Characteristics I look for in business development people

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 8.21.14 AMIf you’re hiring people without these traits you’re doing a disservice to your firm.

Business development people. In A/E firms, there’s a love/hate relationship with them. Many don’t make it (they have the life expectancy of a tire on Kyle Petty’s car running the Daytona 500 race), and if they do, they demand their pound of flesh. But either way, one thing is for certain – they aren’t going away.

Hiring BD people is not easy. Sometimes we pull them from the technical ranks. Sometimes we get them from government or regulatory agencies – or from a client. And other times we hire them away from a competitor’s firm. But no matter where they come from, or what their background is, there are certain qualities I look for:

  • Intelligence. There’s just no substitute for intelligence. Intelligent people are more resourceful. They are easier to get along with. They’re even more emotionally stable. It’s a mandate for success as a business development person.
  • Work ethic. You’ll get a lot more done – build more relationships – find more leads – and sell more if you have a good work ethic. There’s little worse than lazy business development people.
  • Self-discipline. Since we don’t typically have real sales management functions in A/E and environmental consulting firms with managers who ride herd on their sales people, we need business development professionals with a lot of self-discipline who will make the calls they need to make, and do everything else they have to do, without being reminded.
  • Self-confidence. Sales and business development people have to have confidence so they can meet and interact with people who may be older or higher status or more successful than they are themselves. A lack of confidence can be interpreted by a client as a lack of confidence in the firm and its abilities.
  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills. It’s hard to teach these skills to a BD person who doesn’t come into the job with them. You just cannot go around saying things like “we had went to the store” or “me and John had really liked the way you did that” to a client without it reflecting really poorly on the firm.
  • Looks/dress. This is another area that is touchy but has to be addressed. If you don’t know what a decent fitting sport coat looks like or think everyone should be cool with the third eye tattoo on your forehead you may not have the social awareness skills necessary to function in a BD role.
  • We used to have a guy who worked for us who would grab his fork with his entire hand and shovel in whatever he was eating like some kind of animal. It was embarrassing and really held him back from being allowed to interface with clients.
  • Ability to be a bit of a chameleon. I’m talking about being able to see both sides of any issue and being able to adapt to the culture or environment one finds themselves in. This can be a useful skill when working in business development!
  • Not pushing a particular religious or political ideology. The problem is no matter how “right” your position is you could alienate someone you don’t want to alienate.
  • Good listener and observer. If you are going to succeed in BD, you have to be both a good listener and good observer. It’s how you pick up on the signals that allows you to adapt your pitch if needed.
  • Wide ranging general knowledge base. This enables the BD person to talk about anything – staying up on current events and many other areas of interest – so as to facilitate relationship building. Without a relationship you will not make the sale.
  • Business development people need to be likable. If they aren’t, they won’t be considered trustworthy. No trust, no buy.
  • Honest/trustworthy. If you aren’t trustworthy, no client will buy services from you. So this has to be a requirement for all business development people.

I’m sure this list could be longer – but these are “MUST HAVES” in my book for all BD people. Time for me to go sell another job!

Want to find out more about this topic? Check out Becoming a Better Seller Seminar.

MARK ZWEIG is Zweig Group’s founder and CEO. Contact him at

This article is from issue 1139 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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To lead: Plan for the long-term

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 3.13.09 PMAnnual resolutions are short-term planning at best.

Now that another new year is in full throttle mode, are you checking off your list of resolutions, or are you envisioning your firm’s future? Annual resolutions are short-term planning at best. For the long-term, your business strategies must be more decisive and focused. Here are a few suggestions to help stir up your thinking for the long-term.

1) Push the envelope. Think outside the box.

These business phrases speak to the importance of doing more than the status quo. Steve Jobs was the epitome of thinking outside the mainstream. He had the unique ability to discern what his customers craved, and he brought passion to the process of inventing new ways to utilize technology. His drive for excellence and merging beauty into the engineering process forever changed the technology landscape.

It’s easy to become complacent and set in our ways. However, as repetitive behavior breeds repetitive results, you need to ask yourself if you are satisfied with the status quo. Also, think about when you were most invigorated by your work. It was probably when you were expanding into a new market, implementing new technology or advancing staff to new duties. I have yet to talk to a successful leader who was not working to change or improve their business. When was the last time you did something different and challenging? If you cannot remember, then it is definitely time for a change.

2) Take risks.

Be bold. Dare to fail. Create opportunity. These are business strategies that often ignite change. If you are a leader who wants to grow both professionally and as a firm, taking business risks is a necessary part of the path to growth. But what risks should you take?

As an engineer I was trained to be risk averse, but as a business leader I embrace calculated risk as I know that it can lead to advancement of our firm. This also means that I accept that there will be failures, but history tells me that all great innovations were preceded by failures. I am not advocating that you risk the existence of your firm. However, absent some acceptance of risk and willingness to venture into the unknown you will not be able to implement change. In planning for the long-term, the decisions you make to move forward will either hold you back or free you to grow beyond your greatest expectations.

3) Act for the future.

In addition to thinking about your firm’s future, you must also set aside time to think about yours, both personal and professional. A basic part of a leader’s vision is determining your exit strategy. Most of us postpone this discussion as we don’t want to think about the end of our careers, but this is a fundamental piece of any strategic planning. Aligning your interests with your firm’s capacity to support those interests is important as your decisions also impact those around you.

You also need to know the future desires of others in your firm as they should be mutually supportive.  While you want to act towards the future, it cannot be an individual act. It must be a group or corporate act if you want the leadership and visioning transition to be smooth and sustainable.

4) Climb out of the weeds.

How many times do you look back at the end of the day and try to determine if you accomplished anything of importance? We become bogged down by the minutiae of our work instead of focusing on our firm’s vision. We are like a snake crawling through the grass, sticking our head up now and then, until a lawnmower finally rolls over it.

While taking care of the day-to-day is important, aren’t you supposed to be the strategic thinker for your firm? Is the task you are doing the best and highest use of your time or should it be handled by someone else? I continually hear the excuse: “My clients expect me.” That’s not really true. Your clients expect a service and a certain quality of performance. And what better way to enhance that service than focusing on what is strategically relevant for the success of your firm. Empower and support your staff in the fulfillment of their duties and you can create your firm’s future path.

5) How do you want to be remembered?

Finally, there’s the big legacy question: How will I be remembered? Personally, I want to be remembered for what our team accomplishes because their accomplishments are reflected on me. For that to be successful, I have to be the facilitator of our vision of the future. Set your sights on creating opportunities for others, and their success becomes team successes. You don’t need to hover and take credit for everything that happens at your firm. Take credit for being a jobs creator, an industry advocate, a leader whose vision is for the long-term success and viability of others.

There are multiple examples of individuals and firms who have distinguished themselves by creating opportunities for others. Walter P. Moore Jr. took the firm started by his father and created an entrepreneurial environment built around technical excellence and highlighted by generational leadership change. Freese & Nichols Inc. won the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award – one of only seven U.S. firms to be so recognized the year they received it – highlighting that after over 100 years of existence they are still innovating and improving. And Charles Thornton has lead the creation and expansion of ACE Mentoring in recognition of our industry’s need to attract future generations into the workforce.

There are many different ways to build a legacy. How will you build yours for the long-term?

TAKE THE LONG-TERM VIEW. In the study “Why Good Strategies Fail: Lessons for the C-Suite,” sponsored by The Economist and the Project Management Institute (PMI), 61 percent of respondents said that their firms struggle to bridge the gap between strategy formulation and day-to-day implementation. Only a fraction of those who responded to PMI’s study said that their business model was extremely well-aligned with their long-term strategies.

I’m guessing that everyone just gets too busy when business is good, and too mired in the status quo when business slows. Isn’t it time to usher out the old and welcome in the new way of thinking about your long-term resolutions?

Stephen Lucy is CEO of JQ with offices in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and Lubbock, Texas. Contact him at

This article is from issue 1139 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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Long-term relationships and reputation

Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 9.07.20 AMYou may have long-term “relationships” because of your company’s reputation with people you don’t even know.

I’ve always been a long-term relationship kind of guy. I still have friends that I went to grade school with. I try to be loyal to long-term vendors and sub-consultants and service providers. And I have had some of the same clients for nearly 28 years.

Sometimes you (or your organization) may have long-term relationships that you aren’t aware of and these can either positively or negatively impact your image and reputation. I had one of those cases recently where things worked out well. My other business, Mark Zweig, Inc., is a design-build-development company that does primarily residential but also does some commercial projects.

