant Michael Stone uses video (Youtube) to promote his book "Profitable sales, A Contractors' Guide" . "The focus of your construction-related company must be on sales. Nothing happens in any business until somebody sells something. "

Earlier this week, Dave Crick of Construction Business Development (The Construction Sales and Marketing blog) in the U.K. sent me this email:

Hi Mark, be good to catch up again some time soon, life is very busy with new clients.

Just for clarification, I work mainly with a guy called John Raines on the blog. John is a very bright university student with time available who writes well and can take our material and make it blog-friendly. Andrew Crick is my son who specialises in Internet traffic generation and who is beginning to work with us more closely. My trouble is that I'm an inveterate doer who enjoys his work and finds little time over for management and creative stuff of any kind! I guess that's a typical scenario for professionals firms on both sides of the Atlantic. A virtual creative team seems to be me the best answer here ...

Best regards,

Dave Crick

Dave's observations are appropriate and in line with John Raines' posting on their blog: The Business Focus – Why it’s Important.

The need for differentiation is particularly true in the construction industry, which is what CBD focuses on.

It is a crowded business with a lot of competition, particularly in the UK, because of the geographical proximity of many of these businesses and also the rather grim current economic situation. Thus, maximum success lies in a clear focus on work in your areas of real, proven strength. If you have isolated this market and are intensely focused on it, you will hopefully grow to be a recognized expert in your chosen field.

Are you trying to be all things to all people in your business? You should stop and take stock. But equally, if you are defining your marketing in an excessively narrow sense: "I'll only do this if it has fast payback", you may be missing the point. I'm now preparing a new marketing piece for my companies, one which we will include with our rate sheets and information. it reads:

Most importantly, you’ll find we will work with you to succeed, regardless of the size and scale of your business. Our perspective is interdisciplinary, but our values reflect the universal ideals of respect, fairness, and belief in your business potential. Call us if you have any questions. We’ll listen and provide practical guidance and support.

How do I reconcile this expression with the fact that we indeed are wary of going too far away from our safety zone in terms of product market, scope and interest?

The answer is reasonably simple. It takes just a few minutes to courteously help out someone who doesn't fit into our market profile, to decline the business opportunity and redirect the person to a place that is more appropriate. And many of our clients fit a narrow profile where they can/should do business with us once or twice for a small amount of money. They still deserve respect and we provide it to them.

Finally, focus can be seen in a personal as well as business sense (though the two merge in this observation). We all have different talents and strengths, interests, and priorities. A great business brings different people together into a cohesive team -- for CBD, for example, Dave Crick and John Raines may have totally different talents, but they work together to achieve their goals. I don't expect all of my salespeople or administrators to rush out and start blogs and write like I do. They can, if they want, and I encourage it, but I know their skills may be in different areas. We should focus our own energies, just as our businesses should have clearly understood focuses and interests -- while respecting and connecting to the wider world.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Chaos Theory and Construction Marketing (2)

In a recent blog entry Lead Flow Part 2 -- How it makes you an Attractor, Rainmaking expert Ford Harding observes how Chaos Theory applies to the networking process of rainmakers. Rainmakers, of course, have an incredible ability to generate valid and worthwhile leads -- and thus are desirable to everyone in business. Of course, the challenge for the rainmaker-- and the person or organization wishing to obtain the leads -- is to define the best way to fit in and create value.

Harding suggests the highest power occurs when rainmakers get together, each generating leads which benefit the others. But there are other categories. The least valuable is the person who approaches the Rainmaker claiming synergy -- or, to put it more basely, "You give me the leads, and I may buy you lunch."

(Jeffrey Gitomer handles these people simply: If you want his consultation, you can pay him $500 for his time -- and he might buy you the lunch.)

So, how do you master the Rainmaking art so you can generate leads and attain the power that arises?

The most obvious approach would be to call Ford Harding and pay for his services. He obviously knows his stuff, and if you pay -- and listen to his advice -- you'll probably get there a lot sooner than if you try to do this on your own. This type of paid consulting is almost always worth the money you spend. In fact, I sometimes wonder about people who spend a small fortune on marketing -- on brochures, advertising campaigns, even head-hunters to find marketing employees -- when you can pay the expert and (if you listen and learn quickly) get the answers you need.

There is a longer range approach as well, the one I've chosen to practice. Since my own personal goals call for me to be a truly effective national level rainmaker in three to five years, I can be patient and build up my expertise and status more deliberately. I've chosen to use my writing ability in this blog and for the SMPS Marketer. Every time I research a story, of course, I gain virtually instant access to the experts around me -- as they know the advantages of positive and reference-based publicity. These connections increase my, for want of a better word, "Rainmaking credits" since I expect no compensation or direct business to arise from this work. (The blog and writing are probably quite helpful indirectly, of course, in that we are now receiving upwards of two or three dozen requests for the Construction Marketing Ideas newsletter each week, and some of these inquiries are from businesses within my publication's service area.)

