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Thursday, July 31, 2008

In the 'triiibe'

Marketing guru Seth Godin mentioned it once only, in a single blog posting; if you prepurchased his next book, Tribes: We need you to lead us, you would be invited to join a private and closed group of individuals on an inside track. He originally on July 29 set the target to close entry to the group to be August 10, but a few hours later announced that entries would close at 11 a.m. on July 30. With an incredibly short deadline, I hesitated not a second to commit the $14 at Amazon to pre-order the book. This night, I received the promised email inviting me into the closed group. At latest count, Godin's Triiibe has 827 members, suggesting to me the number will head up somewhere above 1,000 but below 2,000 before all the the numbers are counted.

Of course, Godin and his book publisher have played a brilliant marketing game -- they've presold these books, and sold them to a group of people who, sensing a place of inside leadership, will popularize the concept in blogs, marketing materials, and other communications, virtually assuring an incredible marketing launch come the book's formal release in October. Meanwhile, the early adaptor triiibalists, for want of a better word will have bragging numbers with low identification numbers and status as leaders in our fields. (I sense I am one of just a handful of people in the group connected with the AEC industry -- noticing just one person so far in the space served by this blog; someone affiliated with the SMPS Boston Chapter.)

The ground rules for Godin's closed triiibe group include the fact we are not to post stuff within the group out in the general public, spam other members, engage in overt self-promotion, or otherwise irritate the community. We'll be booted out if we do. Equally, we are not to lurk, sitting quietly and not speaking up. We are supposed to share our thoughts and insights, and cross-fertilize our imagination and experience. The result is as you can expect a somewhat egotistical, high-octane marketing community (which I can brag and say, with 100 per cent truthfulness, you can't enter, at least now.)

Does this kind of, for want of a better word, mass exclusivity, have a place in construction industry marketing? I'm not sure. As I detailed in my last post, most successful AEC firms thrive on a solid word-of-mouth reputation achieved within sectors and activities of influence rather than conventional marketing models. We're far less interested in hiring an architect, general contractor or sub-trade who has a cool image, than one we know will do the job really well, reliably, and on budget, and with good working spirit during the process. Although there are some exceptions, most of our projects span relatively long times of intense and sometimes potentially confrontational interaction -- just doing our work really well, with good spirit, creates an indelible brand in the minds of our customers, and it is simply a matter of building on the word-of-mouth dynamics to find new and repeat business. In other words, we don't really need to do much 'marketing' if we do our work well.

Still, it is nifty to belong to an exclusive, private group, The Triiibe.

(How to) dare to be different

This image is from an intriguing blog,, which follows Planning Commissioners Journal editor Wayne Senville as he travels across the country. You may find niche ideas and perspectives by looking outside your home community.

A couple of blog entries previous, I posted a question from a recently established central Florida general contractor, in business four months, asking me how they could escape the crunch of price competition. Before composing my response, I visited the contractor's website -- a truly professional, well-thought document, graphically appealing, which expressed credibility and experience.

I yawned.

Not out of disrespect, but out of marketing sadness. They were another general contractor, not particularly new, not particularly different, and certainly capable of doing seemingly anything. They hadn't discovered the power of uniqueness, of the niche, of that 'something special' which sets the extraordinary from the ordinary, so I had to bring the bad news. Essentially, I said, bug your friends and family, and your previous clients from before -- they'll give you a try, and perhaps pay a little more than the others. Eventually, you'll be able to build your reputation and connections, and a satisfied client base, and you'll thrive with your repeat business and referrals. Then, there is little wrong with boring conventionality.

So how do you escape this trap from the start? Think fine tuning. Think narrow. Think niche. Then test your assumptions. Before you go off the deep end, see if anyone will buy what you have to sell (without investing piles of money or up front capital in the process). You won't have 100 per cent certainty when you start, but you'll be a whole lot better off than the person who says, "I can do anything -- just give me the chance."

Now, if you think I can suggest the specific niche you should start at in some ready-made checklist, you are engaging in wishful thinking. But I'll still push forward with some thoughts that will give you clues to answers which will work for your own business.

Can you be the "first of" within a distinctive geographical area?

The wider your focus, the narrower the geography. "We are the general contractor for Halfway, Oregon," might work if you truly are the first contractor there. (Some people with long memories will remember when Haflway turned its name to for money and computers, as part of the late 90s era Internet marketing gimmick.) Think neighbourhood, community, ethnicity, or the like in defining your "first of".

Can you be the "first of" within a specialty, say, for a tongue in cheek example, "We are the first water-free mechanical contractors?" You could be the first contractor who focuses in hypo-allergenic construction, "The peanut-free contractor".

Service uniqueness
Are your hours of service, payment terms, or procedures unique, and of special value to the people you are serving?

For example: "Our hours of business are on weekends and from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. overnight, only." (Marketing cleanups, commercial fit-ups, and the like.) Or "pay us anything but cash" -- and co-ordinate in advance a valuation scheme to convert the in-kind goods to cash or barter value elsewhere.

Can you tie your marketing with a respected, recognized organization with influence, and link your business to theirs."We are the general contractors of . . . Church". (In this case, in exchange, you might agree to tithe a portion of your revenues or profits to the church building fund.)

Now, you think you have the right idea. How do you know if it will work in practice? You need to put your thoughts to the test. The more radical, the more creative and the more wacky the idea, the more likely you are to have incredible success -- or an incredible flop. I recommend you try a few things to validate your thoughts before diving in deeply. The challenge in testing your thoughts is to come up with some realistic way of seeing whether people will actually buy what you have to sell, before putting any money into the process. Be wary of people who say: "That's a great idea -- let me know when you are ready." After you spend a few million bucks setting up, you go back to the same people and they will often say, "Maybe, later.". . .

But there are ways you can test without burning your budget.

Has the idea worked elsewhere (in other similar communities?)
Talk to people int he communities, listen, and see first hand the idea in application. Is the demographic similar to yours. You might even find an affiliation with the business in the other community is possible and meet someone moving to or related to someone in your area. You can then test with these potential clients.

Can you get people to pay you a deposit or even the whole price up front for your idea. (You could offer a pre-payment discount)?
This is actually how I got started. I had the idea for a local publication, but didn't know if it would work. So I went around and sold enough advertising, and collected enough up-front cash, to publish the first issue. The printer and design house were surprised when I showed up with the certified checks for the prepayment of services at their end: They had been burned too many times by wanna-be publishers. I'm still in the business 20 years later.