We recently sold a completely redone and expanded 1919 house in downtown Fayetteville to a couple whose primary residence is in Little Rock but who have had a second home here for several years. They both went to school here at the University of Arkansas back in the day, and they also have children and grandchildren living in the area as well.

So a month or so after these folks moved in, word came to me through my head of operations that the couple really wanted to meet me in person as well as show me the house after they had moved all their stuff in. So we set it up for a Friday afternoon several weeks down the road when they would next be in town.

I knew the buyer’s name – Jim McClelland. He is the founder of a prominent local civil engineering and surveying company that bears his name today. When the time arrived for me to stop by the house to meet him and his wife, I was surprised to learn he had been an early and loyal reader of The Zweig Letter for many years – from way back when we first started writing it‎ in the late 80s/early 90s. He and his wife were ecstatic about their new house – they really appreciated all the details and quality we tried to put into it. That he felt he knew me from reading my writings all those years really made it even better.

Sometimes, in business, you have long-term “relationships” with people you don’t even know. They may not know your name or face, yet have an affinity for your company because of your reputation or interactions they have had with your firm. Everything you and your people do either enhances that image or detracts from it. You cannot underestimate the importance of having others think positively about you. Anything other than that is going to cause problems for you at some point down the road. Every single relationship has to be nurtured. Every problem with quality or client service or client satisfaction has to be confronted. Anything other than that and you run the risk of bad things being said about you or losing a project you may not even know about.

You never know how what you do and how you treat people will come back to you. ‎It may be a strange and circuitous path but it probably will in some way.

MARK ZWEIG is Zweig Group’s founder and CEO. Contact him at

This article is from issue 1139 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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For sale by owner: determining the listing price

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 2.24.50 PMIf you are thinking about selling your firm, a front-end valuation is essential before heading to market.

When we begin working with an M&A client on the selling side, one of the very first questions we’re asked is, “What are we worth?” I can answer the question. It might not be the answer that my new client likes, but I can answer it accurately every time. What are you worth? You’re worth what the market will bear.

While the prospective sellers out there are rolling their eyes, hear me out. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of factors that determine what your firm is worth. It is not as simple as putting a “for sale” sign in the front of your office and starting a bidding war. In addition, it’s not just determining what your firm is worth – it’s also determining what the buyer is buying – something that we truly cannot know until we start reviewing offers.

The firms that are fully prepared for an external ownership transition usually start the process a few years before they engage a consultant and are ready to be sold. These companies have often had a formal valuation done to establish a baseline, and they have spent a few years engaging in activities that were identified with a higher appraised value. They’ve spent time doing things that have driven the value of their firm upward. Once you have a rough idea of a value – determined by an expert business appraiser with experience in our industry – and you’ve worked to increase the value proactively, it’s time to approach buyers that we think will have a strategic reason to be interested in your firm.

Strategic buyers are ones that believe that the products and services your firm offers can be synergistically integrated into their existing lines of business to create incremental long-term value to their own firm. Once we know who the strategic buyer is, and what lines of business they offer, we can make adjustments to the seller’s financial statements to show “the future” and more accurately reflect the value of the acquisition to the buyer.

Knowing your own financial statements and understanding the drivers of value are two ways that someone considering an external ownership transition can help garner a higher purchase price. As an example, take a seller that is an architecture firm, and the prospective buyer is an A/E firm. The seller would have to sub out engineering work, and net service revenue is reduced for engineering fees billed on projects. The amount that will no longer have to be subcontracted out can be added back to the seller’s net service revenue.

The same logic applies to many other aspects of the deal. The question of what is being acquired should not be overlooked. Understanding what happens to assets like cash, receivables, fixed assets, and prepaid expenses is important, as well as any liabilities outstanding – these things can add up to major adjustments in book value. Other common adjustments on the income statement side include changes in salaries going forward, changing overhead rates, discretionary expenses like charitable contributions or that big, lavish holiday party you’ve always thrown, and one-time costs that distort profit.

Once we understand the value that the seller could add to the buyer – in terms of new clients, cost synergies, revenue streams, lines of business, leadership gaps, and more – we can start to talk numbers and begin to make adjustments. If you are considering selling your firm in the future, obtaining a formal valuation and identifying areas that can be improved internally to increase your value is a great starting point, especially if you have several years to address these issues and clean up your financial statements. I know it’s hard to hear as a seller, but we really cannot know what your firm is worth until we start talking to buyers and hearing their vision of the future.

JAMIE CLAIRE KISER  is director of M&A services at Zweig Group. Contact her at

This article is from issue 1141 of The Zweig Letter. Click here for to get a free trial.

For more information about valuation consulting, email or check out an excerpt from the 2016 Valuation Survey.

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What’s your firm really worth?

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 1.43.23 PMLeaders in the A/E/P and environmental consulting industry need to know their firm’s value.

Many architecture, engineering, planning, and environmental consulting firm leaders don’t have a solid grasp on their firm’s value. But, if you’re a firm owner, you can’t risk not knowing this information, because the firm’s value factors into several situations, including:

  • Establishing a price for transactions under shareholder or buy/sell agreements
  • Establishing a price for a merger, acquisition, or sale
  • Developing a plan for ownership transition and/or management buyouts
  • Establishing share prices for employee stock ownership plans
  • Determining the fair-market value for gift and estate tax issues
  • Preparing for an initial public offering
  • Supporting litigation efforts, such as partnership dissolutions, disputes, and marital divorce
  • Other corporate purposes, such as division spin-offs or divestitures

Enter Zweig Group’s 2016 Valuation Survey of A/E/P & Environmental Consulting Firms. Though not a substitute for a formal valuation or a consultation with a business appraiser, the Valuation Survey is a must-have resource for any firm owner interested in determining the worth of his/her company.

The Valuation Survey is broken down into three parts: Business Valuation Considerations,
2016 Survey Results, and Case Studies. That’s right, in addition to presenting readers with
the overall survey data – broken down by firm type, size, region, growth rate, and more – Zweig Group provides actual valuation information for each of the 141 firms (43 percent of which are multidiscipline engineering firms) that have participated in the survey since 2013. That’s real- world information on real-world firms that you can’t access anywhere else.

Zweig Group also provides the actual formulas that survey respondents’ firms use – if they opt against employing an external appraiser – in addition to its own Z-values, which measure total invested capital and equity values.

Among the statistics that readers will find most interesting are comparisons of the TIC value per employee. Because A/E/P and environmental consulting firms sell staffers’ time, it is generally accepted that people are firms’ most valuable assets. Just as some firms generate more revenue per employee than others, some are more valuable than others in proportion to their staff sizes.

The median TIC value per employee for firms overall has steadily increased since 2006 to an all-time high of $65,498 in 2016. But the Valuation Survey goes even farther, breaking this statistic – and all of the statistics it presents – out by firms’ types; staff sizes; years founded; headquarters’ region; growth rates; reasons for valuation; who conducted the valuation, when, and by what
means; net service revenue, profit, EBITDA, and backlog projections; and minority versus controlling interests.

For example, the 2016 Valuation Survey shows the highest average TIC values per employee for:

    • Single-discipline engineering firms
    • Firms with less than 25 employees
    • Firms founded in the past 16 years
    • Firms based in the South Central United States
    • Firms with moderate growth rates
    • Firms that performed the valuation for the purposes of a sale/merger
    • Firms that employed a consultant or accountant to perform the valuation, which was conducted via an appraisal in 2014
    • Firms that project at net service revenues; profits; and expenses before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization for the next fiscal year
    • Firms that project a growing backlog in the next fiscal year
  • Firms with a controlling interest

Does your firm fit any – or all – of these categories? If so, chances are its total invested capital per employee is pretty high. But, you can’t know for sure until you conduct a valuation, or at least apply the formulas in the Valuation Survey to your firm to obtain a general idea.

If you have any questions about the 2016 Valuation Survey or any of Zweig Group’s research publications, visit or email me at abennett@

ANDREA BENNETT is Zweig Group’s research and publications manager. Contact her at

This article is from issue 1139 of The Zweig Letter. Click here for to get a free trial.

For more information about valuation consulting, email or check out an excerpt from the 2016 Valuation Survey.

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Decisions made easy

C8063AC75FHow we approach the decision process is as important as the decision itself.

We all make dozens of decisions each day. Some are relatively simple, such as which shirt to wear in the morning. Others are complex, such as deciding whether or not to go public with your company.

Some decisions points are self-generated, while others are pushed upon you. For example, I forced you to make a decision about reading this article. Would it be relevant? Would I learn from it? Would it be worth my time or just another time moocher?

