With the Iowa caucuses now behind us, we’re fully entrenched in the volatility between establishment candidates and the party disruptors. Political preferences aside, the primaries are giving us a preview of the 2016 elections. The one thing we know for sure, there will be a new president. Whichever way the political wind blows, one thing is almost a certainty: changes are coming to the mechanics of federal contracting.
The months leading up to the presidential election are actually the calm before the storm—a storm of changeover within agencies. True, not everyone moves out when a new president moves into the White House, but many senior leaders—mostly political appointees—transition out. That means new review and selection committees and new policies. Given that relationships are at the core of professional services engagements, especially in the federal space, AEC firms must prepare now for this imminent changeover.
Used productively, the next 9 months can give your firm a chance to lay the groundwork for competition in a new administration. For AEC firms with government contracts, is your AEC marketing—strategy and implementation—up to the challenge? I invite you to consider three questions.
1. What does the firm stand for?
Most respondents to this question would say, “We stand for quality” or “…honesty” or “…value.” Such responses, however noble, cannot help your firm differentiate itself in a crowded federal marketplace. Such characteristics are expected, and anyone can claim them. Virtues cannot be proven or quantified. And, even if a virtue is a differentiator, a client will not experience the value of your virtue until they’ve been working with your firm for some time. Thus, such characteristics are helpful for retaining clients, but not necessarily for gaining new ones.
Differentiating your AEC firm in the federal marketplace is no easy task. But it can be done. If you are familiar with our research, you’ll recall that an effective differentiator must be true, important to potential clients, and provable.
Finding a differentiator that fulfills all three criteria can be accomplished only by understanding the relevance of the services your firm offers and the issues and challenges of the agency you are courting and its key decision makers.
In the federal space, you are dealing with three levels of decision makers:
- Executives who are either political appointees or careerists
- Program managers who develop contract requirements and run the programs
- Procurement officials
It is important to understand what is on the mind of each decision maker. Their most critical issues, their budgetary limitations, and the political pressures they are under. If possible, it is also important to learn about their awareness and perceptions about your firm.
All these insights should feed into your differentiation strategy and highlight gaps in their understanding of your firm’s offerings and relevance. Your firm can then begin to formulate a strong marketplace positioning that conveys a differentiated message.
2. How clear is your message?
Using research to identify differentiators reduces risk. It also allows a firm to move from internal groupthink toward marketplace reality—closing gaps in internal vs. external perception and eliminating blind spots.
Once you identify differentiators that will support a strong marketplace positioning, it’s time to develop your messaging.
One of the biggest struggles when trying to connect with government buyers is learning the right language. Your technical professionals may say the messaging must demonstrate your firm’s technical acumen. Good marketing and business development professionals will tell you that it’s about being relevant and demonstrating how an agency’s problems can be solved by firm expertise. May sound simple, but it’s in this struggle between technical correctness and marketing spin that clear messaging dies.
A good messaging architecture will help your firm convey its value proposition to decision makers and influencers. And, without the superlatives that crowd the marketplace.
In a Forrester study last year, 74% of B2B buyers told Forrester they research half or more of their work purchases online. That is probably more true for government buyers, who engage both vendors and peers though a multitude of digital, social, and mobile touch points. If messaging is not consistent, from all sources, trust can be lost.
Think of your AEC marketing and messaging architecture as a funnel of cascading messages:
- Corporate positioning and messaging is about your firm’s value proposition
- Market segment messaging backs up that value proposition and articulates the firm’s expertise in the market
- Decision-maker messaging answers the specific questions of “Why your firm?” and explains your firm’s relevance for a particular engagement.
- RPF/proposal messaging demonstrates your specific expertise and capability at the technical level.
For AEC firms, much like firms with technical professionals, the tendency is to jump to the technically accurate messaging of RFPs and proposals without properly feeding the messaging funnel with positioning, expertise and relevance. Consider all messaging levels and the audience most concerned with each message.
3. Is the firm visible?
Once the relevant messaging has been crafted, it’s time to commit to enhancing the visibility of the firm.
A professional services brand is made up of two elements, your firm’s reputation and its visibility. By reputation, we mean what your firm is known for, such as “They are the top architecture firm for embassy work, overseas.” Visibility refers to how widely this reputation is known within your target audience. If you have an excellent reputation that is widely known within the target audience, you have a strong brand. In short, brand strength = reputation x visibility.
Your firm may have an awesome reputation for doing good work, which is great for building past performance examples. But that stellar reputation may only be visible to a few.
Has your firm neglected efforts to develop new relationships? If the answer is yes, then the changing administration may bring more negative consequences than you imagined. The good news is time is still on your side.
Decision makers and influencers must be made aware of your firm. Consider the interests of the program manager, who organizes a source selection committee. Or the procurement official, who generally trains the source selection committee. Unfortunately, the source selection committee remains anonymous. But their anonymity actually makes the case for building a strong brand that is visible to all.
Cast a wide net and you increase your chances of being recognized and associated with your known reputation.
Conferences and tradeshows used to be the best way to connect with federal purchasers. Today thought leadership, online video and webinars have proven more effective. In fact, the best way to demonstrate your understanding of the issues confronting federal buyers is to develop content around those issues, then develop your expertise around that content. The content you produce will help your firm at all stages of the sales cycle, before, during and after the sale is completed.
From our buyers research, we also know that 80% of buyers check out your website at some point in the buying process, but an eye-opening 52% of the time, a referred prospect never reaches out to your firm because your firm’s website did not match what they had heard from their trusted colleague!
Figure 1. How Buyers Check Out AEC Firms
So it is important to 1) understand the real challenges of the agency you are targeting, 2) align your service offerings with those issues, and 3) connect the dots on your website and with your messaging.
In the months leading to the election, continue with business development as usual, but look at the post-election opportunities with a different perspective. Know who will likely transition out, identify the likely replacements (from both sides of the red-blue divide), and learn the political hot buttons of an incoming administration. In a way, the role of your AEC marketing efforts will be to help the non-appointee decision makers develop a solid business case to justify their future acquisitions—and use you in that acquisition.
- Download our free book Spiraling Up to learn how to develop a high-growth, high-value strategy for your firm.
- Check out our free research-based book Inside the Buyer’s Brain to learn how your business development team can close more leads by understanding what the buyer really wants.
- Our Lead Nurturing Guide for Professional Services explains how you can craft a powerful lead nurturing strategy for your firm, so you can turn leads into clients.
How Hinge Can Help
Hinge has developed a comprehensive plan, The Visible Firm℠ to address these issues and more. It is the leading marketing program for delivering greater visibility, growth, and profits. This customized program will identify the most practical offline and online marketing tools your firm will need to gain new clients and reach new heights.