Kara Wallace of Mortenson Talks About Creating Value for Customers

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Kara Wallace, and I’m responsible for what I describe as the infrastructure around business development and marketing functions at Mortenson.

What are some initiatives that you're working on that you're excited about?

Probably the coolest thing that I see right now is the opportunity we have at Mortenson to create a truly integrated sales and marketing approach, where these two functions are built up to work hand in hand. I use the term “functions” loosely, because these aren’t necessarily discrete roles, rather, the functions of sales and marketing are often incorporated into other roles.

Here in the Architecture/Engineering/Construction (AEC) industry, these two functions are typically ill-defined and not performing at their full potential. Most AEC firms use a “seller-doer model,” meaning the best sellers have come up through the ranks of being the doer. While they’ve had a lot of training on the “doing” of delivering projects and taking care of customers, they’ve had almost no sales training. Now at Mortenson, we get to create a structure between strategic marketing, marketing communications, proposal experts, designers, content specialists, and all of the business development leaders to enhance the seller-doer model. We have the opportunity here to build something from the ground up and be integrated from the start. That’s really unique. I don’t know where else you get an opportunity like that, other than a start-up.

We have the opportunity here to build something from the ground up and be integrated from the start. That’s really unique. I don’t know where else you get an opportunity like that, other than a start-up.

You see so often in professional services firms that there’s a gap between the business development / sales part of the business and the marketing part of the business. There’s so much educational content out there about how to overcome the divide, how to create strategies to get closer together, and how to break down silos. At Mortenson, we don’t so much have silos to break down—we just don’t have a lot of structure around this yet, so we get to create that from scratch, pulling together the best people to determine our ideal approach.

Left: Traditional sales funnels in which marketing and sales are separate functions. Right: Integrated approach where teams work together to disrupt how customers think of their own businesses, and add value throughout the process. Source: CEB

What have been the biggest factors in getting that ball rolling in setting up these structures?

It’s not just one thing, that’s for sure! I think it takes not giving up on this being the right thing to do for the company. It’s a constant caretaking of this idea, constant changemaking, and knowing your process.

It’s pretty classic change management, I would say, meaning attacking your problem from multiple places. You first have to get executive C-suite buy-in. That’s where we started about two and a half years ago. And then you have to check at the ground level and ask, “Is this stuff even going to make sense to people on the front lines to actually help customers?” So, we went to the very top and then to the very front lines, and we realized that change is going to happen at the business unit level.

And so, I’ve spent my time the last couple of years trying to connect with the leaders of each business unit. Just working with a few early adopters, we looked at grassroots examples of what “could be.” And by creating those examples, we got more interest from other leaders.

What have you learned along the way?

I’ve learned that you can’t go faster than the organization can go. So that’s been my biggest personal lesson: that you can only push so far. You have to let the organization come along and feel the passion just as much as you do. My passion alone will not get us there! I have to have other people with that same enthusiasm.

To be clear, I can only do my job because of the past commitment our teams have made to creating exceptional customer experiences. But there’s huge opportunity to take that to another level. I’m trying to build on our strong foundation and ask, “Is there an even better way to connect or a better way to motivate customers?”

In this industry, sales used to be considered a bad word. There has been a lot of resistance, honestly, because people define sales as pushing something on their customer. But, I would define sales as solving problems for your customer, and making their journey easier. Once you start defining it that way, you start getting people more comfortable with it.

I would define sales as solving problems for your customer, and making their journey easier. Once you start defining it that way, you start getting people more comfortable with it.

What are some other big challenges for Marketing Directors in AEC in your view?

The traditional approach from the industry has been an RFP model to select AEC providers. That takes up so much time and energy from marketing teams in the AEC firms, as well as for customers having to review reams of information from firms submitting RFPs. Wouldn’t it be great if we could re-channel some of that time and energy into other value-creating activities? But, to do that, it’s going to require the industry itself changing the way the customers are thinking about how they hire our firms. It’s such an entrenched approach and systemized process—I call it “the machine,” and we are all part of just running the machine. How do you replace an entire machine? That’s not an easy thing to do.

I would much rather see the investment going into thinking about how to collaboratively solve the customer’s challenges, rather than into an RFP document used just once. We can’t singlehandedly change that as one company in the industry. That’s going to have to come from the industry itself in order to conceive of a better way to disrupt our own process.

Could you talk about any particular tools that have worked well for you?

I’m a huge believer in what you might call a “closed-loop” marketing system. Most people would say marketing automation, but that is just one piece of the full picture. A closed-loop system is when your marketing automation tool is linked up with your web tool, which is linked up with your CRM tool. Once all those systems are talking to each other, the sales team can login to their CRM and see not only the customer's transaction history, but also all the other touchpoints that you’ve had with that customer.

For example, if you’ve emailed a study to your customer and they read it, that’s in there. So, when you call them next, you’re not wasting their time asking if they’ve seen the study. If they have gone to our website, you’ll be able to see the different web pages they’ve visited right on their CRM record, and you’ll have a sense for what they’re interested in, and you can have a better conversation with them. Then you can tap into what you learned from one customer—about what challenges they had to overcome for their project, for instance—to create connections with other customers based on this.

In my past experience, we’ve been able to come up with better, smarter, more timely ideas to share with our customers with this sort of single view.

Any pieces of advice you would give to someone in a similar role to yours?

Our jobs get a lot more fun when we start asking, “How do we create new value for customers?” instead of just, “How do we win projects with customers?” This creates a really different conversation and a different set of objectives to measure ourselves by.

Our jobs get a lot more fun when we start asking, “How do we create new value for customers?” instead of just, “How do we win projects with customers?”

Personally, I’m determined to keep asking the question, “What are all the different ways we can think about creating value?”


Kara Wallace is Director of Corporate Marketing, Strategic Marketing at M.A. Mortenson Company in Minneapolis, MN.

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