I know a former CEO who was so overwhelmed by the dozens of decisions he had to make each day.  Some were literally life-or-death decisions. “Frankie” made some very logical, rational, and tough decisions during his tenure, but his home life was another story. When he had to make simple decisions at home, he absolutely locked up.

Frankie’s low point came after a particularly stressful week at work. When he and his wife, “Lola,” went out for dinner at a local restaurant, he froze at the sight of his menu. Beef, chicken, pork, seafood, vegetarian, salad, or pasta. His eyes glazed. Each menu category had sub-options, giving him dozens of combinations from which to choose. It was overwhelming.

How many decisions are you faced with each day and how do you approach them? Here are several approaches you could take.

  • Cut the clutter. I’ve seen a lot of enterprising project managers build elaborate PowerPoint presentations for their clients describing in excruciating detail the logic behind their recommendations. It was not uncommon to have over 150 slides of graphs, pictures, quotations, and caveats. How does one respond when presented with a mountain of details before making a decision? I cut out the clutter.  Eliminate the information that doesn’t directly contribute to a decision.
  • I’ve worked for a C-suite executive who set a limit on the number of slides he would view on a given project. If you couldn’t persuade him in three slides, then your logic was faulty. I was allowed as many back-up slides as needed to support my analysis and recommendation, but he did not want to see more than three slides. That approach made it easier for him to digest the information and ask the questions that were important to him. He trusted me to look at every angle of a project, but he wanted it presented in a format tailored to the way he processed information.
  • Break decisions into bite-sized chunks. Back to my CEO friend, Frankie. Years earlier, he had made a brilliant decision and married a wonderful woman who understood how he made decisions. Sensing Frankie’s dinner meltdown, Lola took over and broke the menu into bite-sized chunks for him. She offered him a simple yes/no choice. “Frankie, would you like a Caesar salad? No? I know you enjoy a good steak.  Would you like a ribeye cooked medium-rare?” Her approach allowed Frankie to continue processing the more complex decisions, while she guided him through the simple ones.
  • Keep it simple. Is anyone in today’s connected environment is anyone really going to read your 60-page white paper on the pros and cons of granite versus marble? Oftentimes, a one- or two-page paper is all that’s needed to convince someone about the benefits of one over the other. A one-page paper is much harder to write than a 60-page paper, but they’re usually more powerful.
  • How long are your proposals to your potential clients? Cover the critical information, but keep your proposals brief, to the point, and without the extra buzzwords. That will help them make a decision without having to wade through extraneous blabber.
  • Sleep on it. Studies have shown the old adage “sleep on it” has merit. For simple decisions, such as chicken or beef, either answer is correct, so don’t waste time making a decision that won’t really matter tomorrow. For the complex problems, I make better decision when I take a break from the issue.  I’ve found that running clears my head and allows me the space to think, while playing solitaire on my iPad, with its linear structure of columns and suits, helps me organize my thoughts. Find an activity that helps you think clearly.
  • Set a deadline. I recently led an exercise for an MBA class where I gave them an hour to develop a marketing plan for a given product. Nearly every student told me they wished they had more time, yet they all finished within the allotted time.  How much more time would have been enough to decide on a better plan? If I had allotted three hours, it would have taken them three hours to make a decision.
  • Write it down. One of my mentors confided in me that he could not remember the details of many of the decisions he made while he was in charge of a $400 million organization. That’s a little frightening!  Fortunately, he had a great executive assistant who kept track of those things for him.
  • Keep track of the major decisions you make along with a short explanation of your rationale for that decision. That will come in handy if your decision is later questioned or your firm is revisiting the same issue.

Decision making can be stressful if you allow it to take over your life. With a few simple techniques, you can minimize the stress involved in a range of decisions. Simplify the issue, spend some time away from it, set a deadline for your decision, make the decision, and move on! Indecision is a decision and it can be very painful for those who are depending on you.

Bill Murphey is Zweig Group’s director of education. Contact him at

This article is from issue 1139 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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CMTA Inc. merges with TMR Engineering

cmta_logoCMTA Inc. is increasing its presence in the Washington, D.C. Metro area via a merger with TMR Engineering (Arlington, Virginia). The transaction was facilitated by Zweig Group and closed on January 1, 2016.

Zweig Group helped identify potential matches in the D.C. Metro area to find a merger candidate to help establish a physical presence, expand capabilities, add to existing capabilities, and bring in an existing regional client base. ZG facilitated contact between CMTA and TMR leadership leading to the agreement execution.

“CMTA’s practice in the D.C. area has been expanding in the past three years, and we felt that a D.C. presence was necessary to serve our D.C., Virginia and Maryland clients. CMTA and TMR share similar cultures and we were impressed the quality of their engineering staff. Their CHP expertise aligns well with our Net Zero Energy expertise,” said Kenneth L. Seibert, PE, CMTA president.

“Throughout the years, TMR has been focused on providing great service to our clients. CMTA shares our values and is just as passionate about the built environment as we are. This alignment means we can offer additional services like performance contracting, security/technology design, fire protection engineering and commissioning,” said Thomas Rohrbaugh, PE, CMTA D.C. principal.

With the addition of TMR, CMTA now has six offices in four states: Kentucky, Texas, Indiana, Ohio, and the D.C. Metro area. The firm employs 160 people including 70 licensed professional engineers.

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1928e537Get your project managers to pick up the phone and call clients to improve relationships.

In the A/E business, we hate confrontation. As a result, we tend to communicate via email instead of talking on the phone. The older I get the more aware I am of the problems associated with people not picking up the phone and actually talking to each other! While I pride myself on being super quick to respond to texts and emails, and there are some calls I would rather NOT have to make, I know one thing for sure: People need to talk more and email less.

When relationships with clients go sour – and in spite of your best intentions they sometimes do – you can usually trace the problem back to someone in the client organization who didn’t want you to be successful in helping them. How can that be, you may ask? You know you have good intentions. They have a problem and you are just trying to help them. The reason they don’t want you to succeed is simple. That person did not have a relationship with someone in your company. And when there’s no relationship do you know what happens? People get paranoid. They start thinking you don’t like them. You are out to get them. There’s no trust. And you know why there’s no relationship? Because this person doesn’t really KNOW your person. They don’t know each other because they never talk.

Of course, most of the time when things go bad the relationship can’t be fixed. The problem has already been known for a long time, and when the client brings you, the principal, into the situation, it’s probably already too late. No amount of promises or salesmanship is going to resurrect it. So the best insurance is this – TALK. Tell your PMs to call their client every day just to talk. Ask a question. Talk about kids. Discuss the details of the project. LOOK for a reason to call. Start a program of calling daily and I guarantee you that your performance, team morale, and client relationships will all improve immensely.

Ignore my advice at your peril. Keep going down that path of letting your people email everything to your clients in the name of convenience and liability reduction. Allow your people to opt out of making a 10-minute phone call every three weeks and I guarantee you that you will lose precious clients you shouldn’t be losing. Being willing to call and get off the email is something us old people tend to do better than the younger ones. You’d think since everyone has a cell phone they would use it to talk, but nope, it is for Faceooking and texting and listening to Pandora and responding to work emails. But talk? Why would you do that?

Try it out. Have your PMs call their clients every day for two weeks. Tell me what happens. My guess is you’ll have smoother projects and find some new ones, to boot. But two weeks really isn’t enough. Six months of doing this would be a much better trial.

MARK ZWEIG is Zweig Group’s founder and CEO. Contact him at

This article is from issue 1138 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.



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Running your firm during the good times

photo-1446540830250-e2076f9e6917The A/E/P industry is doing well right now, but you shouldn’t get too comfortable.

Right now, we’re having some really good times. A/E/P firms are doing well – some of them are doing incredibly well. We’ve never seen higher growth rates and profit.

