Customer Relationship Management, or CRM, has yet to really enjoy its time in the spotlight within the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industries.

And yet the future of marketing relies heavily on robust CRM systems and processes. According to research undertaken by the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS), AEC marketers are increasingly embracing business-to-consumer (B2C) approaches to target clients and prospects. Much of B2C marketing is based on data, data, and even more data.

Like how knows what you’re going to purchase before you do. Amazon is pioneering anticipatory shipping, whereby they predict your future order – based upon your purchase history – and then ship it to the closest distribution center to you. Before. You. Order. It. And this has been on their radar since they obtained a patent for anticipatory shipping in 2014.

As crazy as that sounds, you are probably already well-aware of how much Amazon knows about you right now. When you browse a product and don’t make a purchase, what happens? An Amazon advertisement for that exact product pops up on an unrelated website or social media site. Then you receive a helpful email from Amazon stating “Scott, you might be interested in…” and it is the exact product.

Amazon has very helpful recommendations for you … “Frequently bought together…” as well as “Products related to this item…."

Do you have that kind of data on your clients?

But why would you want to gather so much data? Why should our firms care about collecting data on our clients and prospects?

The SMPS research revealed that AEC marketers are focusing more on Client Experience, which requires a healthy knowledge about your clients, their companies or institutions, and the industries they are in,

Account-Based Marketing & Personalized Marketing

Roughly 40% of AEC firms believe they will be incorporating Account Based Marketing (ABM) in the next year or two, with an equal amount anticipating that Personalized Marketing is somewhat or highly likely to become part of their overall strategy.

With Account-Based Marketing, firms are highly focused on high-value clients, and they approach each client as if it were a market unto itself. It requires a deep understanding of the client’s organization, including all the key people involved with a project’s lifecycle – from the front-end decision makers to the end-users. These individuals have different needs, drivers, and hot-buttons, so marketing messaging should be tailored to each person. It is not “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to marketing.

Likewise, Personalized Marketing, or one-to-one marketing, requires a thorough understanding of the individual, and creating hyper-focused messaging. So, ABM is really Personalized Marketing spread throughout different levels of an organization. Nobody has mastered Personalized Marketing better than Amazon, which is why they reached a $1 trillion market cap in early 2020.

The future of AEC marketing relies on a blend of traditional and new marketing approaches, driven by the trifecta of Client Experience, Networking, and Thought Leadership. According to the SMPS research, these will be the most important approaches to marketing and business development for AEC firms in the coming years.

All three of these tactics require data. Lots of data!

Yet, we’re terrible at gathering important information on existing clients. We update our mailing lists annually – usually around the holidays, which is when the marketing department typically is informed for the first time – that these people left a company years ago, and these titles are wrong. Or emails. Or phone numbers. Or addresses. Or the person’s roles changed. And hey, why is this person on the list? They left three years ago.

This mad scramble is absurd and unnecessary. We need to gather data on an almost daily basis. And the place for this to reside is within a CRM system.

The Importance of CRM

The good news is that most design and construction firms have a CRM system. Deltek’s CRM system is the most popular in the AEC industries, and customized to professional services. Cosential is another AEC-focused product, but there are many other industry-agnostic solutions like Microsoft Dynamics, Salesforce, Insightly, Hubspot, and others.

The bad news, however, is that most AEC firms are not effectively employing their CRM systems. And instead of getting better, it may be getting worst.

Susan PatrickAccording to Susan Patrick, Director of Client Solutions with Stambaugh Ness, there has been a declining interest in CRM as of late, replaced by a growing interest in project and resource management. Both areas are equally important and firms should not substitute one for the other.  Susan leads the firm’s Deltek Vision / Vantagepoint advisory, so she sees this on the front lines every day. “Too many firms fall into the trap of relying on repeat clients to drive their business, totally losing site of the value of nurturing relationships.”

“This creates a major challenge,” according to Heather Zecher, the Managing Director of Marketing for Stambaugh Ness, “because client loyalty isn’t what it used to be.”

When you rely on most of your business to come from a pool of clients that is drying up or being courted by your competitors, the future of your company looks bleak.

