While becoming a true expert in our particular field and subject of interest can lead us throughout our career, being a successful engineer requires much more than being extremely good at our craft. There are people skills we inevitably need to learn, soft skills related to project management we need to understand, and as today’s guest will prove, sales skills.
Today on the show, Isaac interviews Mark Wainwright, a marketing and sales professional with 25 years of experience working for and with professional services firms—civil engineering firms fall into this category. Building upon his past experience in the field, he has now been running his own sales consulting business for the last few years and has helped a broad spectrum of professional services firms with their marketing and business development functions, from civil engineering to architecture to financial management.
By differentiating marketing activities from sales activities and explaining how the lack of a sales culture within the company can hurt the organization’s future work, Mark sheds light on the importance of learning and practicing sales skills at every level of the company. He goes on to mention how engineers can use the skills they already have to become better part-time salespeople, as well as the importance of pricing based on both the effort required from the firm and the value created for the buyer in our long-term, low-volume, high-dollar industry.
Mark Wainwright (Website) – https://www.wainwrightinsight.com
Managing The Professional Service Firm, by David Maister – Click here
The Trusted Advisor, by David Maister, Robert Galford, and Charles Green – Click here
To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, by Daniel Pink – Click here
The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, by Blair Enns – Click here
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen – Click here
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The Ultimate Civil FE Review Course – https://civilfereviewcourse.com
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Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: Hey, Mark. Welcome to the Civil Engineering Academy podcast. I'm excited to have you on as a guest here. How are you doing?
Mark Wainwright: I'm great, Isaac. Thanks for having me. You're doing a great job in serving an important audience out there. So thanks for inviting me to join your podcast.
Isaac Oakeson: I think you are too. And I think this is why I wanted to connect with you. So I guess before we start diving into maybe some questions and content, why don't you do a little bit of background for us and let us know what you're involved in, what you do, and, what audience you're serving.
Mark Wainwright: Right. So I've been working with professional services firms for about 20 years, either for them or with them. Marketing agencies, architects, civil engineers, landscape architects, and even economists and financial advisors. So a broad spectrum of professional services firms, mostly in the marketing and business development function that most individuals at these firms would be sort of familiar with. Civil engineers and others are very familiar with that function. The last handful of years, I've had my own practice called Wainwright Insight. And I am a part-time sales manager for part-time salespeople. And I know that sounds a little strange to many in the profession, but I do view people like civil engineers as part-time salespeople, because at least a little bit of their day, week, month is spent selling their services. That's an important part of what they need to do in order to keep their business growing. So I act as a sales manager, just a part-time sales manager. And sales managers do a couple of really important things. First off, they help build and organize the sales function within an organization, within a professional services firm. And second, they coach and guide individuals and teams in sales. So those are the two sort of fundamental parts of my practice, and I've been doing that for a handful of years now with a bunch of different types of firms, and it's been received well.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. So you help -- You know, our audience obviously is for engineers, engineering firms, but you help with a lot of other firms as well, I'm assuming. And everybody needs to learn some element of sales, I imagine, to help the company grow. But what do you find, Mark, is maybe the funnest part of your job? What do you find is most difficult part of this?
Mark Wainwright: Right. The most enjoyable part, I think, is seeing individuals learn and then practice an organized sales process or, you know, some elements of selling their services and doing so successfully and, you know, really reaping the benefits of that, both sort of personally and also for their firms. You know, I think one of the most challenging parts of what I do has to do with mindset, I think. I think in the profession, and I'm talking across the profession of professional services, and this is for anyone who sells their expertise, I think individuals throughout their educational careers and early professional careers come to the belief that the better they become, the more skilled they become at their craft, that will be the sole determinant of their success in the future. And there's so many elements of future success, and sales is one of those. So I think getting individual's heads wrapped around the fact that, you know, how good they are at their practice is not the sole determinant on their future success. And there's so many other parts of the practice that they need to embrace and improve, and sales is one.