Most effective rainmakers "get" by giving -- they share so much value in their relationships and insights that, without a cent changing hands, they attract business and opportunity. So, if you want to be successful as a rainmaker, you'll need to learn how to give without worrying about the 'get.' The art, of course, is to do the giving in rational ways and places -- and no, I am not talking about blind and insincere 'networking' where relationships are plastic, artificial, and only concerned with short term gain.

So, my advice to you: Take a portion of your marketing budget and spend it on top-quality consulting from people who know what they are doing. But don't take that consulting in the framework that they will do everything for you -- use their expertise to learn the craft and build your own knowledge. If you don't want (or don't yet have) the cash, there is nothing wrong with reading, connecting, and then finding ways to share. You might be a proto-rainmaker now, but ultimately you'll graduate to full status -- and the fullest opportunities for success and achievement.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Lessons learned

This image is from Chase's blog entry, How do you measure the success of your Marketing and Branding results? which shows how successful community involvement opened the door to a positive new client relationship.

This week, I sensed the business turn-around and recovery that coincided with the start of this blog has moved to a new, exciting stage. Our financials still have a long ways to go, and the actual business growth isn't that significant, yet. But I observed several responses that suggest that things are going well, indeed.

In making these observations, I need to travel back 3.5 years ago in 2005 when, sitting in a Starbucks in Washington, D.C., I received a phone call from a struggling sales representative who worked for us there. She had worked with our company for about four years. We had hired her on the recommendation of our star (and originally very successful) local sales rep, as it seemed my dream of building a truly successful international business had come true.

Back in August 2001 -- yes, just before the horrible events of September that year -- we had the highest single issue sales volume for any publication we had ever produced; and I felt like a big-shot -- establishing, as a Canadian, a successful local publishing business in the U.S. capital city region.

But just four years later, in 2005, things weren't so bright. Sales had declined to the point that about a year previously, in 2004, we had to end the desperate sales rep's salary and offer her a commission-only career. For a while she continued, but things were getting increasingly stressful and the person who had originally hired her now had turned against her, questioning her ability. (Dissension and hostility had, in fact, started to run uncontrolled through the business.)

So I listened to her, as she observed how people simply weren't responding or returning calls properly. She said something that stuck in my mind: "People are telling me we are running a scam." The methodology we were using, of setting up supplier-advertising supported editorial features, then having the featured company refer their suppliers to us, had started to back-fire, big time. Now our potential clients just saw us as playing a manipulative game, ready to take whatever money we could, without delivering any real value.

I couldn't quite figure out how or what to do about this observation. I didn't fully appreciate the simple, but somewhat counterintuitive, answers. But as things deteriorated even more, I began to piece together the elements for a successful business recovery.

First, I realized virtually every 'old' employee would have to go. We needed to be rid of the hostility, tensions, frustration, and anger that had taken over the business.

Second, we needed clear guidelines and processes for hiring and working with new employees. They needed to be intelligent, 'connected' and talented at their respective fields, but able to work with others.

Third, we needed to create systems to keep the employees connected with each other and some essential guidelines for client and supplier relationships. We established our weekly and bi-annual meeting systems.

And finally, and most importantly, we needed to find a way to truly connect with our current and potential clients, and respect the fact that the advertisers who pay for the space were receiving not nearly enough value from us -- certainly proven if they thought we were delivering a 'scam'.

So we set out to change our relationships with these initiatives.

I started blogging, and the bi-weekly newsletter, initially to provide some value-added after sales service to our current clients. The idea of these resources is to show our clients how they can market effectively, without pouring their money down the drain, and invite them to call me for ideas and support (again without charge).

We started spending much more time on community support and participation, even when these don't translate to business. I have become a strong supporter of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) and began writing for their excellent Marketer journal. We offered free half-page monthly ads to the local hospital foundation, so they could run 'thank you ads' for the contractors who, in working on the hospital, are also contributing to its fund-raising initiatives. And we found ways to recognize the best construction businesses in the region, without expecting anyone to advertise, through the Readers' Choice Awards.

Finally, we implemented some 'best practices' -- thank you notes, a policy to return calls promptly, to listen, and to respect our clients even if they do business with us only occasionally.

So how has all of this translated in our business to give me optimism we have truly changed direction?
  • Chase describes in his latest blog entry, How do you measure the success of your Marketing and Branding Results? how an initially skeptical potential client suddenly warmed up to doing business with us, when the client realized we truly are connected to the community, and key construction organizations for which he supports.

  • Yesterday, I received an email from a client who had done business with us a little more than a year ago. Yes, he volunteered, he would like to do business again. We didn't call him; he emailed us.

  • And today, out of the blue, I received an advertising inquiry from the representative of a business who we had provided some truly valuable positive publicity earlier in the year -- without worrying whether that company would ever purchase anything from us. I suppose what goes around comes around, but we certainly weren't bugging this new client to do business with us.
The intriguing thing in these observations is that our core product/service is little changed from 2005. We still profile businesses with (print) advertising features, supported by the profiled organizations' suppliers. The difference is how we conduct our business -- and the context in which we market and sell our services. Now, we appreciate the community and businesses around us with respect and imagination and put their interests ahead of ours.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The complex proposal process: Who should be involved?