Our own firm had a fantastic year. Zweig Group grew by 31 percent in 2015. Our growth projections are 48 percent for 2016. While this is what everyone wants‎, my experience is the seeds of your future problems are being sown right now. You need to be careful instead of careless. Here’s some of what I’m talking about:

  1. Watch out for indiscriminate hiring. When everyone is busy and overloaded, it’s hard to find people who are really qualified for individual roles. So what happens is unqualified people get added because someone is better than no one, and you never know, they “might work out.” This can be disastrous for the firm and the individuals hired for roles they shouldn’t be in, and cause all kinds of problems down the road.
  1. Keep salaries under control. When everyone is working like mad, and the dollars are rolling in, the tendency for many A/E firms is to start throwing money at people. This can be terrible when things slow down! Rather than letting salaries get so high that you have to be knocking the cover off the ball every single month without fail, let your bonus plan do the work of rewarding people for their high performance. Sure, higher salaries are a measure of protection to keep good people from defecting to competitors, but you have to keep an eye on them during the good times and not let them get out of control.
  1. Beware of increasing benefits too quickly and too much. Benefits are “sticky downward”‎ as my old boss, Irving Weiss of The Pickering Firm in Memphis, Tennessee, used to say. That means they go up easily but don’t go down easily. So you have to be careful not to be too generous in the good times and create a cost structure you cannot support during the less prosperous times.
  1. Client service is crucial – don’t take any of them for granted!‎ It is during these good times – when it’s easy to replace any client – that A/E firms start taking clients for granted. This is terrible, horrible, and cancerous in every way. Don’t use your best old clients as a training ground for new people. Don’t ignore client complaints, even when they don’t seem serious. There are always warning signals and when you’re busy it is easy to ignore them or rationalize why they can be ignored.

Yep – good times are always followed by tough times. Enjoy the good times but don’t get carried away!

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s founder and CEO. Contact him at

This article is from issue 1137 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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Is it time you got employee input?

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 11.05.35 AMYou may have an “open door” policy as a CEO or manager, but you could still be seeing your firm through rose-tinted glasses. 

If you want to grow, are having a hard time recruiting or retaining employees, feel like your employees aren’t quite as productive as they could be, or just want to find a way to make your firm more profitable, the opinions and ideas of the people sitting in your office and interacting with your clients, are by far your most valuable resource.

Even if your firm has open meetings, does exit interviews, or you feel that as a leader you are available for employees to voice their grievances at any time, you still may not be getting an accurate picture.  Fear of speaking up, workload and lack of time may be huge deterrents for people working at your firm to offer suggestions or communicate issues. Giving employees an anonymous, third-party method to voice their opinions, ideas, and concerns across a variety of areas is the only way to get a full picture.

In my experience working as a marketing consultant conducting employee surveys and with the Best Firms To Work For program, it’s true that nearly every set of employee survey responses has at least one person who thinks the only thing that will improve their performance is an all-expense paid retreat to Aruba, a 10,000 square-foot ping-pong room, or something equally ridiculous. But for every person who wants fresh bacon available 24/7, there’s usually two with really good and often easy to implement suggestions.

Here are just a few reasons why:

Power in numbers. A single comment, especially if it comes from a known complainer or whistle-blower is much more easily discarded than a written collection of 10-plus comments all presenting similar views on the same subject. Likewise, when small comments get made at different times to different people, they are much more easily discarded.

Metrics. Open responses are invaluable, but having numerical rankings across certain areas allows firms to easily see areas where they need to improve, and also chart improvement over time.

It’s not all bad! You can have a great organization with a lot of happy employees, but unless specifically prompted, people will not often volunteer suggestions for improvement or expansion. Just one person’s idea for a new program or technology that could improve his or her efficiency or a person’s expressed desire to work on a specific kind of project may be all it takes to give a firm awesome new opportunities (and revenues). Positive feedback from employees can be used to help recruit key hires and will even help you win more work!

Christina Zweig is Zweig Group’s director of research and marketing. Contact her at

This article is from issue 1137 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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The value of irrelevance

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 10.31.22 AMMake your firm more valuable by making yourself irrelevant and surrounding yourself with leaders.

Firms that command high market premiums are ones in which the owners are, in many ways, always seeking to become less and less relevant. If you’re the owner of a firm and you’re reading this, you’ve got to be wondering what I mean. What I mean is that valuable firms are those with a wide base of individuals who can step up and lead.

Ask yourself if you could leave your business for 30 or 60 days and have it run the same way that it would if you were there. The less valuable firms are the ones in which the owner is, or a small group of owners are, “the business” – meaning that if you aren’t there, you know that clients won’t receive the same attention, invoices will be paid late, receivables will trickle in, and employees won’t put forth the same effort.

If you have to be there to make sure that the business runs properly, you’ve reduced your market value. If your second in command is paralyzed at the thought of making any decision without scheduling a meeting and obtaining your advance approval, you’ve reduced your market value. If the owner is the business, the next question is what, exactly, does the owner think he or she can offer to a prospective buyer? What do you have to sell?

This is not a theoretical discourse on organizational management. There are multiples and dollar signs attached to the answers to this question. Every buyer that we work with is more interested in the folks behind the top leadership than they are in the guy who wants to cash out and retire.

The firms in which owners delegate operational tasks and client relationships to a motivated next generation of leadership always will be more valuable. When buyers know that your business is able to run without you managing every detail of the company, you’ve just made yourself a much more attractive prospect.

Granted, this is much easier said than done. Entrepreneurs who start their own businesses especially have a hard time delegating. Plus, it’s counterintuitive. How could anyone be as invested in the business as the person who founded the business, devoted decades of time and resources to its development, and whose name is synonymous with the firm’s reputation?

Creating a highly valuable firm requires a great deal of balance. An entrepreneurial leader will foster an entrepreneurial culture. The leader’s passion and drive can become tangible assets if these characteristics are cultivated in leaders across the company. Finding the individuals within the firm who embrace constant evolution and innovative thinking is the first step. The next step is to develop these highly desirable traits within employees and provide opportunities for them to step up and make decisions. Every leader of every firm – from CEOs down to junior managers – should identify their successor and should nurture that individual’s development while at the same time finding ways to hand off more and more responsibilities to their successor. The return on the investment in your own irrelevance will be realized in a more valuable enterprise that is readily marketable.

Jamie Claire Kiser is Zweig Group’s director of M&A. Contact her at

This article is from issue 1137 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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Getting value from your strategic plan

1e4331ee10804924bb7174390e870350Here are some tips to get the most out of your strategic plan and realize your firm’s aspirational goals.

How much does a strategic plan cost? If you hire a consultant, pull your senior-leadership away from business and team leadership for a couple of days, conduct the session offsite, and pay for hotel rooms, meals, and transportation, it can be an expensive proposition.

With that kind of investment of time, talent, and resources, it can be painful to realize that so many carefully written, beautifully bound plans end
 up on a shelf, rarely referenced. Maybe it’s time to take this time-worn process apart and focus on practical ways to achieve meaningful change in your enterprise in support of that valuable planning exercise.

Having trodden this path many times over the years with my own firm and with clients since I retired, I’d like to share my observations and advice.

A well facilitated and carefully thought-through strategic planning process can yield a treasure trove of ideas about what you want your firm to be. It can guide you and your team on how you want people to act and collaborate, what markets you want to serve, and what talent “holes” you have that need to be filled. It can specify desired relationships with the stakeholders you rely on to accomplish client work. But a document sitting on a shelf won’t make any of this happen.

From experience, I can tell you your strategic 
plan only gains value when its objectives are understood and acted upon. That will only happen if you’re able to instill your objectives deeply into your firm’s culture such that it changes the actions and attitudes of your people.

Here are a couple of ideas about how to put your plan in motion:

  • Client Service. A dominant indicator of your success appears when your clients are deliriously happy about the way they’re being treated. Is “delirious” too grand a word to use? Not at all. When your teams are listening to your clients, responsive to their needs and wants, consistently checking with them to ensure they feel cared for, they will ask you to do more work for them and recommend you to their friends and colleagues. You can track client satisfaction through all sorts of metrics. Certainly, you can keep a log of repeat and referral business, but nothing is more valuable than a culture in which everyone is expected to have a cup of coffee with a client to find out if all is going well. And this is not just at the principal level, but with all of your team members who have a relationship with a member of the client team.
  • Innovation. Innovation is a common goal of most strategic plans. Nice idea, but how does innovation come about? The best creativity occurs when people with different points of view and areas of expertise collaborate and come at a problem from different directions. Sparks fly, and an idea for something never tried before appears. So, how do you keep people from building walls and hesitating to share knowledge, expertise, and ideas? Encouraging people to reach out to someone with a different point of view can be intimidating. Encouraging people to reach out to someone with a different point of view can be intimidating: “What if they don’t want to talk to me?” “What if they look at what I’m doing and say, ‘That’s really dumb’?”
  • Collaboration. Collaboration requires an open
and trusting culture, one in which everyone feels they “own” every project in the office. Anyone that feels anything less than innovative and thoughtful reflects negatively on the firm and you personally. Employees should be willing, at all times, to pitch in and brainstorm a problem with a colleague.

