The first of a new series on marketing tools and techniques looks at how an up-to-date database of clients and contacts can help you win new business.
If you think marketing is strictly for the big boys, think again. Marketing services in the construction industry are still in their infancy and many small and medium-sized firms could increase profitability by at least 10% just by using a few simple marketing tools and techniques.

One such tool is a contact management database. I am often amazed to find that many professional firms do not possess a database capable of telling them basic marketing information, such as when a past client or friendly referrer of work was last spoken to. The usual response is "yes, we have a database – it's our Christmas card list". This is often an out-of-date collection of names and addresses that do not identify the services previously sold, the client's industry sector or even a list of past projects.

Up to 95% of most firms' turnover comes from existing clients and contacts and often this work is won as a result of ad hoc meetings and chance telephone calls. This is fine in a growing market but when the economy is in decline, you either need socially gregarious senior staff with vast memories or a simple database and a disciplined attitude to use it.

Improved communication is the aim of every firm and a contact database will allow staff to share out the firm's contacts and client base and identify who they haven't spoken to recently. It will allow future contact to be formalised and assist staff in being proactive, enabling them to keep in regular contact. This tracking will tease out opportunities of the "glad you called, we may have something for you" variety.

Firms using a database in this way have experienced a significant increase in opportunities and a similar jump in turnover, and that is just in their first year of operation. A by-product of this low-cost tool is improved management reports on conversion rates, win/lose analysis and useful data such as which few clients (often only 20% of your client base) provide 80% of your turnover.

However, be warned of customising existing software if you are thinking about a database that extends beyond a few internal departments. Not only can they become slow and quickly obsolete, you can become too reliant on the individual who produced it. Also, try to avoid spending a small fortune on internal or external consultants who reinvent the wheel and still only achieve 45% of what a £300 off-the-shelf contact database can do out of the box.

The best off-the-shelf packages allow you to configure your system to suit your current requirements and offer vast capability for future improvements. You usually need an external consultant to set up the system, but the user-friendly software enables you to become independent quickly. And software companies are constantly upgrading their products to provide improved technology and capability.

With more than 200 packages, ranging from £150 to £1000, to choose from, selecting the right system is critical. The main pitfalls concern the number of licences needed, intended communications between offices and the software rescuers who provide the configuration and installation expertise. They must be able to demonstrate up-and-running sites, satisfied clients and, most important, a fundamental appreciation of what one is trying to achieve.

  Typical additional requirements include:

  • relationship management of a variety of associated individuals and firms
  • opportunity tracking with percentage conversion rate
  • campaign management for organising events and hospitality
  • search capability on all past projects by sectors, service and personnel.
A good user manual and on-screen help is invaluable, as are independent trainers who know the standard database inside out and can organise in-house training for staff. You will need a database manager but he or she should not be expected to solely input data but to use it for actual marketing activities.

Successful implementation of any software system depends on senior management. If staff perceive a lack of commitment or support, it will fail. Implementation of any marketing database solution should not be considered in isolation from the rest of the business. Therefore, selection of the right package should be made after analysing existing and future business needs.

How to generate business in 1999 and beyond

Developing a database to nurture contacts proactively is one way of finding new business. Here are some more:
  • Identify the opportunities you really want to win and demonstrate serious commitment as early as possible.
  • Get really enthusiastic about opportunities with an inside edge. These always offer the highest potential of converting into actual business.
  • Ask yourself whether the cost of tendering for projects in the European Union’s Official Journal is justified. These are longshots and rarely won.
  • Stop chasing opportunities in sectors that you have no experience in.
  • Develop a marketing strategy that looks forward three years and can identify the main sources of future work in the year ahead.
  • Confirm with the client your interpretation of its needs before writing your proposal.
  • By delivering tender proposals by hand, you can quickly run through the main points to improve the client’s interpretation of your service.
  • Find out your client’s long-term plans and whether you are part of them.
  • Improve business from existing clients. Find out if they are really aware of all the things you do.