Pursuing work and clients you don’t love not worth the effort

Guest Speaker: Pursuing work and clients you don’t love not worth the effort

This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310) Issue # 828
Originally published 9/07/2009

> Here are three easy practices that will consistently improve the quality of your projects and client expectations.

David Maister’s True Professionalism is one of my favorite business books, and one of the few I reread regularly. In this book, Maister encourages his readers to divide recent projects and clients into three categories: those they love, those they tolerate, and those they hate. He then relates that, through this exercise, his readers often discover they spend the majority of their time working on projects they hate for clients they can barely tolerate. His message is sobering, but clear: Life is too short, choose your clients and projects wisely.

Although this concept may be simple, firm owners and managers whose job it is to maintain revenues in this economy will struggle with the idea they should turn away paying work, regardless of the quality of the project or client. However, firms that consistently seek projects they love to execute and clients they love to service will outperform their competitors by:

* Increasing their financial stability. It is difficult to profitably execute projects we hate while working for clients we can barely tolerate. Conversely, it is easy to stay focused and engaged on projects that are professionally challenging and result in satisfying professional relationships.

* Improving their marketing effectiveness. Firms burdened with unstable clients and poor projects will lack the resources and time necessary to market better opportunities. In addition, rainmakers pursue interesting projects and great clients more energetically (and successfully).

* Retaining high performing employees. The best talent will naturally gravitate toward great projects and clients. These projects will also create high-performing employees who are passionate about their project work and who desire to exceed client expectations.

As one example, in 2009 our firm (Vancouver, WA-based MacKay & Sposito, Inc.) successfully expanded into a new market sector. Specifically, we are helping several large utilities develop shoreline recreational projects as part of their federal relicensing requirements. The resulting engagements have required that we develop or enhance new skills in shoreline planning and design; and that we develop new industry relationships with clients we like. The work has energized our team, and together, we have rediscovered the fun in completing interesting projects for great clients.

Although this success is certainly the result of a consistent business development program, it can also be attributed to a commitment to the following three key practices:

1. Saying “No” to the wrong client and project. To expand on my original point, the tendency for firms in this market is to accept all project work. Firms should avoid this trap by putting in place and strictly following a structured go/no-go process. Make sure this process includes a discussion of project funding sources, potential client financial health, the status (or hunger) of competing firms, past history with the potential client, and the long-term strategic benefit of a particular project type. The desire to keep employees busy is understandable. However, keeping people busy by saying ‘yes’ to poor projects is a cancerous strategy that leaves little time to pursue better opportunities.

2. Investing heavily in those existing clients you ‘love’ to work for. Now is the time to invest heavily in those existing clients you love to service. Improve your ability to service them by gaining a better understanding of their business needs and concerns.

Once you understand their business needs better, look for opportunities to expand your role to that of a trusted advisor. As an example, one of my high-priority clients recently asked for advice related to a personnel challenge he was facing. I appreciated the opportunity to give input on something that had nothing to do with the services I provide. For me, this was a strong indication that he valued our relationship, and that our future with that client was secure.

3. Demonstrating, rather than selling your firm’s capabilities. When marketing to new clients, find opportunities to demonstrate your desire to service their needs. This is very different from selling them on the benefits or features of your firm. Demonstrate your abilities by giving them free advice, articles, connections, or training. Ask existing clients to give recommendations and referrals to potential clients when appropriate. The best high-valued clients are often committed to helping you and your firm succeed.

If you consistently evaluate the quality of your projects and clients, and then take these steps to improve both, you will improve the financial stability of your firm, improve marketing effectiveness, and retain high-performing employees. Equally important, you will quickly find you are spending the majority of your time working on enjoyable projects and developing meaningful professional client relationships.

Derrick Smith is a senior vice president at MacKay & Sposito, Inc. (M&S) (Vancouver, WA). Contact him at dsmith@mackaysposito.com.

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