The Art of Engineering is one of several publications/resources available at the Aker Solutons website.

Nicole Dufour, Business Development Manager at Wink Design Group in New Orleans, LA, posted this crucially important question on the SMPS members' listserve today:

To what extent should or do Architects, Engineers, Technical Staff, etc. participate in the proposal process? I'm involved in a discussion about this and I really need your input.

* One school of thought says that marketing should be responsible for putting together everything, including technical narratives and information for final review by project manager. In one job description, I have seen the following: Marketing should "research, write and edit proposals for final review by management, requiring only limited input on content for architecture/engineering teams."

* However, my school of thought and -- practice over the years -- has been to do this more as a team effort from the very beginning. Everyone, the Architects and Engineers and marketing department, agree at the beginning on the proposal content and each plays a role in pulling it together.

You kick off the process with a meeting with the principal-in-charge or project manager and other key team members; organize the proposal process and teams; work together to create an outline; designate which narratives or information should be provided by principal or key team members and marketing; interview principal or team members if they can't provide it in writing themselves; interact and communicate with consultants; oversee graphic design, production, etc. This also includes research, writing and editing, of course. But my point is, I see this process as a team effort.

What do y'all think?

Her posting elicited these responses. Marcia Kellog, Marketing Manager at Standard Builders in Newington, CT, wrote:

Your school of thought is correct IN THEORY, however, as you and many of us can attest to, this is not one of the best practices utilized by most design firms. Having worked on the design side of the industry for 15 years, I have found that this rate of dysfunction increases with the amount of proposals that are processed. Technical staff are scrambling to meet deadlines too, and a marketing meeting to review proposal outlines is the last thing they want to do.

My suggestion would be to review the RFQ/RFP as early as possible and make a separate sheet of crib notes, or better yet, right on the RFP page, and make enough copies to the appropriate individuals. Along with this information, I would make a list of bullet points for the project that may include, discussion points and questions that need responses, etc. Then on your cover sheet provide the project statistics along with a proposal process timeline. If you do not get any response to this memo, then I would issue a meeting invite, stressing the urgency of the meeting to get all required input so that the proposal can be as comprehensive and custom as possible.

Providing them with this information as early as possible will be helpful and provide them with a head start, so that they feel as if they do not have to start with nothing. The input you get in this meeting will provide you with enough information to begin preparing the proposal, and hopefully, others in the group will have their assignments for information gathering and narrative writing.

That's the extent of the research you should provide at this point, and it will fuel the discussion so that your marketing meeting can be productive. You can spend the same amount of time preparing boiler plate proposals, but I guarantee you that it is a waste of time and money for your firm, and the results will be realized in your hit/win rate.

Later in the day, Ellen Moore, Communications Manager, Sales and Marketing, at Aker Solutions in Houston, TX, observed:

Once a person has walked through the proposal process here, there can be NO doubt that proposal development MUST be a team effort. Our proposals require very detailed technical information, which must come from our engineers and engineering technicians; a price component derived by hours and hours of very complex costing work by procurement; the costs involved in moving people and raw materials to destinations where project work will be done, as estimated by our planners; the labor hours, attendant costs, and time required to manufacture and transport finished equipment, as calculated by manufacturing estimators; and three or four other categories of very unique-to-our-industry proposal information that must be provided by people with very specialized skills.

Then, of course, there are those of us who actually put all those pieces together,
review, rewrite, return for revision by one or more departments, then produce these proposals. There is NO WAY any proposal here could be generated without the
There is NO WAY any proposal here could be generated without the participation of all these proposal team members.

That being the case, and given the trackable costs involved in proposal production, I
simply cannot understand how senior managers can overlook the chunk of change they pay annually for proposals -- especially for proposals their firms lose. Immediately, many of these managers will say that the more time technical staff spends working on proposals, the higher the cost. I beg to differ. If the managers of the technical staff are on the ball and supervising effectively, a planned approach and use of SCHEDULED (and therefore, limited) time on the part of the technical staff can create both a winning proposal AND an acceptable labor cost for their work on the proposal. Unfortunately, what I observed hundreds of times over the years is that technical staff (engineers, in my case) were assigned to develop technical input for proposals. Very few engineers (in my experience and observation) like or want to do proposals. Most believe proposal work is not important, or at least, not nearly so important as project work. Many engineers believe so because that is the attitude and behavior their managers emulate. Their managers believe it because they see and emulate the behavior of their managers -- the senior principals or officers of the firm. The result? Engineers assigned to the proposal find every imaginative excuse NOT to work on their assignments until the last 36 hours before the proposal goes into production, OR until the poor Marketing Coordinator starts beating on them. Then, at the last possible moment, the engineers -- possibly inspired by a motivating visit from their manager, who just heard from the Marketing Manager -- finally start working, and spend from 10 to 20 hours doing work that really should have taken perhaps 6 or 8 hours.

