Strategic Planning in Turbulence

Stu’s News
with Trina’s Tips



In previous times, we’ve used a three-part process for helping firms in their strategic planning.

1.    Client Focus Group.

Too often, firms gather their leaders and use their individual insights to forecast where the marketplace will for the next five years or so.  The problem:  it reflects the bias and enthusiasm of our leaders, and not necessarily where the marketplace will be.  Inviting 18 to 24 outsiders – clients or “knowledgeable third parties” (e.g. economic development directors, politicians, lenders, realtors) – to a three-hour session will yield client-based perceptions of growth markets … with numeric “market strength” scores.

2.    Market Verification.

Before making a decision based on the collective wisdom of our guests and our firm leaders, select the most promising markets – usually some new markets that are of interest and some mainstay markets – and conduct research into each, to raise the confidence level of likely behavior in those markets, before investing your firm’s resources in them.

3.    Strategic Planning Retreat.

Now your firm’s leaders receive a thorough briefing on likely behavior in each market of interest.  From that, they can select the most promising and develop detailed action plans for capturing work from each desired market.

This three-phase process is detailed in our marketing book, which can be readily downloaded from our web site.  However, I’m seeing a slightly different process producing excellent results at a time when market forecasting is less certain because of the general nervousness and lack of certainty in what lies ahead.

Here’s a new variation of the Mandeville Techniques, which combines general client feedback with needs forecasting … and response testing.

Begin with the questions from your Mandeville Feedback form.  If you experience major unhappiness from an existing client, just gather the feedback data and leave.  Promise to come back with corrective actions in short order.  (In fact, the only risk in this process is listening to feedback and not taking corrective action, as it destroys your credibility.)

You can also use this process on past clients, adjusting the phrasing of your questions, such as … “When we were working with you on those previous projects, what did you like best or value most, overall?” You can also use this process with people prospective clients – people with whom you have not worked … “In general, what have you found that you liked best or valued most from consultants with whom you’ve worked?”

Responses to this question from prospective new clients certainly give you a wealth of information you can use when you’re eventually structuring your approach to addressing one of their upcoming projects.  That’s a short-term benefit.  There’s more …

When you’ve completed your feedback questions, received a “client satisfaction” benchmark score and summarized and verified what you’ve learned, then shift to market trend information, from your Market Interview form …

“I really appreciate the feedback you’ve shared.  I’d like to also learn your perceptions of what you see happening in your types of projects over the next, say, eight to ten years. …”

After you’ve interviewed several clients in any given market, the data from the first three questions in your Market Interview form will give you an excellent picture of what lies ahead in that market … growing, shrinking, or just shifting … and many markets are in flux.
Then comes Market Interview questions #4 and #5 … ”What kind of help will be most important to you in addressing the issues you’re anticipating?” and “If you could design the perfect consultant (or team or firm) for meeting your needs, what would that be?” We need to start thinking “out of the box.”  Traditional consultant team disciplines and project delivery systems are changing with the shifting pressures on clients.
Sometimes, a specialist in wastewater treatment is uncomfortable asking a client about trends that shift away from his or her background.  “They’re talking about public relations, fundraising, and consensus building … in addition to engineering disciplines that are not up my alley.  And they even want someone to set up their rate and collections systems;  that’s not engineering!”

You don’t have to personally solve all these problems, but you do have to listen, to learn what they are.  If you can then identify coming trends in markets you wish to serve, and can identify client ideals for project support – whatever they may be – and can stay flexible and able to put together specialists and project approaches you may never have tried before, you’re in for some new learning … and … some prosperity in the midst of an uncertain and turbulent economic environment.

Trina has been doing an increased number of interviews for firms, as an “outside third party.”  The positive response from clients to the initial interview, and then to a subsequent interview after corrective action has been taken, is phenomenal.  Payback for the firms has been immediate and huge.

The one discovery that leaves us sad:  No one else – and many of the clients with whom Trina meets are major clients who award millions of fee dollar contracts a year, and who have worked with many of our major and most prestigious  firms – has come to them with these questions and with follow-up action.  It’s time to “walk the talk” and change the norm in our profession, for the sake of our clients and for our own positive future.