Half is Better than None

Math might not be everyone's favorite game, but we all know that part of something is better than nothing. This belief is the reason the strategic alliance concept has grown in the industry during the past two decades. Savvy surveyors (and engineers) started making informal and formal relationships with other companies—even competitors—to get a piece of the pie rather than none at all. Since that first shaky alliance was formed, we have seen countless strange bedfellows join together to succeed. Is it right for you?


Good Relationships

Strategic alliances are relationships that help expand your horizons, win bigger projects and gain more experience and allow you to support yourself with greater ease. They can be formal contract agreements or informal nods between firms to market together toward a specific project or time period. If you're marketing together informally, put your terms in writing once you win a project. Nothing spoils a good relationship faster than fighting over money and responsibility.

Essentially, forging a strategic alliance means aligning yourself or your firm with a similar or complementary company. This could be a surveying firm that has stronger GPS skills, a lock on the GIS market (but not enough people to meet demand), or different or better equipment to get you started in a new arena. It could be an engineering company that does a lot of development work but has no survey crews of its own. More exotic alliances might be joining with a contractor or homebuilder to win more construction staking work or a small municipality to handle its surveying overflow so it doesn't have to increase its staffing and equipment budgets.

There are plenty of reasons to seek out strategic alliances. You can win more projects while gaining more skills and exposure by working on projects that are bigger or more complex than you could win on your own. In some cases, you might align with a close competitor to ward off another competitor and win a piece of the project instead of losing it all to that third competitor. Sometimes, clients find bigger is better. More importantly, though, these competitor alliances put together at least two brains to develop a winning strategy and collectively have more time for market intelligence and more resources to write a winning proposal. As our business world adjusts to market conditions of either growth or constraint, these alliances grow stronger.

The Right Alliance

Finding the right alliance can be difficult. Not everyone wants to work with someone else. Some firms believe they can win on their own and don't need to cultivate these alliances. It takes a careful review of your success rate and your projected successes—and goals—to consider creating an alliance. Take a hard look at your own business. What skills do you think are lacking or weak? Do you wish you had different or better equipment? Do you feel you could work in a different geographic area (you have the right equipment and skills) if you only had contacts? Do you feel you have certain skills that are better than your competitors, although they are winning more jobs? The answers to these questions can point the way to a specific type of alliance: an augmenting alliance. Joining forces with these firms augments your skills by extending your tools, geographic territory or marketing reach.

Cooperative alliances are those where you seek firms that are similar in geography, expertise or territory. In these cases, you join with another firm because you have compatible visions and want to work together either to win a single big job or to pursue several projects to beat another competitor. Cooperative alliances can be trickier because sometimes it's hard for two close competitors to be comfortable with each other. In most cooperative alliance cases, these firms have structured formal agreements between close competitors, clearly outlining what each partner will do, share and spend (or earn). With this formality, competitors don't share things they want to keep secret as long as they aren't necessary to win the project. They just share information and resources relevant to the pursued work. I've even seen separate alliance offices set up for big ventures, with separate accounting and administrative personnel. This is realistic only on large-scale projects with lots of players.

Who Is a Good Fit?

The most common alliances are between a surveying practice and an engineering firm. You should also consider general contractors, construction managers, homebuilders, planning firms, landscape architects (particularly if you've learned how to locate protected plants), land use attorneys or developers. Be sure you approach each potential ally with forethought and precision. Do your homework first. What do you know about them? Are they honorable? Do they have a good reputation with clients you already have or want to have? Do they respect your profession and clients? Make sure it's a firm that you would be willing to stand up in court with, as your partner, before you proceed. You might have to one day, and it's better to feel comfortable with ethics and honor now.

You may have to court an ally as you would a client, so commit the time and energy to make the introduction and talk shop with your target. If you are being courted, reflect on the benefits you might gain from the relationship. What might you lose? If the benefits outweigh the negatives, move forward. Sometimes alliances are formed hastily to win a specific project. Nevertheless, you should still determine whether you can live with this arrangement for a month, a year or for the rest of your professional life.

In an uncertain future, strategic alliances are an increasingly popular way to move ahead without breaking the bank.


Susan Zeloznicki is a marketing consultant based in Tempe, Arizona, and a Contributing Editor for the magazine.

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