A/E/C Firms Must Unclog the Overhead Drain

Brian M. Fraley
Posted on: 12/07/15
Written by: Brian M. Fraley

photo-1422284763110-6d0edd657b13-3Some technical people in the A/E/C industry use the term “overhead drain” to describe Marketing and Business Development staff, which are typically not billable. It’s a label that leaves the target torn between an uncomfortable smirk and a frown depending on the individual’s disposition. Even those raised in the School of Hard Knocks are subject to the demotivating effect of this attitude. And it drains value from your firm as a result. 

Why not build them up instead of breaking them down? This is Human Resources 101, yet many A/E/C firms make it clear that billable folks are more valued than those in overhead positions. Didn’t you hire this portion of your overhead staff to generate business for your billable staff? Undermining them crushes their morale, which negatively impacts your firm’s bottom line because they aren’t reaching their full potential. There is a correlation between company morale and financial performance metrics such as annual revenue and profitability. 

Why do some contractors and designers feel this way? There are too many complex issues to delve into here, but generally speaking, it’s lack of understanding. The A/E/C crowd is very pragmatic. The very nature of the work offers a clear and timely link between cause and effect. The results achieved by Marketing and Business Development are not always black and white and the strategies and tactics implemented can require time to hit the bottom line.

Designing a building or a site becomes tangible once constructed. Spending a year and thousands of dollars winning a project from a client is far from it. There is also a perception that Business Development and Marketing require less skill than Engineering, Architecture, and Construction. The main difference, in reality, is the nature of the skill.

The very business model founded on billable hours sets the stage for the problem. The mindset it creates is that paid time is meaningful and unpaid time is not. Look at it this way. Your clients aren’t going to pay for your efforts to promote and grow your business. That model works for firms that sell mutual funds and can bury the fees within the fund’s expenses. The A/E/C sector has no such luxury. Marketing and Business Development, regardless of the industry, is critical to creating billable work for your technical staff. 

Hiring a Marketing and Business Development professional without empowering them is like buying a luxury car and refusing to fill it with the manufacturer-recommended 94 Octane gas because you believe it won’t improve the performance. Splurge on the good fuel and watch your Marketing and Business Development staff outperform.

About the author: Brian M. Fraley is the founder, manager, and chief strategist for Fraley AEC Solutions, LLC, a marketing communications firm that builds solutions on a foundation of industry understanding for the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (A/E/C) marketplace. He can be found on LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, or at the firm's AEC Straight Talker Blog.

PSMJ is always looking to publish diverse views on issues and trends in the A/E/C industry. We invite you to submit a 500-word post on any industry-related topic. We look forward to hearing from you.

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