If you can't get money, can you get a contract or written commitment from a few clients for the service?
This again proves seriousness.

Will big name or well-recognized local or market sector leaders support your idea; do they think it is good and worthy of their recommendations?
If they say 'yes', you have a shot.

Now, I'm not advocating in the testing phase shouting from the rooftop to announce your launch; but equally, I don't think you will get far if you are worried about secrecy to the point you think someone will steel your brilliant idea if you open your trap before you get started. Few will. But I wouldn't test unless I am ready to launch right away or in the near future. Procrastination will, indeed, invite competitors to set up in your space.

You will never be completely 'ready' but there is a time to get off the fence and jump in the water.

Note I am not advocating blindly rushing into things, but equally, you should appreciate you won't be able to firm up everything and enter the business with 100 per cent confidence of success. Somethings you can only learn by messing up, by making mistakes, and just getting started, so you've got to go forward.

There. That is my simple start-up advice. Think specialty, focus, uniqueness, and then test your assumptions shortly before launch. But don't be afraid to start up by breaking all these rules -- if you have lots of friends and connections who respect and know you, and will give you business to start. Then, indeed, boring and bland may be best. You don't need to rock the boat when it is full.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Construction Marketing Blog

This string-man image from Moggs is the illustration for CMG's Construction Marketing Blog posting: Construction Advertising Artwork: When You Absolutely Need Cable You Can Trust"
The Construction Marketing Group in London, England, has started the Construction Marketing Blog. I suspect this is largely a search engine optimization move -- my blog had displaced CMG from its leading place on the search engine rankings under "construction marketing" keywords. As well, Construction Business Development, also in the U.K., has started its own blog.

Regardless, you'll find some useful material within the blog -- which clearly qualifies for a permalink under this blog's listing criteria, so I'm setting the link in place tonight.

Getting started

Construction at the University of Central Florida in Orlando appears to have a a bright future with rising enrollment, even in the current housing slump. This image is of the new recreational centre under construction. Trouble is, for local contractors seeking work, is that price competition is intense and brutal.

Here is another question received in response to: "What is your number one construction marketing concern?"

Q. We are a young company and have just really gotten started in the last four months (we’ve existed on paper for two years). Our focus is commercial construction, specifically retail construction in Central Florida. Our largest challenge is getting clients and jobs. The jobs we learn of are generally from reporting agencies like McGraw Hill, Construction Data, etc, so we always have a fair amount of competition when submitting a bid. It’s a rough in the hard bid world. Any ideas?

We’ve been trying to grow relationships with one on one office visits, lunches, and cold calls with prospective clients too. We’ve had some success with this approach, but we just can’t seem land jobs with such heavy price competition. How do we overcome this?

Clearly, when you are responding to public projects, openly advertised (and available to the commercial leads services), you are going to be facing intense price competition -- especially in a depressed market. The problem is that the only way around the price competition is either exceptional specialization or exceptional branding, or both -- and the branding I am talking about is reputational, not superficial.

You know you have achieved success when clients call you back for more, and/or refer colleagues to you. So the first place I would go looking for business is among people you really know and who truly respect you from previous projects, perhaps at your former employers (however of course you must not do this if you would violate contractural agreements or the like).

Another approach to consider is to define your niche -- you must be quite specific here -- and then look at ways you can focus your marketing message upstream within that niche. Say, you are confident you can build schools well -- you would want to join the relevant associations/chapters for your sector. The wider and bigger the sector/market, the less this approach will 'work' simply because your entrenched competitors are likely to already be there.

This gets into the Unique Selling Proposition concept of marketing. If you are not number one (or number two) in your segment, you are not going to command attention -- so, again, you will be among the crowd bidding work on price! If you really are first in the space, you can 'own' it. In business, an excessively narrow niche may not be viable to support your entire enterprise, but it may give you some power and identification and draw out useful business.

In other words, from a marketing perspective, if you cannot draw on your existing relationships/reputation, you will need to dare to be different, to be focused, and to specialize in a visibly unique area -- and then you can command higher prices, which will be augmented as your reputation grows. Remember, your unique area can be geographically defined, by sector or specialization, or by something else. It simply has to be unique and relevant to your business (and your potential clients' real interests and emotions.)

Selling insurance

This image is from the website of Lanzo, Lutz & Associates, Inc. in Cheswick, PA.

Yesterday, in place of the regular email Construction Marketing Ideas newsletter, I invited readers to answer this question: What is your largest single construction marketing challenge. We received many responses, and I'm working today and tomorrow to send out individual emails which, in many cases, will of course also serve others through blog and newsletter entries.

Ted Lanzo, of Lanzo, Lutz, Insurance Brokers in Cheswick, PA, wrote:

I don’t know if this is what you are looking for, but being in the insurance business, it is difficult to reach construction people or should I say businesses to insure, given they don’t seem to follow the same patterns as the average person.

1) They don’t or rarely use email, reading is not a strong suit, they’re hands on
2) They seem more disorganized, estimated taxes many times go unpaid
3) They seem to lack good management skills or they don’t care as much about learning good management techniques to grow their business

Yet they need insurance to get on any job site, so how do we reach them. I was going to do a one page newsletter, with a business tip or tool tip.

We have a website that is the same as our vanity phone number 1-Toolbelt-10.

Ted Lanzo
These are excellent questions

The thing I've noticed about most successful insurance brokers is that they thrive more on the relationships with existing clients than in the marketing to new clients; and that most successful insurance companies find a way to market so that they are at the centres of influence of their community. Newsletters, websites, and direct marketing/selling are an uphill grind. You need to get word of mouth and natural marketing in place. (Though I generally like your website, and e-letters and other resources are helpful in maintaining relationships or building them once your initial marketing position is established.)

So how do you achieve this level of connection? First, the obvious one -- see if you can provide an insurance program with your local construction associations. Remember there are many specialized groups and organizations. One successful insurance broker here, for example, couldn't connect with the local mixed construction association, but found a place within the local general contractors' association -- sponsoring, for a minor fee, their annual Integrity and Ethics Awards (and providing lots of face-to-face meeting time both with the association's board members and other participants.)