I know this, because at a previous employer, when overall marketing costs rocketed to 10% of the firm's annual revenue, and the hit rate plummeted in the same year(going back to the issue of very expensive losing proposals), the senior officers put their collective foot down. One of the new rules they mandated was that each practice area manager MUST attend every proposal kick-off meeting if that proposal would require input from one or more of their subordinates. Moreover, thosepractice area managers were accountable for the number of hours each approved on his or her subordinates' timesheets for proposal work -- which, by the by, began being charged to the unique number assigned to each proposal, eliminating a lot of payday "dodge and weave." Any total in excess of 10 hours charged on one timesheet to one proposal number and approved by that engineer's manager bought the manager theopportunity to explain to the firm President WHY that much time was required by one person.

Of course this precipitated MUCH wailing and gnashing of engineer teeth. BUT, in short order (about 3 months), I noticed a significant change for the better: Engineers
assigned to develop technical input for proposals were actually meeting 65% of their internal deadlines. Amazing! And, the quality of the information they provided was noticeably better. And, in about another 3 months, we began to win projects for which we proposed. And -- because we monitored proposal preparation costs VERY closely -- we began to see a noticeable decline in the cost of technical labor hours allocated to proposals. And, although the engineers still did not like doing work for proposals, they were complaining less.

Human nature being what it is, various proposal team members embrace their assignments with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Of course there are team members who push the limits of everyone's patience and goodwill. Of course deadlines are missed without good reason. Of course we who make proposals feel that back-to-the-wall is a chronic condition. And we do wonder at our own stress, extreme pressure, frustration, and ingratitude on the part of our internal clients. BUT -- in the last 12 months, we have wracked up a significant win rate. In the last 16 months, the cost of our proposal making has stabilized and is more easily managed now. There IS growing awareness among my firm's senior management about the importance of the proposal process AND the contributions of those who labor in the Proposals group. Those are all significant improvements.

Yes, we certainly do have proposal TEAMs here. And, as in families, although you frequently do not get to choose who your relatives are, you might as well make the best of it, because you are all in the same boat -- at least for the duration of the proposal.

Clearly, this dialogue shows the important challenges and business decisions involved in preparing proposals and competing for important, complex, and challenging projects. Marketing here encompasses a range of issues -- the dynamics of internal communication, the actual expertise of your company's staff (both technical and marketing), and the subtle and not so subtle internal and external forces that go into the ultimate decision-making processes. Clearly, you need to be successful on several levels to achieve marketing success, including knowing which RFPs to answer, and, then, once the "go" decision is made, how to respond in the most effective and compliant manner possible.

This is not the stuff of amateurs. It is expensive and risky, but vital to your business success. And the thoughts here show why, if you belong to an AEC business doing this type of high-end stuff, you should be a member of your local SMPS chapter. You'll have a network of peers for support and, in many cases, for joint ventures in preparing the complex submissions and winning the sophisticated projects that require more expertise than your firm alone can handle.

Construction marketing templates

The Stocklayouts service provides reasonably priced templates for marketing materials for a variety of construction businesses. The advantage of this type of service is of course you don't need to be a graphics genius or design expert to generate professional-style materials.

Then again, of course, remember this posting about the photocopied handwritten note that purportedly generates thousands of dollars in business. Maybe you can save your $99.00 and just do it yourself . . .

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The first 'real' SMPS chapter blog

To my knowledge, the SMPS Georgia chapter is the only SMPS chapter with an active blog. If you know of others, let me know by emailing me at

Today, Sarah Mackley, the SMPS Georgia Chapter's Director of Communications, phoned me to discuss the SMPS Georgia blog -- a not insignificant initiative because, as far as I can tell, it is the only actively maintained SMPS chapter blog.

Mackley, who is employed at Innovative Solutions Group, Ltd. (ISG) in Atlanta, says the blog is intended to be a supplementary information source for chapter members. The latest posting, for example, is RSS Feeds: What Are They & How Can They Benefit Me?. To her, the blog is not a place for personal expression with the blogger's viewpoint dominating, a rational thing since obviously if the blog is an official chapter blog, it must be non-partisan and operate within the chapter's mandate.

The challenge, of course, is to make the writing interesting and appealing. When you pull the emotion and individual stories out of the blog, it becomes a relatively dry 'reference source' -- something you look at when you need some information, but not for the simple pleasure of reading it. Sarah says Bruce Van Vreede, at GreenbergFarrow, will be the blog administrator.

One way the SMPS Chapter blog could become exciting is if chapter members had their own blogs and the Chapter blog facilitated link-backs to these member blogs. As well, presumably she and Van Vreede could post relevant excerpts from the member blogs without causing offence.

This may be easier to say than to do, I realize. Not everyone has the right or authority to speak on behalf of their company in a blog; and publishing a personal blog on topics that might be sensitive to your employer could be risky. (Not at my business, of course. I encourage employees who wish to blog to do so, just using some common sense in what they say and do. But I've deliberately set an unusually free and independent management style around here and I realize not everyone has the same freedom.)