Isaac Oakeson: That's a really interesting thought. You've consulted, I imagine, quite a few companies. What are some common gaps that you see in the sales process, or maybe that they're not even really focused on sales? I've worked for companies where, you know, maybe the head guy, the president, is the one that has all the connections, and then all the engineers are just turning out work, but they don't have that mindset that -- You know, "We're not sure where the next job is coming from. If the work dries up with who the president knows, what...", you know? What are you seeing as you talk to consulting firms in terms of, like, any gaps in this process of creating a sales culture, a sales environment?
Mark Wainwright: I think you touched on it. There are senior firm leaders, maybe founders, that have all or the majority of the responsibility of winning new work, and the gap exists in the firm's efforts to grow and build future sales leaders. And that's, you know, what I'm specifically focused on, is helping those others who are maybe just new to it, or others who are developing skills in sales to become those future sales leaders in the firms. That's the biggest gap I see in it. And it's particularly evident in firms who have a group of founders leading the firm because founders have a particular dilemma in that they're entrepreneurial, they've built a firm around themselves, they usually surround themselves with a bunch of very skilled practitioners, a bunch of good doers, but those people aren't necessarily sellers, and they haven't recognized the need to transfer those other business skills, like sales, to the other individuals in the firm. Some have, but some have not. So I think a lot of firms find themselves in that place where they have a small group, maybe one, maybe a few senior leaders, who do the vast majority of work, and suddenly at some point in their career, they turn around and look at their firms, and they're unclear about who that next group or who those individual sales leaders are.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. So I imagine a lot of people don't particularly love the word sales, which is why you usually hear, at least in the engineering world and probably others business development, or whatever term they're using these days. I personally, my own background has taken me, you know, doing sales. And I've had to step out of my comfort zone to do those things, you know? Whether that's selling pest control or making sales calls on the phone, doing those kind of things. But I always told myself that that was a valuable skill that I was learning, even though it was hard for me as an engineer to kind of do that. What are some skills that you can see engineers could maybe practice or things that they could learn early in their career that could lend them into really trying to help do sales, business development?
Mark Wainwright: It's a good question. And let me first differentiate -- I think it's important to clarify what sales is, you know?
Isaac Oakeson: Sure.
Mark Wainwright: And I have a really easy definition, and I think most individuals are familiar with marketing and firms. Marketing activities are one-to-many activities where an individual in your firm, a marketing person, or even a practitioner who's participating in some marketing activity, maybe they're going to a conference to speak, or they're going to a networking event. By and large marketing activities are one-to-many activities, and sales activities are one-to-one activities. They're much more intimate, they're conversations, and they're done between, you know, a buyer and a seller, you know? These are sales activities. And what practitioners need to improve are those kind of one-to-one interactions, whether they're prospecting, which is the early part of sales, where you're poking and prodding around, looking for new opportunities with either people that you know well or people that you don't know well, or if you're actually in the sales process where you've identified an opportunity and it's progressing through the different stages.
Mark Wainwright: And I've managed to lose complete track of -- Oh! The skills. Right! There you go. Good. So the skills that engineers -- I think they already have them, you know? And I think some of it can be learned, but I think some other skills people already have. But I think we've lost a little bit of them. I've written about this on my site, and they have to do with the words curiosity and intimacy. And I used that intimacy term just a minute ago, but they're hard words, I think, for experts and professionals to get their heads wrapped around. Curiosity really hearkens back to those days when we were younger and we were very curious about things so we wanted to investigate and ask questions, and we asked a lot of questions that started with "Why". And I think as experts, we lose track of that because we're expected to be the smartest person in the room and to have all the answers.
Mark Wainwright: So I think experts can regain that curiosity and really approach sales in a really authentic, just a curious, nature that will lead to greater success. I think too much of what we do, and what we propose to do, in the sales process is built on a mountain of assumptions, and I think the way to steer clear of that is just to ask really good questions and to be very curious. The second part of that, intimacy, I think as human beings, we all have this innate desire to develop long-term, close, trusting relationships. And when we look at business relationships, I think we don't see that [inaudible] perceived the need for us to be close, and co-dependent, and to develop trust. So I think we need to kind of let our armor down, let our shields down a little bit and, you know, embrace this idea of intimacy, which is just closeness, which is just, you know, being able to be comfortable, and honest, and straightforward, and transparent with one another, whether they're colleagues, or whether they're partners, or clients that we work with.
