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Best practice — Building a multi-sector/multi-client pipeline of work

Best practice — Building a multi-sector/multi-client pipeline of work

June 5th, 2019

This is the second in a series of guest posts by architect and business consultant Lucy Mori. We’re puff-chested proud to host Lucy’s valuable insights into the top things architects need to get right when setting up for success. It’s a best practice bonanza relevant to everyone working in built environment design, so non-architects — that’s you, engineers, surveyors, planners, and the like — read on. If you want to be sure not to miss an update sign up to our newsletter for monthly content alerts. Lucy Mori, we tip our architectural, engineering and construction design hats to you.

— Synergy Ed.

Know your numbers — know your dependency

I think the first thing here is to make sure you know your numbers. When building a pipeline of work, we’re talking about not being over-reliant on a particular customer, client, or a particular sector. It’s just a matter of keeping a track of where you are. Even if you’re a sole practitioner, you’ll know that all your work is coming from one client but, sometimes you need to see the numbers. All you need is a table or report with the percentage of overall income by client and by sector. It’s very simple — you’ve got the overall fee income by year, then what represents each client you invoice, and which sector. You’re making sure you’re not over 60-70 percent reliant on one particular client or one particular sector.

Risky business

What it’s really about is mitigating against the risk of any one client or a particular sector being hit by external events. One example is an architect that I know was very reliant on a big public sector hospital project. It was very high profile and it was being delivered by Carillion (the big construction services company) and Carillion went bust. From one day to the next, that was one of this architect’s major projects — stopped. It stopped on site.

Although they weren’t over-reliant at that stage on the fee income from that project, in terms of the profile of their practice, they were betting a lot on getting more work from that company, and on the back of that project being completed.

Another example is a previous government project called Building Schools for the Future. This was a big school-building programme across the UK. I came into London to meet with an architectural practice I’d been talking to about helping them on business development, marketing and promoting their practice. That morning the government announced it was scrapping the schools programme, and all those projects were stopping. While I was on the tube I got a call saying, “I don’t think you’ll be coming in today, we’ve got to rethink our strategy and we need a bit of time”.

These things can happen, and if you’re 100 percent focused on the education sector and the schools suddenly stop, if your teams are working on a huge project and the contractor goes bust, what else have you got in the pipeline?

The value of three. And four.

When I was at business school a lot of my fellow students came from management consulting firms, and we did a lot of group projects. I was surprised that many of the conclusions and proposals focused on three — they said, “have three targets, three buckets, three projects, three bullet points”. I thought it was rubbish and totally arbitrary that it should just be three. However, I’ve learned to see the value of three because:

  • a. If you’re a small company it’s hard to focus on more than three sectors
  • b. It’s hard to have enough research and marketing capacity to focus on more than three areas

Now I always recommend to architects that when they look at the sectors they’re going to build their pipeline around, to look at three sectors for business development. Further to that, each sector should be described by four different qualifiers:

  • 1. Industry sector (education, residential, housing, retail, commercial office, etc.)
  • 2. Geography (local to you, within an hour of your home, national, within the UK, international, etc.)
  • 3. Client type (private, personal, domestic, individuals, private companies, public sector, contractors, developers, etc.)
  • 4. Service (are you offering full architectural service, feasibility concept up to planning, just delivery? Or are you offering additional services like planning or interior design?)

You can describe your three sectors across those four categories and then really make sure that you’re spreading your workload across them. It doesn’t mean that if somebody suddenly comes and says, “Oh will you design me a hotel in Abu Dhabi?” you’re going to turn it down. It does mean you’re not going to go to Abu Dhabi looking for hotel work, unless it’s one of those three target sectors.

Tips for diversifying your pipeline

If you’re already working in a particular area and you want to diversify by building on your experience, take a look at similar competencies. Something like sixty percent of architectural work is within the residential sector, and if you’ve done residential work, you can fine tune your definition of that sector, and you might find you’re specialised within different sub-sectors.

Let’s say you’ve done a lot of private housing projects, you could then look at:

  • Student housing
  • Aged care housing
  • Leisure sector
  • Hotels
  • Etc.

There are a lot of overlaps in terms of competencies and skills. It’s not too far removed for you to move from one to the other.

I think there’s increasing specialisation, so when you’re talking about your target sectors, you can’t just say, “Oh, I’m residential”. You need to define that in more detail. And your three sectors might be related but they’re distinct markets — the student housing, or seniors’ homes have different planning categories, they have a different kind of investor profile, and a different kind of developer profile, so, they are distinct markets. Distinct sectors.

Architects often push their portfolio and what they want to do, rather than really engaging with the client’s needs. If your client is a contractor, their needs are different from a client that is a developer, and a client who is a personal, private individual. For the architect it’s about communicating the benefits of your service. How that’s going to solve their specific problem.

Know thy client

The AIDA marketing concept explains the process by which people, potential clients, become aware of a product or a service, and of a supplier, and of how they become engaged with them. It’s from the client perspective. So, architectural firms need to ask, if a client knows they need an architect:

  • Who are they going to approach?
  • How might they become aware of a particular practice?
  • How might the practice become aware of this particular client being interested in them? (Are they monitoring clicks on their website? Are they seeing what pages are being looked at?)
  • What stage of the project are they at?

Rather than doing a scattergun marketing approach, you want to target your efforts. As an example, if you’re going to target primary schools — you’re not going to write to all the primary schools in the UK, so how will you:

  • Filter that total number of schools?
  • Find out what research you can do to make sure that you’re only talking to the small group of primary schools that might need an architect in the next couple of years?
  • Research and understand the needs of the schools?
  • Become part of the school community — can you become a school governor? Have you got children at school? Have you got friends with children? Open days or school fetes you can attend to understand what the issues are?
  • Find other professional consultants that work with schools?
  • Find school conferences, or events that you could go to?

These activities can really deepen your understanding of the issues of schools, and then perhaps you can use that knowledge to write some research. For schools, maintenance and utility bills are big issues. Air quality has become something very important to them, the greenspace, forest schools, and open-air classrooms are huge. Things like encouraging more sports and activities, encouraging schools to cook their own school dinners — but they don’t necessarily have the kitchens, or the sporting fields. So those are the kind of issues a good architect can mine to see if there are solutions that they can come up with.

Building a diverse pipeline of work in your practice is really about understanding the sector and building a body of research so that when you’re trying to win work you speak their language, you understand their issues and you’ve got case studies or examples to demonstrate your knowledge and expertise.

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