Instilling that attitude and culture is not a result of writing about it in a strategic plan. It happens when the firm expects it and team leaders model the behavior as they watch work progressing. It happens when leaders lean over a desk or computer terminal to look for ways to think more creatively about the problem being solved, suggesting the team involved reach out to other individuals in the firm who might offer a unique and inspirational point of view. Who knows better than the leadership team where those specific areas of expertise reside? It is leadership’s responsibility to probe, connect and then follow up to see what happened. That’s how a culture of creative connectivity evolves, not because it is written in a strategic plan. It becomes a way of life.

Take a look at each element of your strategic plan and ask: “What specific action, and by whom, will move us toward our plan goals?” Imbed these actions and behaviors into the way things are done on a daily basis. Avoid the trap of assigning committees only to have those committees meet once or twice to debate tasks and actions and then revert to old ways of doing things and get lost in the urgency of the work at hand.

These are just a couple of ideas on how you can make the most of that valuable strategic plan, turning it into daily actions that actualize your plan’s aspirational goals. It’s up to you to develop a new way of life in your firm to make each part of your strategic plan come true.

EDWARD FRIEDRICHS, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at

This article was taken from issue 1136 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Get a free trial of The Zweig Letter by clicking here.

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The new kids on the block

1203Rapid hiring during the recovery has changed the complexion of many firms

The rapid recovery in the A/E industry has led to unprecedented growth for many firms.  Most firms have rebounded, surpassing their pre-recession revenue and staff levels in a relatively short amount of time. This has put tremendous strains on all areas of the firm, especially those related to new staff. The new kids on the block have the potential of changing the complexion of your firm. To put his into context, we are working with firms that have as much as three quarters of their current staff with tenure of three years or less. For many this is an employee mix never seen in the firms’ history. This is presenting tremendous internal and external challenges. On the internal side, those challenges come mainly in the form of cultural issues, and they turn into branding problems.

Rapid hiring often introduces new people into the organization that may not be the quality of traditional hires. Let’s face it, recessions offer an opportunity to clean house. Those with the lowest contribution get put on the street. Fast-forward to 2016 and the market is extremely tight, already absorbing everyone that has previous experience in the industry, good or bad. With that comes a potential imbalance among your staff. The long-termers have been with you through good times and bad. They understand and reflect your culture. And in the near future, they could also be the minority in your firm.

The best way to get new employees to adopt a new culture and to make them productive is to put them through an immersion onboarding process. This goes beyond company literature and a new-employee orientation slideshow. This is about immersing the employee in the culture and getting them to “drink the Kool-Aid” as quickly as possible. Make your current employees accountable for being welcoming to new employees. Organize social events aimed at accelerating the new hire’s ability to plug into the company and people.

Assign a mentor that spends a set amount of time per week with the employee helping them with everything needed. Make sure your mentor pool is composed of only those who are fully engaged in the company vision and are the most positive folks in your culture. The mentors can have a set number of weeks they do this and then if the relationship continues naturally after the onboarding is over, then that is even better. Also, immediately set goals for the new employee that tie into the overall firm vision and also foster teamwork with their new colleagues. Get serious about protecting and preserving your culture and make integration of new staff a priority and a long-term commitment. A major added benefit of an extensive onboarding process is you can improve an employee that may have been historically an under-performer.

On the external side, rapid increases in workload can cause client service issues that threaten the brand. Currently, firms are hiring as fast as they can and they are still behind. Recent client surveys we have conducted are showing more and more discontent with A/E firms among their clients in 2015. There are many comments indicating that firms are too busy and becoming less responsive. Do you know what your clients think of you right now? I have a warning for you: if your firm is struggling with workload issues, you are likely having lapses in client service. You may not realize it, but your clients feel it. If this is happening in your firm, it is rapidly eroding your brand. As the market softens and the work starts to thin out, your clients will show preference for those firms that are consistent in meeting their needs, regardless of economic cycles.

It is important to constantly reinforce your firm’s commitment to client service, regardless of how busy you are. Make sure everyone knows it is a priority. As you bring in new talent to backfill your people in client service, make sure they know your firm’s commitment to provide responsive and superior client service. Everyone needs to understand the power of your brand name and that it’s sensitivity to lapses in service. Turn your new kids on the block into rock stars and maintain a high level of client service while your competitors are struggling to meet commitments. Protect your brand and your culture with aggressive recruiting and immersive onboarding.

Chad Clinehens is The Zweig Group’s executive vice president. Contact him at  

This article was taken from Issue # 1138 – The Zweig Letter, Published Feb 08, 2016.  Click here for subscription information. 

There’s an all new seminar designed just for A/E/P Firms who want to learn how to recruit better.  Check out Becoming a Better Recruiter worth 4.5 CEUs.

1446739965-R&Rsurveycover_web-2Zweig Group has a brand new survey all about recruitment and retention in the A/E/P industry. The 2016 Recruitment & Retention Survey.

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13 new mini-survyes and ‘Take 3′ promotion

1452648221-WTandRsurveycover_webUtilizationSurveysWebsiteiSurveys OrgStrucSurveysGovernanceSurveys


Zweig Group is incorporating 13 new “mini-surveys” for 2016, bringing its annual survey publication total to 27.

“Zweig Group is constantly looking for new ways to provide our clients the data they need,” says Andrea Bennett, the firm’s research and publications manager. “Industry leaders have reached out to us for more information on a variety of topics, including websites, social media, boards of directors, and ownership transition. We also saw an increased interest in learning about reimbursement for travel, company vehicles, and other business expenses. So, the new topics were determined by inquiries and industry analysis.”

The new mini-surveys deal with targeted topics such as company vehicles, cell phones and mobile devices, travel reimbursement, social media, websites, organizational structures, firm associates, satellite offices, governance, and ownership transition.

“We’re calling them ‘mini-surveys’ because the questionnaires are generally shorter and they take a more in-depth look at a specific topic,” Bennett says. “Additionally, these publications are only going to be published as PDFs – though their data will be included in several of the printed full-length surveys throughout the year – which means they’ll be available faster, in color, and at a fraction of a typical survey’s cost.”

Mini-surveys cost $250, and participants in their questionnaires receive a 50 percent discount code that can be applied to the purchase of any Zweig Group survey product. Full-length surveys are $495, and their participants receive a 65 percent discount code.

Zweig Group has also redesigned its long-standing surveys, responding to customer comments for expanded coverage of subtopics and issues affecting the A/E/P and environmental consulting industry.

“We’ve gone through the participant responses to all our 2015 surveys with the goal of meeting our clients’ needs for information,” Bennett says. “For example, many participants of the 2015 IT Survey wanted more data about cloud computing, server virtualization, and how IT department costs related to overall costs. So, we added questions about those topics and eliminated some others that were no longer relevant to readers.”

“Another participant suggestion we’re responding to is having the questionnaires open for longer,” Bennett says. “So, every survey questionnaire has been made available for participation, and we’re going to try to get next year’s questionnaire posted as soon as possible after each survey publishes, so that people can participate on a rolling basis.”

To celebrate the availability of all questionnaires being open for participation, Zweig Group is offering a Take 3 promotion during February.

“If anyone or any firm takes three questionnaires in February, they will be entered to win their choice of a $1,000 Amazon gift card or a free registration to the 2016 Hot Firm and A/E Industry Awards Conference in September at the Arizona Biltmore, which is valued at $1,295,” Bennett says. “Survey respondents need only enter their information at the end of the questionnaire to qualify, but if a firm has more than one person respond and wants to make sure we know, they can email to make sure we know.”

Survey questionnaires with impending closing dates include the 2016 M&A Survey (February 9), 2016 Travel Reimbursement Mini-Survey (February 24), 2016 Cell Phone & Mobile Device Mini-Survey (March 2), 2016 Company Car Mini-Survey (March 13), and 2016 Social Media Mini-Survey (March 20). For more information, visit, call 800.466.6275, or email

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The bold vision

IMUB39JBN1Most leaders are afraid of failure. If they set lofty goals the firm does not achieve they’re afraid they’ll look like failures.

There’s something to be said for laying
out a truly ambitious – some might say “bold” vision. Something that could change the world – or change the “world” as the members of the organization know it to be. Most leaders don’t do it.

Why do you think that is?

It’s simple. Most leaders are afraid of
failure. If they set lofty goals and strive for something the organization does not achieve they’re afraid they’ll look like failures (as leaders). So low goals (or visions) that they are sure they can achieve become the norm.

