There are two kinds of trends: those that affect the firm from the outside and those that are created from within.

2014 could be the year that firms start the trend of selecting the clients they want rather than getting in line with competitors to respond to RFPs.

During the recent economic downturn, many firms devoted a significant amount (if not all) of their marketing and business development budget responding to RFPs. They found themselves running on a “treadmill of hope,” trying desperately to distinguish themselves in an RFP response and win the work.

In many cases, the list of responding firms was long and chances of working on the project were slim. Someone else may have had the advantage of an existing relationship or having a hand in developing the RFP. But it was easy to fall in love with the opportunity and devote inordinate resources to the pursuit.

Much of the available work between 2009 and 2011 consisted of public sector RFPs, so a reactive marketing strategy may have been an adequate choice for short-term survival. However, that type of success comes at a high long-term cost. The RFP system is inherently stacked. It allows the client to make a decision based on the price rather than value of design services.

With the economy looking up for the design market, firms have the opportunity to step off the treadmill of hope onto firmer ground. Designers can cultivate the clients and markets they want to serve rather than using the majority of their marketing and business development resources in responding to the market. This does not mean that firms will abandon responding to client requests for proposals or will never again have to compete for a project; it means inverting their budgets and spending more resources on branding, marketing and developing relationships than on responding to the next RFP to hit the market.

The key to selecting clients rather than being selected by them is the development of an integrated brand, marketing and business development plan. The brand and marketing plan define the firm’s unique value proposition and distinguish it from its competitors. The business development plan, sometimes known as a sales plan, outlines specific vertical markets and clients that you will purse in order to reach your desired revenue.

While the brand and marketing plans are crucial for success, on their own they will not cause the phone to ring or create a line of clients waiting for you to design their next project. Brand and marketing tools help prospective clients know about the capabilities and unique offerings of the firm, but in the end clients do business with people they know and trust and those who demonstrate expertise.

Without a strong brand and marketing plan a business development plan has to work too hard. Likewise, a brand and marketing plan that lacks a complementary business development or sales plan rarely results in new work.

Creating a trend in 2014 to select the clients you want will also require the development of target account plans — sometimes called strategic account plans. The selection of design services is a complex sale that involves multiple influencers who may have different agendas and interests. Complex sales require firms to take a strategic approach and have a detailed plan in order to win the business.

The target account planning approach works for the development of long-term client relationships or the pursuit of a specific project.

A target account plan establishes the strategic and project goals, key decision makers, and actions that a firm will use for each client or project opportunity. It documents what you currently know about each opportunity and outlines a step-by-step plan on how to gather missing information or expand your relationship with the client. 

In addition to understanding the nature and dynamics of a complex sale, firms must also understand the strategic need that is driving the client. Frequently the client feels the strategic need well ahead of when they consider selecting a design firm. Good target account planning helps track and document the client’s strategic needs long before they are evident in the marketplace.

The process of target account planning is a natural fit with the design process and skills of design professionals. Understanding these components allows the design professional to develop a strategy to win the client. It includes the following:

Strategic Alignment & Client Selection

Are the client’s values aligned with your firm’s values? Will they allow you to be their trusted advisor and rely on your expertise? Do they place a high value on design and its impact on the human condition?

Strategic Client Needs

What are the key drivers of the project and how will the client measure success? What are the constraints or influencing issues, such as zoning, budget or projected occupancy date that will impact the client’s success?

Decision Markets and Influences

Who are the key decision makers and who are the influencers such as facilities professionals or users of the facilities? Who has the client used as designer in the past and what is their current relationship?

Coaches or Information Sources

Who do you know that knows the client? Contractors, brokers, bankers, and furniture suppliers may give you important insight into the client and their needs

Key Dates or Milestones

When will the client’s lease expire or when will they receive funding for the project?

Action Plan

The action plan documents what you currently know and what you need to know to be successful with a target client. It will outline specific action steps, responsibilities and resources to design an approach to win.

Target account plans should be well documented and shared with all members of your business development team. Firm leaders are often amazed at who else in the firm may know key players in target accounts or have information that provides useful insight. In order to be successful, firms must also assign one person to and lead the pursuit of each target account and manage the relationships developed along the way.

Target account planning requires the courage to play the long game. Firms may need to say no to accounts that may be winnable but will not help to define the future they want.

If you are ready to create a trend of selecting your clients in 2014, consider the following:

  • Document the resources you actually spent in 2013 responding to RFPs and calculate their average cost to the firm
  • Determine the success factors and rate for 2013
  • Decide what clients you would really like to do business with in 2104 and beyond
  • Allocate a significant percentage of your total marketing and business development budget (financial and people) to developing and executing target account plans


Doug Parker is managing principal with the Greenway Group. He is the author of several tools, articles, and processes that bridge communications, provide role clarity, and leverage the value of design throughout project delivery. He has consulted with building product manufacturers and worked with Fortune 500 companies as well as with architecture and design firms. He is a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council