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Does Size Matter?

Dear Dave
Is there a future for us? Our firm is a 55-person civil engineering and survey outfit doing public and private work generally within a 100-mile radius of our office. On more than one occasion over the past few years we have heard or read that, in the future, engineering firms will either be very small, community oriented practices, or large, multi-discipline regional organizations. Mid-size firms will gradually fade away as they are too big to compete with the smaller local firms, and too small to compete with larger firms.

Dear JK
I too have been hearing variations on that general thesis since the early 90’s, and I don’t buy it. Gazing in my crystal ball, the future is not about large firm / small firm. It is about expertise combined with high-touch client service.

Where size does matter is convincing a potential client your firm has the believable capacity available (manpower and other resources) to accomplish the volume of work associated with their project. If you’re going after projects appropriately matched to your firm’s size, whatever that size may be, size quickly becomes a secondary issue.

Rather than size per se, I see mounting evidence, day in and day out, the future will be rosiest for firms who have developed industrial strength depth and breadth of expertise in the project types they choose to pursue. Stated another way, clients are increasingly demanding to work with firms who specialize. If you design “roads,” can you go beyond design and provide your clients with expert insights and services related to the political, social, legislative, environmental and financial ramifications of proposed projects? Are you conversant in next generation road technology and material? Has your firm developed proprietary processes and procedures unique to road projects that produce a discernable, exclusive benefit to your clients? Is your reputation and number of projects completed such that you are clearly recognized as a road design leader within the client community?

High-touch client service means, “never having to say you’re sorry.” It’s a busy, complex world. Clients don’t have the time or the patience for bad service. Think they’re short-tempered now? Just wait. They have choices and they know it. Clients want to work with professional firms who anticipate needs and problems and take pro-active steps, without goading, to avoid or minimize the impact they may have on client projects.

Clients also want things as simple as their phone calls promptly returned. They want invoices, letters, memos, reports and other documents to be on time, correct and neat. They don’t want to get caught in the middle of squabbles or finger pointing between engineers and sub-contractors. They want to be able to rely on the initial contract fee quoted as well as count on the completion date promised. They want to hear from their engineers before and after projects, not just during projects.

Yes, you have a future. To best insure that future, forget the size issue. Concentrate instead on developing specialized project expertise and on organizing and operating your firm in such a way that your clients will find it refreshingly pleasurable to do business with you.

Wahby and Associates