As an example of an excellent individual members' blog, check out Tim Klabunde's CofeBuz. Tim is a member of the Washington, D.C. SMPS Chapter.

Blogging certainly makes sense if you enjoy it enough to maintain the discipline of consistent, interesting posting. As I've reported previously, it has done wonders for my business search engine rankings and visibility, and certainly doesn't hurt its brand.

SMPS members and chapters with viable blogs will of course get a permalink here (no reciprocation required, but it is always welcome). I'm hoping soon to be able to create a permalink section specially dedicated to SMPS member firms and chapters.

Meaningful evaluation -- fast results are important

This image is from the website of, which offers a pre-employment screening test package for many positions. I haven't tested it myself, but will try their sample evaluation. We use for our potential sales employees as a key screening resource. This type of testing gets you part of the way beyond the resume and somewhat staged interview; the challenge is however, to see how the potential employee really works on the job. And I've found no better, nor faster, solution than to put the employee on the payroll for a few days working evaluation. This is more helpful than multiple interviews and other expensive testing because the working evaluation performs these functions simultaneously -- you see the person at work, and how he or she interacts with other employees and clients, and you know the person well enough to get somewhat beyond the superficial mask. You still need to check references carefully, however, and that is our final evaluation stage.

One of our fundamental evaluation resources in assessing potential new salespeople is whether they actually sell anything during the one to four day working test. (We break the assignment into two components: One, a prospecting test to see if the candidates can assess and discover relevant potential leads, and the second, a "list working" challenge where the representative is given a somewhat qualified list of names for a specific project or theme, and is expected to convert some of that list to actual orders.)

If they don't sell anything during the test -- if they just claim they are "close" or "I'll get results with a little more time", we pay them for the few days work, and say goodbye. The reason is simple: Surely, if you are truly a salesperson, and want to prove yourself, you'll be able to show your stuff with a real demonstration order. If you can't you are possibly breathing the air of "maybe tomorrow", and the story will go on and on, with no results.

This evaluation stage, like others in our system, is not perfect. We may weed out good representatives with standards that some say are ridiculously high. Theoretically, with a little additional product knowledge; maybe some extra resources and training, the sales representatives can achieve their true potential. But are we better off declining that risk, and just working extra hard to find someone who really qualifies?

One thing we don't do is harp on this minimum standard because the last thing I want is a desperate salesperson growing even more anxious and forceful as he or she tries to meet the "sell anything, now" target. The reason is this goal is not likely to be achieved through desperate effort -- it requires a little smarts, thinking, and reasoning. I'll provide clues; and the potential employee is given the numbers and invited to communicate with our other salespeople for potential answers, but we want to see if the representative "gets it" without making a big fuss. So I deliberately lower the pressure ("You can have another day if you wish") and stay out of the potential employee's hair/space.

Effective selling, ironically, works on this principal: The harder you need to try to succeed, the less likely you are to succeed. But if you don't work hard, you will fail. In other words, blind, forceful effort, and repetitive rote thinking and behavior, is likely to result in a painful disillusionment. A little smarts will go a long way. But you have to work at it. Things 'fall in your lap' only when you set the stage with either enough laps for which things can fall, or you have a very big one to work with.

Linked to this is an intriguing observation that someone can be absolutely brilliant at one place, and totally dumb at another. I've seen enough examples of this quality-- including in my own experience. In business we should respect that the real abilities and talents lie in a variety of places and circumstances. I certainly respect that someone who fails the test here could very well succeed elsewhere.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Readers' Choice Awards -- Nominations and sponsorhips

Nominations are now open for 15 categories in the 2008/2009 Ontario Construction Report Readers' Choice Awards.

As well, you can become an award sponsor for five categories.

You can nominate your own business, or your suppliers or clients can nominate you. We'll tally votes later in the year from readers. There is absolutely no cost to enter the competition and the reward -- free positive publicity -- is truly valuable for your brand and business.

If you wish to sponsor an award, you will receive these benefits for a modest sponsorship fee:

1) Company/Association Logo and Name to appear on all print ads and posters;

2) Company/Association Logo and Name to appear on the awards for the winner and finalists for your category;

3) Free ad in any feature articles we do on winner and finalists for your category;

4) Ability to provide marketing materials to all winners and finalists for all categories.

For sponsorship information, send an email to or phone (905) 228-1151 or 888-432-3555 ext 211.

To submit a nomination, simply visit the online nomination site. You can nominate one or more categories; and provide as much or as little information as you wish.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Freedom and systems

So, what do you find when you search for a Google Image for "freedom and systems"? I came across Freedom AC-Heat-Metal in Santa Fe, Texas. I don't know them well, of course, but their website suggests they combine the right mix of employee freedom and business systems to thrive as a local contractor.

I have always perceived that the best and most satisfying business is one where employees and contractors are free to be themselves, to use their own imagination and skills with minimum direction and supervision. This freedom, I postulated, would coincide with higher levels of achievement and greater work satisfaction, more satisfied clients, and overall a much healthier and more sustainable enterprise.

