Listen and learn

Atkins hopes training its middle managers in relationship skills will improve its ability to win new work.  Margo Cole reports.

Consultants use a variety of different methods for winning new work.  Some opt for business development managers whose sole responsibility it is to chase new business, while others have less formal arrangements based on the personal relationships senior staff have with potential clients.

Without anyone taking specific responsibility for this role, there is a danger that the burden of business development falls on the shoulders of one or two directors.

Consultant Atkins has addressed this by filtering down responsibility to its next level of managers, and helping them gain confidence in dealing with clients and potential clients. But they are not being trained in what might be considered classic “sales” techniques, or learning an “Atkins way”.  Instead, 19 managers from across Atkins’ Epsom-based Design, Environment and Engineering business have just completed a two stage course in “relationship skills”.

The company already uses an external consultancy, PACE, to run courses in interpersonal skills and “selling the consultancy”, so Atkins asked PACE to pull out the elements that particularly related to building and understanding relationships.

“It is really more about confidence than skills,” explains director Nick Flew.  “It’s about changing people’s perception of how they do things, giving them confidence and doing things in a different way.  They don’t come away with a manual.”

The course, he says, emphasises “listening skills and making sure you’ve done everything you can to have listened to the customer before you even think about making a presentation”.

Stage one, a two day residential course, was focused on breaking down preconceptions about dealing with potential clients.  “It was about making the point that a successful sales person is not the person who’s the most extrovert or flamboyant, but someone who’s picking up on what the customer has said by listening and asking the right questions at the right time,” explains Flew.

In fact, Atkins is keen that these managers retain their natural characteristics while putting this new knowledge into practice, acknowledging that there are significant benefits in having people with a range of different personalities to communicate with different clients.

Stage two, which took place two and a half months later, gave them the chance to report back on how they had put their new knowledge into practice, and took it one stage further by looking at how to follow up a successful customer service meeting with a full presentation.

The 19 participants were chosen from across Design, Environment and Engineering business, which is made up of architects and structural, civil infrastructure and building services engineers.

According to Flew they did generally conform to expected stereotypes (architects and one end of the flamboyancy spectrum and engineers at the other), but an important element in setting up the course was to bring these people together.

The two part relationship skills course demonstrates the emphasis Atkins is now placing on what engineers traditionally call “soft” skills.  Phil Tarrant, an associate structural engineer who took part, says:  “Traditionally Atkins has trained us well technically and in being good commercial managers, but not focused on much of the softer aspects of management. It’s really important to listen to people and understand their requirements.”


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