You can also build out from your existing client base. I notice you have testimonials. These are really helpful. You might wish to put these on a static web page, with links back to the testimonial-givers' own websites. Of course you can ask for referrals, but you might go a step further and sponsor/co-ordinate some kind of marketing party or event to help your existing clients attract new business (and of course invite the people who you think might also benefit from your services).

Finally, I've seen an increasing trend within construction associations and groups to have at least once a year hands-on parties and events; again, the direct connection and involvement with potential clients is probably more effective than printed materials and the like (though I can reassure you that really high end potential clients -- the ones that will provide you with the most business -- indeed are readers.)

In our years of business, where we publish features about construction businesses supported by their suppliers, we've found that we almost always can sell ads to the featured companies' insurance brokers. They aren't purchasing the ads because they believe the advertising will (directly) attract new business. They simply appreciate the best way to build the business is to maintain the connection and support existing clients with energy and respect -- and these informal relationships invite the behind-the-scene referrals and recommendations that are the real source of long term success in the insurance business.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Why best is much better than good (or better) arrived on the scene to beat Google as a search engine with some really successful public relations hype. Alas, Cuil is not the best search engine. It isn't even that good. And therefore it will likely fail.

Yesterday morning, I read with some excitement that a new Internet search start-up,, would take on Google to beat the search engine giant with the depth and quality of its search. The new engine, started with several million dollars in funding, also started with quite a PR bang. But, alas, Cuil is not the best. It isn't even that good (or better). With just a little less than 100 per cent modesty, I tested it with something close to my heart, the keywords "construction marketing". Cuil couldn't find this blog. Google now usually puts it within the top three entries. So there.

Now, maybe my example is just a little personal, but with several billion dollars in capitalization and the well-known fact that Google has torn holes through its competition (which is anyone who earns significant amounts of money by selling advertising), I'm going to go way out on a tounge-in-cheek limb and say that Google has the best search engine. Because of that, and all the money the company makes, it is attracting the best software engineers, thinkers, designers, and, dare I suggest, office administrators, janitors, and maintenance mechanics. So "best" just keeps on getting better.

Eventually, the story may have a less-than-stellar conclusion. Top dogs eventually get knocked down to earth. Upstarts indeed are better (or best) in their niches, and eventually one will overcome Google --just as the Roman, Greek and British empires declined. But at their peaks truly successful businesses are truly formidable. Mess with them at your own risk. I wouldn't try (as a start-up).

So we come to the point of this blog. If you want to be really successful in business you have to be the best at what you are doing (or at least in contention, say the top 10 to 20 per cent). And you need to surround yourself with the best employees, suppliers and clients. If you accept mediocrity, you are doomed.

(OK, there are exceptions, as the owner of a third generation refrigeration contractor celebrating its 75th anniversary told me. "If the (refrigeration mechanic) has a ticket, we hire the guy -- even though his work may be mediocre and his personality sucks. The labor shortage is that severe in the trades. Of course we put the person on construction jobs, out of site of the public and customers, and keep a close eye on him. And if there is a downturn, he is the first to go.")

How do you find great employees, suppliers, and clients? It helps to have them in the first place, and to treat them with absolute fairness and respect (and that certainly doesn't mean propping up weak performers at the expense of the better employees -- you'll drive your business back down to mediocrity if you do that.)

Other suggestions:

Find your passion, and live it. At heart, I've always been and will as long as I live, be a journalist. I really enjoy digging out stories, learning, understanding, and seeking out the truth. I'm sure this helps our product quality, since we publish newspapers and websites where journalism is important.

Hire top performers. Fair pay is important, but isn't the whole thing. If you create an environment of opportunity, growth, and respect, you can still find great talent to work with you.

Work in less-than-crowded spaces. A couple of years ago, I set out to be the leading blogger on Construction Marketing. It helped, of course, that no one else at the time happened to be blogging on the topic.

This week, I took a break from the usual Construction Marketing Ideas newsletter and sent a brief note with this question: "What is your number one construction marketing concern?" Already several readers have responded -- and your responses will help me define future newsletters and blog postings. I'm also inviting comments and reports of experiences with Pubic/Private Partnerships for stories I'm writing in Canada and for The SMPS Marketer.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Rethinking the cold call

Are these guys wearing proper safety gear? The image is from the site, where Steven Cull offers a cold calling/lead development service from Chicago, Illinois. A similar service, focused primarily for the construction industry, is offered by Construction Business Development in the United Kingdom. Does it make sense to use an outside vendor to cold call on your behalf? I'm not sure -- if the callers achieve success and the cost per worthwhile lead is justified, these services may be of value for your business.

Perhaps the most overly abused, misunderstood, and ineffectively handled concepts in selling and marketing is the cold call. In our perception, the cold call is just that -- an intrusive 'invasion' of space from an uninvited person who knows nothing of our business and wants to bother a senior decision-maker to make a 'pitch' for something he or she doesn't really want or need.

OK, I know, no one in sales really thinks that way, but you would have to wonder when canvassers drop by the office (or in the residential environment, knock on the door, uninvited), or phone us at work or home, with their pre-programmed script and mindless selling blather.

I hate it.

But cold calling doesn't have to be that bad; in fact, it can truly take you to the heights of business and selling success -- if you think about things in a truly different light. That is, you really have something of immediate and practical relevance to he person you are calling; something that would legitimately get a 'wow, this is news and important to me' response.

Clearly, you aren't going to get that just by grabbing a business directory and calling every name on the list; or walking down the street, knocking on every door, or phoning everyone in the book. This type of cold calling is much more thoughtful, specific, and relevant.

My favorite example, which I've cited several times, is the cold call I made to a major organization back in 1998. I had been at a meeting where some key people we were seeking to do business with virtually threw me out of their office, and then said they wished the other organization would 'leave town' too. So I called 'the other organization', cold! I didn't know anyone there, had no previous relationship with the business, but certainly had some interesting news to share.

We met, and formed a business alliance that continues to this day. (I won't cite details in this blog because some stories, no matter how interesting, cannot be shared in public.)

So, say you have a new technology, building material, resource, or idea. Clearly the best way to approach things is through relationships and referrals, but you might be in a position to actually know something immediately relevant to the business you are calling, because you know your market, the business, and its competition. Call them -- and share your observations. You'll connect.

