Walking the Talk

November/December 2001

Walking the Talk


About 3½ years ago, Lou Marines and I conducted in-depth interviews for PSMA, with almost 40 heads of firms in our industry. Questions began with …

“What do you see as the biggest trends
affecting our industry in the next few years?”and …

“How do you see those trends affecting your firm?”

Everyone talked about how busy they were, and their need for people. But – they also were nervous about the economy in five years. Well, people are now nervous. So – here are some action items for dealing with market shifts … from front-end to post-project.


1. Strategic Thinking:

The busier firms become, the shorter-term everyone’s thinking. Somewhere near the top of the firm, someone – or some leadership group – needs to be asking:

“Where will our markets be heading
over the next five years?”

Many think breaking into a new market is the toughest marketing task. It’s actually seems tougher for people to let go of markets they’re in … but which are fading. Recommended actions:


  • Conduct “Mandeville-without-a-Project” interviews of current clients – by people not in that market – to listen to shifting trends and needs.
  • Sponsor focus groups of clients and third parties, to identify perceived shifts in markets over the next five years. This could be “cross-sectional” – one person per market – or within a market, such as “transportation.”


Seeing firms thrive in hi-growth markets is fun. Seeing firms suffer in down markets is not. Firm leaders must do these actions (though project people are the ones hired or laid off.)


2. Project Pursuits … Sales Efforts:

When markets mature, clients see consultants as “commodities,” because an oversupply of good firms exists. From a sales perspective, the question is …

“How do you differentiate yourself?”

Typically, firms caucus to develop a new service. For example, municipalities need more help with long-range planning, and asset management. Firm leaders spend hours or days developing that service … as their “secret” method for differentiating themselves. But – we see every firm do the same! Some actions to help you really differentiate yourself …


  • Two or more client meetings before submittals. “Qualification” is perceptual. No interpersonal bond between your person and a client, no go! You need in-depth understanding of concerns and a strong personal bond to win. 
  • Develop a data file of processes you use to solve specific problems, such as “public acceptance” or “deadline management” or “cost control.” Just citing past successful projects won’t differentiate you in a mature market.



3. Pre-Project Preparation:

At the start of a workshop, when asking people their biggest difficulties with clients, issues focus heavily on items that weren’t dealt with at the outset:

“When the client changes scope, how to get paid?”
or …
“Clients always gripe about our invoices.”

So … here are some kick-off meeting actions that (amazingly) no one (even large firms) seems to take:


  • Develop a “What if … “ punch list for use at kick-off meetings. Initially, brainstorm items. Then, every time something happens, add another. To have a problem is human; to keep repeating the same problem isn’t wise.

  • Brainstorm, before the meeting:


“What can we do on this project to
make the client look good?”

The project doesn’t hire us; the client does. An “above and beyond” attitude is essential for maximizing repeat work.


4. On-The-Job Actions:

The most crucial action: Have a third party, on every project, interview each client at pre-set times (typically keyed to milestones) to elicit feedback … likes, dislikes, suggestions, and a 0-to-10 benchmark satisfaction score.

Don’t wait until you’re in trouble. Many firms did systematic client feedback, with great results. As firms got busier, regularity faded.


5. Project Wrap-Up:

Projects often just end … and staff moves on, to the next project. For close-out actions:


  • Staff debriefing – clients and yours – about what went well, what didn’t, and how to improve. The message:


“A good effort may be even better next time!”


  • Think of something that makes the client feel successful – an open house, a technical seminar for colleagues or public, and/or an article.



6. Post-Project Action:

When we scurry off to the next project, we often lose contact with the client whose project was just completed. The best way to stay in touch: Focus on the old project


  • Give clients a “Gripe Book” at closeout, to jot down comments they hear, or problems they experience. Return in 3 and 11 months (while equipment is under warrantee) to go through that book and resolve problems.
  • On various “anniversaries” – when you have a “seam between other projects” – phone the client and do another walk through. It’s more professional, it lets you solve problems that crop up, and it begets repeat work.


Firms have construction or drawing thoroughness punch lists … but no punch lists for “Client Management.” Yet, punch lists such as these can keep you in growth markets, and maximize your marketing efforts.

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