Mark Wainwright: That's an important thing. I think we've lost track of it a little bit. I think extroverts and introverts actually have that. I think a lot of civil engineers probably consider themselves the latter more---more introverted. And I think those are wonderful skills that introverts kind of naturally have.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. That's great advice. Is selling the same as pitching?
Mark Wainwright: Well, pitching is part of the sales process. And by pitching, I'm going to be really specific in the definition there, pitching is when we, as the expert, the practitioner, are doing most of the talking, you know? It's when we are proposing an idea. So there's a time and a place for the pitch, but it typically comes much, much later in the process, I think, than most realize. The best time to pitch or propose is right after your prospective client asks for it. You know, which is to say that there needs to be sufficient exploration ahead of time, where you can develop an understanding and develop an approach, and then come back to your client and say, "Look, we've had a number of conversations, we've come to a good understanding, which we've reflected back to you. Now I think it's time for us to propose a potential solution to this. And it's going to have some options and it's going to have some different ideas in there. And we can kind of pick and choose, and we can co-create this together, and then the subsequent price that's sort of attached to that we'll have options as well." But I think that's the pitch, right? And I think the pitch happens too early in most of these situations.
Isaac Oakeson: That makes sense. So I really love your thoughts of really just trying to get to know people in natural conversations, finding out what their needs are, and then these things kind of -- You know, a sales conversation just kind of naturally happens as you can find a solution to their problem. So I love that. With dealing with so many firms, how are firms missing out on opportunities that you see in sales? Is there a position? Should they be having a sales function as part of this that you see it in firms that maybe is missing? What would you like to see a firm have to see more success?
Mark Wainwright: Most professional services firms, and particularly firms that are in the AEC---architecture, engineering, and construction--- world, and civil engineers are part of that, rely very heavily on the reactive elements of sales and business development, you know? And that's, I think, what we're typically used to, or what many of those professionals are typically used to. Meeting a client or a prospective client, issues of solicitation, an RFP, an RFQ. They receive that, they decide to pursue it, they put together a team, they put the puzzle pieces together for a response, they propose, etc, etc., etc. So that's a very prescriptive process. You know, I think most of what I would like organizations to be doing is being way more proactive. And that's a term I think firms throw out a lot, that we need to be more proactive than reactive, but they don't know what that means.
Isaac Oakeson: That's true.
Mark Wainwright: And I think proactivity comes from individuals taking the initiative to prospect, to contact existing clients or recent clients and have conversations about what's next. And it's not just, "Hey, I'm just checking in. I wanted to see what the next project is." It's really having an exploration about what their needs are, what their current needs are, what their future needs are, what elements of maybe recent work or past work went well, what didn't, you know? And a lot of this sounds like a feedback conversation, and it kind of is, because those are important conversations to have prior to discussing new opportunities. And it's about having individuals embrace this idea of prospecting and proactivity, where they they need to be reaching out and having conversations in an on -- Not just early. I think people say, "Okay, we need to get out and talk to people before the RFP comes up."
Mark Wainwright: That's absolutely true. But the only way to really do that in practice is to just do it regularly, you know? If you are in regular conversation with existing or recent clients, then eventually you find yourself in a conversation where you're asking the right questions and you're positioned well, and it's prior to the RFP. Because a lot of times what happens is, you know, that sort of cone of silence comes down where you're not permitted to act. You know, it's a strange way to buy. I'm just going to say that. It's really odd that at some point you're now unable to have conversations with the buyer, right? "We're going to issue a document and as soon as that is out there, you can't talk to us anymore", right? If you embrace the idea that sales is a series of conversations, the conversations need to continue because you need to constantly be creating and co-creating. "Look, here's what I heard you say. What are your thoughts on that? Did that make sense?", "Here's some ideas we have in about approach. What do you think about that?", "Here's a price. What do you think about the price? Have we missed the mark?" you know?