A point to make here is the misleading 'sales training' line that selling is a 'numbers game'. In this thesis, the more people you call (bother!) the more you sell. So you call and call, and hope things will stick.

In some industries/sectors this argument might work well -- if you really know your stuff. A few weeks ago, a sophisticated and I believe successful investment advisor phoned me, cold. He left a message. I courteously returned the call (which I will do whenever I'm not overwhelmingly busy) and explained that my wife makes all the investment decisions in our family, she does her own thing, and, no, I am not introducing him to her. Then I asked him about his success rate with the cold calls.

He says he disciplines himself to do the calling for an hour a day, three days a week. He says he can calculate over time how many leads he calls convert to business, and it is worthwhile. And it may well work like that, if your market is wide enough, your offering is relevant enough, and you have the confidence and maturity of someone who has achieved success in your business -- this comes over really quickly on the phone, I can assure you.

(However, I am becoming immune to investment advisers and others who use lead generators -- cold calling telemarketers -- to set the stage for their own work. They are passing the buck to someone else, and it is not just annoying, it is irritating to me.)

I would argue that you will get much better results, overall, if you research your proposition, and if you are going to cold call, either have something directly and immediately (and almost exclusively) relevant to the person you are calling,and/or an offer/proposal that is so good that it is foolish to ignore.

If you are, instead, going to play the "numbers game" remember, you have to have enough numbers to play with in the first place, or you'll burn through all your leads and be left with very little to show for your wasted effort.

The Readers' Choice Award -- a special blog

The Readers Choice Awards recognize the most-respected construction related businesses in Ontario. We've set up a blog to highlight these awards; you may find you can use the blog as a marketing resource for other special initiatives in your own business.

We've been experimenting and expanding the marketing applications of blogging technology. See the new Ontario Readers' Choice Awards blog, reporting on the special annual initiative where we invite our readers to select the best businesses and individuals in key industry-related disciplines.

Of course, you can learn about the Readers' Choice Awards in our printed publications, and we send out faxes and e-letters, as well as invoice stuffers and direct mail pieces. But the blog has special advantages and capacities.

  • It is easy to maintain and update
  • It doesn't cost anything to operate (and takes very little time to develop/maintain)
  • It extends the scope of awareness of the awards program.
  • The process of setting up and including content in the blog took just an hour or two. In our case, with an existing Google Blogger account, we simply created the new blog under the original account and uploaded using built in resources the necessary logos and content.
Can you use the same technology/resources to develop materials for specific projects or initiatives in your own business? I think so. And if you do, please let me know -- we may be able to provide you some additional free publicity at this blog!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

About PPPs and Infrastructure Ontario

We're writing articles for the August and September issues of Ontario Construction Report about Infrastructure Ontario and Public/Private Partnerships. This material will set the stage for another article I will write later in the year for The SMPS Marketer about the opportunities and challenges about the PPP business model across Canada and the U.S.

I've surveyed our Ontario readers for comments -- if you are out of Ontario and wish to comment as well, feel free -- your observations will be saved for the upcoming SMPS article.

Some thoughts about blogging

Chase's Chase Marketing and Bob Kruhm's North Carolina Construction News blogs are their own responsibility -- but are easy to set up and maintain through the system.

Bob Kruhm, associate publisher of Charlotte Construction News and Triad/Triangle Construction News, has started his own blog North Carolina Construction news at He is the third person closely connected to our business to blog. Chase, in St. Catharines, On, has been publishing Chase Marketing, for several months. And of course you are reading this blog.

Without much experience or technical knowledge in blogging, Bob asked me for assistance last week in setting up his blog. Initially, I sighed. The last thing I want to do is to oversee and co-ordinate individual postings from everyone in this organization. Then I discovered some of the magical capacities of the Google-owned system. With it, you can set up multiple blogs, and then assign different people and posting rights for each blog.

While Chase operates his own account, we decided at our regular weekly staff meeting that a special blog for the Readers Choice' Awards (in Ontario) would be helpful. So I set up a blog title for that initiative -- but here, the challenge is the maintaining and updating of this blog requires more capacity than simply posting blog entries. So I discovered I could also control 'administrative rights' that give me the option to give additional powers in layout, design, and co-ordination -- and I granted these to Chase for the new blog, which is still under construction.

These resources are intriguing and useful for businesses such as ours which encourage a high degree of individual responsibility and thinking among employees and contractors. By opening and overseeing the blogs centrally, you can maintain a good sense of what is going on while allowing enough freedom and independence for your team to express their own thoughts. I haven't worried about the suffix for branding -- while Google's system allows you to restructure things and host your blog on your own domain, the branding significance of the designation is minor, at least in our industry.

As for Bob and Chase's own blogs, they express their own thoughts, imagination, and perspectives -- I neither edit, nor even suggest, what they write about.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Marketing success -- the essense

Steve Yastrow's books are worth reading. You will also find value in his blog at

Great marketing, in my opinion, starts with great employees delivering the product or service that clients are amazed and entertained as they do business with us. Your marketing resonates when, as Steve Yastrow advocates, employees and clients are in harmony, with each other and the larger community. When this connection is complete, you have the magical strength of exceeded expectations and solid word-of-mouth referrals. Then you can extend your reach with various forms of publicity and sometimes advertising, and see your results skyrocket.

So how do you do this in practice? Here, things get a little tricky, because neither clients nor employees (nor the larger community) are seeking textbook perfection. If you run your business with such a tight ship that employees are systematically forced or coerced into doing the 'right thing' you'll defeat yourself -- people can see really quickly through plastic 'friendliness' and insincere remarks like the famous "Have a nice day!"

And, in any case, the so-called 'wow' factor might be just a little over the top at a typical architectural, engineering or construction office. I mean, you want your calls returned properly and problems fixed or resolved with courtesy and respect,but you aren't expecting a dancing choir of "customer service" every time you send in a proposal for a quotation or invite response through an RFP. You certainly want competence, job site respect, cleanliness, and -- most importantly -- just the right amount of sensitive imagination where you discover you can save a little money or you know in advance that some expensive change-orders may be required, and you can see the general and sub trades are working together in a co-operative approach with the design consultants to minimize their costs or stresses.

