The coronavirus pandemic has caused an abrupt shift in business practices and priorities. Among the design professions, the Great Lockdown has forced firms to quickly adopt work-from-home practices to keep up with project deadlines and assure clients they are fully operational. Adding to this heroic challenge is the need for leaders to look ahead and find new work to maintain a healthy backlog. But how do you develop new business in this altered state?
Suggestions for mastering business development in the new environment follow.
KNOW YOUR “WHY”
In 2019 design firm billings were strong across the country and, despite a looming recession, business planning took place within a context of abundance. When the World Health Organization announced “COVID-19” as the name of the new disease on February 11, 2020, the context shifted. Today, business planning is happening in a context of essentialism.
Clients and design practices are struggling to understand what is essential. What to keep and what to cut. To respond to these seismically shifting business priorities and practices, design professionals who are engaging in primary “voice-of-the-client” research are developing unique insights and advantages.
Contact clients and ask how they are doing. Ask about family, friends and colleagues. Ask about how the pandemic is affecting their organization’s outlook, priorities, and plans. Know what is essential to you and your firm, and why. Rethink and refine your strategic business development plans to align with new priorities—yours and your clients.
KEEP MASLOW IN MIND
Before COVID-19, the aims of our industry were triple-bottom-line and boundless! We were transforming, regenerating, converging, and more. For the most part, we were operating in the upper half of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Today, many of our colleagues, clients, family, and friends are operating in the bottom half of the pyramid. Our need for social connection has become critical. Basic physiological and safety needs are unmet for many. Keep Maslow in mind; before reaching out to anyone in business, consider their context. Use this three-part approach to reaching out proactively to past, current, and prospective clients: inquire, inform, and inspire. Find out how they are. Be curious. Be inquisitive. Figure out what is the unique context of the person you are reaching out to. What are their current needs? Provide information that is helpful. Then inspire! Please don’t give up on triple-bottom-line aspirations (especially related to the planet) but first, meet people where they are. Design professionals excel in big picture thinking and in creating space for human interaction. The world needs you more than ever.
While reciprocity in business development is a good thing, it provides for a steady stream of give and take, resulting in market intelligence, leads, and an expanding professional network. Today, in the COVID-19 context, generosity is even more critical. Look for ways to be helpful without expecting something in return. Think about and plan to spend time with your friends, clients, and colleagues. But right now, in this context do it because it is the right thing to do. Keep generosity top of mind.
While nothing is better for relationship building than meeting in person, teleconferencing is working. The way people are using technology to spend quality time with clients and allied partners is fundamentally shifting to a new normal. It’s true, many are struggling with teleconferencing; sharing the home environment, pets, and family members! However, the intimacy of meeting with others in their living rooms, kitchens, and even bedrooms, is fostering closer, more personal, intimate connections. Reluctant at first, those who have embraced video for one-on-one conversations, small group meetings, and virtual happy hours are providing meaningful relationship-building opportunities and making a real contribution to business continuity. Embrace Zoom.
PRIORITIZE TALENT OVER GEOGRAPHY
We are setting new norms for business development In the AEC industry by responding to a distributed work environment and creating new geography-independent pathways for conducting business. Working remotely, it’s much easier to set up meetings that have all the right people joining. Without a “main office” firms are breaking down barriers to multi-office collaboration, finding silos fading, and the “one firm” approach thriving. Some practices are expanding their thinking about their potential for global reach. As remote work normalizes, AE teams are prioritizing talent over geography and allowing clients to tap into extraordinary combinations of expertise from anywhere in the world.
As Jared Spataro, Microsoft 365, Corporate Vice President, observed, “We have a time machine as China navigates its return back to work—and we’re not seeing usage of Microsoft Teams dip. People are carrying what they learned and experienced from remote work back to their “new normal.” We’re learning so much about sustained remote work during this time.”
In summary, the basic principles of fostering close and trusted business relationships and winning new work remain the same today as they were before COVID-19, but mastering the new environment requires much closer attention to context, research, and kindness.
BD THEN AND NOW
Kelly Fehr is a Principal Consultant with Cameron MacAllister Group, trusted advisors to professions working in the built environment. Cameron MacAllister Group’s principal consultants help leading AEC firms address the business of design and construction in leadership, management, marketing, people, public relations, and sustainability.