Competition in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) field has grown increasingly fierce over the years. Economic changes, market movement, technological advancements and — of course — the pandemic have greatly impacted the evolving business landscape.
According to Lori Sullivan, building stronger relationships with people will always be at the heart of winning business and sales strategies. AEC business developers must focus on developing customer-centric strategies that resonate and strengthen connections with prospective clients to succeed and stay ahead of the competition.
In this episode of Spill the Ink, Michelle Calcote King invites Lori Sullivan to share her expert insight on the latest trends and strategies for success in the AEC industry. Sullivan is the President of BluePrint Growth Consulting and brings a unique perspective to the conversation backed by a decades-long career in the construction sector.
Here's a glimpse of what you'll learn
Trends impacting sales and business development strategies in the AEC industry
The anatomy of an excellent sales plan and how to effectively plan for long-term success
Common mistakes AEC firms commit when building their sales and business development plan
The value of branding and reputation management in the business development process
About our featured guest
Lori J. Sullivan is a seasoned AEC professional, having worked as a construction engineer and project manager before moving into business planning and development for some of the nation’s top construction management firms, including Turner Construction Company and Gilbane Building Company. Lori was named an Architectural Engineering Centennial Fellow in 2010 by her alma mater, Penn State University.
In 2012, Sullivan launched BluePrint Growth Consulting to help AEC organizations grow. BluePrint Consulting is a provider of building industry-specific research, strategy, sales planning and training solutions designed to improve sales performance and increase revenue for their clients.
As an AEC industry-leading provider of research and brand perception studies, the company has completed thousands of hours of interviews with buyers and influencers of AEC services. Using customer insights and industry research, they work with their clients to position them in the right markets and determine prospects who fit the company's expertise. Their sales and marketing plan implementation methods are based on a continuously updated body of research.
Resources mentioned in this episode
Sponsor for this episode
This episode is brought to you by Reputation Ink.
Founded by Michelle Calcote King, Reputation Ink is a public relations and content marketing agency that serves professional services firms of all shapes and sizes across the United States, including corporate law firms and architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms.
Reputation Ink understands how sophisticated corporate buyers find and select professional services firms. For more than a decade, they have helped firms grow through thought leadership-fueled strategies, including public relations, content marketing, video marketing, social media, podcasting, marketing strategy services and more.
To learn more, visit www.rep-ink.com or email them at email@example.com today.
[00:00:00] Lori Sullivan: Many of the plans that I take a look at don't have goals. And I find that so often business leaders will equate goals with limiting expectations. They want to go out and just get as much work as they can but that makes it really, really hard for your business development team to really measure progress towards your goals. So, people don't feel like they're playing a winnable game.
[00:00:28]: Welcome to Spill The Ink, a podcast by Reputation Ink where we feature experts in growth and brand visibility for law firms and architecture, engineering, and construction firms. Now, let's get started with the show.
[00:00:45] Michelle Calcote King: Hi, everyone. I'm Michelle Calcote King. I'm your host, and I'm also the principal and president of Reputation Ink. We’re a public relations and content marketing agency for architecture, engineering and construction firms and other professional services firms. To learn more, go to rep-ink.com.
Today we're going to be talking about hoe the AEC industry is rapidly, and some might say, dramatically transforming the way firms view and approach of business development and sales strategies is constantly adjusting to meet this evolving market and its demands and economic shifts.In today's episode, we're going to focus on those emerging trends and best practices that AEC leaders should keep in mind when pursuing growth opportunities in 2023 and beyond.
Joining me for this conversation is Lori Sullivan of Blueprint Growth Consulting. She's built a decades-long career in the construction sector, starting off as an engineer and project manager and now running a successful consulting business advising AEC firms on their business development strategies. Welcome to Spill The Ink.
[00:01:53] Lori: Thanks so much, Michelle. I'm happy to be here.
[00:01:55] Michelle: Yes, I'm excited to talk about this. If you could just tell us a little bit about your work at Blueprint Growth Consulting.
[00:02:03] Lori: Sure. We're an advisory practice and we focus exclusively in the building industry. All of our customers are architects, engineers, builders, construction managers, general contractors and specialty contractors. We work with them specifically on growth plans, and customer-facing business development plans.
[00:02:26] Michelle: That's great. Give me an anatomy of an excellent business development and sales plan. What does that look like? What is a good one when you see it?
[00:02:37] Lori: Sure. First and foremost, a good business development plan is a customer-focused plan. A business development plan is not the same as a business plan. Your business development plan lays out who your ideal customer is, what the best-fit attributes are of a good client. It talks about specifically what they value about doing business with your firm or your organization, and then how you're going to meet their expectations. That's probably the first and most important part of it.