The point is all of these things happen sometimes subtly, almost in the background, and when you have it right, your clients almost take them for granted, just confident that you are delivering the goods and that you aren't taking advantage of them. They call you back, then, and are willing to serve as positive references, and your insurance broker and bonding company representative hear this stuff in the background, and they learn you pay your bills and fix problems promptly, so your bonding limits are increased and you can grow, and win more and better projects.

I'll share some examples of how these pieces fit together; they in themselves may seem disjointed but when I'm done you'll get the idea.

  • In Florida, in Absolute Aluminum's supplier-paid magazine, the company includes a page of head shots of its employees who have served in the military, coupled with a brief patriotic thank you message. While I suspect this message would not go over well in parts of Vermont, it is probably perfect in Venice, where many military families live. The employees feel recognized as special, they receive connection and respect from their fellow residents, including the families of military service personnel on active duty. In Venice, would you feel good about doing business with Absolute Aluminum for your sidings, gutters, or pool enclosures (especially since the entire service process is entirely satisfactory)? You bet.

  • In Thunder Bay, Ontario, Finn Way General Contractor Inc. puts together the most comprehensive and well designed responses to RFP documentation I've ever seen. Through tabbed links, all the essential requests and documentation requirements within the RFP are addressed (you can't skimp on the mandatory requirements) but Finn Way goes a step further, with detailed employee descriptions, colour project photos, and piles of testimonial letters carefully selected to reflect the project they are quoting. Virtually every RFP they answer is followed with an invitation to bid -- and of course Finn Way uses common sense and only submits the RFPs where it thinks it has a reasonable chance of success.
  • Finally, a story from our own business. Through an association event, we discovered a fascinating and important project under construction -- and the key decision-makers were in the meeting. We arranged the feature; but unfortunately one of our employees made a serious error --linked to a sudden deterioration in performance. We addressed the employee problem quickly (he left quickly, on good terms, and is now doing work he really enjoys) and the client, initially disturbed, has become an enthusiastic supporter of our business.

Note that just doing fancy RFPs putting veteran's pictures in your marketing materials, or having fast-acting human resources policies will create the marketing chemistry I'm describing here. But I sense the companies which get it right all share in common:

  • Really solid hiring and human resources policies; encouraging the kind of employees with initiative, respect, and community-centredness to apply and stay with the company.
  • Consistent and cohesive marketing materials that connect the competence of their employees to their communities and markets;
  • The ability to resolve problems quickly, best at the front-line employee level, but if anything goes wrong there, with a management that can quickly see and correct the difficulties when they arise.

Note that great marketing, indeed, need not be expensive. Marketing materials can often be supported through supplier co-op funding (and if you get it right, the suppliers who are contributing to your marketing budget also gain from the process -- I can assure readers here that anyone who buys an ad to support their client's advertising feature in one of our publications will be treated with respect and offered free services and resources far in excess of the cost of the advertising.)

You, too, can find your harmony -- and enjoy the success that is possible with great marketing effectiveness.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A truly great day

This image from the page "How to Change the Corporate Culture" at is on a site dedicated to lean manufacturing, which may have different requirements than most AEC businesses. But the observations are still useful.

Some days in business, things work just the way they should. And, as I prepare to turn the computer off tonight, I sense that dynamic in our organization and truly am grateful. Tim Klabunde, in an excellent posting in his CofeBuz blog, describes Four Steps to Changing Corporate Culture. His approach is much better than what I went through as this business contracted through three painful years of decline and dissension -- and hit bottom in November 2006, about eight months after we began implementing the necessary cultural changes with the guidance of consultant Bill Caswell.

The reason I'm really happy today is the amazing idea generation and initiative shown by our employees, along with co-operation, sharing, and respect. Best of all, new people want to join the business and are ready to go through our rather stringent pre-hiring procedures to qualify to join the team. All of this, of course, is translating to respect for our clients and this is creating the marketer's dream -- repeat inquiries and business.

I realize now that a great business needs some key structures and controls, but the biggest thing you can give employees is freedom. Therefore, in our case, the most important operating system is our hiring policies. The employees who join this organization must have the ability to thrive in an environment of limited supervision -- and that includes respecting and working well with each other. (This is why it is so important for prospective employees to work with us long enough for the current employees to decide and 'vote' on whether the potential employee fits in.)
I've noted several times in this blog -- and cannot understate it -- that your employees are your marketing department. Yes, in some cases, especially where there is a skills shortage, you may have to hire less-than-perfect people to get the job done. In these cases, you need to find a way to keep these employees away from your clients! But I would argue your business will be stronger in the long run if you slow down your hiring, and only accept people who really are great at what they do, and great at working with each other.

I can't share all the good news today -- no one in their right mind broadcasts every internal business development in a public blog! But I'm truly impressed with the quality of the emerging corporate culture.

Video meeting test a success

Today, for the first time, we built in a video feed from for our internal staff meeting. Far flung employees and contractors could see me live -- and reported that they enjoyed the visual impressions as the meeting progressed. There is no charge for the service.

At today's internal sales meeting, just as we were about to start, I decided to test whether we could use the live broadcast feed capacities of effectively. I emailed the meeting participants (including some guests), and within minutes they could visit our video portal site at and watch me. No, the video production qualities were limited -- and this is obviously not a fully functioning video conferencing approach as you can only view one person, one way. And if you are concerned about security and privacy, the format doesn't work as well -- anyone can view, and in fact, we had one outside guest who noted on the instant messaging screen attached to the system that the meeting was utterly boring (it should have been, because it really was an internal business meeting.)

Nevertheless, I found the resource useful, easy to operate, and rather simple to use in part because my laptop has a built in camera and it 'knows' when to turn itself on for the video feed.

I will use this technology at our other internal meetings, with several employees and contractors at remote locations. Except in exceptional circumstances where sensitive matters are discussed, there is no reason for the meetings to be 'private' so you are invited to view for yourself. If you wish, tune in at 1:30 p.m. on Monday for the next show!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wisdom: The challenge of choosing a great consultant

Should your business hire a consultant (or consultants), and if so, how do you decide whether you need one, and if you do, who is the right person for the responsibilities?
The answer is you most likely will achieve some incredible value from consultants -- if you choose the right one.