Through several long years of agonizing business decline, however, I realized that freedom has its limits and that a business built entirely on free agent spirit will crash under the weight of, for want of a better phrase, unenlightened self interest. We had writers doing the bare minimum with us to maintain their freelance income compensation; administrative employees picking when and where to work, regardless of operational requirements for someone to be in the office during regular business hours, and salespeople effectively piling up the orders, while building fiefdoms of power and (sadly) alienating the marketplace because they were 'efficiently' doing nothing but selling, forgetting that non-selling personal relationships are equally important.

Add to this, I made business decisions under the pull of employees personal self-determination, rather than the best interests of the business (and I am one of the people who stand accused of this failing). So we expanded to markets where we had no business being, and I engaged in diversions which, while emotionally satisfying at the time, proved costly in managing the business operations.

I learned my lesson. We now have a few rules which are clearly articulated in our processes and systems.

New employees are hired through a careful, work-focused evaluation process.

We want to see initiative, self-responsibility, and talent -- and the ability to work with others in the team -- before hiring anyone. So candidates are invited to prove their abilities through defined processes. These vary depending on the position; our guidelines are different for administrative, sales and editorial employees, but everyone within the category must follow the procedures to be hired.

Everyone must attend the weekly meeting; and our bi-annual 'deep' meetings, except in the most exceptional circumstances.

This is not an onerous burden, of course -- the weekly meeting never lasts more than an hour and if you are out of town or exceptionally busy, you can attend by teleconference. The bi-annual meeting is a free all expenses paid trip for out-of-town employees. The meetings allow us all to connect and update ourselves on progress -- and hold ourselves accountable for commitments -- and I can use the meetings to gage the mood of the business, and the work of individual employees. (I caught a major problem with one former employee just a few weeks ago by noticing a subtle inconsistency in his behavior at the meeting.)

I will act decisively -- and quickly -- if our basic business guidelines are not met.

If an employee is not performing, doing the work required, then time is not wasted in addressing the problem and seeking out causes and solutions. This is not an arbitrary or brutal process; under performance issues are handled with respect and sensitivity, and everyone is given more than one chance to improve.

Freedom is respected, and rules are kept to the minimum.

With these ground rules in place, I revert to my 'old' values of encouraging independence, respecting freedom and allowing innovation. Successful businesses thrive when processes work smoothly, but administrative and management bureaucracies and empires are kept to the minimum. You need discipline, accountability, and mutual respect, of course, but you don't achieve this by forcing everyone into the same corporate straight-jacket.

Sustainable building and construction marketing

We are partners with Tree Canada and the Green Building Festival (Sept. 9 and 10 in Toronto). These are worthy initiatives, and reflect the sort of environmental participation and initiative you should consider for your business. But if you wish to achieve real leadership in environmentally responsible construction marketing, you will have to do much more.

Undoubtedly one of the major trends in the construction industry in the last few years has been increasing recognition of the importance of sustainable buildings and environmentally responsible construction practices. Virtually every substantial general contractor and most building industry suppliers are jumping on the bandwagon, recognizing the trend in public interest and concern for the environment. There are practical applications, as well, as fuel costs rise to astronomical levels -- energy efficiency saves money in life cycle costs, quickly paying back additional initial construction costs.

Some contractors and developers have staked out their market positions effectively as leaders in this field; notably, you can see how Jonathan Westeinde in Ottawa has positioned Windmill Developments in Canada, and Paul Spry of Spry Construction in Louisiana has used Youtube videos to relate his progress.

Sponsorship and affiliation opportunities of course are available through Green organizations. In Canada, we've partnered with Tree Canada (we plant about eight trees for every one we consume -- and recognize our advertisers for their support by planting a tree for each advertisement). We are also sponsors of the Green Building Festival in Toronto Sept. 9-10, and you might want to consider similar participation. Of course you can also explore LEED certification through the U.S. or Canadian Green Building Council organizations.

Nevertheless, I invite you to think with some imagination and resourcefulness in defining your place in the Green economy. You can look at it in two ways (both are reasonable to me). In the first, your objective is simply to show respect for the trend -- you are not trying to be a leader; you simply want to have enough 'goodness' in your picture that consumers and organizations concerned about the environment won't regard you as an albatross. (You also will need some basic capacities, if anything, to bid on many public sector projects requiring LEED or similar certification.)

If these are your goals -- and they are reasonable -- you don't need to do too much to achieve your objectives. I would advocate appointing an environmental 'Evangelist' from within your staff to gather the necessary certifications and documentation, and implement simple practices within your marketing strategies. then, when you do something interesting or relevant, issue a news release and of course let your clients know through your other conventional marketing processes, such as your website, e-letter, brochures, and so on.

But if you want to define leadership within the environmental space -- a potentially extremely lucrative place to be -- you will need to do much more, and think on a much higher level. To achieve this, you must not be 'number 2' in your market segment. If someone else has already taken the place as the 'environmental' contractor, you have two choices; default to the first option, or define a niche or area of specialization where you can grab the Number 1 position.

