Bob Heightchew, a management consultant with the Atlanta-based Q&A Strategies, provides six straightforward steps for preparing marketing strategies.

Today’s design practice faces unprecedented challenges on the business side. Computers, competition, professional liability, regulation, design/build, advertising and other issues mean that it takes more than good design skills to be successful today. But these challenges are opportunities for those willing to be as thoughtful about business strategy they are about architecture. Bob Heightchew, a management consultant with the Atlanta-based Q&A Strategies, provides six straightforward steps for preparing those marketing strategies.

Step 1. Managing Committee Review Begin with a review of this process by the firm’s committee of managing principals. Be sure you understand all steps and what will be required and accomplished by each step. Other principals and associates expect you to develop successful strategies, and to direct the strategy development process.

Step 2. Recruiting Outside Experts One of the most successful strategies for strategy development is the use of outsiders as resources who know your markets. These might include prospective clients, JV partners, suppliers, engineering firms, contractors or others. They bring an independent perspective on marketing your services to new and existing clients. This is an optional step, but a powerful one. It corresponds roughly to a marketing advisory board, and can be an ongoing resource after the strategic plan is done.

Step 3. First Group Session Use a one-half day meeting of your partners, principals, associates and resource people to answer these five key strategy questions:

What do we do well? Include a definition of the types of facilities you design, but go beyond this and ask the question this way: What makes us different from other firms? If you aren’t able to answer this question the marketplace won’t be either, and you will get only those engagements that land in your lap at random. Some fields are so specialized that merely offering the service brings you the business, such as lighting design or fountains. But such specialties are few, and represent a small fraction of US design fees. To be successful in the mainstream, you have to accentuate something that makes you special and makes clients want to seek you out.

Two facets of strategy are important to keep in mind at this point:

1. Strengths must be facts, not claims or wishes. Be sure to conduct this process so as to take a realistic look at your practice. It takes patience to develop an accurate list.

2. Strengths are only strengths in comparison to competitors. If all firms in a market provide outstanding turnaround time, for example, then none do–because you can’t stand out as outstanding if all competitors are the same. Look for the characteristics that are really different about your firm. There is something special about every firm –including yours. Take the time to write a definitive statement of your exceptional characteristics, This statement will be a powerful element in the development and implementation of winning strategies.

Who are our prospective clients? Public or private, owners or developers, engineers or builders, other architects, etc. Strategic planning is all about focus. Trying to focus on everybody ends up focusing on nobody. Review what your experience has been with different clients and client types. Who do you want most to work for in the future? Marketers call this issue segmentation. With your best clients and prospective clients in mind, ask yourself: What do these clients really want? The answer usually includes low cost, but owners select on more than cost. Within a relevant range, clients look for sympathetic treatment, always getting you on the phone when they call, calling them with the status of their project, etc. Every client has these hot buttons. What are the hidden needs of your best clients?

This is a good occasion to draw out from your associates the insights, understanding, trends, perceptions, etc., that they already possess about prospective clients–and about your reputation among them. Using a group process gives everybody the chance to put their thoughts on the table and then react, interact, question, respond, and, finally, understand. You can do some of this as homework with surveys, but there’s rich insight to be gained.

What business are we in? Once again, go beyond the obvious answer: design. Nicholas Dreystadt rescued Cadillac from the brink of bankruptcy by convincing owners that the Cadillac customer does not buy transportation but status. Cadillac competes with diamonds and mink coats, he said.

The answer to this question is usually called the mission statement, and it succinctly describes the core reasons customers select you. There are five key characteristics of the mission statement. 1. It succinctly captures the firm’s distinctive abilities, key resources, current preferences, etc. 2. It springs from extensive input from your people so that it has their thumbprint on it and they own it. 3. It respects the heritage of the firm’s past, but places emphasis on its future. 4. It must be compact enough to be memorized, cited often, used in memos, etc. 5. It must be powerful enough to focus your efforts now and continue to provide this focus into the future.

What is our vision? Mission statements define the essence of what you do for clients; vision statements define the essence of why you do it and what it means to you. Your mission inspires clients because, through it, they see themselves served well by you. What leads your firm to success, however, is the shared vision of key members of your team. What really are the things that motivate you and your people to devote their time and talents to your company? money? love of profession? recognition? The answers are different for different firms, and for different people. Knowing the answer that drives your firm is critical to developing powerful strategy.

There are four key characteristics of a vision statement. 1. It succinctly integrates the personal vision of key staff: career accomplishments, financial rewards, peer recognition, etc. 2. It stems from input from these people to ensure their commitment. 3. It is compact enough to be memorized and referred to often in performance review, personal conversations, etc. 4. It is powerful enough to motivate now, and in the future. Selecting strategies is an energizing process once you create a compelling mental picture of what their successful implementation looks like. This is the vision statement’s job.

What are the strategies that will showcase what we do best and capitalize on the opportunities in our markets? Good strategy development requires insightful and careful analysis of the firm, the markets and the competitors. But even the best analysis is wasted unless it is followed by creativity in the development of good strategy ideas. You must get beyond analysis into creative synthesis wherein strategy elements are blended into the best strategic approach for you at this time. The objective of a strategy process is to develop ideas that you would not have had otherwise.

Begin with each member of your team separately identifying the connections between what the firm does best and what clients want most. Be prepared to face reality: A strength which does not match a market opportunity is a hobby. A market opportunity for which you do not have a strength is a distraction. Bring the ideas together in a flip chart discussion without criticism of any idea at first, then discuss and rank them later. Your key team must be heard fully at this point to be sure they feel the sense of ownership that leads to commitment and action.

Step 4. Homework Review and Extension Enthusiasm from the initial group meeting will move participants to continue realizing strengths and finding opportunities even after the meeting. Provide a convenient format for recording these ideas and consolidating them into a starter paper for the second meeting.

Step 5. Review and Extension of Strategy Ideas Two weeks from the first meeting, conduct another one-half day meeting to accomplish the following objectives:

  • Review and confirm a list of your firm’s strengths, developed from the notes at the first meeting — building enthusiasm for the things you do well;

  • Review and confirm a list of market opportunities — building enthusiasm for new and current markets;

  • Review and refine the mission and vision statements. These three items take only about 40 minutes, but create a level of momentum and commitment that makes the strategy phase powerfully effective;

  • Select and refine specific strategies into an ACTION LIST with tasks, assignments and deadlines.

Step 6. Documentation and Follow-up Produce a cassette recording of the entire process, and a brief report that summarizes the process and facilitates monitoring performance on the action list. Don’t let anybody write an encyclopedia, no one will read it. Ten pages should be the maximum.

The most important benefit to using group process in developing your marketing strategies is that your associates are involved from the beginning and feel a commitment to tackle the actions they helped develop. Nobody ever resists their own ideas. You achieve an exchange of ideas among participants and resource persons that will generate a surprising number of ideas. You will set a definite direction for the marketing efforts–delineating what you’re going to do and–just as important–what you’re not going to do. Your action list will set priorities to ensure that your limited marketing time is spent doing the most important things. You will clarify the roles and responsibilities for yourself, your principals, and associates so that your firm’s marketing efforts are efficient and effective. It might help to have someone outside your firm facilitate this process, but it isn’t always necessary. The most important thing is to be doing the right things right, and to use a conscious, group-oriented means to determine what those right things are. With this approach, all your hard work will produce the success you desire and deserve.