I recently attended Build Business 2017, the annual conference of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS). I always gain a ton of great intelligence at these conferences, and the network building is exceptional.

This year, however, I noticed several themes emerging in almost every presentation I attended. Yogi Berra is often quoted for stating, “The future ain’t what it used to be,” and that came through both loudly and clearly at Build Business. The future is as exciting as it is terrifying! Here’s a few takeways:

Disruption is Being Disrupted. The pace of change in the world today is unbelievable. The A/E/C industry is not often recognized as early adopters of new technologies and business approaches, and it seems as if we are collectively looking at yesterday’s disruptions, oblivious to the fact that those disruptions are currently being disrupted again. Change is rapid, and every firm needs someone to focus on everything that is not just happening around them, and their clients, but also coming their way.

The Only Truth in Business is Data. You’ve probably heard this statement before, but do you buy it? You sure should, because the firms that are succeeding – A/E/C and well beyond – are doing so because they are collecting current, meaningful data, and then basing strategic decisions upon that intelligence. We may be in the early stages of the Internet of Things (IoT), but the amount of data that we could be collecting right now is already mind-blowing, and tomorrow’s technology will open so many new opportunities.

The Only Point of Differentiation in Business is the Customer Experience. This one really hit home. We’ve known for years that “quality work, delivered on time and on budget” is not a differentiator, only an expectation that every client, everywhere, has upon the firm they hire. Finding true value propositions that resonate with clients and prospects has become increasingly challenging – one size fits one size – and marketing professionals across the industry continue to try to gain intelligence (data) from project teams in order to establish key value messages. But we still all sort of say the same things, don’t we? So the focus is shifting to the customer experience, because every firm approaches it differently. And make no mistake: the customer experience begins with marketing, and that experience, if done correctly, will lead to an opportunity for business development, perhaps an introductory meeting. And if that is also done correctly, there might be a proposal or presentation that follows. These are all early customer experience touchpoints – before a firm is even a customer! Now think of all the client touchpoints throughout the life of a project – and beyond.

Now take all three of these themes, and put them together. What does that mean for your company?

For starters, it means that you should stop using those 20th century approaches. The largest taxi company in the world owns no cars. Uber is a software company. The largest hotel “chain” in the world owns no property – Airbnb is a technology company. Over the next year or two, autonomous vehicles will become commonplace. In the future, most of us won’t even need to buy cars! What does that mean for our industry? No garages on houses? No parking garages in cities? Conversion of existing parking garages – or, more likely, demolition of older parking garages that can’t be repurposed?

As consumers, we expect a personalized customer experience, and companies are delivering it to us via data. We look at a product on Amazon.com, and decide not to purchase. But then we jump over to Facebook and what do we see? That product staring us in the face, making us rethink our decision. And a day later we visit a random website, and there’s that Amazon advertisement again!

Speaking of Amazon, they are increasingly focusing on the Last Mile. In logistics / supply chain strategy, the Last Mile refers to the end of the supply chain, getting goods into the hands of consumers. Think about the 20th century supply chain strategy, which has been massively disrupted. Products were manufactured – in the US, or overseas. They were packaged, and shipped off to a distribution center. From there they made their way via planes, trains, and automobiles (trucks!) to other regional distribution centers, and eventually made their way into stores. As consumers, we went to the mall (you remember malls, right?) to purchase the product. We traveled the last mile ourselves.

But then companies like Amazon begun disrupting that model, selling us books that were delivered to our homes. How awesome was that? And then they added music and movies! Epic! And today they pretty much offer everything as the largest online retailer in the world. Keep in mind, Amazon only began in 1994. For most of its life, Amazon has utilized the US Postal Service or United Parcel Service for their Last Mile strategy.

Today, however, they are disrupting that approach. As consumers, we’re an inpatient group of people. Sure, Amazon Prime’s 2-day delivery was pretty awesome at first, but now two days seem to take an eternity. Enter Amazon Flex, their new Last Mile strategy. Those mega Amazon distribution centers all over the US are increasingly being supplemented by smaller, often urban, distribution centers. Do you have a valid driver’s license and good driving record? You can now drive for Amazon Flex, perhaps as you also drive for Uber and Lyft! Then you will be part of the Last Mile strategy, picking up my order at a neighborhood Amazon distribution center, and delivering it to my front porch. (At least until your new job is replaced by drones and autonomous vehicles.)

So what will be going into those new urban distribution centers? I’m glad you asked. Amazon (and other online retailers) are now using data for anticipatory shipping. Simply put, they are shipping you the product they expect you to buy, before you even place the order. Data is truth, and in this truth they are able to determine your product preferences, anticipate what you will order, and ship it to a nearby distribution center in preparation for the order. That way you can have it immediately.

