The Business of Surveying
Several years ago, I took an introductory course on marketing. This course was an eye-opener to say the least. Up to that point I had assumed that marketing meant advertising. In reality, advertising is only one of the many complex parts of the whole scheme of marketing.
One of the examples in our textbook caught my interest. In the 1970s, Mitsubishi Motors Corporation sought to break into the U.S. automotive market and chose to team up with Chrysler Corporation to use its distribution network. In doing this, they committed to a 10-year joint venture in producing small compact cars with the Chrysler name plate. Shortly after they inked that deal, U.S. consumers started to buy foreign cars in large quantities for their appearance and fuel economy. The other foreign automakers reaped the rewards of a now interested U.S. market. Due to its lack of research, Mitsubishi was contracted with Chrysler for the next 10 years. This example has taught me that when entering into business, research of the consumer or target market is key to a successful marketing plan.
A marketing strategy consists of several elements, including a:
- Target market or consumer base
- Marketing mix of: product, price, promotion and distribution
- Marketing environment, including: competition, economics, technology, politics and social/cultural aspects
The makeup of these variables differs across regions; it is critical to identify these variables within your environment.
Target MarketWho will most likely purchase your product? Surveying is comprised of several different disciplines. Your area of expertise will help in determining your consumer or target market. Surveyors who perform boundary work will most likely work with realtors and title companies. Surveyors who perform control work should aim their efforts at the mapping and GIS industries.
It is amazing how many different needs there are for surveying. Prior to starting on my own, my primary function as a surveyor was construction staking. This service usually reaps large fees, but it is very labor intensive and carries high liability with it. I began to search for other forms of surveying to offer and began to concentrate on what I felt were the roots of surveying-boundary and mapping. Within a few months, I found a client base within this target market.
Be careful when you are first starting out because aiming at too many targets can leave you short. It's OK to have a diverse range of services, but be sure you have the resources to keep your deliverable on time and of a high quality. If your product becomes unwanted, no amount of marketing can bring business back.
Marketing MixThe marketing mix includes product, price, promotion and distribution.
Product: The definition of your target market determines your product. Keep in mind that most states require direct supervision by a registrant over a non-registrant; verify with your state board of technical registration how it defines "direct supervision" to gauge your workload for product distribution.
Price: Setting fair and deserved prices is the weakest area of surveyors. Too often we de-value our services to get a job, however we seem to work 50 to 60 hours per week. It reminds me of a story I once heard:
A surveyor was complaining one day of all the work he had and no time to do it. His friend told him to double his rates. The surveyor replied, "I will lose half my clients!" The friend replied, "I know."
This simple little tale must have a thousand versions, but they all make the same point: establish a fair value for your work. Just like doctors, lawyers and engineers, we too are licensed professionals and deserve fair market value for our services. How to set and achieve that fee is up to you.
Promotion: One way of getting a good fee for your services is promotion. The tee shirts and ripped jeans have to go. Today's surveyor must set an image as the professional for the 21st century. Technology has done us all a favor; each new advance seems to have some relation to the surveying industry, either in the knowledge or expertise of the field. The growth of GIS cries out for surveyors to step up and be part of this new era. One of the easiest forms of promotion is your image. Self-promotion is the least expensive form of advertising along with word of mouth. If you do good work and leave the consumer feeling good about the money he spent, word will spread. In addition to these marketing methods, there are several experts who specialize in marketing. They can get you pointed in the right direction.
Distribution: You would think that this would be the easiest element of the marketing mix for surveyors. Distribution is simply deliverables. In our profession, this takes many forms: a record of survey or final plat, aerial targets placed on the ground with a text file of the corresponding values, monuments set as part of a field survey, or a series of construction stakes for a contractor to follow to build a freeway. These are all examples of surveying products and distribution. The thing I have found to be troublesome about distribution is quality. Surveyors are required to be expert measurers and have no margin for error. Ask yourself what would happen if your personnel performing this work did so at an 80 percent level instead of the desired 100 percent level. More than likely your liability insurance premiums would go up. As a result of mistakes and miscues outside of your control but under your supervision, what once seemed so simple, now appears to be something you want to avoid.
