Canadian Consulting Engineer

Sales Pitch

August 1, 2003
By Dan MacDougall, MBA, P.Eng.

Arecent article by Terence Belford in the Globe and Mail revealed how the legal profession is embracing modern marketing concepts despite the inherent discomfort and apprehension lawyers have had for ...

Arecent article by Terence Belford in the Globe and Mail revealed how the legal profession is embracing modern marketing concepts despite the inherent discomfort and apprehension lawyers have had for salesmanship. According to the article, the new drive to a “marketing culture” in legal firms is propelled by competition — the number of lawyers practising in Canada quadrupled between 1970 and 2000.

Consulting engineers probably suffer more competitive pressures than do lawyers since engineers cannot rely as much on sole-sourced business. We might expect, therefore, that they would be equally sophisticated about pursuing clients. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

A quick internet search gives telling evidence of the gap in the marketing maturity of the two professions. A search for “engineering marketing” produces over 16,000 hits. It sounds like a lot, but look closely at some of the links and you see that few of them represent useful sources of information.

If you search for “legal marketing” over 90,000 hits are produced! Not only is the volume of information immensely larger than for engineers, but the quality of the results is far more valuable. There are numerous organizations and web sites dedicated to marketing legal services, and a vast array of consultants and vendors specializing in legal marketing and related sub-specialties.

This type of market research using search engines is highly simplistic, but painfully insightful. The question is, why have lawyers apparently lapped engineers in marketing punch? Peter Halsall, P.Eng., principal of Halsall Associates, a building science and structural engineering consulting firm based in Toronto, agrees there is probably a marketing gap. “Lawyers enjoy far higher fee margins than engineers, and can afford to spend the money on marketing.”

Gillian Ward, vice president of business development with UMA Group, a major national engineering firm headquartered in Vancouver, agrees that lawyers can better afford to market aggressively. However, she adds: “Marketing is an investment. You must make the investment with the expectation that you will win more business or earn superior fees. If you achieve this goal, the issue of margin comparison is moot, since the marketing should more than pay for itself.”

Margaret McCaffery of Canterbury Communications in Toronto suggests: “Engineers still focus too much on marketing their technical capabilities, forgetting that clients also want good communications and other ‘soft’ skills critical to a successful relationship.” McCaffery, a former editor, has worked in the health, legal, accounting as well as engineering fields. She adds: “Accountants have done some excellent research that revealed what their clients want in an accountant. Technical competence is expected, but clients want an accountant who is easy to deal with, won’t confound them with jargon and maintains the relationship beyond tax time.” McCaffery concludes, “Engineers too often promote their technical accomplishments at the expense of building and maintaining relationships. They distrust the ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” approach and believe that their work will speak for itself. Lawyers have long recognized that building a successful practice is a matter of what you know AND who you know.”

Ward suggests that it is more insightful to compare the marketing practices of our engineering peers in the United States. “In the U.S., most engineering firms of any significance have staff dedicated to business development and marketing. Many have senior executives whose sole responsibility is leading the marketing effort. In Canada, roles like mine are the exception rather than the rule.”

Halsall tried using staff dedicated to front line sales but wasn’t satisfied with the results: “Clients didn’t connect with the business developers because they weren’t actually a member of the project delivery team.” He believes that it is better in the long run to develop engineers from within who are capable communicators and show an aptitude for managing client relationships.

Ward agrees that putting “pure” business development staff in front of clients can be problematic. In her role, she leaves the client management to the partners and managers who maintain the relationships. She acts as a mentor and corporate leader, helping them to nurture the relationship, uncover new opportunities and develop the tools they need to bring in the business.

Industry surveys from Massachusetts-based PSMJ Resources show that 60% of American firms have at least one dedicated marketer — a person focused on selling directly to clients. However, these firms do not boast a higher hit rate than firms without marketers. Michael D’Alessandro, principal consultant with PSMJ, warns “This is an average across all sectors and can be a bit misleading. Public sector markets are very political and firms without marketers to influence the back channels are at a significant disadvantage.” But the data does confirm there are no cut and dry solutions for who should do the selling.

D’Alessandro says about the perceived marketing gap between the two countries: “I’ve worked extensively with Canadian and American design firms and I don’t think that Canadian firms suffer much of a marketing disadvantage to their American counterparts.” He adds, “Engineers in both countries are still pretty inept at professional marketing. They continue to focus on the technical capabilities — the ‘doing.'” D’Alessandro believes that engineers are able to make the evolution from ‘doing’ to ‘managing’, but the final development to ‘selling’ still proves difficult.

So why does the perception persist that Americans are better marketers? D’Alessandro suggests that it may be a cultural difference: “We use personality profiling techniques in many of our management seminars as a tool to understand group dynamics, and there is a consistent gap in assertiveness scores between engineers in the two countries.” He adds, “Assertiveness is not the sole determinant of marketing effectiveness, but it sure does help.”

McCaffery echoes the sentiment about American assertiveness. “Canadians are somewhat less assertive than Americans, but our engineers are further hampered by their diminished stature compared to other professionals. In Canada, engineers do not have the prominence and respect they get in many other countries.”

Should Canadian consulting engineers be concerned about their marketing sophistication? Ward thinks so: “When American firms come to Canada, they bring with them their marketing muscle. To compete effectively — not on price — you have to be a good marketer.” The flip side of the coin is also true — to win business in the U.S., your marketing must also measure up. Canadian engineers have been very successful exporting their business to other countries outside the U.S., but it is unlikely to be due to their marketing. According to McCaffery: “Canadians are often more successful internationally because they are not American or British. There is still a strong resentment in some countries to suspected American, and historic British, imperialism. Canadians don’t represent that threat, are easy to get along with and are genuinely good engineers.”

If Canadian consulting engineers want to improve their marketing abilities, how do they go about it? First and foremost, they have to accept that style is every bit as important as substance. This is not as easy as it sounds. In many firms it represents a fundamental cultural change that may take years.

Canadian firms may not possess the assertiveness that their American peers demonstrate, but they can compensate by being better at marketing fundamentals. Professional services marketing is a rapidly maturing field and there are many resources available.

The Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) is a 30-year old U.S.-based organization that is dedicated to architecture, engineering and construction disciplines. They have over 5,000 members and offer a certification program. Canadian firms have ignored this valuable resource. There are
only 13 Canadian members, no Canadian chapters and no Canadians have pursued certification!

There are, however, a couple of affiliated Canadian organizations. In Vancouver, the Canadian Society for Marketing Professional Services is a multi-discipline organization that has solid representation among engineers and architects. The Professional Services Marketing Association of Canada is a similar organization based in Toronto. It too is a multi-discipline organization, but tends to cater more to the legal profession. Maybe that’s the best place to learn.

The immediate benefactors of improved marketing are the firms who take the initiative and improve their business prospects. However, the industry as a whole benefits if marketing raises the profile of engineers. Engineering associations across the country have been struggling with the issue of how to improve the public perception of the profession.

Consulting engineering firms would find it useful to have statistical information on promotional activities of other firms across the country to benchmark their own marketing and its effectiveness. The Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada, for example, could include a business marketing section in its annual survey of members. Because the response rate would be better than surveys conducted by private firms, it would offer a more accurate picture of the state of marketing in Canada’s consulting community. More importantly, it would put the information in the hands of the smaller firms who can’t afford to buy research from the Americans.

Dan MacDougall MBA, P.Eng. is president of Naveris Enterprises, a marketing firm, in Toronto, e-mail:


Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories