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FMI Quarterly/September 2014/September 1, 2014

Learning Beyond the Classroom

Industry6_imageAs the construction industry becomes more efficient and our workplaces more competitive the onus is on the individual to stand out.

People move business. This is a short yet powerful statement that is fundamental to much of what we do in our workplaces. It’s truly amazing how often we forget that behind the estimates, behind the project schedules and behind the drawings, it always comes back to people.

As a graduate construction management student at Columbia University in New York, I’m getting an excellent education, yet I’m still learning beyond the classroom. I have a deep understanding that everything in life involves sales and communication. People are key to everything we do. In our schools and in our workplaces, we constantly have to prove a point, explain a solution or convince someone that we have an answer to the present problem. So while I understand that it’s great to earn a degree from an amazing Ivy League institution, it’s literally worthless if I can’t communicate my value and address a client’s need.

In school we’re often presented with many different formulas, projects and problem sets. Colleges are excellent at providing solid foundations in the technical aspects of construction. The development of an estimate, the construction of a CPM schedule and even innovative uses of new technologies like BIM are all covered in a curriculum. However, colleges could do a better job of helping the student think like a problem solver who can effectively communicate a solution. The construction industry is full of problems that need solutions; this represents opportunity for our future generation of project managers, supervisors and owners.

Presenting Solutions

In December I attended a “Construction Selling Skills” course with FMI in San Francisco. The program truly helped improve my ability to communicate efficiently. More importantly, it helped strengthen the notion that people move business. All business transactions — whether it’s hiring an employee or being awarded a project — require that a need be met. As employees, we receive a salary when we meet a particular need within the company. As general contractors, we are compensated when we solve a problem for the customer. Sales and communication require similar paths. In sales you are compensated when you solve a need. In communication you are rewarded with understanding when what is communicated satisfies the listener’s need. The traditional sales approach of pitching an idea absent a need is ineffective at best. Instead, presenting a solution to solve the client’s need is welcomed. If the problem or need does not exist, then there is no pitch in the world that will close a potential client.

Secondly, the FMI program helped clarify a common misconception that the chattiest individuals are the best candidates for a seller-doer position. In reality, clients want to speak with individuals who have the most technical depth about the subject matter. They want to feel comfortable that the person representing the company actually knows how to build. As a result, employers need to understand the importance of preparing their technical experts in communication. While estimators or project superintendents may not be inclined to generate new business, we need to educate them on the importance of seller-doers and provide them with the necessary training. Generally, it is easier to equip technically trained people with communication skills than to equip good communicators with technical competence. The hazards, of course, include the possibilities that the easy talkers may be unlikely to do the homework necessary to have the technical savvy needed, and the technically savvy may have behavioral blocks to becoming empathetic communicators.

What are students thinking?

Students are a mixed bag when it comes to their appreciation of seller-doers. For example, after recent conversations with undergraduate students, I learned that many do not readily understand the business aspect of their technical careers. Often we see that someone wants to become an engineer because he or she wants to build projects, yet very little thought goes to the business aspect of engineering: how work is obtained, how projects are awarded and the importance of the working relationship with the client during the build-out. When speaking with part-time graduate students who have full-time jobs, there was greater appreciation for the business issues. This group seems to grasp the idea that beyond their technical skills, other skills are necessary in the workplace. Consequently, these graduate students are more apt to participate in networking events and activities that may help generate new business for their companies. I’ve often wondered if this is due to the players within the classroom. Professors often have full-time jobs and teach classes to part-time graduate students. This combination of workplace experience and academic instruction helps create a vibrant environment where both the professor and the student bring the classroom to life. It is no longer an abstract concept that was written in a textbook, but an actual problem that requires real-world application. After a recent conversation with a senior project manager, he mentioned that he loves to hire students who attend part-time graduate programs. He believes that students that come out of full-time programs typically obtain a lot of their information from textbooks that were written five to 10 years ago. On the other hand, students that attend part-time programs with adjunct professors are typically very familiar with the latest construction technologies and have a very strong sense of the day-to-day operations of a construction company. The content that is brought into the classroom by both the student and the professor is the catalyst that helps shape the problem-solving mindset of seller-doers.

Nevertheless, how do you get these students to realize the value in communication and the fact that they are already participating in the sales process? Consider the presentations that students make in schools. Often, they have to explain their point of view and demonstrate why their solution may be superior to the other solutions being presented. Presentations that concentrate on need fulfillment are often winners. This sounds a lot like the kind of communication a successful contractor has with an owner or that a subcontractor has with a prime contractor. However, many students dismiss the value of this opportunity to practice their sales approach in the classroom. In some cases, presentations provoke a paralyzing fear in the student. As a result, when hiring, employers should look for students who may have enjoyed this process. While they have a deep technical understanding of their skill set, they also have an appreciation for the communication process, and thus make excellent candidates for a seller-doer position.