Of course there is risk in being ambitious. Things don’t always work out. But at least you tried. You gave it your all. And in the process a couple things will most certainly happen:

  1. You’ll inspire other people. We value effort in this country. We don’t like people who had it too easy or who didn’t have to work for their success. So success or failure becomes secondary to effort when it comes to inspiration. And people are crying out for inspiration!
  2. You will do better than you would do if you didn’t set high goals. We’ve all heard the old adage – shoot for an “A” and you’ll probably at least get a “B,” but shoot for a “B” and you may get a “C.” I firmly believe in this concept. Aim high!

But there’s also a chance things WILL work out and you’ll succeed. And that’s a fantastic feeling when your goals are lofty.

Zweig Group’s revenue grew by 31 percent in 2015. We projected 30 percent.
 Our projections are for about 48 percent growth in 2016. That may seem crazy 
to some but I’m convinced we will achieve or exceed these numbers. The reason is commitment. We are committed to do more, doing it faster, and making everything we do the best we can make it. We have great people, great accounting, great marketing, great systems – and great clients. We may fall flat on our faces due to unforeseen difficulties. Should that happen now or in the future you can count on us to get up again (fast) and figure out what we can do better. That’s the American Way!

How about you? Are you setting your goals high enough? Is your vision lofty? Or is it most certainly attainable? Maybe it’s time to really do something THIS year. The time has never been better.

MARK ZWEIG is founder and CEO of Zweig Group. Contact him at

Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Get a free trial of The Zweig Letter here:

BUILDING AN ENTREPRENEURIAL FIRM: Taught by Mark Zweig himself, this seminar is all about teaching firm owners and managers about what they need to do daily if they want to have an entrepreneurial firm.  This is a one-day seminar specifically designed for the entrepreneurially minded leader in the A/E/P and environmental industries.  It was designed to help your firm blow past static, incremental growth and become a benchmark in the industry. This event is for firms of all sizes; small or large, new or established.  It’s about helping you lead the successful firm you have always envisioned. For more information, click here!

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Building an entrepreneurial staff

568E3E34AEYour employees will work harder if they’re enthusiastic about their role in your firm; here are some tips to make that happen.

As firms finalize their strategic plans for 2016, we hear a consistent desire from firms of all sizes to create an environment in which employees at all levels feel responsible for the company’s financial success. Sure, this is a challenge that all businesses face, but I think it is felt more acutely within this industry than many others.

Most architects and engineers have had minimal exposure to financial management and are more comfortable building bridges than interpreting balance sheets. Successful firms have vibrant, entrepreneurial cultures. Staff feel responsible for the financial well-being of the company and “that’s not my job” is removed from the firm’s vocabulary.

Some of the top ways to get your staff to care as much as your CEO include:

  • Incorporate financial management training into career development for staff at all levels – not just principals. Financial fluency should not be an afterthought. It’s not fair to promote someone to the decision-maker level without arming them with the tools they need to gauge the company’s success. This means identifying key performance indicators or revenue goals, and teaching people what drives the KPIs.
  • Make every job the most important job in the company. One of my favorite anecdotes to this end is the NASA janitor who reportedly told President John F. Kennedy that his job was to help put a man on the moon. If your receptionist believes that his job is as noble as your structural engineer’s, you will see enthusiasm and ownership of individual results reflected on your bottom line. Elevating morale requires celebrating the wins of the back office staff as much as your star business developers.
  • Create an incentive plan centered around financial accountability. A Christmas bonus is great for morale, but doesn’t inherently tell staff that every hour of their day that year built up to the amount that they’ll see on the check. A good incentive plan is one that gives each employee the ability – and the mandate – to control their own destiny by performing their job functions in a way that is beneficial to the firm and responsible with client resources.
  • Share financial information widely. If you are going to follow the advice above (creating an incentive plan), make sure that the staff knows how they are being measured. What
 are the firm’s financial goals for the year? The quarter? Does everyone know the basic tenets of the firm’s five-year plan? More important than sending out results after the end of a reporting period, information sharing needs to be proactive. Disseminating revenue reports and project profitability after the quarter has ended or the project is closed is reactive. Instead, tie reports to firm-wide and project-level budgets and goals while there is still time to correct any issues. Use these reports as an opportunity to point out the cost reduction efforts of that receptionist, the above-target chargeability of your second-year architect, and the new project manager who just beat her profitability target.

The common thread linking all of the methods outlined
is communication. Staff have to know that they matter to the company. They have to know what the company wants to do, and that it is in everyone’s best interest to work together to achieve these goals. They have to be reminded that the firm’s success is their success. Staff also have to understand if they are pulling their weight on the team, and how to improve. The leaders of entrepreneurial firms take the time to build up their employees, and will reap the rewards of their investment.

JAMIE CLAIRE KISER is director of M&A services at Zweig Group. Contact her at

Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Get a free trial of The Zweig Letter here:

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How to market your firm with SlideShare

slidesharelogoSlideShare is an easy and inexpensive way to present information to your target audience in a visually appealing manner.

SlideShare is a web-based service that gives AEC firms the ability to infuse a powerful visual component into their digital marketing efforts. The thought of yet another Internet tool probably doesn’t sound very appealing, but SlideShare is worth considering because it’s virtually free, easy to use, and requires no ongoing time commitment. It also allows you to increase the potency of your marketing with your target audience by packaging your message in a reader-friendly format.

WHAT IS SLIDESHARE? SlideShare started out as an independently owned Internet-based service, but was acquired by LinkedIn in 2012. The basic intent of the platform is to allow users to upload files or design a fresh concept, which it translates into slide decks. It has similarities to PowerPoint but much better functionality.

WHY SHOULD I USE IT? The main benefit of SlideShare for AEC firms is that it allows you to display marketing materials in an easy-to-read, image-driven format that is more likely to capture and hold the attention of your target audience. It’s harder than ever to attract attention, especially on the Internet. The volume of information is incredulous.

SlideShare benefits your audience by allowing them to more quickly receive your content in a reader-friendly format. Your target audience still consumes volumes of information, despite claims to the contrary in our short attention span culture. Some statistics suggest that Americans are actually taking in more information than ever.

Imagery currently rules the day in marketing, primarily because it allows busy people to quickly and effectively consume and comprehend information. This is how SlideShare explains it: “In today’s world of visual communication, design is an important element of your content you can’t ignore: Visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than words, and can increase a viewer’s comprehension by 89 percent.” There you have it.

HOW DO I USE IT? SlideShare is easy to use for even the most diehard Luddite. Start by creating a free account at You can either upload existing documents or build a slide deck from the ground up. Your end product will be a presentation, infographic, or a basic document. SlideShare accepts a range of file types from PowerPoint to Microsoft Word to Adobe PDF for those that want to convert an existing document into a single slide or slide deck. Your other option is to build a slide deck from the bottom up, which will require some basic design work. You don’t have to be a graphic designer, but some basic computer and design savvy will help.

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE? Start the creation of your slide deck with two questions: What is the purpose of the slide deck? What action do we want the viewer to take away at the end? The purpose is the glue that holds your slide deck together and keeps your viewer’s attention. Are you looking to generate inbound leads? Do you want to direct traffic to your website? Is the intent to showcase your qualifications? An effective slide deck, like any other marketing tactic, must incite action.

HOW DO WE DESIGN A SLIDE DECK? Unlike PowerPoint, SlideShare requires no template. You should, in fact, diversify the layout to keep your slide deck interesting. If you happen to be uploading an existing file, such as PowerPoint, the template is fine, but don’t start out with a template if you’re designing a slide deck from scratch.

You will also notice the ability to add effects and transitions between slides. Keep it simple. It’s tempting to add bells and whistles, but it rarely adds value and also distracts the viewer. The beauty of SlideShare is the ability to easily flip through slides without distractions. Focus solely on the quality of your content.

WHAT CONTENT SHOULD WE INCLUDE? Your slide deck should be heavy on graphics and light on text. A good slide will often contain a richly colored, relevant centerpiece image that consumes the entire page with no more than a sentence, a word, or possibly no text at all. The image makes or breaks the slide so great photography and graphics are essential. Architects can include sketches and landscape designers might include color renderings. Black and white engineering plans will not add much to the design so civil and structural engineers should use them sparingly. You can even insert a video or chart into the slide. Don’t forget to add your keywords to the title, description, and tags to increase the odds of it being found online.

One of the obvious applications for AEC firms would be
to upload a recent PowerPoint presentation, but there are other possibilities. You might also upload a multi-page feature story or advertisement on your firm, a company brochure, a statement of qualifications, an assortment of projects or service, or other marketing collateral for display on your website or sharing on social media. The possibilities are endless.

