Acclaimed Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt once said: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want to buy a quarter-inch hole.” Levitt is best remembered for his marketing articles starting in the 1960s that revolved around the importance of marketing to determine what businesses make and sell.
This is a critical issue for AEC firms, whose marketing communications often explain the products and services THEY have to offer in the first person. A far more productive approach is to explain in the second person about how their offerings can solve the customer’s problem.
The Customer Doesn’t Care What You’re Selling
The customer doesn’t care what you have to offer. They care about getting their problems solved.
This sounds like common sense, right? Then why do so many AEC firms continue to communicate in the first person about what products and services they offer? This is a critical point that must be hammered again and again until the message truly sinks in.
Let’s illustrate the disconnect with some hypothetical examples…
Your offering: “We specialize in design-build.” The customer’s problem: “The board of directors has asked us to explore an alternative project delivery method to reduce the cost and expedite the schedule.”
Your offering: “We offer High-Definition 3D Laser Scanning.” The customer’s problem: “I need an as-built of our wastewater treatment plant to prepare for an expansion.”
Your offering: “Our earthmoving equipment features GPS Machine Control.” The customer’s problem: “I need accurate and timely grading for a 10-acre site that’s more cost-effective than traditional methods.”
As you can see, the problem is not that your offering can’t solve the customer’s problem. The real issue is that you’re leading with the offering instead of leading with how it can solve the problem.
SEE ALSO: AEC Marketing ≠ Business Development
When AEC Firms Get Commoditized
So many AEC firms scratch their heads when they get treated like a commodity. How can a profession populated by highly educated and skilled professionals that employ expensive technology and high-level mathematics to alter the built environment be commoditized?
The answer is simple. The customer has options. Lots of options, in fact. And your competition is offering the same products and services, qualifications, and promises of seamless project delivery. They’re all marketing the drill, not the hole.
When the customer has a problem to be solved, multiple firms are drawn like steel to a magnet. Most, if not all, present boilerplate marketing materials that highlight products or services. A visit to the firm’s website likely reflects the same approach.
The only way the client gets insight to how any of these firms can meet their needs is through the proposal process. Even then, AEC firms often insert first person-focused boilerplate content to the greatest extent possible to mitigate proposal costs.
The client defers to the low price and the rest is history. They don’t have the time, understanding, or inclination to decipher the differences between the complex offerings of multiple firms.
The Importance of the Second Person
AEC firms usually ship out marketing materials that speak in the first person. How can you call yourself a customer-focused business without language that focuses on the second person?
Therein lies the crux of the problem. You’re focused on the products and services you sell instead of solving problems for customers.
The second person attracts and engages the reader; the first person repels the reader. Such is the case with communication in general. Whether you’re writing marketing copy, speaking to a client, or attending a networking event, the second person approach will always prevail.
Marketing solutions instead of your services is tough. It requires a firm understanding of the problems your various customer segments face. It’s much easier to understand your products and services, whether they be construction equipment, geotechnical engineering, architecture, etc.
Solutions-Based Marketing is a Culture
Solutions-based marketing is not just about telling the marketing department to start writing in the second person instead of the first. It’s about changing your entire culture.
Companies that market in the first person often conduct operations in the first person, as well. There’s a great deal of denial when it comes to focusing on the customer.
AEC firms like to tout their focus on the customer with banal corporate language, i.e. “We offer top-notch customer service.” You can find this on their websites, advertising, proposals, and marketing collateral.
And yet when you look at the firm and hear the stories from their peers and clients about their projects, you often find that to be a stretch.
Uncovering the Hard Truth
Now let’s get down to your action plan. Your first step is to determine whether you’re marketing focuses on products and services or solutions.
Get your marketing, business development, and operations executives together with the intention of addressing this pivotal question: Are you marketing the drill or the hole? You will need to evaluate all marketing materials to find this answer.
This should be a no-holds barred meeting where everyone leaves their egos at the door. If your team lacks the ability to get to the heart of the issue in a productive fashion, recruit an objective third party to facilitate the process.
Pixar President Ed Catmull had a similar gathering for his creative team called a Braintrust Meeting, which he discusses in his book Creativity, Inc. He says: “To the extent there is argument, it seeks only to excavate the truth.” How powerful is that?
Infuse Solutions into Your Marketing Strategy
Assuming you determine that you’re selling the drill instead of the hole, it’s time to revamp your strategy. Start by identifying and gathering all external digital and print marketing communications. Next, focus on retooling the message.
You will need to start at the top by tweaking your marketing plan, business plan, or whatever document governs your marketing strategy. If you have nothing in writing, your problems are beyond the scope of this article.
You should also recruit an executive to communicate this change to your team. Commitment from the C-Suite is critical to ensuring that the whole team is in alignment.
Once you have identified your messaging, you will need to alter all digital and print marketing communications including:
- E-mail Marketing Vehicles
- Statement of Qualifications
- Marketing Collateral
- Mass E-mail
- Social Media Profiles & Future Content
So what are you marketing? The drill or the hole? The answer to this question is not just based on a clever quote by a marketing guru. It holds the key to your livelihood, longevity, and differentiation as a customer-focused firm.