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In harsh market conditions, doing more with your marketing could give you the edge

If you don’t have a marketing strategy the time may be ripe to think about one - it could help you to keep your clients, win more work from them and gain new ones.

For James Rose, who trained as an electrician and is now a director in the building division of consultancy WSP, having a marketing strategy is absolutely key to maintaining clients and winning new ones.

Part of his remit is to look after diversification strategy and client satisfaction. “It’s interesting that not many businesses actually have a defined marketing strategy. Bidding and winning in these market conditions is fundamental,” he says.

“It’s really important to have a clear strategy, to know what your skills are. So, if you are focused on the private sector you either downsize your business and ride through the storm, or you diversify into other sectors. But you have to acquire the skills and that takes time,” he says.

He is conscious many businesses may be considering moving away from private sector projects and towards the public sector as they have been seen as a safer option.

Sector considerations

“The public sector has its own unique characteristics. There are some major projects but the time they take to come to market is extremely slow so you have to bear that in mind,” Mr Rose says.
Diversifying is key to keeping a business strong, but only to sectors where you have competency to do it. “It’s about identifying and attracting sectors that are attractive and in demand and are growing. In these conditions sometimes people decide that they won’t invest in those sectors but to get longer-term benefit, you should,” he says.

WSP is growing its infrastructure sectors. “Transport, sea links, aviation - hese are areas which are going to change over the next three or four years. For example, what is happening with BAA. That creates opportunities for us. Change always creates opportunities,” he says.

Of course, WSP has not escaped the downturn. “We continue to be impacted by projects that are being put on hold and stopped. That’s mainly due to clients who are suffering from a real stretch on funding, but it’s no different to any other professional services business.

“One of our strengths is that we have this resilience and can move people to other markets,” says Mr Rose, confirming that staff will be moved to the Middle East if needs be.

If your clients are suffering, empathise with them. “Make sure the people delivering the projects are fully aware that clients are going through similar issues. If you can tailor your service to suit their situation and understand the way they operate then you can maintain a closer relationship,” he says.

Quality bids

But don’t be tempted to cut the price when bidding, because if you do you may struggle to meet your margins and your client may not get the service it needs.

“We were undercut by 25 per cent on a public sector project and it went to someone else. But they will struggle to deliver it and the client will return to us in one or two years’ time. It’s really important that you put quality bids in,” he says.

So where are the niches, if you want to diversify? Mr Rose pinpoints several areas. “If I was looking at the contractor market, repair and maintenance is still a massive sector in terms of overall construction spend. If you’re looking at health care trusts for example, they will still have to maintain their facilities and they have reasonably sized budgets,” he says.

During a stint at NG Bailey, traditionally an M&E firm, he helped it diversify into new areas. “We were looking at off-site prefabrication which is really a nice niche to be looking at. The market is pretty tight, there are not that many competitors doing it,” Mr Rose says.

He adds that the energy and environmental market is one which WSP is developing, bearing in mind that most of its clients will be affected by the Carbon Reduction Commitment.

“It’s about relationships,” adds Mr Rose. “Think about your clients’ international aspirations and extend into that.”

James Rose is speaking at Construction News’ Forecasting for Construction on 21 October

‘We are always under pressure’

Infrastructure is an area WSP is looking to move into. “The infrastructure needs of this country are woefully underprovided. I don’t think the Government has any choice not to invest. It will be looking for private funding, with aviation passenger numbers shooting up – and regional infrastructure will have to be upgraded,” says Mr Rose.

He feels that the Government may have unfairly supported the financial services industry when the downturn hit.

“I don’t think that we [the industry] are represented strongly enough at Government level and that’s a massive issue for us. If you think about the financial services industry – the support that Bradford and Bingley has had, that Northern Rock has had. I’m sure if WSP said ‘we’re in dire straits,’ I don’t think they would bail us out.”

Mr Rose sees confidence returning in the finance world in about six to 12 months and that our sector will be about six to 12 months behind that.

Price pressures also get his goat. “We are always under pressure. I don’t feel that our equivalent professionals in accountancy, for example, or management consultancy are under the same cost pressures.

“A lot of clients would like a world-class service and a lot of them pay for a world-class service. Some of them expect world-class but don’t expect the world-class rates. It’s about being valued for what we do.”

He thinks that more needs to be done to raise the industry’s profile.

“There seems to be a continual message about UK construction and property that we’re second-rate but in actual fact we are world-class. A lot of our engineers from the UK are in demand across international markets. We undersell ourselves.”