Like it or not, every construction service a client buys must be sold. This means that construction professionals need effective selling skills – so, here's how to do it. Plus, a guide to marketing speak.
Almost all construction professionals realise that their central goal should be to establish long-term client relationships. Often called "relationship marketing", this approach recognises the cost efficiencies in repeat business versus the higher cost of converting new opportunities into actual clients. However, few construction professionals recognise that establishing long-term clients and winning over new ones hinges on a key skill: the art of selling.

The problem is that we professionals presume that selling implies a salesman, and this undermines our perception of our own professional integrity. Yet, first impressions at that first business meeting are crucial. If you present yourself in the wrong manner, you are eliminated from the next stage.

Clearly, all construction services need to be sold, but not in the same way as, say, the dreaded double glazing. There are sales skills to be learned and with a few tweaks here and there, professionals can dramatically affect the outcome of their business development meetings.

Client perspective

The secret is to focus on getting alongside the client. Try to see things from its point of view by focusing on its interests, needs or concerns, and not on your position. Do not automatically assume you know best what the client needs, and try not to get wrapped up in your solution, as the client may not see the logic of it.

Information overload

Although probing questions are important, credibility is not established by information. Beware of a bombastic barrage of credentials: major projects, years in business, scope of resources, financial standing and the like. This introduction is self-serving and beside the point, and you may be presenting detail that is out of context, perhaps too soon in the programme, and it may not seem relevant. Also, the client may start to sense selling instead of a genuine understanding and concern for its situation. Just keep quiet and actively listen in the early stages. Let the client talk; ask questions.

Seek agreements on issues

It takes creativity to reach a stage where you and the client agree on what the problems are and how they could be resolved: should the structural frame be steel or concrete? Why not use design and build instead of a traditional route? Getting the client to this point is essential, as it helps it to see how its perspective of the problem can really be changed. Supporting it and showing yourself to be on its side helps improve relationships.

Risk assessment

Having agreed the main issues, and before submitting your proposals, ask the client about the consequences if a problem is neglected. Listen carefully to its responses and help it to see the real risks. By emphasising your concern with meeting these basic needs, you will ensure they see the problem and your winning cost-saving solutions in their true context.

Boring questions

As we are technically focused, we get used to asking fact-finding questions, but a stream of such questions in the early stages of a relationship will bore the client rigid. It is better to ask a few carefully focused ones to establish the context before going on to uncover the client's problems and what their resolutions will mean to the project.


Summarise all the benefits you will bring and submit your proposals, but do not put pressure on the client for a decision. Do not leave the client alone either, as you are losing the opportunity to address any last-minute anxieties or problems. Having sold it a new solution, the client may call in one of your competitors for an alternative view – and it might just nab the job. The best approach is to maintain a reassuring availability. This can only be done if you have got alongside the client right from the start.

In effect, it is best not to try and sell at all; think of your presentation meetings as if you have already been appointed. Give your honest professional advice – this will make you less likely to feel like a salesman, and it will enhance your professionalism in the eyes of the client.

How to talk marketing

At the recent Construction Marketing Question Time 1999 organised by Chris Preece of the University of Leeds, I noted that marketing terminology was misunderstood by panel and audience alike. We have therefore produced a free booklet on construction marketing and business development terminology. Here are some of the highlights. Branding This should encompass your identity, culture, service and image. It is not just about your logo. Branding should also:
  • convey the history and founding principles of your business
  • show a wide portfolio of “services” under one umbrella brand
  • give a consistent message from all offices
  • be used for general publicity and name awareness. Image must match reality and there must be a shared internal understanding of brand values. Differentiation If clients are unable to differentiate between you and your competitors, they will buy on price. Firms should clearly offer a unique selling point or proposition that is valued by that particular client. It may not be at the core of your expertise: for example, support. Selling is not the same as marketing Selling is gaining short-term tactical triumphs, focusing on the seller’s needs; marketing provides long-term client orientation, focusing on developing a service that matches client needs. Public relations Good PR doesn’t just happen, it needs to be planned. It is a means of generating awareness of your firm and services by communicating specific messages and images to target audiences. If managed well, PR coverage can cost very little.