How to Overcome Your Top Business and Technical Challenges

Business and technical challenges plague every market, industry, organization and, arguably, every person. And, as unfortunate as it may be, there is never a shortage of challenges or issues. Every time you defeat one, another arises. Fortunately, however, challenges can breed opportunities to emerge stronger. For the respondents of EDR Insight’s 4Q12 State of the Property Assessment Market, there were many notable challenges mentioned that centered around five main themes.

Based on the open-ended responses to the request for environmental professionals to “list the top business and technical challenges they face as an environmental due diligence professional today,” there were some common threads.
Overall, the top technical and business challenges (in no particular order) were:

  • Continued price competition
  • Finding and hiring new staff with a solid Phase I ESA background
  • Implementing new technologies
  • Educating clients about environmental due diligence requirements
  • Incorporating the ASTM standard update and changes into current practice

Below are the sentiments shared by EP respondents, followed by suggestions on how to best overcome each of these challenges moving forward.

Continued price competition

TopBizTechChallenges---Price-Image

What EPs are saying:

  • “Market pricing is too low. We are losing money on Phase I’s.”
  • “With a large amount of the firms laying environmental folks off, a good bit are now working from home for less fees. Price driven Phase I work is always hard to win.”
  • “We are competing with a $1800 Phase I (or less) for clients. They demand more, yet always want it for less.”
  • “Prices are still too low to make much money (if any), unless it goes to a Phase II.”
  • “Meeting timeline and pricing constraints while still producing a quality product is a challenge.”
  • “Our top challenge is to continue to strive to provide reports of high quality under increasingly tighter deadlines along with the addition of more requirements in order to remain ASTM compliant.”
  • “One challenge is staying competitive with pricing while still making money.”

How to Overcome:

Most business and trade journals and magazines will simply say that differentiation is the key to overcoming pricing pressures, yet for environmental consultants fighting the perception of their services as a commodity, there needs to be a better solution above and beyond the justification of offering a “better” report than the competition. While, as an EP, you need to be able to clearly describe the differences in your services versus your competitors, you also need to make sure your firm is setting prices that support the value of your services instead of simply pricing against the competition. EP firms need to have a clear value proposition for services offered and should embrace a “customer first”, relationship-based strategy for doing business. The more you play (or sell) to what the client wants versus the time and cost of a project, the better chance you have to win bids. Combining your service offerings with an “experience” for your clients will allow you to offer a more complete solution to your client and may help make price less of a focus.

Finding and hiring new staff with a solid Phase I ESA background

TopBizTechChallenges---Staff-ImageWhat EPs are saying:

  • “One challenge is finding qualified staff who can work cost effectively.”
  • “Finding new staff that already have a good Phase I ESA background is a challenge. Many applicants do not seem to understand the standard, even though they may have 2 or more years of experience.”
  • “Hiring the right staff to conduct Phase Is and audits is a challenge.”
  • “A challenge is to keep our levels of technical staff equivalent to the workload (or short-term potential workload) in this still somewhat unpredictable market.”

How to Overcome:

While finding qualified staff with relevant experience is difficult, that challenge provides the opportunity to educate and shape the employees you do hire to be the best in the industry. For example, some survey respondents mentioned not being able to find staff that understand the ASTM standard. Though it is difficult to choose from a pool of candidates that do not necessarily have relevant experience and knowledge of industry requirements, the possession of other characteristics and qualities can help you make an informed decision. Ensuring that candidates have passion, problem-solving skills, commitment, organizational skills and an attention to detail upfront will help them move faster up the curve on developing a deeper understanding of things like the ASTM standard. Now is a great time for on-boarding new employees that need to be introduced to the standard, as the expected release for E 1527-13 in Summer 2013 brings an opportunity to educate. However, in doing so, it is important not to overlook existing staff. Offering various internal trainings and capitalizing on external training programs are great ways to ensure that your staff is educated to your firm’s standards and is a great way to foster training and development of your seasoned staff and maintain a high level of quality and knowledge across the board.