For example, if you build the first LEED certified project in your area, you can claim leadership -- if another contractor has already done that, you can certainly obtain LEED certification, publicize it, and so on, but you will simply be in a holding space; okay, but not a leadership role. So you either must focus more finely your niche, or do something different (while of course maintaining the LEED capacity as you will need it to compete for projects requiring certification in the future.)

Secondly, once you have satisfied you are the first to act, you must let everyone know, and build on it with sustainable and repeated marketing, especially of any subsequent accomplishments. Use the media effectively here -- coupled with newsletters, announcements and (increasingly) video. Blog about your participation in environmental projects and initiatives and let me know. Speak out, be assertive, and let everyone know.

Third, and this is vitally important, if you are aspiring to the leadership role, you must absolutely do what you say, and be consistent in your practices. You will have a serious public relations disaster on your hands if the market finds you are driving a Hummer and you serve bottled water everywhere while you espouse environmental leadership. These inconsistencies are not so important if you are just seeking an 'okay' status (option 1) but you cannot afford to risk being found out as a phony and hypocrite if you are going for the gold (perhaps literally, as in LEED certification).

I'll admit as a business we are more in the first option category than the second, higher, level of environmental marketing. Sure, we produce more trees than we consume (good) and we lend our support to healthy environmental practices (excellent); but we have a long ways to go to define ourselves as leaders in environmental construction. But then, again, we aren't producing publications specifically tailored to the environmental construction market -- others do this quite well -- and our place in construction marketing news and ideas is broader than the specific environmental niche. So 'okay' may be good enough for us here.

So, in thinking environmental and green, decide which of the two options you think is right for your business and pursue the one you think is best. Just be aware that you must absolutely 'do something' because ignoring this trend will be costly for your market share, as well as the environment.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The profit of smaller jobs

Michael Stone's Markup and Profit blog relates two entries which touch close to home (literally).

The posting: Are you throwing away small jobs?, questions why contractors ignore or fail to serve the small projects they are invited to complete. Correlating with that posting is this additional observation, Connections -- finding a contractor where Stone relates the problems many people have in just getting someone to return their call.

Ask my wife about this matter, and you'll receive a handful of frustrating observations, and what makes this worse, is that I have 'connections'. After all, I publish construction trade newspapers and have been in this business close to two decades. So when she asked for assistance in finding someone to handle a small masonry job around the house, I went to one of the best known renovation contractors and the local commercial brick dealer -- both of whom I have good relationships with -- and asked for referrals. (I didn't expect them to be able to do the work required, but had confidence they could provide names of qualified contractors.)

We received five names from the two referring sources -- and Vivian called all of them. One of them showed up, but has yet to produce a quote.

Sure, the job is small, but we aren't trying to be cheapskates here; we are quite willing to allow for markup to allow for time and inconvenience -- and if we don't have more work that needs to be done, I certainly can spread the word and help their businesses (without pushing them to advertise or anything like that).

It's a puzzling dilemma that we see all around us. Contractors crying there isn't enough work; and consumers complaining they can't find anyone to do the job. Why is this happening?

Fear,. Greed and Emotional Selling

This disturbing image, lifted from an intriguing blog Bits and Quotes, captures both fear and greed --undoubtedly powerful emotions, but when, and where, is it proper and effective to use these in the selling and marketing process?

When, if ever, should you use the twin emotions of fear and greed in your marketing and selling initiatives. Gurus Ford Harding and Sims Wyeth debate these points in some fascinating blog postings.

To make things more interesting, they extend the basic twin emotion set to "FUD - Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt" (Wyeth) and "GOG -- Greed, Opportunity and Glory" (Harding). Wyeth argues the that tackling the negative emotions is the way to go -- followed by the positive. Harding suggests that you need to look at the situation of your prospective client and then advance the solution based on the appropriate emotions reflecting the real situation; and be wary of ethical extremes especially when working with unsophisticated clients. Neither addresses the (very real) market segment of engineers in our industry, who seek and expect the marketer to use logic rather than emotion in making proposals.

At first impression, I favor Harding's approach, though the one-two-punch of raising fear then offering a greedy solution is close to perfect in the world of marketing, if the prospective client's actual circumstances match that profile (that is, something really scary is happening or about to happen, and your solution really will solve the problem and make your potential client rich, successful and famous.) Alas, this one-two punch is also the stuff of the con-artist since circumstances are rare where fear and opportunity validly coincide in truly stark and immediate contrast. There may be many valid fearful situations, but do you really have the magic bullet that will truly solve the problem and allow your potential client to rise to glory with your support?

When you have a potential client in that situation, you may need to take a highly risky approach yourself -- eschewing short term income/security for a longer-term relationship. Consultant Bill Caswell won that status with me when, as this business approached what appeared to be its final downward spiral two years ago, he arrived on the scene with a commitment that we would not need to pay him anything unless we were successful -- and the amount we would pay would be in line with regular consulting services; not some overpriced contingency-fee rip-off. To execute that approach, you need to be comfortable with both the the integrity of your potential client and your ability to patiently weather the storm -- as things rarely resolve as quickly as you would like.