Mark Wainwright: And none of those conversations can happen within that sort of cone of silence, which is really unfortunate. So this prescriptive buying process that most municipalities or other agencies use, and they use it to try to level the playing field, etc., and I get that. I understand that. But it's very difficult as a seller to develop the level of understanding and rapport that you need with your clients. More often than not, when I'm talking to my current clients about their current work that they're engaged in, I say, "How's it going?", you know? They rarely talk about the work, the job, you know? The engineering. Most of the times they talk about how wonderful a particular client is, or how much of a pain in the neck they are, right? They talk about the relationship, right? And that prescriptive buying process precludes your ability to develop that relationship first, because you're effectively dating someone for months or years, depending on the scope of work, right? And gosh, you better, you know, be able to get along well before you start working together for that long, right?
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. No, that's great advice. I feel like with large firms, and maybe correct me if I'm wrong, but I've been involved with large firms where you get involved in some bidding tools and all of a sudden what they want you to do is almost a reverse auction against other consulting firms. And so here you are, you've developed a relationship, you maybe have a master services agreement with a company, or you're part of a team of other consultants that they could draw from, but then you find yourself having to go through a process where you are fighting and beating each other up over pricing. I don't know how to avoid that, or if a relationship step should be made that they can prove or might sway the opinion just simply based on beating each other up over price. I don't know. What are your thoughts on these things?
Mark Wainwright: It's an incredibly challenging part of the industry. You know, it is self-destructive. Industry-wide, you know? Regardless of the professional services firm, it is an industry-wide issue where clients having no other levers to act on, no other things to consider, have to act on price, right? They have to look at a group of undifferentiated firms to pick from who all have certain expertise. I mean, realistically, a lot of these firms trade staff members like playing cards, right? And I'm not being silly about that, you know? It's very serious when people choose to work for or not work for different organizations. But a lot of times they'll go work for a very similar firm in a similar jurisdiction.
Mark Wainwright: So yeah, hey're kind of just shifting around. So expertise is kind of fluid, and at the end of the day, it ends up being very, very similar across the number of firms. Occasionally, one firm will have a specific expertise where it makes sense for them to win some work. But by and large, a lot of these projects are pursued by similar firms. So all the buyer is left with is the ability to choose with price, because they've gone through a very prescriptive process, which has stripped out any ability to differentiate, and so they're left with just price, right? Which is the challenge. A lot of these firms base their price on level of effort, which means "This is going to take us X amount of hours. We're going to stack a little bit of profit on top of it, maybe we'll make it, maybe we won't. And here's our price", right? And all the firms do that. And they all end up kind of in a similar place, maybe some are less, maybe some are more. But they're kind of in the ballpark.
Mark Wainwright: Pricing is a strategy. Pricing needs to be dealt with very seriously. And most firms, I think, by not dealing with it that way, by not looking at pricing as a specific strategy, buyers want to have options. They want to be able to choose, they want to be able to co-create whatever the solution is, and they want to understand how price is connected with all of that. And the seller also really needs to come to a deep understanding of value, you know? "What is the buyer going to get out of this work?", you know? And that's value, right? Value is what the buyer gets out of it. It's not what they get. I think what they get is your bullet list of tasks and services you're going to provide. That's what they get, right? What they get out of it is this outcome, right?
Mark Wainwright: Yes, we want this, we need this new piece of infrastructure, because it's going to allow, you know, people and goods to move faster or better, and we will get X amount of economic development or business development, you know, kind of out of that. That will raise our economy, whatever percent, you know. And when I talk to some of my clients who are landscape architects about working for park agencies, parks focus on attendance, right? "Is the work we're doing in this park going to lead to attendance?", Right? That's their big metric. They want more bodies in the park, right? So it's important for these landscape architects to have that discussion with their prospective clients early on. "How is this work going to impact attendance?", "What can we do that would increase attendance even more than you expect?", "What basic things could we do that might impact that attendance up and down?"
