Marketing for the Small Firm

I often hear other independent and small-company surveyors say they’re planning on spending the day “marketing.” Then they explain they’re going to drop off business cards at realtors’ offices and sample drawings at title companies. This is not marketing, though; this is advertising. By confusing the two, they put themselves at a disadvantage that can be hard to recover from. Advertising is generally defined as non-personal communication that brings a product or a service to the attention of potential customers. Marketing, on the other hand, is a systematic plan to define what product or service you provide and to develop a series of activities to bring you into contact with potential purchasers.

At first glance it’s easy to see how surveyors who haven’t been trained in business can confuse the two. However, unless you step back and develop a plan for marking your surveying services first, all your other activities can end up being, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, counterproductive.

There are several important differences between approaches for marketing professional services and marketing products; because you’re doing the former it is imperative that every part of your marketing plan reinforce the terms “professional” and “service.” The main factors driving your potential clients’ decisions are going to be expertise and customer service. The sooner you set your focus solely on their needs, the sooner you’ll have their business.

Establishing Your Market

If you’re in a rural area where only one or two surveyors serve a county, it’s easy to define your market niche as “whatever comes in the door.” For the rest of us, it’s a recipe for disaster. Narrowing your specialization (and thus rejecting work) may at first seem counterintuitive, especially if you’re just starting out, but the narrower your specialization, the better your chance of success. Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza, once summarized the key to his company’s success as, “a fanatical focus on doing one thing well.” Remember that clients are looking for expertise, so the narrower your focus, the easier it is to position yourself as an expert.
 
Taking the following steps (or a similar process) will give you a better idea of how to position yourself before you even think about reaching out to potential clients.

Define Your Ideal Project. We all have areas of land surveying that we prefer over others. Whether it’s construction stakeout, residential settlement surveys, large boundaries, or, like me for example, land development surveying, some area of the profession just fits with your personality and experience.

Once you isolate your niche, focus on it. If you spend your energy on the type of work that you enjoy, you’re going to do a better job and you’re going to do it quicker. Better and faster are the best ways to differentiate your services from your competition, and they allow you to charge a premium for your work.

Define Your Ideal Client. Once you’ve established the type of work you most enjoy doing (and therefore tend to do best), you need to decide whom you want to work for. You don’t need every client and you certainly don’t want every client. Don’t be afraid to eliminate 90 percent of potential clients. And don’t worry about being too specific. The more specifically you define your market, the more likely people will recognize themselves as your potential clients.

Understand Your Clients’ Needs. Listen. Don’t try to sell something the client doesn’t need. Find out what results they are looking for and aim to deliver them. I’m not advocating that you do what the client wants regardless of what you believe should be done. You are the expert and you need to establish that fact up front. The secret is that many clients want you to step up and take a leadership role. They usually have many more issues to deal with than just a survey; to them it’s just one more thing they have to worry about.

Pinpoint Their Pain. Find out what worries them about hiring a surveyor and address those issues first. Concentrate on what benefits they’ll receive from working with you. And don’t be afraid to look at what you may consider to be little things.

For example, I know a mid-sized engineering, planning, and surveying firm that was looking to outsource some of their field work. They were going to keep their in-house field crews for construction work and their in-house surveyors for platting and easement work, but they wanted an outside consultant to prepare boundary and topographic base sheets for design work. At first they had a consultant firm work on two or three projects and were happy with the results, except the consultant would never deliver the product in the client’s CAD layer system. So, eventually they went back to doing the work themselves. Someone walked away from work worth $75,000 a year because they didn’t think the client’s concern was that important. I still shake my head thinking about that.

Differentiate. All the above adds up to what makes you different from every other consultant out there. You’re an expert in your specific market niche. You understand the clients’ needs and are willing to share in their responsibility for the project. And best of all, you give them what they want (preferably before they need it).

Now there are clients out there just waiting for you to show up and save the day, but where do you find them?

Reaching Your Market

You’re thinking, now we advertise. Maybe. It depends on how you’ve defined your market and what you feel is the best way to generate leads in this market. If you are new to running a business, think about the best clients from your past firms: clients who don’t shop around but give the work to someone they know will do an excellent job at a fair price. When they come by the office they stay and chat for a while. When they’re raising money for their favorite charity they can count on you. When they have extra tickets for the game they offer them to you first. And you do the same for them—they’re not just clients—you have a relationship with them. They’re friends, and you can’t advertise for friends.

A lot has been written about networking, and at times it can seem like just a bunch of jargon overkill. People cringe at the old-school image of a bunch of guys in suits at meet-and-greet events where everyone is an insincere schmoozer. These types of events end up being uncomfortable for everyone involved, and all those business cards you passed out just end up in a drawer somewhere. It’s up to you to break that mold. The way to do that is to focus not on developing your business but on helping others develop theirs.

Let’s say you’re introduced to a developer at a local home builder’s association meeting. He’s expecting you to pitch your firm and he’s heard the same pitch dozens of times. So don’t. Ask him about his business and his problems instead, and try and help him solve them.

He may not want a new surveyor right now, but he may have problems with his excavating contractor. Next week when you meet the owner of a new excavating firm that’s short on work and can turn projects around quicker because some of his crews are free, put the two of them together. You now have a better chance of getting both their work in the future than you did if you just concentrated on selling your service now.

When you do meet potential clients, although you don’t want to make a hard sell you still have to define yourself. This is where you need an “elevator speech,” a brief statement of what you do specifically and how you set yourself apart. When asked what I do for a living, I don’t say I’m a professional land surveyor or that I own a land surveying firm. I tell people, “I own a small surveying firm that specializes in putting together teams of design professionals (usually small firms oriented to personal service) that fit the unique needs of individual development projects.” In a few seconds I’ve established my market position and made sure I’m not going to waste my time chasing work that I don’t care to do.

It’s been said that, in reality, marketing is everything you and your firm do or say. It’s how your field crew present themselves; it’s what your plans look like. Marketing isn’t a plan. It isn’t a department in your firm or a line item in next year’s budget. It is every point of contact with existing or potential clients. When you’re selling a service, you’re selling a relationship. If you can focus on the relationship then the selling part just happens.

Resources

As you would expect, there isn’t a lot of material out there about marketing land surveying services specifically; however, there are many resources available that are applicable to your situation. Any reference for marketing and business development aimed at other professional services can be adapted to our business.

Look for resources aimed at attorneys, architects, accountants, etc.; all of these have information you can use. Some of the resources I’ve found most helpful are:

Books
  • Harry Beckwith, Selling the Invisible (Warner Books, 1997)
  • Ford Harding, Rain Making (Adams Business, 2008)
  • Michael Port, Book Yourself Solid (John Wiley & Sons, 2006)
  • Scott Gladden, Marketing and Selling A/E and other Engineering Services (American Society of Civil Engineers, 1996)
Websites

About the Author

  • James Fleming, LS
    James Fleming, LS
    James Fleming, LS, owns Antietam Land Surveying in Hagerstown, Maryland.

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