October 28, 2010
The full effect of the economic downturn on our firm, MacKay & Sposito, likely won’t be known for another couple of years. However, our response to the changing landscape and how we have leveraged this challenging time to strengthen our client service has already had a profound effect on how we do business.
We have watched other professional design firms around us respond to these unprecedented times, sometimes with resilience and the ability to morph with the changing market. In other cases, firms clung too long to the status quo, ultimately succumbing to competition.
The current environment presents design firms with the opportunity to re-examine and refine their value proposition and customer service delivery. How your firm copes with delivering consistent, quality services while dealing with the pressure of personnel changes and evolving market dynamics and client expectations can set you apart from your competition.
After our firm stabilized from some staff adjustments, we found ourselves taking a hard look at the skills and talents represented by our pool of design professionals and went to work finding ways to maximize our expertise in the current marketplace.
Our business development staff identified and cultivated work that meshed well with our team members and would represent a stable backlog a key element of the jobs we wanted to pursue. This intentional approach opened conversations across disciplines within our firm about the work we should be chasing, as well as reinforced overall staff investment in outcomes because they were included in the planning.
As we reorganized our business development efforts around a market sector based approach, we also had to completely reevaluate our employee’s resumes, assessing how they fit into the new industry landscape. As a multi-disciplinary design firm, we are used to communicating across disciplines, but we needed to redefine best client “fit” to cultivate successful relationships.
The reassessment of team members and changes to how we paired design talent with client and project needs turned out to be a critical element of our overall enhancement of our client service. Our actions included:
• Changing the format of our resource allocation meeting. Previously these meetings were used to allocate man hours and make sure we had enough staff hours assigned to complete each project. With the full onset of the recession, our focus shifted to making sure we had the most efficient team working on the project and we started this conversation during proposal development.
As other priorities can evolve during the lifecycle of a project, our commitment to a frequent review of both project and budget status has resulted in on-time and on-budget project delivery.
• Spending additional time evaluating individual team members when putting proposals together. As with any team effort, the makeup and abilities of each member and how they match project needs makes the difference between success and failure. We took our discussions to the next level. Once we determined that a potential team member was technically proficient and had expertise with the type of project we were contemplating, we looked at the softer side of team building: their previous experience working with other project disciplines, existing strong collaborative relationships between team members, as well as client communication style.
• Stopped thinking in terms of discipline silos. Instead of automatically assigning a professional engineer in the project manager role if civil design was the bulk of the project, we started assessing the project type and “profile” and selecting our PM talent to match. While several of the master plans we developed had the largest portion of the budget for infrastructure design, the PMs for those projects are now as likely to be landscape architects or planners, in recognition of the public involvement and visioning elements involved in those types of projects.
• Increased our emphasis on communication skills in our project leadership. It simply cannot be said enough, as important as superior design skills are, the ability to communicate clearly and consistently with your client, in the client’s preferred manner, is imperative to project success.
At M&S, we work on a wide-range of project types, with a variety of clients in both the public and private sectors, and have found that certain personality types work better in particular sectors. We attempt to match the design talent with the sector, recognizing that some flourish in the higher-pressure environment of the private sector and some are more productive with the process and review involved in public-sector projects.
In a way, we have become more proficient at “matchmaking” between technical staff and project, and it has resulted in increased productivity and efficiency. The recession continues to reshape the A/E/C industry, and as it does the client’s demand for more creative approaches, catered service and collaborative fit from their consultant is challenging technical proficiency as the top criteria to win a project.
Elizabeth Holmes is the director of entitlement and governmental relations based out of the MacKay & Sposito’s corporate office in Vancouver.