Mark Wainwright: It sounds a little fuzzy here, but the point is that the pricing is a strategy and pricing needs to be based partially on effort. This is how much work it's going to take us and here's our reasonable profit. But it also needs to involve value. You can have two $10,000 contracts sitting in front of you. One could be yielding, you know, a hundred thousand dollars of ultimate value for a particular client, one could be worth multi-millions of dollars, right? So the end result of these two $10,000 contracts is radically different. And I'm not saying that gives you the ability to charge way more for the project that ultimately is worth more. It might, but at least it takes the downward pressure off that. And most, most sellers do not take this step, the very critical step to understand and have that value discussion by conversation with their prospective clients.
Isaac Oakeson: That makes sense. Do you feel like this is why some engineering firms get more work than others? Is that tied to a statement of understanding? Or what's your thoughts there?
Mark Wainwright: The statement of understanding is kind of a term I came up with and I use it with the clients I work with. The statement of understanding is that articulation of an understanding? I think some firms do this. They weave it into maybe an approach, they weave it into other parts, other elements of a proposal. But I believe that a statement of understanding -- And I'll get to the why some firms win more work than others, and I think it is possibly tied to this. But a statement of understanding is a very clear articulation and often just a reflection of everything you've come to understand about the client, about their needs and about the work at hand, the work to be done. It has nothing to do with you. It's not a promotional piece.
Mark Wainwright: It's not, "You need this. And Oh, by the way, we're great at it". It's not that, you know? It is line by line of very, very clear, 100% client-focused reflection on what you've heard, what you've come to understand. And at the very end of that sort of understanding is, "Did we get that right?", you know? Is everything that we heard, is that correct?, right? And sometimes you'll get edits. You'll get a conversation out of it, hopefully. So the statement of understanding actually builds from that very first conversation in an email where you send them back a note that says, "Hey, it was wonderful to talk to you. I appreciate you spending the time with me. Here's what I heard". And it starts there, right? You have another conversation two weeks later that says, "Okay, great. We've built on our previous conversation. There's some additional things that you mentioned. This is what I heard. This is my understanding".
Mark Wainwright: And then a month later, when that big proposal comes due and you're going to send that in, you have a nice page that you started to use all those bits and pieces you've assembled. "This is our first conversation. That's what we understood. And then we understood more. And then from your solicitation, you listed these additional elements of the work. Here's our understanding of all this". And from that understanding---there's just a logic in this---"From the understanding here is our approach". That's it, right? "From our understanding, this is our approach". And I think that what happens, we just skip over the understanding. We skip right past it and we say, "Here's our approach. We read the stuff, we made a bunch of assumptions. Here's what we think you need. Here's what we're going to do". And they get it, and sometimes ou hit the bullseye and sometimes you're way off the mark, right?
Isaac Oakeson: That makes sense. And so, going back to why engineer in engineering firms maybe earn more work, so you said those two are tied a little bit.
Mark Wainwright: Well, you know, that's all part of the process. And I think some firms will win more work than others when they up their game, you know? When they take sales more seriously, when they have a more sophisticated approach to sales, and there is a process. And the good thing about a process is that a process makes a ton of sense to a left-brained, analytical, technical professional. Makes a ton of sense, right? I think most technical professionals, architects, civil engineers, whoever they are, believe that, you know, sales is all about art. It's squishy, it's ambiguous, there is no process involved in sales. But there is. There are things that you must do before other things, there are things that you can't do until you've done certain things, and there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. So I think once, like I said, these technical experts start to embrace and understand a process, sales starts to make sense. Like, the fog starts to clear, the sort of vague nature of selling kind of goes away and they think, "Oh, okay. This makes sense. I get this."
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. What resources are out there? Is there recommended resources you might have to help people with sales? A book, a blog, even your own site. What do you have?
Mark Wainwright: I've got a bunch of books over my shoulder there, and I've got some actually on my desk. There's a whole bunch of sales books out there. Now, it's an important distinction point. There are a lot of resources out there on sales, right? If one of your young practitioners, one of your young civil engineers, or someone who's studying for their exam says, "Okay, I want this to be an important part of my career. I'm going to go search for sales". They're going to be hit with a bunch of really crazy stuff, right? Stuff that has nothing to do with professional services, nothing to do with civil engineering, and content and books that are designed around people who are full-time salespeople and they work in sales organizations, in mostly larger organizations.