The next part of it is that it has goals associated with it. Many of the plans that I take a look at don't have goals. And I find that so often business leaders will equate goals with limiting expectations. They want to go out and just get as much work as they can but that makes it really, really hard for your business development team to really measure progress towards your goals. So, people don't feel like they're playing a winnable game. A good sales and marketing plan really needs to have goals in it.
The other thing that it does is it allows you to create a scorecard. Especially in an uncertain market, it allows you to break down the progress that you're making toward your goals and then allows you to pivot and shift as the economy shifts. Then lastly, a good plan has to be actionable. This is really super important because without it, you really have nothing other than a book or a binder. You don't really have a plan.You have to have a plan for what it is you're going to go out there and do.
One of the mistakes I see people making so often is that they jump right into this phase. They jump right to the tactical phase of things instead of making sure that they all are aligned towards who their ideal customer is, how much work they need to generate, what kind of profitability they're focusing on, and then they prioritize those action items to address those types of things. I think that's the right framework for a good sales and marketing plan.
[00:04:56] Michelle: I can see that. I can see going straight to the tactics. The “What am I going to do?” Versus spending the time to really identify “What's an ideal client for us? What are their needs? What are their concerns?” That kind of thing.
[00:05:09] Lori: Yes, that's right.
[00:05:11] Michelle: That's interesting that you're seeing that a lot. You just pointed out, they often don't define their ideal client, they don't do that work. What are some other mistakes that you see AEC firms make when building a plan that you've helped them avoid?
[00:05:33] Lori: One of the biggest things that people really don't do is they don't map out what their sales and marketing or their business development process looks like internally. It's very difficult for them to scale up or to scale back or to look and see where there may be holes in their game. It's one of the important internal things that folks need to do. By going through what that business development process looks like, it uncovers what your prospecting tactics are.Not all prospecting tactics are right for every customer, or every market sector; for every firm or every organization. By mapping out your process and looking at specifically what prospecting looks like, and then what happens when you have identified a prospect how you then advance it through your own internal process, as well as nurture the external relationship or the opportunity.You can skip some of the important steps and forget really how important it is that everybody is working along the same process.
[00:06:44] Michelle: How has prospecting changed in the last few years? I can imagine dramatically. My guess is prospecting really involved a lot of in-person meetings, trade shows and networking events. How has that changed? What does that look like now?
[00:07:05] Lori: I don't know that it has changed so much other than it has evolved. I think the important thing is that you adopt a prospecting approach, or a prospecting tactic, that works right for your customers, for your ideal customer, and also for your market sector. But there are some things that have evolved in interesting ways. I think digital marketing is an evolution of how we build the brand. I think organizations who have been able to successfully do that have really seen the value in it, and the economy of it because it's easy to implement.
It's relatively inexpensive to do if you do it right. I think a lot of people dismiss it because it is so simple but sometimes the low-hanging fruit is the best fruit and in my mind that digital marketing, you get a real huge bang for your buck. I think the magic behind it is that you have to have the right message. What I work with my clients all the time is don't jump right into something that's super sophisticated if you don't know the market or the message for your target market.
If you get that message right, then you're able to implement very effective social media or digital media strategy and know that the message is going to hit your target audience.
[00:08:40] Michelle: I'm with you there. Do you find that your clients understand the value of a brand in the business development process? Do they understand brand and reputation and how that plays a role in it?
[00:08:55] Lori: Yes, I think so. The word brand throws people off, but when you just simply discuss it in real words, in terms of, "This is your reputation and this is how people think about you," people understand it. At the end of the day, we're a professional service organization so our reputation and our client's trust in our ability to deliver value to them is fundamentally important. Without that, everything else is purposeless. When you really just talk about brand that's what you're talking about. Then everybody's like, "Yes, I'm good with that whatever you want to call it."
I think more and more now, you have to be more in control of that reputation or that brand because clients can do research so easily. You have to really be controlling not only what you say to clients, but what other people are saying about you or what the perception of your presence is in the three-dimensional world, the digital world. I think people or organizations who haven't paid attention to it are behind the eight ball. There's no doubt about it.
[00:10:16] Michelle: Yes, absolutely. 100%. What other trends are impacting how AEC firms pursue business? Are there anything that is really changing the way they do it or evolving the way they do it?
[00:10:28] Lori: Yes, I think that the uncertainty in the economy is a big thing right now. For better or worse, I've been through, this will be my seventh recession since I started in the industry. Back in the 80s, the energy crisis of the 90s, the dot-com bubble, subprime mortgage, you can go on and on, COVID, post-COVID. I see organizations acting the same way. They see it coming, they hear all of the signs, but then all of a sudden, it hits them, and the backlog drys up, and they lay off people and they stopped doing marketing. I think that many of the more mature organizations are trying to get out ahead of it and not let that happen again where we just start to shut all of our resources.
