Win More Projects Matching Your Firm’s Engineering Skills with our Marketing Process

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Now that Beyond the ‘Fluff’ Getting Started – Marketing in a Nutshell has given you an overview of how the entire marketing process works, the next step is to identify your firm’s key strengths.

Core Competencies – Your Key to Being “Uniquely Qualified” for Projects

In order to consistently ensure that your firm is “uniquely qualified” for engineering projects on which you are bidding, your firm must have a solid understanding of your core competencies, or key strengths. Identifying these strengths and ensuring the services you offer fully leverage your strengths will:

  • Make you more competitive since you’ll bid for projects from a position of strength
  • Enable you to more easily command the price you want as your value will be more obvious
  • Increase the success rate of your projects, satisfying clients and increasing repeat business.

FishFrom our fishing analogy in Beyond the ‘Fluff’ Getting Started – Marketing in a Nutshell: In this step you are classifying what you have to attract “fish” – Minnows? Worms? Squid?

What are Core Competencies?

Core competencies are things your firm does better than any other company in the market – deep proficiencies of a particular type, and are very difficult for your competitors to duplicate.  Core competencies offer a specific benefit to clients, and can be applied across a broad range of markets. The competencies usually originate from foundational principles on which the firm was established, have been slowly developed and refined over many years, and involve numerous departments and levels of the firm. Therefore, they are a deeply integrated part of your firm’s culture or operations – making them nearly impossible for competitors to duplicate in the short term.

Characteristics of Core Competencies

  • Specific set of skills or techniques
  • Unique ability, cannot be easily imitated
  • Other firms cannot copy quickly enough to affect competition
  • Reflect the collective learning of an organization
  • Offer a specific benefit to clients
  • Involve numerous departments and levels of the firm
  • Can be applied across a broad range of markets

Verifying Core Competencies

Each core competence must meet all 3 of the following criteria:

  1. A core competence must offer your client something that strongly influences them to choose your service. If it does not, it is not a core competence.
  2. A core competence must be very difficult for competitors to imitate. If a competitor can purchase the strength you have identified, it is not a core competence.
  3. A core competence should be a capability that can be applied widely to various markets. If it is a strength that can only be used in a few tightly defined areas, it is not a core competence.

Examples of Core Competencies

Below are some examples of core competencies as they might exist in the engineering market:

  • Team skill in architecting, developing, testing and implementing designs in client systems according to a documented engineering process – where process has been used for many years, fine-tuned through hundreds of projects, extends through sales and support teams, and extensive success metrics can be provided to prospects
  • Exceptional project management– foundational company skill, consistent method utilized company-wide for years and tightly integrated into every job function involved in projects, success metrics can be provided to prospects
  • Depth and breadth of company expertise in a specific technology (must be broad enough to be applied to various markets) – all departments are well versed in the technology; multi-functional design department with specialized educational background and years of experience working as a team to implement the technology in client projects
  • Rare technical skill set which requires a particular level of education (typically PhD level) and was the basis on which the company was founded (i.e., every aspect of the company is oriented towards that skill)
  • Long-term close relationship with clients, suppliers, or critical business partners – established over many years and projects with numerous departments collaborating to refine processes and communications between the two companies (focus must be broad enough to apply to various markets)
  • Company culture with deeply ingrained focus on customer satisfaction – usually instilled by the founders and emphasized in every aspect of the company’s operations
  • Employee dedication and loyalty – often due to a company culture of treating employees very well, instilled by the founders and demonstrated by very low staff turnover and numerous employees with over a decade of history with the firm

Examples of Strengths that are NOT Core Competencies

The assets below are strengths, but they are not core competencies because they do not meet all three of the qualification criteria – thereby reducing their value as a competitive differentiator.

  • Group of designers with extensive knowledge in a particular technical area (Test 1: yes, Test 2: no, Test 3 yes if technology is broad enough)
  • Certified and experienced project managers on staff (Test 1: yes, Test 2: no, Test 3: yes)
  • New contract or strategic relationship with key supplier or partner (Test 1: yes, Test 2: no, Test 3: possibly)
  • Employees with PhDs in a particular area of specialization (Test 1: yes, Test 2: no, Test 3: yes if skill is broad enough)
  • Sales team with extensive knowledge of your specific industry (Test 1: yes, Test 2: no, Test 3: no)

Remember that in many cases the difference between a strength and a core competence is the degree to which the strength is ingrained throughout your firm (making it harder for competitors to duplicate), and the ability to apply the strength to numerous other market areas.

How Do We Identify Our Core Competencies?


Hold a brainstorming session with your team and whiteboard your firm’s core competencies

Schedule a 2-hour session with your core team, and try some or all of the following brainstorming techniques. Completing this exercise may take several sessions, but after about two hours the quality of input will typically deteriorate.

  • Review how and why the founders established the company. Core competencies can often be traced back to a company’s roots – the background of the founder or the vision on which the firm was launched typically creates a platform on which the firm’s greatest strengths are built.
  • Make a list of your company’s strengths. Test the list against the 3 criteria to see if any qualify as core competencies. During this exercise you will likely think of other strengths as well.
  • List ways your company is unique. Consider the reasons clients have told you they chose to buy from you rather than a competitor.
  • Make a list of factors that are important to your clients in selecting an engineering services company. Concentrate on what makes them buy from one firm instead of another, and identify the skills that lie behind these factors.
  • Think about services your firm has been offering for a long time. Frequently core competencies center around these areas.
  • If your company is mentioned in the press, what are descriptions that are typically associated with your firm? These characteristics are often related to core competencies.

Don’t be discouraged if you get stuck during this process – it’s very difficult! Just encourage your group to keep moving forward. If you think your group needs facilitation, we do offer consulting in this area.

Once you have identified the core competencies of your firm, the next step is to define the types of projects that best utilize those competencies in Beyond the ‘Fluff’ Step 2: Define Your Ideal Projects. Individuals and companies typically perform best when doing projects that require their strongest skills.


Prahalad, C.K. & Hamel, G. (May 1990). The Core Competence of the Corporation. Harvard Business Review.

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