WHERE SHOULD WE SHARE IT? The most incredible slide deck will serve no purpose without a distribution plan. Where you share depends on the nature of the content, but you might consider posting or embedding it on your website. Posting it repeatedly on social media is also effective for broad distribution. One of the best ways to capture more eyeballs, however, is to create an email and send it out to your list. For a more personal touch, don’t hesitate to send an email to one or more existing or prospective clients if the content is relevant to them. Creating a slide deck takes time and effort, so focus on creating content that can be shared for months to come without getting dated too quickly.

WHAT ACTION DO WE WANT THE VIEWER TO TAKE? As a business, you need to focus on getting results. Refer back to “What is the purpose?” You will build your slide deck around the questions that de ne your purpose, but it’s critical to include what we marketers refer to as a call to action. Your call to action tells the viewer in clear terms what action you want them to take. An obvious spot for your call to action is the last slide, but you might want to include one or more call to actions throughout your slide deck. Call to actions are like “the sale.” If you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it.

SlideShare is yet another way for your AEC firm to add a powerful visual component to your online marketing efforts. It’s fairly easy to learn, requires no ongoing time commitment, and it’s free. And more importantly, it increases the potency of your marketing with the audience you’re trying to influence.

Brian M. Fraley is the founder, manager, and chief strategist for Fraley AEC Solutions, LLC, a marketing communications firm. Brian can be found on LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, or at the firm’s AEC Straight Talker blog.

Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Get a free trial of The Zweig Letter here:

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Ask Christy: Your management questions, answered

KQWMZQ7W1CThis month, readers seek advice on topics related to social media, benchmarking, and increasing prices.


Dear Christy,

“We’re about to start our strategic planning process and like to use industry benchmarks as comparisons. When benchmarking, who should
 we compare ourselves to?” —Benchmarking in Bismark.

Dear Benchmarking,

This is a good question that has a complicated answer. I’ve found a lot of firms
 can get stuck on a single, unimportant characteristic that ends up steering them in the wrong direction.

Start by defining what you are benchmarking and then customize the parameters to that particular metric. Metrics most firms are concerned about benchmarking usually 
include salary levels, spending/budgeting, marketing effectiveness, fees, and a variety 
of firm processes and procedures. Discipline, market sector, geography, size, and revenue are generally the most important benchmarking parameters.

Salary levels are just about the only benchmark for which I would always recommend using a geographic parameter. Due to the internet, social media, and other new technologies, many firms who were previously only able to work in a very specific region can now work all over the nation and even the world, making geographic comparisons less important than they were in the past. Still, cost of living needs to be a consideration in any discussion about salaries.

For most things, like marketing effectiveness, national overall figures for firms in the A/E/P industry are going to be applicable to almost anyone. If you think that just because you’re a small firm, you shouldn’t be getting the same hit rate on a press release or spending (the same percent) on marketing, you’re wrong.

When you’re trying to benchmark things like budget amounts (marketing, business development, labor, etc.) I would recommend benchmarking yourself against firms of a similar size and possibly a similar market.

Ultimately you have to ask yourself: “Who do 
we want to compare ourselves to – average firms who might be struggling in the same way we are – or high growth, high profit firms?” Zweig Group does a Successful Firms Survey, which pulls out data from all of our surveys and shows the differences between these groups and firms overall.


Dear Christy,

“Will social media really benefit us? It’s not like people hire transportation engineers or sports arena architects because they posted a cute picture on Twitter. Why do we need it?” —Reluctant in Raleigh

Dear Reluctant,

You’re right; I highly doubt you’ll get a big job off one Facebook post or tweet, but that’s just like saying you shouldn’t go on a date because it’s unlikely you’ll marry that person the very next day.

If you want to get new clients, you’re going to have to do a lot of different things. The great thing about social media is it has a life of its own. People can share and repost your tweets or Facebook or LinkedIn postings, and you’ll reach clients and other people you never would’ve any other way. Don’t cut yourself off from it. Remember when email seemed unnecessary and the Internet seemed like a largely useless thing?


Dear Christy,

“We’re a small generalist design firm in Iowa. We really have a hard time getting decent fees for what we think is excellent work. Any suggestions on how to push fees up? We’re tired of making less money than the painters on our projects, but I’m worried we won’t win any work if our prices increase.” —In a fee pickle.

Dear In-a-pickle,

First of all, I’m a dill-pickle person, and no deli sandwich is complete without a nice cold kosher spear on the side, but I couldn’t tell you what brand is in my fridge!

Be the big cheese: I love cheese and am totally willing to pay 50 percent more for a nice aged sharp cheddar – but how would I know there’s a difference between my favorite Tillamook Special Reserve and a block of Kraft if they had the same wrapper?

You told me what your problem is: You’re generalists, and you’re probably trying to compete with a bunch 
of other average firms offering similar services with promises of finishing the job on time. If you want to command better fees and to be able to export yourself within any reasonable geographic distance from where you are based, you have got to specialize. Specialized firms always get higher fees than those that aren’t. You just cannot be all things to all people. This might have worked 50 years ago but won’t today because people have too many options.


“Dear Christy” is THE ZWEIG LETTER‘s newest column, a place for industry leaders to anonymously submit their most pressing leadership, management, finance, marketing, or human relations questions. Each month, submissions will be answered in print, so that the entire A/E/P and environmental consulting industy can benefit from the shared experiences and information highlights.

Have a question you need answered? Email Christy Zweig at or send your letter to Zweig Group, P.O. Box 1528, Fayetteville, AR 72702. Even if letters are signed or emails contain the writer’s name, all entries will be kept confidential and published anonymously.

Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Get a free trial of The Zweig Letter here:

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Entrepreneurial vs. small firms

photo-1418225162054-0f773a996f9eThink your small firm should stay small? Think again. Here’s why you should strive for growth in your firm.

Without a doubt, there are some entrepreneurial firms in the A/E/P and environmental consulting business today. That said – and I’ve written it before in these pages – just because you are privately-held and a small business does NOT make you an entrepreneurial firm.

Whenever I hear a firm described as a “practice,” it immediately conjures up negative images for me. “Practice” makes
 me think of a business that revolves around one or a few God-like owners who manage
 all aspects of the business, all clients, and all design work. They are lords and everyone else there is a serf. The business exists solely for their benefit and dies when they are gone. It’s somewhat analogous to a medical practice, where there is one doctor and then everyone else is a peon. I don’t like the term. We aren’t in the “practice management” business and the clients we work for want something more than a “practice.”

Yet, there are still some people out there 
who own firms and believe that they can stay small successfully. They look at how much they as individuals earn from their business and it’s more than they ever expected to make, so they are happy with it. Yet they usually would have far more potential if they were an entrepreneurial firm.

Entrepreneurial firms are all about growth. Their owners want to create value in their enterprises – value that can be realized when they either individually or collectively exit from the firm. And this value is not just restricted to an external sale. It could be in an internal sale just as easily.

How do entrepreneurial firms perform better than the rest of the industry? Consider the following statistics (pulled from Zweig Group’s Successful Firm Survey). These are really telling!

  • Fast growth firms (those growing at a rate of 20 percent or more for three years in a row) make an average of 16.2 percent pre-tax, pre-bonus pro t versus 9.9 percent for all firms
  • Fast growth firms have an average revenue of $133,690 per employee versus $126,840 for all firms
  • Fast growth firms make a 39.8 percent return on total assets (pre-tax, pre-bonus) versus 19.7 percent for all firms
  • Fast growth firms have a median total annual principal compensation of $290,000 versus $194,000 for all firms
  • Fast growth firms are worth a median of .59 times NSR versus .47 for slow growth firms

Let’s consider the case of two principals. They each joined A/E firms out of school and at age 40, both became principals in the companies they worked for. Principal “A” became an owner in a $5 million NSR slow-growth company (growing by 5 percent a year) and Principal “B” became an owner in a $5 million high growth entrepreneurial company (growing by 20 percent a year).

Ten years later, by age 50, Principal B’s career and financial position is dramatically different from his counterpart, Principal A, in the slower-growth, not-so-entrepreneurial firm. Both owned 20 percent of their firm’s stock when they bought in.

In year one, Principal A, working in the slow growth firm, earned $194,000
in salary and bonus. His ownership was worth .20 (.47 times $5 million), or $470,000. By year 10, he would be earning $301,000 annually (assuming a 5 percent annual pay increase) and his stock was worth $729,000. Over 10 years, he would earn $2.44 million. His 10-year total would be $3.169 million. Not too bad considering he still has another 15 years to work, assuming he retires at age 65 (and many of us will hopefully work well beyond that).