What I see the successful organizations doing now, is not saying, "Let's get rid of overhead, but let's be clear on how we're going to be spending our resources, and really focusing on that. Let's not just go out and chase work because we just want to have a full backlog.” They want to make sure that they're chasing the right kind of clients and the right kind of work. They're taking a critical look at their pipeline, and what makes a healthy pipeline, and that there are opportunities at the top of the funnel, the middle of the funnel, and the bottom of the funnel, not just focusing on scrambling to put stuff in the top, or slashing fees at the bottom of the funnel.
I see, at least with my customers, a much more thoughtful approach to preparing for this recession, should it come, should it not come.
[00:12:28] Michelle: I know. Yes, I'm tired of “Will it? Won’t it? What's it going to look like?” Yes, all of that.
[00:12:36] Lori: Yes, for sure.
[00:12:37] Michelle: Interesting. It's so sector-specific, too.
How does your guidance change for clients targeting government work? Is that an area that your clients are heavily involved with, with government work? Are there any specific trends there?
[00:12:58] Lori: Most of my clients are in the private sector. I have a few clients who work in the public sector, mostly in transportation. We're waiting to see what happens with the transportation and infrastructure funding that's coming. Among the clients that I work with, we haven't really seen that manifest itself yet, but we know that it's out there. We know that the need is there, the funding is in place, but we haven't seen it come yet. But it's counter-cyclical to so many of the other industries that are pulling back. Overall, for the building industry, it's a good thing.
[00:13:40] Michelle: Yes, absolutely. In one of your blog posts, you mentioned a sales planning blueprint, and I believe it's your tool that you use to help firms take a proactive approach to their planning. Can you describe that?
[00:13:58] Lori: Yes. Going back to the beginning of our conversation, it's very customer-focused. The sales planning blueprint that we lay out is really super clear on what a best-fit customer is. We look at a customer along a number of dimensions. That's everything from what are their core values, and are they aligned with our core values? Because at the end of the day, we want to do business with people who respect us, and we can get along and communicate with. We look at dimensions such as how impactful they are in terms of long-term opportunities for us. Also is there a good fit with the kind of work that we do? We get really super clear on what a best-fit customer is. I want to make sure all the time that it’s unique to each individual firm or company.
Once we have a clear idea of who that customer is, we do extensive research on what those best-fit companies value about my particular architectural firm, engineering firm or construction firm. This is really important because the market is saturated, and so all AEC organizations tend to look alike. You have to really zero in on what those value drivers are, and we do this through a lot of primary and secondary research. Before we move anywhere past putting an action plan in place or goals, we make sure what the value drivers are and know exactly how we can deliver on that.
Once we have that in place, then we move into making sure that we have goals. We segment the whole market and really go target the best customers for our particular company. Then what we do is we put an action plan in place. The very last part of it is the action planning phase. We focus a ton of time on prospecting methodologies. What are your marketing methodologies that you can use? How did they work with your particular best-fit customer? What are your field marketing techniques? Going out meeting one on one with customers? How does Account Based Marketing fit if at all with your customers? Then what are your capturing strategies? We do all of that.
The action phase really becomes the part that makes it a results-oriented plan as opposed to just a whole bunch of stats. They're usually one page. We try to keep them to one page and we find if we can be really clear and focused, then we can communicate that plan as simply as possible.
[00:17:03] Michelle: I love that. That primary research, does that mean that you're actually going and conducting interviews with potential clients? That's great. Do you find that the things that they value tend to be similar across the board, or are you finding very distinct things by sector, by industry, size?
[00:17:28] Lori: It's all of the above. We interview customers who are the best fit for my client. The dialogue that we have with them is different depending on the type of service we're providing and where our own personal strengths and weaknesses are, where we see opportunities. The answers tend to be really super specific. What comes back then is not something that sounds just like “what buyers of AEC services want,” but this is what your specific customer values about you. This is about all of your different types of resources and various attributes of your company.
That said, I've been doing these now for about 10 years. We've done thousands and thousands of one-on-one interviews. We do see some trends over time that reflect how customers feel and what they value. A good example of that is the interviews and the feedback that we got during the pandemic where the customers were just so overwhelmed. Those people who were the buyers of AEC services also were doing double duty in so many other parts of their job that they were just overwhelmed. Business development had to take a very different approach, recognizing that companies aren't doing business with companies. People are doing business with people, and those people were really hurting personally. That was a big thing. I still hear that.
[00:19:20] Michelle: Yes, I know. It feels like it's a little unsustainable, this track we're all on here. Yes, I can imagine you're hearing that.
What are some of the top prospecting methodologies that the majority of your clients are using?