Great consultants bring wisdom, practically framed, to your business. They've "been there, done that" and -- if they've earned their stripes through enough years and grey hairs -- seen enough business cycle ups and downs to be able to read the tea-leaves of the current environment accurately. (Conversely, however, a very youthful consultant may be the best person to hire if you wish to connect with technology, new media, or youth markets.)

The problem you have in selecting a consultant, however, is that the best marketers of consulting services are often NOT the best consultants. The bonafide success and fame of the widely known experts means, if you can get any of their time, it will be very expensive, or distilled through underlings who may have been trained in their systems, but don't have consultants' own magic leadership abilities and insights.

Similarly large consulting organizations -- and many freelance consultants -- will trot out tried and true (but boring) business planning and procedure methodologies, almost as if they are lifted from the textbooks. In part they are right -- the basics are the same, regardless of who you use or pay; you'll probably be educated in a planning/systems process, SWOT analysis, and the like, and these templates apply for everyone.

Word-of-mouth referrals, of course can be excellent sources of insight into the quality of consulting services, especially if these relationships are built through your relevant trade organizations and groups (where smart consultants make a business of networking effectively). The advantage here is that the consultants you use really understand your specific business -- and, yes, there are differences between a residential roofing contractor and a multi-city architectural practice!

You can of course elect to contract with a general business consultant, or hire specialists for specific responsibilities/problems, or use both approaches. A good generalist consultant (with knowledge and understanding of your specific business sector) will be the best, in my opinion. You could supplement the consultant's resources with other services.

How much should you pay? Here things get a little interesting, because I think you can 'pick the brains' for about 60 to 80 per cent of the consultant's real value for free! Most good consultants offer free seminars, inexpensive books, and other resources which distill their thoughts and approaches to business in an easy-to-understand format, and they are usually available for some basic free phone or email consultation. It is simply good business for them to provide these services -- they know that they may impress you, and build enough of a relationship with you, that you will contract with them. (Incidentally, this is how i would work with the big name or famous consultants, people like Michael Gerber or Jeffrey Gitomer: Buy some of their books, perhaps, read the free stuff on their websites or e-letters, but don't rush to spend thousands of dollars for their more complex and expensive programs. You will be far out of their league, I expect, to get really powerful direct and immediately relevant insights for your particular business from them.)

Finally, remember that even the best consultants are not always right, all the time. Be willing to trust, and accept the advice, of consultants you respect, but bring your own thinking into the process; listen, respond, consider, and reflect, then act.

(A personal plug: Could I be a qualified construction marketing consultant? No one has paid me for the service yet -- so maybe it is a little premature. Then again, I'd be happy to work on the condition that you pay only if you are satisfied that you receive real value. You can reach me by email at

Making professional staff accountable

Bill Caswell leads a seminar on Making Professional Staff Accountable. The result, for me, are insights in how to measure our employees' success in client relations and marketing.

Yesterday, in the midst of the challenges and chaos of multi-tasking as our business grows, I took three hours for a program by Bill Caswell, "Making Professional Staff Accountable". I thought the topic would be peripheral to our business -- but relevant for this blog; especially for mangers at architectural and engineering offices, responsible for supervising talented professional employees.
Indeed, many of the people in the room with me live in different spaces -- including managers at law offices, and government crown corporations. But Caswell addressed some of the major issues I've been struggling with in building out your business plan: How do you ensure your team achieves the highest level of performance, and how do you measure this effectively?
Underlying these observations (and explaining the relevance to this blog) is the fact that perhaps 80 per cent of marketing success within the construction industry is defined by the quality of your actual work product and, in creating that product, the quality of your employees and their relationships with each other and your clients.
To summarize a simple non-mathematical equation:

Great employees + great work quality + great relationships = great marketing.

(The equation of course is NOT mathematical because the employees, quality, and relationships all build on each other; that is, they attract each other so the actual numbers on the left side of the equation will multiply rather than simply add to marketing effectiveness if all is working the way it should).

Caswell advocates establishing for each job some very simple and easily measurable performance indicators; no more than three, which can be assessed quickly and simply. The assessment of these indicators should also be simple, with only three choices: Exceeding expectations, Meeting Expectations, or Not Meeting Expectations (which can be translated to a traffic signal, with Green, Orange and Red indicators).

In defining these expectations, Caswell emphasises, "Only items over which the employee has control should be measured". This is vital -- you can't impose stuff on your employees without giving them the power to decide, to act, and be in control of their responsibilities, if you wish them to be properly accountable. In defining expectations, obviously the priority should be on the client interests -- that is, the person/group to which the employee reports (or, in the context of this blog, the interactions of the employees/business with your clients). Again, Caswell uses some common sense -- he advocates you focus on the most important 80 per cent of the job responsibilities in developing these measurement tools; you can spend much time worrying about the 20 per cent remaining, but it doesn't really matter in the scheme of things.

The expectations with a feedback loop from the clients then are incorporated into the quarterly employee evaluation. This evaluation, Caswell notes, should not be tied to compensation -- that should be assessed separately. (This is wise, of course, because evaluation systems quickly can be 'gamed' when money is involved!)

Some of my colleagues in the room enjoyed the theory, but pointed out problems. The concepts might be nice in theory, but how do you implement them in a unionized work force, or within a government bureaucracy, where individual managers really don't have the authority or control to implement these processes. Caswell acknowledged these limitations, but added that people can make changes within their own scope of responsibility, and when they do, the larger organization often takes positive notice.

Of course, since I own the business, I don't have these constraints, and in general I like the approach. I'll summarize my take-aways (though if you investigate this stuff you may find other things of value):
  • Many measuring systems are quite complex, with gradations and multiple scoring. The "three choice" model, essentially: Less than satisfactory, satisfactory, and more than satisfactory, is appealing because it is simple -- it won't be hard for someone to give a simple check-box on a report sheet -- and lends itself to really easy to follow graphical dashboard images (the traffic signal).
  • The suggestion that not more than three things be measured for each employee, and you only measure the top 80 per cent of relevant performance elements, again, keeps the process simple and easy to follow. This also means it is much easier to act/resolve and fix problems.
  • Finally, and most importantly to me, I can see how this measurement system can link the employee performance to our marketing assessment.
If we have a very simple measure of client satisfaction, we can tell if our employees interacting with the clients are getting it right. Of course, this process is not exactly the one described by Fred Reichheld (Net Promotor Score) and you will notice earlier postings in this blog questioning traditional intrusive client satisfaction surveys. My sense, however, is that we won't impose on clients and can get some very good feedback (maybe 80 per cent of what we are seeking) with the truly simple three-choice satisfaction question, allowing room for comments.
I will test the concept in the next couple of weeks and see if we indeed have the means to gather meaningful, and quick, assessments of client/employee quality and satisfaction.

