In a recession, A/E/C firms can be said to fall into one of two categories: there are those that panic, and those that use tough economic times to remind themselves of the fundamentals of their business.

Lauren Hlavenka

It’s easy to guess which category you want your firm to be in. But all too often, firms that believe they are acting intelligently discover too late that the fog of economic doom clouded their business judgment and led to poor decision making. When times are this tough and the most drastic of measures are deemed the bare minimum to survive, how do smart A/E/C firms differentiate bold strategy from reflexive overreacting? And how can their marketing and business development plans adapt to unimagined situations without breaking down entirely?

The difference between surviving and letting the economy get the best of you can be a simple matter of perspective. "While it is difficult to compete and thrive in a tough marketplace, it is not impossible,” says Maxinne Leighton, Assoc. AIA, Director of Marketing and Principal – Business Development at Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP. “Firms that reach out from their core and their strengths in a focused and creatively flexible way, will fare better. Firms that withdraw out of caution may miss out on new possibilities, and end up worse off. Firms that chase after any project that comes along because they need the work, not because they can realistically compete and do the work well, will not fare as well as their competitors.”

When there is less business available in your market, you must bang your drum louder -- and smarter.

Marketing is where the drum beat begins. Essential marketing strategies should be consistent in boom times and in recession. Just as you cannot market your way out of a recession, you cannot decide on the precipice of a recession to throw your marketing plan out the window. What you can do is an conduct an honest review of your previous marketing activities to see which have proven to be the most successful. Look at the changing landscape and see if (because of today’s economic climate) you might want to reconsider market sectors you would not have invested in previously. Analyze what you have done well, and see how those skill sets may actually be a bridge to a new market for your firm, or to a market that is emerging due to the current economic environment.

When competition grows fiercer and efficiency becomes an even greater priority, it is time to take a hard look at which efforts have brought in the most work, and ramp up those efforts, while still maintaining others that may bear fruit in the future. It’s easier to stare down a recession if you’re standing in front of a healthy backlog of jobs. Reevaluate and adapt timelines and expectations to current conditions, but resist the urge to cook up new specialties for new clients. It’s important to stick with what you know and to continue to do it well.

As the credit markets contract to the point where even projects that have broken ground are being put on hold or canceled altogether, it can be tempting to start banging your drum in front of as many potential clients as possible as fast as possible. But the first people and most important people a firm must address are its own staff.

The marketing abilities of technical staff are widely overlooked, even in sunny times. When storm clouds gather, staff of every level must rally around the fundamentals of the business. Efforts should begin with something as basic as client satisfaction and continue into more advanced marketing and business development. What no firm can afford to do in today’s economy is to lose current clients to poor customer service. A renewed commitment to client satisfaction must be an explicit priority. It is also a way to give your staff a chance to be invested through these actions in their own future, rather than feel powerless in these challenging times.

It’s likely that your clients are as anxious about the recession as you are. It’s also likely that they too are looking for ways to work more economically -- and if given a reason, like poor performance, they would drop you for another service firm with lower fees. The most important job your technical staff has today is to not give any of your clients a reason to leave.

Beyond keeping your current clients happy, your technical staff is often an untapped business development tool. Actively engage them in your business development efforts by educating them in the firm’s strategies, goals, history, and capabilities. Encourage them to offer additional services to current clients and seek new commissions through their personal and professional networks of contacts. Support their interests in professional organizations and seek their input when analyzing potential opportunities. Besides contributing to the bottom line, a technical staff with enhanced marketing skills will be an even greater asset when the economy begins to improve.

A recession is not a reason to drastically alter marketing strategies. If anything, it is a time to stand firm and reinforce the fundamentals. After all, it is not your marketing strategy’s fault that there are fewer buildings being built this year than last. Instead, A/E/C firms must work harder and smarter to implement those strategies in order to survive the downturn and thrive in the years beyond.

Lauren Hlavenka, Assoc. AIA Director of Marketing for Handel Architects, and SMPS New York Area Chapter President