[00:19:38] Lori: My clients use different approaches to business development. Some use professional business developers, others use to seller-doer model. For those who use professional business developers, general networking seems to be the most productive thing. It's a people business at the end of the day, so getting out among people, understanding what's happening in the market, keeping your finger on the pulse of where the trends are industry by industry, sector by sector is super important. Just having a healthy network of people that you can gather intelligence and information from is probably the most important thing you can do.
With the seller-doers, the primary prospecting tactic falls along the lines of thought leadership. The expectation for seller-doers is often not to go out there and just camp around in the dark and bring in a lead. It's usually much more focused than that and is really intended to ensure that they can maintain that trusted adviser status with their customers.
Thought leadership takes myriad forms, from writing and speaking to serving on boards, and that type of thing. I think those are the most important ones. What I hear company leaders say all the time is, "Hey if you just get me to the table, I know what to do." Never have I ever had a client where I sit down and I'm like, "All right, what's going well? What's not going well." They're like, "Yes, if I could just get to the table more often." [chuckles]
[00:21:19] Michelle: Yes.
[00:21:20] Lori: We spend an awful lot of time on what that looks like, and what table do you want to sit at right now? Then we build the prospecting tactic around that.
[00:21:29] Michelle: Yes, yes. That's great. I love to hear that. Thought leadership is really where we focus our working in and just helping those leaders facilitating the thought leadership and making it more impactful. I love to hear that. Do more people wonder what you do?
[00:21:52] Lori: More people need what you do. The thoughts are in people's heads–
[00:21:55] Michelle: They're there. Exactly, yes.
[00:21:57] Lori: –getting it out is important.
[00:21:59] Michelle: Exactly. I borrowed a term from another agency called knowledge extraction years ago, and I've been using it and it's really what we do because they're busy people, they need someone to help pull out that information, that knowledge; help them package it out, get it in the right places, that kind of thing because you don't want it to just live in their heads and not use those insights and knowledge. Yes, absolutely.
You mentioned this is a people business, it's built on relationships. How do you help your clients better develop those relationships and help them in that process?
[00:22:41] Lori: Mostly, I work with seller-doers. The thing I stress with them is be yourself, be authentic. Don't try to be a salesman. Winning new work is not about selling, it's about building the relationship and you just have to do that in a way that's natural for you. When you're out working on a project, you're just being yourself and we just want to build into that conversation. What comes next? How do we deepen it? How do we position ourselves in a defensive position with our customers so that they don't have the desire to want to go and look elsewhere for new service providers? It's really just about helping them understand what expectations are for customers. How customers view what they do and building out conversations like, “What does trust look like on a contraction site?What does trust look like during the bidding process? How do customers communicate it? What are you doing inadvertently, perhaps, to undermine trust?” When customers say, "We want you to be more responsive," what does that actually look and sound like? When we do our interviews, we call them the “Voice of the Customer,” because we actually capture what clients are saying specifically and try to understand how that translates into everyday behavior. That's just a big part of helping people learn how to be a successful seller-doer or successful in their role as business development and in marketing.
[00:24:27] Michelle: Yes, I can imagine the research that you do upfront helps tremendously with that because any relationship, if the person you're dealing with, if you know a lot about what's keeping them up at night, their concerns, how they think, you're going to build much better relationships. I can see that.
I'd like to ask a few more general questions just to end out our interview. If you can think what would be the most valuable lesson you've learned in your career that you now apply to the work that you do.
[00:25:06] Lori: The most important thing, it comes down to one thing: don't make assumptions. Don't base your marketing, your business development or your business plan on any assumptions. Go ask your customers, "What's important to you? What do you value?" Then build your marketing plan around that. I can't tell you how often I've sat around the table with people debating what they think the right answer is, I'm like, "Oh, maybe we should ask your client or your customer,” because they're going to tell you." I would say that's the biggest lesson.
Going into an uncertain economy, knowing exactly what your customers value helps you put marketing plans in place that are cost-effective. It helps you go hire folks like you and say, "This is the story we want to tell. Help us do that. Help us build our brand around conversations that our clients value." It all starts and finishes there. It’s the biggest lesson.
[00:26:06] Michelle: I love that. That's great. Thank you so much. I've learned a lot and learned how you really add value to your clients. Thank you for talking to me.
We've been talking to Lori Sullivan of BluePrint Growth Consulting. What's the best way if listeners want to get in touch with you?
[00:26:24] Lori: Our website is www.bdblueprint.com. I look at my email all the time, for better or worse, shoot me a message if you want to chat or send me a text message and we'll get in touch.
[00:26:39] Michelle: Great. bdblueprint.com. love it. All right. Thank you so much.
[00:26:43] Lori: Pleasure. Thanks so much. Very nice to meet you.
[00:26:47]: Thanks for listening to Spill The Ink, a podcast by Reputation Ink. We'll see you again next time and be sure to click subscribe to get future episodes.
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