Design/build has grown from 5 percent of nonresidential construction 20 years ago to more than 40 percent today. Its proponents tout benefits such as cost savings, faster project completion, better quality and reduced owner risk in promoting this alternative to the traditional design/bid/build delivery system. How can electrical contractors break into this fast-growing marketplace?

Capability and capacity

Before attempting to expand into any new market sector, you must evaluate your current ability to handle the work. Design/build demands vertical integration—you must increase your depth of expertise to include not only the delivery and installation of products per plans and specifications, but understand and contribute to the design. This often requires the ability to meet performance specifications, not merely follow product specifications. In other words, your work must do what the client wants it to do.

If you don’t have in-house design capability, you may incur significant costs. Either you will need to hire design professionals or cultivate partnerships with them under your design/build project contract. Specialty contractors in New York have learned the hard way that not all jurisdictions allow them to perform in-house design, even when they employ licensed architects and engineers. The ability to design your work now extends beyond traditional lighting and wiring.

Do you have strong vendor relationships, manufacturer certifications that allow you to perform installation of specialized products and interior design expertise that enables you to predict the final effect of lighting designs? Will your clients want you to understand feng shui or be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified so you can meet “green” building requirements? Will the necessary investments in education and personnel realize future profits?

Even if you develop the expertise and capability of performing design/build projects, will you be able to expand the capacity of your firm to handle these projects without losing other projects? If your current work is less profitable than you would like, then this may be a great time to make a transition into design/build. If your current clients are happy, and you are simply considering adding a new niche, then consider the cost before you design a marketing strategy. Design/build requires a substantial investment in personnel, education and training before you are ready to market your company as a capable source to new or existing clients.

Credentials and credibility

One of the most direct and least expensive forms of design/build marketing is establishing your company as a credible source of value-added, creative advice to design professionals and owners. Many electrical contractors have bolstered client relationships and acquired more negotiated contract work because of their willingness to contribute their expertise proactively, before design flaws created problems on their projects.

If you resist the idea of providing “free advice” on future projects, design/build may not be right for you. If you have already been doing so, you are probably finding your clients increasingly loyal and experiencing the profitability that comes from this marketing technique. In truth, it costs you very little compared to the negative impact of unforeseen design problems on customer relationships and schedules that occurs on most design/bid/build projects.

Educating present and future clients (whether owners, design professionals, general contractors or construction managers) is another direct marketing technique most electrical contractors have not tapped. You will need to develop your communication and presentation skills to be effective in representing your company, but these skills are becoming necessary to all electrical contractors and their employees on every project, as clients expect all construction team members to be sophisticated communicators who can clearly explain concepts and choices. If you want to reach clients and can offer them useful information, you need to go where they are.

For example, the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA) holds several specialized conventions targeting transportation, healthcare, federal facilities and water/wastewater construction as well as its general meeting and trade show.

You will want to produce a quality marketing brochure outlining your design/build capability and include testimonials that bolster your credentials and track record. You may also want to offer to write articles or present workshops at industry meetings, perhaps in partnership with a design professional or lighting supplier who is also interested in expanding its marketing to design/build clients. When you become known as a source of information, you expand your networking ability and build a platform from which to reach future clients. Visibility generates business.

Candor, creativity and character

One mistake business people make is assuming that marketing is about products. Although you must choose what attributes of your product to communicate, nothing will alter the perception of the customer. Position your company so your present and future clients think of you when they think of design/build lighting, integrated communication or other electrical projects. People trust their own perceptions as truth, and if they have no ready source, they will trust the perceptions of others. Soliciting testimonials from past clients, appearing at industry functions and networking at fundraising and charity events are relatively inexpensive ways to increase your visibility.

However, you can’t be all things to all people. Effective marketing is about promoting the best attributes of your product or service and distinguishing yourself from the competition. Performing successfully is important, but admitting mistakes and demonstrating creativity and character is more important in design/build work, which is based upon collaboration, integration and teamwork.

In an industry where most contractors become defensive and try to cover their mistakes, consider doing the opposite. You cannot demonstrate creative problem solving without actually solving problems. Use past mistakes to show that your level of corporate and personal integrity is constant. Candor is one of the least understood marketing techniques.

Prospective clients are bombarded with positive claims and develop skepticism about most of them. Negative statements are accepted as truth and are disarming. “We’ve learned from our mistakes” is a powerful message that shows prospective clients that your company acknowledges its learning curve and has established a toolbox of creative solutions.

Remember to shift quickly to the positive solution when you use a negative statement. The purpose of candor is not to apologize, it is to show your level of integrity and problem-solving skills. One of the biggest concerns for construction clients is the risk of nonperformance, and another is the character of their construction team. You want to do everything you can to show prospects that you are trustworthy and will finish what you start.

Courage and clairvoyance

Marketing strategy is based on a clear vision and the ability to distinguish trends from fads. Most electrical contractors are creatures of habit. The mastery of the single, bold stroke distinguishes the leader from the pack. Often, this means the willingness to take on the riskiest and most challenging projects. It is a well-accepted business principle that the greatest risks produce the greatest rewards, and you will find fewer competitors willing to take on the most difficult projects.

The greater your ability to spot future needs and wants of the marketplace, the faster you will adapt your skills and develop the ability to reduce your risk on the projects that deliver the highest potential profit. The best marketing strategy involves anticipating the needs of your clients before they do and coming up with the most intriguing, creative design/build solutions.

Communication, collaboration and compatibility Doing this effectively requires an entirely different vision and approach from what electrical contractors traditionally develop. The estimating of material and labor, and positioning fixtures based on specifications and plans, depends on the translation of the client’s wants and needs through the design professional. Marketing for design/build means that you will have to empathize with the end-user, understand the environment he or she wishes to have, and be able to create it as well as build it.

Successful design/build projects require high levels of collaboration and teamwork. Relationship skills are as important as technical ability and the reputation for competent, timely performance. Unfortunately, relationship skills, communication and collaboration have not been priorities for electrical contractors, and this may be the stumbling block to effective marketing and ultimately to performing design/build projects profitably.

Construction projects are traditionally associated with high levels of conflict and ego, not collaboration and clear communication. Your ability to attract prospective design/build clients will depend on the image presented by every employee who represents your company.

Take a critical look at your office staff, project managers and field employees. Are they able to have a conversation with a client representative and explain clearly what their jobs are? Do they understand the company vision and mission? Are they capable of handling complaints calmly and without irritation or anger? If they are, then each one is a living marketing message at every moment. If not, perhaps you are not ready for the design/build marketplace.

Conveying the message

Creating an effective design/build marketing strategy is completely different from the traditional product-centered approach of the past. Design/build is based on relationship skills, collaboration, and the ability to understand an entire project from concept to punch list. The skills you will use to promote your company to potential clients are based on intangibles such as integrity, vision and creativity. The design/build race may not go to the swift or the strong, but to the best communicators and problem solvers.

Reaching design/build clients is a relationship and networking process. It is built on the foundation you have already established: performing work on time, on budget and to the satisfaction of your clients. Decide whether or not you want to expand your vision, and make sure your entire work force is able to deliver both the message and the work. Then you will be ready for the design/build marketplace. EC

NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached via e-mail at bigpeng@sbcglobal.net.