Canadian Consulting Engineer

Websites That Work

If you build a baseball diamond near a cornfield in the middle of nowhere, famous major leaguers just might show up for a game. At least that happened in the movie world of Field of Dreams. But if you...

January 1, 2005  By Paul H. Boge

If you build a baseball diamond near a cornfield in the middle of nowhere, famous major leaguers just might show up for a game. At least that happened in the movie world of Field of Dreams. But if you build a website, will clients come? And as an engineering firm, what can you expect to get out of it?

Most consulting engineering firms in Canada have now developed a website as a means to connect with existing and potential clients. It is becoming a critical part of how they do business.

“When someone wants to find out about a company, often their first action is to search for it on the web,” says Jay Averill of Stantec in Edmonton. Peter McKelvey, P. Eng. and Shari Seeley of Fundy Engineering in New Brunswick built a website because it is “an easy way to convey lots of information to your clients. People can access a web page and they see the engineering depth. It adds credibility.”

First impressions

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Visitors to a site are interested in discovering what a company offers, so most firms have a specific, short description of what they do in an easy-to-read space on the home page. The statement defines their services or products to give visitors a clear impression of the company. AMEC’s home page says they are “an international project management and services company. We design, deliver and support infrastructure, from local technical services to international landmark projects.” Saskatchewan’s Loken Engineering Services describe themselves as “Machine design and manufacturing specialists.”

There can be a temptation to avoid making a summary statement for fear that it may exclude potential clients and drive them elsewhere. But a statement that is both narrow enough to define a market and yet broad enough to draw from a pool of potential clients has a distinct advantage. A compact description conveys to visitors that a company has a direction and attracts clients who are a good match for your services.

Some firms have also developed simple yet powerful slogans to characterize themselves. The slogan is an easy way for visitors to identify with the company. Atlantic Canada’s CBCL aims at “Solving today’s problems with tomorrow in mind.” Japan’s JCG Corporation is “Engineering for the quality of human life.” Stantec builds an identity with: “One team. Infinite Solutions.”

Averill of Stantec explains. “Our slogan is part of our company brand identity…. A strong brand is essential to the continuous building and maintenance of a powerful client base, and the connection that a client makes with our brand influences both perception and purchasing behaviour substantially.”

Steering through the clutter

Websites for engineering firms differ widely, from the boring and mundane, crammed full of large print and brutal pictures, to easy-to-follow sites prepared by website programmers. The latter offer small, concise packets of information that avoid cluttering the page and have clickable links if people want to read more about a particular subject. The former type of site is deluged with archaic graphics, while the latter type often uses a familiar background for each page and easy navigating tools to get from one area to another.

In building a site it may appear that assembling all the necessary information is the biggest challenge. But those responsible for creating their company sites are quick to add that presenting that information in a visually appealing way is equally, if not more, important. That’s why they recommend the company gather the information in-house and give it to a web designer to assemble.

The most common clickable tabs on engineering websites in Canada are:

* About Us

* Our Services

* Projects (either current or completed)

* Contact Us

* Employment

The bonus of flash and other opening dynamic graphic effects is that people will be impressed, entertained and educated with an intriguing blend of pictures and words. But as people revisit, flash can become a time-consuming hurdle so many sites have a “skip intro” button.

Wardrop of Winnipeg use an effective opening that combines their company name with a rotating pyramid and a company description. The image dissolves into pictures of their different services, including engineering, environmental, management and information technology.

Bouthillette Parizeau & associs in Montreal use three panels to showcase their company profile, their services and some of their completed projects. The panels are set up against a unique backdrop of rotating pictures and information about specific aspects of the firm.

Engineering consultants are similar to other professional firms in that we hope to establish client relationships rather than simply entice people to order a commodity. The layout and navigation of engineering and legal firms’ websites therefore tends to be similar. Architectural firms, by the very nature of their business, tend to have more sketches, drawings and artistic items on their sites. Whatever graphic techniques are used, the content of consulting engineering websites always emphasizes their services and how they can meet clients’ needs.

Engineering companies listed on stock exchanges will typically display recent stock quotes as well as a list of recent news releases. Some also make financial and investment information available on line.

Many firms make it possible for clients or employees working in the field to access company files on the FTP server. FTP (File Transfer Protocol) exchanges files over the internet much the way HTTP transfers web pages. One advantage is that you can obtain documents directly without having to rely on e-mail attachments.

Words of caution

A potential negative consequence of having a web site is that it enables others to learn who you are and what you’re doing. Unless a company sets up a Login and Password account for a client to access specific parts of the website, there is no way to prevent headhunters or competing firms from learning more about your company than you would like. One interviewee tracked hits (unique and return visits) to their company’s site. They found that many of the visits had come from other engineering firms, which led them to believe competing firms were checking them out.

This openness begs the question: How important is it to have client lists, employee profiles and project portfolios on your site?

When comparing Canadian engineering sites to engineering sites of other countries, the biggest difference is the multi-language feature. Most Canadian sites feature just English or just French, with a few being bilingual. Most, if not all, of the major international engineering company websites in South America, Europe and Asia feature as a minimum their native language plus English. German process engineering and project management company IB Vogt allows visitors to browse their site in German, Spanish and English. South America’s Techint makes their website available in Spanish, Portuguese and English.

The caution with all websites is to ensure that they do not replace the traditional methods of pursuing clients. Brett Zufelt of CTM Design in Calgary explains: “The World Wide Web is a big place and having a website does not in and of itself drive the business much. It [marketing] takes a lot of coordinated efforts. A website can only be a small part of the marketing plan — it can’t be the marketing plan. [You] can’t have the rest of the toolbox empty.”

Like any other engineering venture, websites need to have a benefit. And that benefit may not always be in terms of marketing and gaining new clients. It may also be an excellent way of boosting employee connections through a common site that friends and family can access. Fundy uses their website for presenting their services and personnel, but also, Seeley says: “We want to communicate our community involvement and corporate citizenship. O
ur community is important to us and we want our clients to see that represented on our site.”

Building and maintaining an effective website may not get clients to step out of the cornfields for you, but it will go a long way to bolstering your marketing and communications effort and giving clients a reason for contacting you.

Paul H. Boge, P.Eng. is a professional engineer and author. He works for Boge & Boge in Winnipeg.

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