Principal B, on the other hand, was earning $290,000 in salary and bonus the first year he became a principal in a high-growth firm. His initial ownership was worth .20 (.59 times $5 million), or $590,000. By year 10, assuming a modest 5 percent annual pay increase, he would be earning $450,000 in annual salary and bonus, and his stock would be worth $3.05 million. His total of salary and bonus earned over 10 years would be $3.65 million making his 10-year total $6.69 million. Pretty amazing considering at this point Principal B is only 50 years old and still has another 15 years to work.

Do I still need to convince you of the benefits of building an entrepreneurial firm? Now you know why we will be doing a new seminar this year – Building an Entrepreneurial Firm, in a number of locations around the U.S. in 2016. We’ll start with dinner, drinks, and comedy the night before to get everyone in the right frame of mind. Then we will teach you what we have learned over the last 28 years of working with companies in this business.

2015 was an amazing year for our industry and for Zweig Group. The time has never been better to be more successful as an architect, engineer, planner, or environmental consultant. Happy 2016, All!

MARK ZWEIG is Zweig Group’s founder and CEO. Contact him at

Zweig Group is holding a brand new seminar on Building an Entrepreneurial Firm. More details here:

Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Get a free trial of The Zweig Letter here:

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Award FAQs

All Zweig Group Awards:

Want more specific details about firm sizes, growth rates, demographic data, and other trends? Check out this presentation.

What happens when I apply for an award? When a firm applies for a Zweig Group award, a firm representative must fill out a short form on the appropriate page on the Zweig Group website and pay the registration fee.  After the registration fee is paid, the registrant will be automatically redirected to a form or online survey that will comprise the rest of the award application.  Each award has its own set of specific components (see below), and will be able to regularly converse with a representative from Zweig Group throughout the process.  We promise you will be regularly reminded of deadlines.

What if my firm applies, but doesn’t end up winning an award? This happens to a lot of firms.  We never publish a list of non-winning firms and no one else will know that you didn’t make it.  Firms who apply to Best Firms To Work For still get the awesome bonus perks of applying such as the results of their employee survey & a bench-marking report –that way they can see the areas where they need to improve.  We usually offer significant discounts to the Hot Firm and A/E Industry Awards Conference for applicants who apply to any award but don’t win.

What’s the Trifecta Award? Firms who place well in BFTWF, Hot Firm, and Marketing Excellence Awards will automatically receive a coveted Trifecta Award.  Challenge yourself and give it a try!

Best Firms To Work For bestfirms-2016

Check out the BFTWF application guide here: 

BFTWF: How long does the early bird discount last? Does this change the due-dates of the other application pieces? The early-bird discount is good through February 27th.  The deadlines for the corporate survey and employee surveys are static, the same for all applicants (March 25th, May 12th), and do not change based on when you apply.

How do I choose my BFTWF category?  Firms must enter at least one (but no more than three)  categories in the Best Firms To Work For Awards (Civil Engineering, Structural Engineering, Environmental, Landscape Architecture/Architecture, and Multidiscipline). At least 40% of 2015 fiscal year gross revenue must have been derived from your selected discipline category on a full-time basis.  If you have any questions about your category selection, just email us.

What are the benefits of applying to Best Firms To Work For?  Where to begin?! As a part of the registration fee, regardless of if your firm is a winner or not, they will get a report containing your firm’s responses to the employee survey (numerical ranking questions only) as well as a report from all employees in all other firms in your category to use as a benchmarking tool.  For just $250 more, you can get your employees responses on the “open response” style questions. If you’d like to use the BFTWF as your own custom employee survey, you have the option of adding on your own questions to the end of the graded portion as well. The employee survey results can be used by management to evaluate where your firm is succeeding and where you need to improve.  You can use your survey results as a promotional tool and to aid in recruiting. For firms who place on the list, this rank and the “Best Firms To Work For” designation is wonderful for recruiting as well as getting new jobs. Zweig Group also puts the names of firms who win on our website, sends out press releases, and will do everything we can to ensure that your firm gets plenty of positive press and attention.

What are the other BFTWF options? Employee surveys are expensive (usually $3,000-$8,000), so we wanted to help our clients find a more affordable way to ask their employees some personalized questions.  Firms are now allowed to add additional questions on to the end of their employee survey: 5 questions or less are $400, up to 10 questions is an additional $750.  While firms will see these results, these questions will not count towards their ranking in the awards program.  If a firm asks open-response style questions (EX What has been your favorite project and why?) they must also purchase the open response report ($250).  A Zweig Group representative will work with you to add the questions you want to your employee survey.

If you’d like to add more than 10 questions, or want a custom report at the end of the survey with more detailed demographic breakdowns and comparisons, just email us.

What happens after I register on 

When a firm applies for this award, the firm representative must fill out a short form on the Zweig Group website, select which categories he/she wants to enter, and pay the registration fee.  If the registrant wants to add custom questions to end of the employee survey, they will be invited to submit these questions at this time.  Registrants are then invited to fill out a “Corporate Survey.” The BFTWF Corporate Survey is a survey about workplace practices, policies, & benefits, and can be filled out by any firm leader, HR manager, or equivalent representative.

Upon completion of this survey, the firm representative is then emailed a custom link for the “Employee Survey” portion of the awards process, which must be completed by May 12.  We recommend firm leaders email this survey link out to all employees inviting them to participate.  For firms with 50 employees or more, a minimum of 40% of the firm’s staff must complete the Employee survey.  For firms with less than 50 employees, a minimum of 60% of the firm’s staff must complete the employee survey.  Someone from Zweig Group will keep you updated on your firm’s participation level to ensure that you meet the requirements by the deadline.

Once these two surveys are completed, they will be graded and combined to determine a final score.  After all firms participating in the awards process have been graded and ranked (late June), every firm will receive their reports.

How are BFTWF Award applicants ranked? Firms are ranked according to their category (Civil Engineering, Structural Engineering, Environmental, Landscape Architecture/Architecture, Multidiscipline & Surveying), based on a combination score comprised of  25% corporate survey and 75% employee surveys.

Hot Firm hotfirm-2016

How long does the early bird discount last? Does this change the due-dates of the other application pieces? The early-bird discount is good through February 27th.  No matter when you pay the registration fee, you have until June 1, 2016 to fill out the very short award application.

What’s on the Hot Firm Award application?  All Zweig Group asks is your demographic information, a few questions about how you grew and achieved success, and your growth (revenue numbers).  Placement on the list is entirely based on revenue growth over the previous three-year period. The other stuff is just so we can look at correlations and find cool and interesting statistics to share with you.

What happens after I register on When a firm applies for this award, the firm representative must fill out a short form on the Zweig Group website and pay the registration fee.  Afterwards, applicants are given a link to the short application questionnaire.  Award applicants who are in contention will be notified after June 1 and asked to provide verification of revenue.

My firm has won a Hot Firm Award before but didn’t place last year, despite having a personal best growth rate, is this award rigged? No. Have you ever run a race and achieved a personal best time, but still not placed well? Hot Firm is just like that.  Some firms who have been on the list for a long time make big moves and decide to grow a lot, and sometimes new firms enter the list.

Marketing Excellence

Is it a lot of work to apply to the Marketing Excellence Awards? No! Just do a smarketingexcellence-2016hort write up, attach it to your campaign pieces, and stick it in the mail.

How should I submit my award application? Most firms use a binder or affix the different components of the marketing campaign into a notebook style document. You’re welcome to use your creativity as long as everything is stuck together.

Can I use the same marketing campaign and enter different categories in the ME Awards? No.  But you’re welcome to submit multiple campaigns in multiple categories.

Why do you need two copies of my marketing campaign pieces?  If your firm places in the top 3 we will bring your award submission to the Hot Firm and A/E Industry Awards Conference where hundreds of people will look at it and vote on their favorite for the “People’s Choice Awards.” We really want to have one copy of your award safely back at the office, just in case something gets lost.

For examples of past winning campaigns, click here:

Refund Policy: Zweig Group is unable to offer refunds after the Application or Corporate Survey link has been sent to you.

Please Note: Awards program participation is limited to business leaders from architecture, engineering, planning, environmental, construction, and allied professional service firms, or by invitation only. Business software or business systems providers, law firms, insurance and financial firms, and other consultants with a powerful message for award participants may participate as exhibitors or sponsors.

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