Growing pains

I'm happy to have this problem, but I'm swamped. With two, in fact virtually three, unfilled positions here, for the last couple of weeks I've been 'filling in' on different jobs while overseeing the hiring process and doing my best to keep a forward thinking management perspective about the business (see next post).
Of course there are some advantages/efficiencies in doing everything. Yes, I can meet a client, handle the sales process, and gather the information needed to write the story, all at one efficient call. And the cross-fertilization of ideas and insights keeps me grounded and connected to the business.
But the biggest lesson today is a reminder how how much work I ask our employees to do in their day-to-day responsibilities. This is helpful because, when you get good at delegating, you also can get good at dumping -- just sending the workload, stress, and pressure downwards without allocating or allowing enough resources for the people who actually have to do the work. (Of course the converse applies; although I would never expect anyone to consistently work with the intensity I'm experiencing now, I know we can often do a lot more than we expect, if we are organized and ready for the challenges.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

No points for originality

Ford Harding's blog posting: No Extra Points for Originality in Rain Making is worth bookmarking because it concisely summarizes or links to some of the simplest and most effective prospecting methodologies for rainmakers -- and provides simple shortcuts to make the process easier.

The 'tipping point' in choosing employees

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Wink, has a new book in the works where he debunks many of the assumptions of hiring and recruiting key employees. The speech cited here provides some useful insights and clues that may change your thoughts about your employee selection process.

Guru Malcolm Gladwell, in a rather fascinating speech, outlines an observation that the practices used for selecting key employees in most organizations are badly flawed. His best example, the NHL Hockey "Combine" -- the workout session just before the entry draft, where potential NHL players are put through a series of tests and evaluations, to allow scouts some 'objectivity' in determining who plays where. Trouble is, says Gladwell, that success in the tests at this pre-draft event have no correlation to success as a player.

Worse, he says, a similar process used for the National Football League in the U.S. includes an intelligence test. You might think, he said, that you would need to be at least moderately intelligent to play well at the NFL level -- after all, the game at this level requires strategizing, complex player move analysis, and the like. Guess what, he says, the people who scored "dumbest" on the intelligence test actually are the true stars on the field. (This leaves me with some intriguing thoughts about whether certain stereotypes about football players are indeed true.)

Ok, does this translate to the professions and the like? Well, he says, conventional 'metrics' used to assess teachers' performance seem to lack correlation with real ability; ditto for lawyers and police officers. The problem is that the testing criteria try to ascertain certainty to something that isn't so easy to measure -- the best meaningful measure is, indeed, performance on the job.

In other words, I would speculate, if you want to find great teachers, set up situations where anyone can 'teach' and then evaluate their performance at the work, and if they are good, give them some teacher training.

This gives me reassurance that our model for employee selection is indeed on track. We ask prospective employees to do stuff -- initially, answer a questionnaire, then, if they make it through the screen, to actually work with us on a brief trial, before hiring them. Resumes, interviews, and tests have places in the hiring system, of course, but they are not the key issues. "Can you really do the job?" we ask, and seek to learn before hiring anyone.

The video is quite lengthy but worthy viewing.

McGraw Hill to bid for Reed Elsevier? (2)

Here is a further news item on the suggestion that McGraw-Hill might be interested in Reed Elsevier. This Washington Post article notes that they originally believed McGraw-Hill had interest in Reed's construction titles, but the scope of interest may have widened.

In my heart, I'm not sure of the validity of this story, because as far as I know, McGraw-Hill had been following on roughly the same track as Reed in believing that the future does not lie in conventional print/advertising based publications. Sure, I understand, McGraw-Hill had no plans to ditch its existing titles, including regional construction magazines, Engineering News-Record and Architectural Record, among other. But McGraw-Hill didn't want to acquire or develop significant new print titles, regardless.

Reed may be following the lead of Thomson Reuters which had the foresight to get out of print media several years ago, focusing on value added databases and electronic services. The question is, if you are a leading player in a field you know is about to rapidly decline, do you get out or do you hold on? Your existing properties can still be 'cash cows' if you slash costs, cut resources, and adapt the brands, but you have the messy business of laying off employees, and shrinking your operations to adapt to the changing environment. So, it seems logical that you would try to find a buyer who can see value in the underlying assets, who is not afraid to be ruthless to turn them into profitable operations. Again, it doesn't make sense to me that McGraw-Hill would want to play that role.

So who is spreading these rumors, and why? The answer could relate to 'inside' employee tips and reactions with self-preservation in mind; or it might simply be that indeed McGraw-Hill is kicking some tires -- heck if your largest competitor is ready to open its books for review, would you not want to take a peek at them?

At ground level, I see these developments as natural and inevitable trends as the publishing/media industry continues to experience seismic shifts under the combined pressure of media convergence, the increasing value-focused emphasis on Internet advertising, and the breakdown of traditional models/priorities within conventional media. If you are a consumer of construction news and information, or purchase advertising to serve the industry, you need not worry -- you'll find you will continue to get more for less: with (perhaps temporary) exceptions where local or specialized circumstances exist -- which is why the large media players within the industry are changing to find new avenues for their businesses.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The perfect close

Some really simple, and really useful, advice on "How to Close the Deal — Perfectly" here in this posting on Geoffrey James Sales Machine blog on BNet.

McGraw Hill to bid for Reed Elsevier?

This article, McGraw Hill plots bid for Reed Elsevier, in The Telegraph from London, England, is intriguing. For those unfamiliar with the competitive landscape in construction industry advertising and publishing, the story is could be compared to Coke preparing to bid to buy out Pepsi -- with Pepsi arranging the financing to make sure the deal goes through! (Or, since I'm not sure whether Coke or Pepsi are number one or number two in the marketplace, Pepsi offering to purchase Coke.)