The future sure ain’t what it used to be, is it?

It kind of makes this scene from Mel Brooks’ screwball comedy, Spaceballs, seem realistic:

“Instant Cassettes. They’re out in stores before the movie is finished!” (Does anyone still remember video cassettes?)

How does this all apply to the design and construction industry? For starters, technology – and data – will drastically change the real estate landscape in the coming years. If parents increasingly turn to online education for their children, what will happen to brick-and-mortar schools? In a few years there will be a technology that plugs into a smartphone and can perform advanced medical diagnosis, in seconds, in the comfort of our homes. How will this disrupt health care delivery? Of course, if we’re living longer, will this mean more senior living complexes? Or will we be staying in our homes longer? And how about third-world countries? What happens when most of their populations have access to comprehensive education and accurate health diagnosis – from their smartphones? Will third world countries cease to be third world? What new opportunities will be created?

As the world around us becomes more technology-driven and sophisticated, what will that mean for A/E/C? It’s been well-documented that the construction industry productivity gains in the past 40 years have been paltry, and that’s perhaps stating it lightly. So how can we go to IBM’s Watson for legal advice (yup, Watson will put a lot of lawyers out of business), get advanced health screening on our smartphones, obtain a master’s degree on our tablet computer, and then turn around and tolerate 20th century design and construction approaches? How can we allow technology companies to create massively personalized customer experiences, and then deal with a lack of communication and transparency on our construction projects, or dumb models (even worse, 2-D printed drawings!) with meaningless data?

We can’t. Our clients won’t. We need to embrace technology, get comfy with data, and revolutionize the client experience.

Check out Siding Pro in Colorado Springs. What can A/E/C firms learn from a small residential siding installer? A heck of a lot. This company was featured in one of the Build Business presentations. Click here to view their services from a client's perspective.

Simple, low-tech, and absolutely brilliant! This company provides their customers with daily updates about their project. They may be off at work, wondering what is going on, and then they get a short video explaining what’s happening now, and what will occur next. Wow, what a customer experience!

This is but a very small, basic thing, that creates competitive advantage, and probably a ton of referral work. No, Siding Pro is not using tomorrow’s technology, they are simply using a tool that has been around for many years. And they are using it better than most firms, who use the exact same technology to brag about themselves.

The moral of the story is that it really doesn’t matter how large – or small – you are, or what markets you serve. All this disruption should be a call to action and force you to think strategically right now. Or your company might not exist a few years down the road. Heck, there’s already a forecast that 65% of students in elementary school will work in fields or jobs that don’t even exist today! Crazy.

If data is the only truth in business, are you collecting the right data? Are you capturing every client and prospect touchpoint in your CRM? Are you including their feedback – likes, dislikes, preferences, challenges, etc.? Or do you still struggle with populating emails for current clients or updating your mailing list for holiday cards? (If so, you are stuck in the wrong century.)

Of course, CRM is but the tip of the iceberg for data. There are so many opportunities to collect data throughout the duration of a design and construction project – and so much data that could be incorporated into the operations and maintenance of a building or structure long after project completion. But you need to be thinking about that data – as well as the required technology – now, in order to make it meaningful in the future. Your client’s experience with your firm will still be ongoing 20 years from now (or however long they occupy the building / structure / infrastructure you design or build), based upon the decision you make today. Will that experience be positive?

Maybe our industry needs to evolve from being architects, engineers, and contractors to becoming technology firms. I recently read a prediction that the car companies, as we know them today, will cease to exist in the future, because they are stuck on making evolutionary advancements. Conversely, technology companies like Apple and Uber are creating revolutionary advances in automobile technology, making the traditional car companies irrelevant. Time will tell.

Hopefully this makes you think. The marketing staff at your company is already thinking about these things. So when you schedule that next strategic planning conversation, make sure you reserve a chair or two for your marketing team! Someone in your firm needs to be paying attention to these things, and no one is better positioned to do this than your marketing and business development staff.

And if you are disappointed that SMPS Build Business has come and gone, and you missed out on gaining critical intelligence, worry not. The organization has launched a new, high-level conference for firm leaders and marketing executives, The Pinnacle Experience, which will be held this October in St. Louis. Attendance is limited, and the content will be as timely as it is important: how to understand the future and position your firm strategically; the latest in technology and where it’s headed; major trends impacting the A/E/C industry, and more. Learn more here: https://www.smps.org/ThePinnacleExperience/ .

The future may not be what it used to be, and that’s a great thing. As long as you are ready for it!