The project manager’s role in marketing

Learn to manage your project and your client.

By Jerry Bauers, PE, Sebesta, Kansas City, Mo. May 13, 2014

The operation of a consulting engineering business is, at its heart, a challenge in project management. Our clients ask us to deliver engineered solutions that enhance their business strategies or their physical plant. Our challenge always is to deliver these solutions on time and on budget. If we define our success as a satisfied client, we must then define the expectations of our project managers in delivering this satisfaction.

Hewing closely to the Peter Principle, we often find ourselves promoting our most talented technical engineers to managers (most often project managers), specifically because of their technical skills. Unfortunately, far too often, we find that our promotions—selected not because of their organizational prowess, interpersonal, or leadership skills—fail to deliver as managers. We must ask ourselves what we expect of these newly minted managers. And, we need to answer the question with clarity and simplicity.

A quick search online yields mountains of information defining project management in terms of organization, motivation, team building, process, software management—most are internally focused. In nearly every organization I have been associated with, the role of the project manager is defined as an internal function, organizing and managing staff to be responsive to the demands of a given project. As an engineer once told me, “This business would be really fun if it wasn’t for our clients.”

In my 40 years in the engineering consulting industry, I have found that the best way to manage engineers is to keep things as simple as possible. So, for me, project managers have only two objectives: 

  1. Manage your project to generate a reasonable profit for the firm
  2. Manage your clients so that your firm is selected for their next project.

The first objective, make money, seems obvious. And it is this objective that garners the bulk of our attention: some positive attention for our stars, but more often negative attention when things aren’t going well. We train, we purchase software, we complain, and we oversee this function diligently. It is, however, the second objective—the retention sales objective—that is too often ignored.

Any good firm should be striving to generate between 60% and 80% of its revenue from repeat business. Your project managers are then responsible for delivering 60% to 80% of your sales. (For goodness sake, don’t tell them they are selling—their blood will run cold!) If you buy this premise, then the tension between project profits and retention sales can leave you with the question: Which of these goals takes priority? I hope the answer is obvious: Both are equally important, and achieving both objectives is non-negotiable.

Manage your client’s expectations

Clients engage engineering firms to help them build tools to operate their business. A building is nothing more than a large tool that facilitates the execution of a business strategy—housing knowledge workers; accommodating machinery, packaging, and shipping operations; providing a rental asset. Clients’ expectation is often that we know things they don’t know. Our first challenge to building these tools is understanding the real needs of our clients in the face of specific expressed from our client and other design team partners. Here are two simple rules that I’ve followed for years: 

  1. The first thing a client says he or she wants is never really what they want
  2. Clients must be included in the project decision-making process so they have an investment in the delivered solutions.

To wit, clients often describe what they perceive as the best outcome for a project, and, foolish us, we believe that this is really what they want at the end of the day. In fact, what clients ask for is frequently not the things that define success for them. Rather, they may describe their version of a satisfactory solution.   

It is our task to get to these underlying project requirements. Ease of maintenance, simplicity, market leadership, peer recognition, marketability—these represent the most fundamental requirements that will define success for the client. Our job is to uncover and validate these objectives before launching into solutions. Define the client’s needs so you are solving the correct problem.

Architects have been much more successful in this task by employing the design charette process or similar programming techniques, collaborating with a broad range of client interest groups. (Yes, I did just compliment architects; after all, they are very often our partners!) We can follow their lead with simple client management strategies that draw out these most fundamental needs that will define success for the owner and engage the owner in selecting the most appropriate solution.

After determining the client’s project requirements, manage their expectations by engaging them in the decision-making process. There are hundreds of ways to skin the engineering cat. Any one of the potential solutions may fit your client. By clearly establishing the most fundamental client needs, developing a set of decision-making criteria that drive the selection of the best alternative solution, and engaging your client in the evaluation process, your client has an investment in the built solution. The client is much more likely to approve of the solution and—most importantly—be an active participant in solving challenges that inevitably occur when the solution is put into operation.

Employing engagement techniques with your clients typically results in more effective (read: more profitable) project execution and a more satisfied client (read: a retention sale).

Jerry Bauers is national director of commissioning at Sebesta. His project management philosophy was formed in the crucible of errors, gaffs, and missteps in which the hard-won lesson of client satisfaction was burned into his soul—and his bank account!