Presumably the lawyers involved are aware of regional competition/anti-trust legislation for the world-wide publishing giants within the construction industry. Both businesses have a significant -- in fact -- leading presence within both the print and online markets; reading between the lines, Reed Elsevier wants 'out' of advertising-dependent businesses. Maybe Reed Elsevier sees the writing on the wall here and sense that relying on advertising revenue is not the way to go, possibly because of the power of online pay-per-click media like Google and other niche alternatives. I'm also intrigued because my understanding is that McGraw Hill has for several years decided to focus its new venture resources away from print media, recognizing the future is in online services. (In Canada, McGraw Hill has aligned itself with Merx, this country's leading online portal for online bidding/tender and business development opportunities.)

What will this news mean for you? If you are a consumer of either McGraw Hill or Reed's leads services or their publications, (that is you are an advertiser, rather than a free reader!), you conceivably will expect one of the the competing titles/services to merge/disappear within another. Alternatively, another bidder (unknown in this article) might appear and continue the competition.

We'll watch this story closely.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Resumes, tests, interviews, references, and hiring

Increasingly, I'm a firm believer in the importance of systematic and rational approaches to hiring. Brad Smart's approach to Topgrading holds real resonance here -- by focusing our efforts to hire people within the top 10 per cent of ability and commitment, we are much more likely to be a successful business than if we just hire 'okay' people to fill vacant positions.

Smart and I agree that the quick and conventional interview provide far too much opportunity for 'faking' and dressing up your personality/competence for the work. I am not sure about whether tests are absolutely useless, however. Since the test we use for sales employees is relatively inexpensive, ( I wanted to see how much results would change if a candidate retook the test shortly after the original testing.

In the first case, the prospective candidate scored modestly well, but below our arbitrary thresholds. Without my consent or permission -- but without knowing the test costs about $35 to administer -- he went ahead and retook the test himself, and passed. In the second situation, a candidate for a writers' job phoned me this week to see if we were going to give her application further consideration. As we are in the final stages of evaluating candidates for this work, I said that we wouldn't take it further, but then engaged with her the idea of testing for the sales job. (Our sales positions are highly compatible with writing skills, and anyone who is looking for a writing job willing to 'sell' herself on it, might be an ideal candidate for our business.

In any case, she quickly took the test, but the test's validity algorithms kicked in, and the test results came out inconclusive, with the observation that she might be undergoing exceptional stress.

I invited her to explain; and said she could take the test again; but this time, answer as she really is, not as she wants to appear. This time around, her results scored truly low. (But she emailed me later in the day to say she had just been awarded a satisfying career and she had noticed she was receiving several offers out of the blue-- suggesting to me that her job-finding radar in fact was in high gear.)

These results might scare a validity expert -- how can one obtain very different results from the same test within days? Does this degrade the test's utility in the hiring process? To use a very bad pun, I think Smart (or anyone else) would be dumb to use this type of test as a key or final determining resource about who to hire. We simply put it in the middle of our screening process for public candidates, and as a first stage 'review' for people we have some interest in, but wish to evaluate quickly before going further. (These can include referred candidates, call-ins, and the like.)

In one case, for example, a very long-standing employee from our major competitor called us with tales of woe at his organization. He wanted to work with us. The conventional "do you understand the job" screening process is obviously unnecessary here (the competitor uses many of the same business models and practices as us -- in fact, the competitor's company founder is one of my former employees). My phone interview with this person took some interesting turns, as I gathered competitive intelligence, validated observations, and tried to figure out what to do if we hired the person -- who would come from a totally different culture. Not sure about what to do, we administered the test, and he scored less than the hiring threshold. I now had a third-party justification to not hire him.

In the second instance, the marketing representative at one of our major clients referred a relative. You really can't brush off someone like this -- so, after we followed the preliminary steps, we offered the online test. The candidate fared poorly. We could extricate ourselves from the awkwardness of not hiring the relative of a major client by sending our good client the test results.

Finally, the test is really useful and powerful in motivating potential candidates who do well to move forward to the final stages -- the working evaluation.

But what about interviews? Short and sweet phone interviews have value, I agree, in narrowing things down, but I wouldn't ever want to make a final hiring decision based primarily on an interview. You can miscue and misunderstand potential far too easily. But I agree with Smart's critics that complex and lengthy interviews are a pain for everyone -- both for the managers and colleagues doing the interviewing, and the job-seekers themselves.

Our solution, one that I think is practiced by just a few businesses, is to forget the full-scale interview cycle, and invite candidates to do some paid work for us.

We're going through that process with candidates for the editor right now. Our normal approach is to offer a freelance assignment to people who send in interesting writing samples and hire the best of the lot -- but this time around I took things a step further. I divided our editorial salary budget up, and offered one month freelance contracts to the two finalists. We can really see who works best, both in objective talent, and in ability to work with the team. And everyone is treated fairly -- the 'loser' still gets a decent cheque for the writing work.

In our system, frankly, up to now, the weak spot has been the reference checking process. Candidates who have fared well through all the tests and evaluations are truly tempting to hire without 'bothering' with the reference evaluations, but I now can see that I could have avoided virtually all of our mis-hires with proper reference checking. (Notably the mishires weren't that bad, objectively; while they worked with us they worked quite effectively -- and left without too much of a fuss when their problems became apparent.) We do our best to get around reference problems now by really focusing in the pre-screening that reference checking will happen at the final stages; this helps to cut some of the candidates who dress things up, but we need to have more discipline in the reference evaluations.

Why is this stuff so important to your business and marketing? Consider the cost to your company of bad employees; ones who don't get along with each other and the clients on an interpersonal level or who are simply incompetent or lazy at work. If you are a client, either current or potential, do you really like doing business with organizations full of second-rate people? If you are building a truly effective marketing plan, you really need to focus on finding really good employees.

In conclusion:

Hire carefully. Use a pre-screening questionnaire before even really looking at resumes;
  • Use personality/sales tests carefully -- these should never be your final tool but I believe they can be effective in screening or evaluating 'special' candidates, or as part of a systematic hiring process.

  • If possible, create a realistic (paid) working assignment in place of multiple interviews. You won't be frustrated with lengthy and tedious interviews, and your employee candidate will be happy to go through the process.

  • Don't skimp or avoid reference checking. Even organizations that have a policy for legal reasons not to provide references will always give a positive reference to a truly good former employee. You need to ask, or have the employee set up the call for you, however.