Mark Wainwright: They sell things, they are lower-dollar, higher-volume oriented, you know? It's people that are selling, you know, not widgets, but you know, typically these days, a lot of the sales people are selling these monthly subscription technology or software as a service products, right? That's what you're selling, right? Salesforce, CRM systems, accounting systems, all that sort of stuff. You'll see a lot of that information. There's very little out there for an engineer who's involved in the complex, high stakes, low-volume, high-dollar professional services sale. Some of the people who have done great work on this in the past, David Maister wrote the book, Managing The Professional Service Firm. That's a wonderful book. It was published, you know, decades ago, but it's still a fabulous book. He's since retired, but he has a wonderful website that has plenty of resources, and we can link to that in the notes.
Mark Wainwright: I've got some other books that I turn to. Any of the books that I turn to require a little bit of translation in that they need to be translated and someone who say, "Okay, this is written for a full-time salesperson. I'm only a part-time salesperson. I get that. This is written for maybe who operates in a different sales world than I do. It's not the long duration, complex, high-dollar, low-volume sort of professional services sale". Some of the books are, but most of them are not. So that's something to consider. But other books I've got, The Trusted Advisor is a book written by David Maister and Charlie Green and Galford. Spacing on his first name. That's a great book. Trusted Advisor is a great book. It's actually getting republished soon.
Mark Wainwright: Daniel Pink wrote a great sales book called To Sell is Human, and it's a nice introduction to sales. He approaches things somewhat a little bit differently than others, which I think is good and refreshing, and it it kind of humanizes selling. So I think it's a great book. There's a couple of other books that I love. One is not related to AEC firms, but it's called The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, and it's written by Blair Enns. And it's written for creative agencies, but it's a wonderful book that kind of shifts your perspective on what it means to sell high-dollar professional services.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome.
Mark Wainwright: And the last one, which is a completely unrelated book to sales, is Getting Things Done by David Allen. And what I have found again and again, is that a lot of the professionals that I work with have a challenging time organizing themselves and keeping their sort of task management kind of moving. So that's a great book. And he's got tons of resources online around that.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, you've given us a lot to chew on there. We'll link all those books in the notes so we can catch up, but I think everybody should learn, you know, at some level, sales at some level. Whether you're pitching yourself as a potential employee to an employer, or working in an employment field and learning how to do business development and trying to get more work. Like at every stage of your life, at some point, you're selling something. That feels like. So good books. Go check them out, for sure. Mark, thank you for sharing all your resources and your knowledge. I've definitely learned some things, I'm hoping everyone else did too. What's the best way to reach out to you? What resources do you have on your site? Why don't you share with us the best way to get a hold of you?
Mark Wainwright: My site is wainwrightinsight.com. We'll link to that in the notes, but I try to provide some good useful information for both the up-and-coming professionals and also people who are actively involved in sales at their firms. You know, the one thing I want to make sure as clear is that civil engineers who are in young in their career, who aren't necessarily leading sales efforts can play an important supporting role. And in that supporting role, they can listen, and they can learn, they can develop that sense of curiosity that they need to have in sales. And I think just being around different selling opportunities around their senior leaders, they can start to learn more and then they start to practice a little bit on their own. Selling is hard because you're not always successful. Typically when an engineer gets a job put in front of them, they do it well. And that's probably, you know, 99% of the time. Unfortunately with sales, you are not successful 99% of the time. But it takes practice to get better. So that's what I would implore young professionals, particularly, to do is just keep listening and practicing and getting better.
Isaac Oakeson: Perfect. Well, thank you for jumping on the podcast. I've really appreciated your message and your thoughts. And you know, get out there and sell something I think is a good one.
Mark Wainwright: Absolutely thanks for having me, Isaac.
Isaac Oakeson: All right. Thanks Mark. See ya.
Mark Wainwright: See ya.
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