Implementing new technologies

TopBizTechChallenges---Tech-Image

What EPs are saying:

  • “We are always looking for new ways to use technology to cut down the time required for on-site visits and writing.”
  • “We have to use available technology to reduce the amount of time it takes to write a report. Formats, use of computer technology, plug-in data, etc. are important. Currently, there is little time to apply ‘EP’ input to reports.”
  • “Just preparing the maps and figures for our reports is our biggest hurdle.”

How to Overcome:

Fortunately for EPs working today, there are various free technologies that can be used to help save time and cut down on the workload that is required to complete Phase I ESAs. The technologies pictured to the right are only a few that currently exist that can help you manage your projects moving forward. Obvious improvements in mapping (i.e. Google Maps and streetview features) have sharper image quality and are even beginning to offer features like indoor building views that may help EPs identify potential environmental conditions on properties. Tools like Goole Hangouts (part of Google+), Skype and FaceTime can help you effectively work with junior staff to obtain the information needed from the field (or a state or local agency when sending junior staff to do a file review) while you’re sitting at your desk, for example. Products like Evernote and Skitch (which you can read more about here) are great, cloud-based solutions that can be downloaded to all devices and allow you to save and replay voice recordings, manage notes, and draw and label images. There are also many apps that EPs can use to save time on measuring things, such as distance (pictured to the right). Spending a little bit of time determining which free technologies you can start using now that will best fit your needs is something that every EP should do to begin saving time on tasks such as on-site visits and preparing reports. With these technologies, it is easier than ever to piece together reports from a growing variety of sources.

Educating clients about environmental due diligence requirements

TopBizTechChallenges---Education-Image
What EPs are saying:

  • “Educating clients regarding due diligence is always challenging, but worth it in the long run.”
  • “Marketing to new clients outside of our basic footprint is a challenge.”
  • “Getting clients to understand the value of a good, thorough Phase I ESA and how it can significantly limit their future liability.”

How to Overcome:

Now is a great time to educate your clients about the value of your services, as education is key during this period of continuing market recovery. Particularly for those of you working with lender clients, technical expertise is what lenders place the highest value on in terms of your services. You are all technical experts with a wealth of knowledge and examples about environmental due diligence and property contamination to share with your clients. Clients need to be able to understand your reports and any recommendations you include. Educating your clients to bring them up the curve on what is in your Phase I ESA report will help them realize the value of your services and may even make price less of an issue. Currently, there are many topics to use as talking points for beginning to educate your clients. The new language in the ASTM standard, vapor intrusion awareness and updates to policies like SBA, HUD, Fannie Mae, etc. are all excellent topics to highlight your expertise.

Incorporating the ASTM standard update and changes into current practice

TopBizTechChallenges---ASTM-Image

What EPs are saying:

  • “A technical challenge will be incorporating the ASTM standard changes in our practice, including changes to how file reviews, CRECs and VECs are treated.”
  • “One challenge is dealing with the new ASTM standard details.”
  • “Getting clients geared up for the new standard…and potentially higher cost of a Phase I ESA is a challenge.”
  • “Implementing the new ASTM standard is going to be the biggest challenge.”

How to Overcome:

Though ASTM E 1527-13 has not yet been released, now is a great time to begin preparing to address the key changes that will be included in the updated version. EDR Insight offers links to various resources including webinars, research briefs and presentation content about the new standard in a brief entitled “Are Your Ready for ASTM E 1527-13?” and will be releasing more specific information about each of the key areas of change in the coming months. Understanding the new language, new definitions like “controlled recognized environmental condition” (CREC) and changes that clarify agency file review requirements, for example, are important first steps that can be taken now to prepare. Updating your current report templates and contracts is another task you can also begin doing now to ensure a smoother transition to the use of E 1527-13 at its release.

***

Using the tools mentioned above can help you start to overcome some of the top business and technical challenges your firm is facing. Moving forward, make sure that you continue to educate your clients and staff (particularly about E 1527-13), use the free technologies available to improve workflow, utilize outside resources to continue to innovate and improve your strategies and sell the value behind the quality services you offer.