Unlocking growth for engineering consultants

Sales insights key to growth

Sometimes we need to be reminded about those common-sense things we should be doing but aren’t. At other times we’re so busy we miss important changes occurring around us. Both things are true for engineering consultants. Some simple and more profound shifts in sales practices have the potential to save millions and fuel growth. 

Many large consulting firms are struggling. Engineering and science professionals are particularly challenged. Workload pipelines have shrunk as resource companies weather depressed markets, power and water utilities navigate challenging network transformations, and governments struggle to balance their books. The work that is available can be hard to identify, slow to come to market, and hard to win. Even those firms that are winning good contracts concede that luck may have played a fair hand in their success.

Staff engagement remains persistently, frustratingly low at many firms. Cost-cutting (retrenchments), a “back-to-basics” operational focus, and a (hopeful) innovation program doesn’t fill staff with confidence in their leadership or chances of sustained success. Everyone is asking the question:

How do we win more work now, and then sustain growth?

My experience in large consultancies, advising consultants, and now running my own firm has revealed many ways that sales practices can be markedly improved. I’ve outlined a selection of seven ‘fixes’ below. The first four are simple (un)common sense. The next three reflect more profound issues that are undoubtedly costing firms dearly. Collectively, if addressed, they represent a massive opportunity to drive growth in any consultancy.

Simpler sales fixes

Fix 1 – Simplify sales activities. Consulting firms are comprised of great people with a passion for what they do. Their expertise and commitment often drives them to “deliver a Rolls Royce when the client only needed a Hyundai”. While great technicians, many consultants aren’t great sales people. So the tendency to make sales processes ever more sophisticated doesn’t help their sales effectiveness. Firms need to do the opposite – simplify the focus of effort and intellect on those sales success levers that match their everyday situations. Sales professionals can then be brought into to assist on more important or unique sales opportunities.

Fix 2 – Create a powerful bid strategy first. Writing an average, losing proposal is easy. Writing a compelling proposal that’s easy for the client to read, demonstrates you understand and care about their business, and presents a clever response to their needs is harder. But it needn’t be costlier to prepare. Too often bid teams jump into action collating CVs, drafting sections of the proposal, and seeking bottom-up fee estimates from team members only to waste time later cutting and rescoping the fee and proposal. Instead, firms should insist that no writing occurs until the bid strategy is clear and compelling, and a top-down budget allocation has been agreed. Then the task of writing a coherent, linked-up bid that falls within the client’s fee range is an easier, efficient process.

Fix 3 – Understand your client’s procurement process. It can be surprising how many bid teams don’t know critical facts about the client’s tender conditions and process. What’s the client’s acceptable price range, how many competitors have they invited to bid, and how they will literally evaluate a proposal? No proposal should be drafted without an informed, defensible view on the client’s fee appetite. Knowing how a client will handle and evaluate your proposal is equally important. This doesn’t just mean their evaluation criteria, but also whether sections of your proposal will be literally torn out and evaluated by different people – people who won’t go searching for important information that’s contained and cross-referenced in other sections. So seek answers to these questions at the earliest opportunity.

Fix 4 – Complement reports with proposals for next steps. When a project is completed, often involving submission of a final report, it’s rarely the end of the job for the client. They have the task of translating your report into next steps, which might be a board presentation or defining tasks and responsibilities to put your recommendations into effect. A savvy consultant anticipates and explores these next steps with the client. Thus, prior to completing any project, a brief 1-2 page proposal should be drafted to accompany the report, proactively setting out a few options for assistance.

More profound sales insights

Now let’s delve into some bigger sales issues and opportunities.

Fix 5 – Take demonstrable action on client feedback. Most consultants seek feedback from their clients on their performance. It might be during a project or after its completion. Annual client surveys are often conducted by the firms themselves or independent third parties. The investment is considerable, but the return can be regrettably small. The issue is poor translation of insights from the data into tangible action as part of an overt continuous improvement process. It’s both a combination of poor sales strategy, and poor execution. Executives might feel offended by this statement, but the client feedback data doesn’t back them up.

Fix 6 – Prototype services with clients. Consultants high expectations of themselves to demonstrate expertise and “have the answer” means that new ideas will often be reworked and finessed to the point of perfection before being presented to a client. This will rarely be effective. The chances of alignment with a client’s particular circumstances are low, let alone that of a suite of clients. The tactics need to be different. New ideas need to be taken to market as a start-up would. Partially developed solutions should be prototyped with willing clients that want to play a role in shaping them. It’s a scary space for many consultants but ultimately is likely to be a faster, cheaper route to success.

Fix 7 – Enable your clients to buy. With depressed markets and fierce competition, consultants are endeavouring to provide innovative solutions in areas of client need (like asset management) with new technologies and advisory services. Marketing departments pump out ‘thought leadership’ offering new insights and ideas. Much, however, is repackaging of old ideas or reworking of the topic de jour. There’s one critical problem – it doesn’t address the client’s real issues. Many clients are challenged, confused and stalled by the same factors that are making a consultant’s world complex. Clients also need to get multiple internal stakeholders to buy-in to their purchasing decisions. The notion that there’s a single ‘power’ decision maker is questionable. In this situation, a flood of ideas and information from consultants can become annoying noise for the client, and a costly low-ROI venture for the consultant. The point is this – the consultant’s challenge is not one of sales but assisting the client organisation to purchase. This requires more than listening empathetically to clients about their needs and challenges. It demands a fundamentally different approach to sales and marketing.

In aggregate, what does this all mean?

It signals that sales activities can and must be simplified, streamlined and better targeted. A single, sophisticated, multi-stage sales process is unlikely to be relevant and effective in most circumstances. Without openness to challenging the sales conventions, consulting executives will be left staring a broadly similar sales performance and client feedback data.

So what’s it to be? More of the same, or time to shift gear?