New technologies can provide a proprietary edge in both marketing and work efficiency. They are an investment in the future that can re-energize a recession-beaten staff. But not everyone views technology expenditures this way.

Over the last several years, we have met with countless design firms to discuss a variety of technology investments that would benefit them in the stagnant post-recession economy that we now seem to be living in. During this time, the methods of communicating with the decision-makers have changed, and many decision-makers have become less receptive to new ideas. Finding the correct contacts and getting time to speak with them requires a tremendous effort. Let’s discuss the avenues of information dissemination and how they have changed over the past few years:

  • Bulk email blasts are a thing of the past. They are illegal for all intents and purposes, and the ones we do receive legitimately are part of an opt-in that occurred at some point. Only customer- or client-targeted emails are allowed now. So the $64,000 question becomes, How do you attract new clients who have not opted in?
  • Industry trade conferences have had significantly declining attendence. World of Concrete, which drew 80,000 people in 2008, had an attendence of 52,000 in January 2012. Autodesk University had 13,000 attendees in 2008 and 8,000 in December 2011. A traditional draw factor of conferences was the vendor exhibits, where you could obtain high-level presentations, get hands-on experience with equipment and learn about new technologies. Attendees would routinely purchase the items at the conference. Today, that has changed. Due to the recession cutbacks, the elimination of travel budgets, the lost opportunity cost of not working and the fact that many firms have no intention of buying anything, on-site purchasing rarely occurs. Now attendees mostly sit through “classes for dummies” that provide 90-minute sessions of “education” in order to obtain CEUs or PDHs.
  • Cold-call visits to chat with a manager and introduce yourself or your products are no longer allowed; many firms have "No Solicitors" signs posted on their front door. You can try to make an appointment with the manager ahead of time, but it is very costly to find the right person and then hope they have the time to meet with you and the authority to take action.
  • Social media is an up and coming venue for information interchange, but many people are stymied by what to do and how to do it. Some firms have hired young marketing majors primarily because they are assumed to have a good handle on social media. But do they really? All I see is them setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts; they rarely know how to use them effectively. Facebook pages are mostly secondary web pages where people “like” you. Tweets are sent sporadically. Linked-In is used to invite others to connect with you. OK, then what?
  • Operational changes have affected the decision-making process. Increasingly, firms have a board of directors that collectively makes purchasing decisions. Employees and managers who see benefits in products or services struggle to convey their needs to that high a level and often have only cursory access to those individuals in the first place. Board members think they are doing their jobs when they ask for a guaranteed return on an investment or want to know which project is going to pay for it. They have lost sight of what it means to invest in something, become a stakeholder in its success and lead it to fruition.
  • The budget must be firmly in place since most firms cannot purchase anything that has not been budgeted for. If it is something that looks effective now, it will be no less than a year before it is approved, authorized and in the budget. Of course, by then a second level of scrutiny must occur to see if the budget numbers and other details are still accurate.
  • The IT departments have become the filter for all technology purchases. The vast majority of these IT groups are led by operations people since virtually all R&D, programming and think tank tasks have been eviscerated. IT directors make decisions on engineering software, survey equipment and implementation services, even if they have no absolutely no background in these fields. Some companies have created technology manager positions; however, few of these individuals have purchasing power.

The end result of these changes is that many firms maintain their ignorance, their outdated technology and their downward slide in public reputation. The company motto has become “Maintain status quo, don’t spend money, push the staff to work harder with less people and let us hope that our clients don’t find out how backwards we are.” And this isn't just happening in design firms; it's happening among their clients, too. Everything is a cost; nothing is an investment. Where are we headed with this mentality?

Image courtesy of Tech.Sell, a computer-aided selling and CRM company.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.