Not mentioned in this debate is the potentially more important -- but truly long term -- issue of the quality of your personal relationships coupled with the competence of your work. In the marketing matrix, if you and your team of employees are enjoyable to work with, have smarts in your field, and are sensitive your clients real needs and emotions, you'll receive and sustain business with other, healthier emotions. Like love.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Chaos Theory and Construction Marketing

This is a still from a recently released movie, Chaos Theory, a comedy based on the seemingly imponderable series of problems an efficiency expert encounters when things shift in his life, ever so subtly. I haven't seen it yet, but the reviews look quite positive.

My primary business consultant, Bill Caswell of Caswell Corporate Coaching Company (CCCC), advocates that business owners take serious consideration of Chaos Theory in adapting their business operations and plans. The concept of Chaos Theory -- I hope I am getting this is right -- is that little differences can have dramatic and seemingly unintended impact -- that, for example, the flapping of a butterfly wings in certain circumstances can ultimately create a tornado. It is all quite arcane to me; I am not a scientist and while I am reasonably intelligent, I doubt I would qualify for Mensa membership. (In any case, sometimes it is helpful not to be 'too' smart to be successful in business.) But the thinking here is that you should adapt things so that the unpredictable is acknowledged, and you build your solutions and answers through respect and recognition of natural phenomena which correlate sometimes with very small deviations. (phew, what a mouthful).

In his latest newsletter, Caswell writes:

In the brevity of an article, this science called Chaos Theory cannot be appropriately justified, other than to tell you it leads to the best way of getting things done and includes among its credits: human evolution, the formation of trees, embryos, shorelines and hurricanes. Application of this same method has led to CCCC solving over 700 ‘impossible’ business problems successfully for clients. Let’s pass on some of today’s conclusions to you:

• Make more decisions rest with people at the bottom;

• Try something, see where it leads, add to it, and then move onward from there;

• Simple local decisions lead to elegant global solutions;

• Global solutions may be the same, but the details will be different;

• Don’t fear chaos; out of chaos, comes order.

Caswell offers a specific CCCC paper: Elements of Chaos Theory which you can request by emailing his associate Upkar Bikhu at

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A not-so-warm introduction (2)

Some more correspondence with the Toronto contractor who introduced himself to me in a forthright if less-than-welcoming manner yesterday.

He wrote:

We're a small operation, 5 guys, but keeping busy. Just looking for more jobs so we can grow. Your misguided if you believe a reference to your site proves that your strategy is working. That makes no more sense than if I refer you to a greasy spoon on Bathurst from which you get food poisoning.

Fact is, your paper is a tossaway. I'll put an ad in my local EMC paper or on Craigslist or kijiji. Like you wrote, "Maybe you are right. I can’t judge myself." Doesn't say much for your judgment, does it?

My response:

Would you mind sharing what you do, and your intended market? Most likely we will agree that you should not advertise in any of our publications; paid advertising, if used, needs to be specifically targeted and serve the appropriate market – and if your market is the general public rather than within the industry, we are absolutely the wrong place to spend any of your money. And even if your market matched our demographics, I would still hesitate to recommend you spend any money with us except in the most exceptional circumstances. Fortunately, we sell enough stuff to the businesses which would benefit by working with us to stay in business ourselves.

The purpose of my blog and newsletter is not to sell advertising – it is to share construction marketing ideas. It is one of several initiatives that have absolutely nothing to do with selling anything – but everything to do with building our business and brand. Do these methods help us to find qualified leads and clients? Certainly. And that is why I am scratching my head.

If I can’t find your company name in the phone book, if I can’t see you have even a rudimentary Internet presence, then how am I to know where you are to do business with you. This is ‘advertising’ of a sort but clearly I am not asking you to waste money on Yellow Pages listings – just a simple web presence will be a good start. The blog does rather interesting things for our search engine rankings; when you get to number one place in Google for relevant keywords, you get inquiries – and business. You can set up a blog for free using Google’s blogger service which,
incidentally, could also serve as a rather simple and easy-to-maintain home page for your business website.

As for whether my papers are ‘tossaways’ I’ll allow the marketplace to decide that. Although they are distributed with controlled circulation, a few hundred people pay us $25.00 a year to subscribe, and renew year after year.

I’ve learned that you can achieve much worthwhile business by putting ‘business’ aside and simply sharing ideas, insights, and good-will. I’m not looking for a dime from you, but your dialogue here (which I am reporting openly, while disguising your identity until you give permission) is opening interesting avenues for learning and discovery. Let me challenge you – I expect I can help you find more jobs so your business can grow.

Mark Buckshon
President, Construction News and Report Group of Companies
1 Cleopatra Dr. Suite 202
Ottawa, Ontario K2G 3W9
888-432-3555 ext 224