Awaken the Seller Within: Three key elements to help awaken the seller that lies within your new hire

Educate: When hiring your potential candidate, take into account the dynamics of his or her education. Is the new hire textbook-savvy? Or has the new hire been exposed to real-world construction problems in the classroom? We live in a problem-solving world, thus it is very important to make sure that your new hire understands he or she is being paid to solve a problem. Use this to directly create the linkage between sales and technical careers. New hires need to understand that throughout most of their academic careers they’ve been making presentations, meeting new friends and solving problems, all of which come into play in the business world. The new hire also needs to understand that all of the technical skills in the world are useless if he or she cannot communicate the value of these skills to others. It has truly always been about problem-solving and it will always be about problem-solving!

Mentor: Employers must take active roles in training new employees and fostering the skill set early on. Setting up mentor-protégé relationships within the company will help build a sense of teamwork within the organization and, most importantly, help nurture future company executives’ and managers’ skills. By developing teams of seller-doers from within the company, the teams will be populated by people who genuinely understand the company and comprehend the technical aspects of the work being performed. Clients do not want to speak with “talking heads”; instead, they’d much prefer to speak with someone who will be performing the actual work. It’s up to the company executives to prepare staff members to handle these business opportunities.

Support: Preparing seller-doers is a matter of corporate culture, and it needs to be incorporated on all levels. I’m restating this again because it is vital to the success of the recently employed student. Training programs, webinars and reading materials centered on construction selling skills are all important support mechanisms that can help the newly employed student gain his or her footing as a seller-doer. Your business depends on fresh leads and generating new business; thus it’s crucial to shape the mindsets of these recent graduates so that they understand that selling is a natural extension of any job.

The seller-doer is the role of the future. As the construction industry becomes more efficient and our workplaces more competitive, the onus is on the individual to stand out because of what he or she brings to the table. In the case of students and employees, the ability to communicate effectively, generate new business and participate in the sales process will likely be the silver lining that separates the superstars from the average Joes.


Myths of the Seller-Doer

Rainmakers who can sell and also have strong technical skills are in great demand in the industry today. The seller-doer role is the next evolution for people with a technical perspective. Good at their individual areas of focus — project management, estimating, pre-construction, etc. — seller-doers can extend relationships with existing customers and support the winning work with a new customer, all the while delivering competently in their area of expertise.

Effective seller-doers must balance the time needed for project management, estimating, pre-construction and so forth, with the additional time required to meet with clients, build new relationships, help discover hot buttons and position their firms above the competition. However, not everyone with strong technical skills will be able or have the motivation to be a seller-doer —so what does it take?

We have to first start with dispelling the two most common myths about seller-doers:

  • Myth One: To be an effective seller-doer, you have to be a talkative, extroverted person. Wrong. Many of the industry’s top seller-doers are more introverted than extroverted. What differentiates them is the intellectual curiosity about the customer and their project. They are committed to finding out how their company can best serve that customer’s need and are willing to invest the time and effort to accomplish that.
  • Myth Two: Seller-doers get into selling because they lack technical depth. Wrong again. Strong seller-doers possess technical expertise that customers are interested in. Seller-doers have an advantage over full-time business development people in that regard. They can talk to the client in specific terms about projects and describe their organization’s differentiation points.

The Key Skills That Effective Seller-Doers Possess

When determining whether a new candidate might be successful in a seller-doer role in the future, it starts with first ensuring they have customer-oriented technical skills and the experience necessary to gain a broad perspective. They must be effective doers first and then they must also possess these attributes:

  • Demonstrates client care
  • Intellectually curious about the customer’s business
  • Asks good questions
  • Listens actively and effectively
  • Articulates complex situations clearly and simply
  • Envisions the project from the customer’s point of view
  • Exhibits creativity
  • Manages their time effectively

Tips for Interviewing Recent College Graduates

Gauge prospects’ future potential as seller-doers by looking into what they did in addition to their course work. Find out about the clubs and groups they participated in. Find out about projects they were engaged in that allowed them to get to know a real company. Strive to learn about their interests and ability to effectively manage time in a way that allowed them to participate in extracurricular activities and jobs.

Look for signs that a student worked on a client project as part of his or her studies. Many universities and colleges now have course work where students participate in consulting-type projects. Such endeavors give students valuable exposure to companies and allow companies to sample future talent coming from the university. In both cases, ask questions similar to those listed below:

Screenshot 2017-01-23 11.34.59

Strong future seller-doers are people who have a love for the technical aspects of construction and an affinity toward the customer’s business. It takes a balance of skills —both selling and doing. They do not have to be the high verbal types who like to talk a lot, but they do need enough intellectual curiosity to want to dig deeply and find out the customer’s challenges and how your firm can help solve them.

Construction projects are complicated endeavors. At the end of the day, construction projects are being built for clients who need solutions to their business problems. Individuals who have the natural curiosity to want to find out the customer’s point of view are the ones who will naturally grow into very successful seller-doers. All you have to do is support and nurture their growth.


Angel Cuevas is a graduate student in the construction administration program at Columbia University. He can be reached via email at adc2156@columbia.edu.

 

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