I cannot emphasize this point enough-gauge your work accordingly. You either need to do all of the work yourself or have people you can trust to perform on your behalf. Your role from this point becomes less as a surveyor and more as a quality assurance person in a survey world. Another option is to gauge the work so you can do it all yourself. With the technological advances in our industry today, this is a possibility. How you want to function in your business is up to you. This decision will affect how you distribute your product to your target market.
Marketing EnvironmentThe marketing environment includes competition, economics, technology, politics, and social and cultural aspects. The marketing environment is constantly under refinement, as it seems each of the aspects affects the other.
Competition: Defining your competition is directly related to defining your target market. If you have identified the target, you should already know those you would be working with or against. When defining this competition, it helps to develop a "competitive strategy." You must ask yourself three questions. Should we compete? If so, in what markets should we compete? How should we compete? This competition may vary between projects. A firm you may compete against one day may be a partner in a joint venture the next. This alone should inspire us to all work together and play fair when pursuing clients. Competing with other firms to deliver the same product is called direct competition-the most common form in our profession.
With the advancements in technology, the competition in the surveying profession has evolved from a direct form to an indirect form. A survey once performed with a two-person crew and a conventional total station can now be performed by one person with a robotic or GPS total station. So not only do we have to compete with each other, but we also have to keep up with technology-which can also be a form of competition. This form of substitute competition is not necessarily with a different product but how the product is produced.
Economics: Since September 11, 2001, we all have experienced extremes in the economic market. Some of us may have benefited from a role in disaster relief, while some may have suffered when the building industry leveled out. In every case, we must be prepared and have a plan-a plan that provides us with an alternate target market in the event that our primary market becomes unhealthy.
Consumers' buying plans will affect economics the most. In Arizona, it is not required to have a property survey prior to closing a transaction. Therefore, the realtors do not push to have it done, nor do the owners care to spend the money if they don't have to. Consumer buying plans are also affected by business cycles. Whether in prosperity or in a recession, the overall health of doing business will result in varying decisions by the consumer. One change in the surveying community since September 11th is an explosion in the GIS industry, more particularly related to emergency response and disaster management. This has also aided in an increased concern for more accurate data, as opposed to the standard mapping quality that has been used to date.
Technology: Over the last five years, advancements in data collection have created what I call a "magic box" industry. It has become easier for surveyors to hire a somewhat intelligent person, explain to him or her the theory of what and how this instrument will capture data and then send him or her on his or her way. Technology has begun to debilitate our industry by reducing the need for well-trained surveyors. As a group, it is up to us to prevent this from happening; in fact, we need to reverse the process. The equipment available today is made to look so simple to operate that the urge to make money surpasses the need to produce a quality product. What most operators of this advanced equipment do not realize is that the theory behind it is the "art of surveying." As professionals, we need to harness these advancements in a manner that will protect our consumers, which is our ultimate goal.
Politics: Having an understanding of the rules helps to play the game. All states require a surveyor to become licensed in his or her state prior to conducting business. Surveyors have the benefit of reciprocity on the national requirements for most states; however, every state has a state specific examination. In addition, most businesses are required to be registered with the state, as well as locally within the community. All of these things add up to a lot of paperwork but are necessary for us to do business and ensure our consumer is protected. Familiarize yourself with all of your local business rules as well as your state specific rules of doing business as a consultant or professional service.
Legality is also a part of the political environment of surveying. Insurance requirements among other things must be researched to protect your operation.
Social-Cultural Aspects: What is the latest trend in the surveying community where you operate? This is an aspect of the social-cultural environment. When determining strategy, this element must be examined to be effective. In our society, every consumer has certain rights that need to be considered when marketing a product. Surveyors today must be business men and women who consider the consumers and how they interpret our products. We not only have to be aware of their rights as recipients of our professional services but how we "sold" them on our product. Were we honest and true to what they were expecting? In doing business, we are expected to not only hold true to our state's minimum standards of practice, but also to the ethics and morals of how we deliver our product.
SummaryHowever complex it may seem, we all must use marketing in its various forms. There are many choices on how we use marketing. As you grow in business, your marketing approach should also grow. It should become part of your toolkit, along with your plumb bob and total station.
Source material for this article came from my own experience, and the following texts; Contemporary Marketing, 7th edition by Boone and Kurtz, and Entrepreneur Magazine's "Start Your Own Business."
This is the first part of a series on The Business of Surveying to be published in several future issues.