Size up the competition

In the armoury of business tactics, there’s nothing quite like knowing what your competitors are up to. The RIBA’s yearly Benchmarking Survey will give you many of the answers you need

The Weston Williamson team.
The Weston Williamson team.

For my practice, the RIBA’s Business Benchmarking survey is a boon. It is extraordinarily useful to know how you compare against fellow chartered practices. It’s not just a question of satisfying your competitive streak. It’s about getting hold of market intelligence to help you to steer a strategic course through the tough world of commercial practice. As someone who insists on good business reporting to monitor our financial health and to plan our future, I regard it as extremely important.

Ever since Weston Williamson was formed 30 years ago I have been benchmarking our practice. My interest started back when we were featured in the RIBA’s first 40 Under 40 exhibition. I compiled my own benchmarks, scouring data from whatever sources I could, often from the rumour mill. As an ambitious practice, it struck me as essential to know how we performed against our peers.

The benchmark does away with such unreliable information and puts it all on a validated footing. While it does not identify individual practices in the way the AJ Top 100 survey does, it is informative on a wider range of important business metrics.

Completing the survey is a bit of a burden. It asks for updates on your size and practice type, revenue, profits, expenditure, salaries, policies (including business plans, cashflow and budgets), work areas, how you win business, and your international activity. We naturally take the task very seriously, aiming for accuracy. But this is no mean feat given the complexity of the info and the sometimes subjective judgements involved. Compiling all the data, especially against the throng of fee-earning demands, adds unwelcome pressure.

But when the results come out, there’s a certain frisson in punching the buttons for the first time to see how we measure up. For the good stuff you need to dig out nuggets from your own bespoke analysis. This is a job made easier by the new online tool, which I thoroughly recommend. It allows you to slice and dice the data in whatever way you want, filtering out unwanted or irrelevant comparisons to leave wee glisters of strategic gold.

We tend to look first at critical business metrics – revenue per head, profits per head, revenue per type of work, salaries per type of employee – in our region and in practices our size. This isn’t just about keeping up with the Joneses, or prurience – it adds constructively to your business planning.

It is just as important is to analyse expenditure and business policies, especially when attracting and retaining staff is so central to our success today. One of the most interesting findings from the latest benchmark was the profession’s attitude to self-promotion. In an increasingly fierce competitive market, it is appalling that chartered practices spent less than 1% of revenue on marketing. The benchmark for other professional services companies apparently averages at 5%, rising to as much as 15% if they are pushing for growth.

As humans, we tend to put our good performances down to deliberate strategy but blame our bad performances on other agents – the economy, unfortunate staffing issues, or just plain bad luck. I suspect our scores, good or bad, are down to healthy dollops of deliberate agency but also elements of luck. We need to appraise our performance honestly and then – and this is the important bit – learn from it.

Learning means looking for improvements where we score poorly, assessing how much good scores were down to luck, and revisiting our strategy in the light of both. It is not the only data we use but it is nonetheless very valuable. Every lesson is an opportunity.

It was using data from the benchmark that first set off alarm bells about the lack of women in our office. When we looked at ourselves in that mirror, we knew we had work to do. A couple of years later, we are improving. We have a woman in senior management. We have our Women@WestonWilliamson in-house group going. We had five finalists in this year’s Women in Construction Awards, and one winner. We’ve learned that diversity is much more than a matter of equality – it’s a matter of good business sense.

How you think of the benchmarking report is a reflection of your attitude to business growth and skills generally. Small practitioners ticking along, making an adequate profit, may not see its relevance. But younger practices, who face paradigm-shifting changes in the construction industry over the next 20 to 30 years, and those with ambitions to expand, will find it indispensable.

The survey is not perfect. It only tallies scores from chartered practices, missing all the other architects out there. Their absence leaves a niggling frustration about the data’s validity. Also, it would be nice if it incorporated comparisons against equivalent professional service providers, important in a sector like construction, which is ripe for disruption. But these are small quibbles.

The findings from the 2016 survey will be online soon so make sure you use the information. The success of your business strategy may depend on it.

Chartered Practices are reminded that the annual RIBA Business Benchmarking report and updated interactive benchmark tool will be available from October at

Chris Williamson is founding partner of Weston Williamson and RIBA Ambassador for Business Skills.