Barriers to CRM Success

The top barrier to successful use of CRM, according to the SMPS research, is the lack of data entry from firm principals and seller-doers. These are the client-facing staff who should be on the front lines of data collection. They have the names, titles, and contact information for all the key people in the organization – far beyond what marketing may have collected in the early stages of a pursuit. They know when people come and when people go. They are having important conversations with their clients and keeping the insight to themselves – yet this is the exact insight required for Client Experience, Thought Leadership Marketing, ABM, and Personalized Marketing.

In firms where I’ve worked or clients that I’ve worked with, I see this almost 100% of the time.

Susan Patrick believes it is important to “crack the whip” when it comes to data collection. “I want more than just their role and contact information. We need to collect personal information, too. If I learn of something that the client is passionate about, I write that in a notes field so I remember it next time I speak with them.”

As a marketing professional, Heather Zecher relies heavily on her company’s CRM database. Email marketing is an important component of the Stambaugh Ness outreach program, but the firm believes it is critical to segment the data. “With email marketing we want to target the right audience with the right message,” she says, “and with the appropriate CRM system a firm has the ability to collect all the intelligence they need in a centralized location.”

Susan, who has worked with hundreds of AEC firms, advises her clients to track more than just marketing touchpoints, like when a client opens an email or clicks a link: “We should be tracking most all interactions, and making a record of it that we can weave into future conversations. This allows us to reinforce positive behaviors, like when they attend a webinar or meeting, and we have that tracked. It makes for easier conversations and give us an excuse to reach out and contact them. It also gives us a better understanding of what resonates with that person, what’s on their radar, what’s important to them so we can provide them with more of what they need.”

She recommends differentiating between the different types of touchpoints – meetings, calls, emails sent, emails received, etc. “We want to be able to track engagement and better understand our clients, including how they prefer to be contacted. We must really know our clients!”

A critical part of knowing your clients is understanding their challenges, their drivers, what keeps them awake at night, and what gets them out of bed in the morning. It is also important to understand the trends in their industry. This type of knowledge forms the foundation for Client Experience, Thought Leadership, ABM, and Personalized Marketing.

Beyond principals and seller-doers not entering data, the SMPS research also identified business development and marketing staff not entering data as one of the primary barriers to successful CRM implementation, so there’s a lot of blame to spread around.

Unfortunately, it means that without access to quality data, AEC marketers are being handcuffed in what they are able to do and how effective it will really be. It’s like marching into battle without enough weapons.

Perhaps this is why the second major barrier identified by AEC firms is upper management not requiring CRM use. If it is not being required from the top, what is the motivation to spend time inputting data?

Heather ZecherHeather Zecher believes that CRM adoption must be cultural: “From the initial onboarding of a new employee – whether they are entry-level or owner-level – the importance and value of CRM must be communicated. At the end of the day, your data should be treated as opportunities and when data goes unentered, those opportunities are missed....”

At Stambaugh Ness, one of the ways Heather uses the data relates to conferences. “Before staff attend a conference, we do a pre-mortem. Who is attending? Who do we want to connect with? What is important to this audience?” she says. “And then afterwards, we do a post-mortem to document who we met with and what we learned. This is critical information, not just for our CRM but also for our marketing program.”

Susan adds, “When you have multiple people involved with business development, the data becomes even more critical so everyone is on the same page; the right hand needs to know what the left hand is doing.”

Lack of data entry and lack of upper management driving CRM use are the primary reasons for CRM ineffectiveness, but they are not the only ones. The SMPS research found that a difficult learning curve as well as the lack of an integration with accounting/project databases were prevalent in about 25% of firms.

And slightly more than 21% of survey participants noted that a higher level of automation was necessary for them to successfully implement CRM.

Only 15% of survey participants identified a lack of seat licenses as a barrier. Just a few years ago, it seemed like this was more of an issue with AEC firms.

The Future of AEC Marketing Relies on CRM

So AEC friends, where do we go from here? Marketing is evolving, increasingly relying on data to be collected and centralized in CRM databases. And yet CRM is not being prioritized by too many firms, creating a major barrier to marketing success.

Consider this a call to action. If AEC firms are really going to embrace 21st century sales and marketing tactics, we’re at Condition Critical when it comes to Customer Relationship Management. It’s one thing to have the technology and software. But until firm leadership makes data collection a priority – cultural from top to bottom of the organization – their firms will increasingly fall behind the competitors who have seen the value of robust CRM and are gaining a competitive edge with each passing day.

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