Canadian Consulting Engineer

Standing Out

July 12, 2017
By Carl Friesen

How to make your small to mid-size firm the "safe choice."

Consider a competitive-bid situation. The client has narrowed the field down to two proposals, which are now sitting on her desk. One is from a large, well-known firm her company has used many times before. The other is from a mid-size firm she hasn’t worked with before, but she’s heard good things about it.

What would cause the client to take a professional risk and give the nod to the mid-size firm? Even a significant price disparity won’t make up the difference, if she is concerned about the career-limiting consequences of making the wrong choice.

To see how the smaller firm can level the field, consider a saying common in the past century: “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”

Big Blue’s mainframe computers might have been pricey, and its legendary blue-suited sales reps sometimes had a bit of an attitude, but IBM was seen as the safe choice in the mysterious new world of computers—a choice that any mid-level manager could defend.

It’s the same with some large engineering firms today—the competitive playing field sometimes seems slanted in their favour. They’re the “name brand” on the top of a proposal, just like IBM’s logo was found on many winning bids. Many clients see them as the safe choice, just as IBM used to be.

But there is a way for small to mid-size firms to develop that same “safe choice” aura that IBM built. Do this though a two-punch process I call, “inform and persuade.”


Building awareness

To see how the “inform” part of this works, consider the buying process from the client’s viewpoint. They may try hard to be aware of all the firms that may be able to work on their type of project, but if they don’t commission engineering projects on a frequent basis, they may not have an extensive network of firms. And, your firm might have added service lines, such as soil mechanics or noise and vibration, and is now capable of doing a wider range of projects.

This means that your firm must reach out, informing potential clients of its current capabilities, and you must go further by demonstrating to the prospective client that the firm has members who are recognized authorities in their field.

If “inform” is an intellectual exercise, “persuade” is all about emotion. You want to convince the prospective client that their project is safe with your firm, and that you’ll make them look good.

Another part of persuading is giving the prospect the backup they need to convince their colleagues and superiors that choosing your firm, versus a larger name brand, is defensible.

Put simply, you’re looking for a way to make prospective clients aware of your firm and what it offers, and then to persuade them your firm is a safe choice, one that will help make them look good.


Solving problems, accessing opportunities

One of the best ways to show your firm has what it takes is to, well, show it.

You can do this best by creating information and making it available through articles published in their business and professional media, speeches at their professional gatherings, your own blog or newsletter, and newer technologies like LinkedIn posts and videos.

But don’t make the classic mistake of choosing topics based on “what I want to tell you.” Rather, your focus should be on creating content around “what you need to know.”

Do this by demonstrating your firm’s abilities to help your prospective client solve problems that are pressing on them right now, or helping them access opportunities they need to seize on right now.

You’re best to start with the “problem” side of that, because people are more likely to take action to avoid a problem they fear, rather than an opportunity. So, think of the problems that are pressing for the people you want to serve. Particularly, think of new developments, because people are naturally inclined to pay attention to what’s new.

This involves a three-step process:

1 Learn about their world:  Think of new regulations they may be facing, such as environmental, health and safety, public security, or financial standards. You may need to burrow into the world of the people your firm wants to serve. To do this, read their trade media, magazines, association websites, and blogs. Attend their industry conferences, or at least, look at the conference programs online to see the topics listed for their plenary sessions and workshops.

Get to understand their competitive landscape. Many industries are being disrupted by automation and the “gig economy” (think Uber and Fiverr).As well as problems, think of the opportunities that your ideal clients are facing—ways they can expand into new markets, how new materials technologies can help them build structures they only imagined before, or the new worlds opened up by 3D modeling.

2 Understand how your solution meets their issues:  Next, get a clear idea of how your firm’s service offerings meet the pressing problems and opportunities facing your ideal clients. To do this, you need to switch your thinking from “service lines we offer” to “client issues that we help solve.”

3 Create content that shows your firm’s abilities:  Your final step is to show your abilities by creating genuinely useful information, like the aforementioned blog posts, articles, speeches and videos.For example, a few years ago I worked with a noise engineer who told me that his province’s home-warranty program had recently expanded the factors it was covering for high-rise condominium developments. The warranty would now cover noise issues. If the buyers of the unit found that noise from neighbors’ appliances, noise from HVAC systems, the elevator, and other sources exceeded regulated levels, they had a claim under their warranty.

So I helped the engineer create an article for a condo builders’ publication on how to work with a noise engineer to reduce the potential causes of noise, and to achieve a positive report on the noise inspection.
This article is an example of looking at a firm’s service offering—noise engineering—as a solution to a new problem faced by the client, which was the new provision in the home warranty program.


Become a known and trusted source

Creating useful content that showcases your firm’s areas of expertise is a way to build awareness, so that our hypothetical decision-maker at the start of this article will at least consider a smaller firm’s bid carefully.

Thought leadership marketing is also a way to build credibility for your firm. Be seen as an authoritative expert in your chosen areas of practice. This increases your “safety factor” in the eyes of your client, so that your firm becomes the defensible choice. cce

Carl Friesen is the founder of Thought Leadership Resources, helping business professionals build their profile as subject-matter experts. Learn more at


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