Most engineering firms like to see themselves as winners. And there cannot be many that would admit even to themselves that they are losers.
Yet a new study of the way consulting engineers do business suggests that as many as four-fifths of firms are winning only a fraction of the jobs they bid for. And the remaining onefifth that win the lion's share of work they pitch for spectacularly outperform their less successful competitors across a whole range of significant business activities.
The report, Winning new business in engineering consultancy . . . the critical success factors by the Association of Consulting Engineers and the University of Luton shows that, while engineering consultants may have excellent technical capability, many never get the chance to bring their skills into play by failing to win work.
More than 95 consultancies were asked to respond to a detailed list of questions which focused on 128 different activities that could determine how successful a firm is at winning new business.
Companies which win more than half their bids are classified as the most successful or 'winners', while those who win less than half the jobs pitched for are classified as the least successful or 'losers'.
Aside from features of the different markets, the leader of the report team Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas said that winners and losers are clearly defined.
'It is not just a case of some firms being winners sometimes and losers on other occasions.
Winners and losers are diametrically opposed in their approach and the way they do business, ' he says.
'Winners are much more proactive and, unlike losers, will not pitch for every job they are invited to. Losers tend to respond to all they get, and may even probably judge success by the number of proposals they are invited to bid for. They mechanically put together responses and losers will rarely comment on an offer to bid - they'll say 'let's knock something together and send it back'. If they make it to a shortlist, then they'll put in a bit more effort. But by then it can often be too late, ' says CoulsonThomas.
'When they lose, which they generally do, they will rationalise this by saying 'it's a one-in-four shot, you can't win 'em all'. They never ask why they've lost or why they've won and don't get anyone to analyse their processes.
'Winners who receive an unsolicited bid to tender won't automatically react. They tend to be selective and, rather than waste time, they'll bin the offer if it doesn't suit them, he says.
'But if they go for it, they tend to put much more effort in from day one, and will say: 'We really want this - this is us.' They will make huge efforts to understand what the client wants and will structure a proposal around what they think the client is looking for. They will get a wide range of people in the firm involved and, if they are asked to present, senior managers will get involved, rather than just leaving it to their business development people, ' he adds.
Winners will also make suggestions at bid stage to clients, which can in itself generate additional work, and can help 'lock-in' a client. Suggesting ideas not thought of by the client can help establish a unique relationship.
'We found that winners try to build a rapport with the client and show that they'd like to help the client build and develop its own business. But the key thing throughout is that they really want to win and remain determined about that, ' says Coulson-Thomas.
Winners will tend to be more receptive to clients that want changes to the original bid and will see this as a business opportunity, giving them the chance to show their worth.
'On the other hand, losers will groan when they hear the client wants changes, and will see this as extra work and a problem. Losers are generally more interested in themselves.
They tend to use clients to achieve short-term gains or help make short-term money, and tend to do little to hold on to them, ' says Coulson-Thomas.
'Winners, however, are looking at propects for tomorrow, and are happy to commit and get emotionally involved with the client.'
Differences also occur in making presentations. Losers, keeping to the pro-forma approach, will usually spend more time talking about themselves and are less likely to send senior staff. Winners will send senior people and key staff likely to be working on the project, and presentations will focus more on the project and the client's needs.
The survey reveals that the most common source of work for consultants is from existing clients. According to the report, 90% of winners rely on repeat clients. Only 57% of the least successful consultants gain frequent leads from existing clients, while 37% get regular business from this source. The report indicates that these figures may indicate poor quality of work or service to clients, and poorer relationships with them.
In winning work, however, consultants may be at a disadvantage to other professions. A doctoral thesis by Michael Kearsley referred to in the report says that consultants may not make the best sales people. Kearsley found that technical training is prioritised at the expense of developing interpersonal skills, and that an 'us and them' attitude exists between the technical and marketing sides of firms.
His studies found that 62% of consultants have never bought a book on sales or personal development, and that many consider that they would make bad sales people.
Kearsley carried out language and behaviour tests on his subjects to develop psychometric profiles. This revealed that consultants 'disliked the idea of manipulating people and they felt that sales people were 'common' and lacked status. Negative feelings of apprehension and even danger clouded the sales process'. An attitude that 'it's all bluff' was common.
Terming it 'sales reluctance', he discovered underlying causes. These included fear of failure - particularly acute in consultants used to success - fear of criticism or rejection, a belief that selling is immoral or dishonest. In some cases he even uncovered a 'deep-seated lack of belief in the firm's services or even the individual's self worth'.
Kearsley, who trains consultants, concludes that firms need to realise that technical skills on their own are not enough, nor is the fact that firms are often highly organised internally.
'A third factor - attitude - must be added to the mix, and this implies interpersonal skills, drive and persistence, ' he adds.
The report says successful winners encourage staff to develop interpersonal skills, relationships with clients and promote the firm through activities including contributing to meetings, lectures and the media.
Case studies on three engineering consultants - WS Atkins, Max Fordham & Partners and WA Fairhurst & Partners - demonstrate how these firms have been successful in winning business.
Coulson-Thomas says that even the most successful firms could do more, but that losers should not be disheartened.
'Rather than look for a complete overhaul, it's a matter of applying critical success factors (see box). Each one will mean more success.
'However it is important that as you develop each one, you look back and measure that it is working for you against what it is costing you, ' he says.
'Even some blue-chip firms that win seven out of eight bids only apply 50% of the critical success factors, so there is huge room for improvement in business generally, ' he concludes.
Ten steps to being a winner Get it right from the start.
Work to differentiate yourself at every stage of the bid process.
Build client relationships more effectively.
Treat your contact network as organic rather than static.
Work harder at understanding and communicating with the client.
Every time you pitch, make it count.
Recognise that winning new business is a means to the end of creating the kind of consultancy you want to be.
Put the client at the centre of the universe.
Work that bit smarter in the negotiating end-game.
Winning new business in engineering consultancy . . .the critical success factors examined consultants from different engineering disciplines and analysed responses from another 406 companies from different professions. The results are startling.
Only 20.2% of the consultants polled said they win more than half the jobs they bid for, with a tiny 2.1% saying they win more then three-quarters of their bids.
This means that according to the report's definition, only one-fifth of consultants could be classified as winners.
On the losing side, 41.5% of consultants that responded said they win between half and quarter of the jobs they pitch for, while 38.3% of consultants said they win less than a quarter of their bids.
Measured against the responses from all professions, engineers seem to lag behind.
With different professions grouped together, 8.4% of firms win more than threequarters of their bids - four times the rate for engineers, while 33.9% win half to threequarters - almost twice the corresponding rate for engineers. A similar proportion at 40.2% win a quarter to half of their bids, while 17.5% win less than a quarter of their jobs - almost half the corresponding rate for engineers.
A breakdown of the figures put engineers last on the list in terms of success at winning work. Accountants came top with 64% winning more than half their bids - more than three times the rate for engineers. They are followed by management consultants (58%), IT/telecoms consultants, marketing/PR firms, solicitors and advertising agencies.
However, the report says competition among consulting engineers is probably more intense than in other professions, with longer shortlists making it harder to win work.