Marketing Techniques for Laser Scanning Service Providers

A 1.069Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

I frequently hear surveyors and office managers saying, "This scanning stuff, in ten years everyone will have it—­that’s the future." That is confirmation that 3D Laser Scanning has been accepted among the general land surveying community. Those of you scanning for a half decade or more can attest that, in the earlier days, selling scanning services was harder than selling snake oil, as my friend Jerry Rinnert from JMR Surveying Group in Florida used to say.

The first year JMR invested in scanning, revenues totaled around $15,000. This year they’ve grown that service exponentially to more than 10 times that amount, not including the conventional surveying time billed in connection with these projects. Targeting natural markets, or what I call the "low hanging fruit," and mastering workflow is why JMR has added another scanner to its arsenal in four years.

Jerry, like many TAS readers, runs a small business­about eight to ten people. And from what I understand from colleagues around the country, he is utilizing the scanner as much, or in some instances, more than some big AEC corporations. So what is he doing?

As many of you know by now, scanners for surveyors are another tool in the toolbox. Technologies like GPS, robotic total stations and airborne photogrammetry are somewhat specialized tools with strengths and weaknesses most efficient for specific tasks. Surveyors are responsible for choosing the right equipment, people, and techniques to accomplish tasks for their clients. Many firms that purchase scanners immediately seek "scanning work," thinking they can jump on the bandwagon and retire early. In reality, that bandwagon is loaded down with a $100,000 paperweight sitting in the office and spinning its wheels.

The pursuit of that "scanning work" may be a distraction to the immediate impact the scanner can have on your business. Instead of seeking "scanning work," imagine projects you’ve done in the past where scanning would have saved you time and headaches, not to mention improved safety. Scanners today are much faster and more efficient than ever before and can outperform conventional surveying on many common tasks (like busy intersection topos, ALTA surveys of complex shopping centers or as-builts on a high-rise construction site).

There is profit in quoting a project using conventional surveying tools and a scanner or GPS to shorten the time to accomplish that task. The usually higher rates for scanning sometimes scare customers, yet in bottom line it may save them money. In my opinion, publishing your rates can sometimes hurt your cause. We all know scanners cost more, require more training in personnel and can be problematic without careful thinking. The rate sheet may cause the client to think he or she is paying more for the same product. I try my hardest to quote a lump sum figure, and for a skeptical client, I will value price the same task using conventional means.

Remember breaking down sections or locating monuments in hard-to-reach places without GPS? You no longer ask for permission as to what tool to use, as it’s become adopted in the surveying community. So why should it be different with scanning? In most cases, clients don’t care how you do it, but what it will cost them. In the end, the output from all this is a two-by-three-foot sheet of paper with your disfigured signature from a sharp seal that you know is accurate.

A common technique used early-on by scanning service providers was to bring the scanner in the conference room and perform a demo, much like what the scanner rep did to convince them to purchase it. It’s effective in getting the "wow" factor from prospects and, if you throw in a free lunch, even the IT people will come out. But that precious time may be better utilized focusing on the customer’s specific needs. Prequalification over the phone and targeting individuals who will be end users is the Holy Grail.

Another common sales technique I used when I first began scanning was to perform "freebie" scanning projects for six months. That experience helped me in the field and with office processing, but didn’t create income to keep the lights on. However, I was able to use the varied scanning projects as examples. I could show potential clients with similar needs how to accomplish the task without having to visit their own site. In turn, the freebies were reduced and eventually phased out with the pipeline we had developed.

Another important note is that the sales cycle for getting a new client was reduced because of several reasons:
1. Eliminating the technical prove-out of the site visit can knock off weeks from courting a new client. Success sells more success.
2. The results of the initial client visit are accelerated due to your better understanding of the client’s needs and/or pains. Thus, you focus in and strategically address the topic and the solution; something that usually requires two meetings­a discovery meeting and a solution follow up.
3. The sample data is the best evidence of expertise and understanding of clients’ needs, and is a confidence booster to remove the "FUD" factor­Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.
4. With the sample data you have real numbers to back up your claims that the technology is better for the task. Bottom line and turnaround figures are in clients’ hands and are a convincing argument that they are reducing their risk by not paying someone for their learning curve.

I now carry what feels like 20 pounds in portable hard drives and "pre-select" the datasets applicable to the new prospect I’m visiting with. Live data and interactive presentations are very effective if you focus on a client’s specific need.

Enough talk about the current crummy economy. We can sit and pout or dust off our old business plans and take a fresh look at them. For years, my licensed surveyor buddies never had a marketing plan, much less had to even pick up the phone. I’ve only heard stories about the last housing bust and wondered why the company I worked for at the time didn’t buy the latest computers or the new data collectors and such. They made those things last until they crumbled in our hands. I remember a week when all our computer monitors in the office failed at the same time. The company purchased them in a batch and they had amazingly all reached their life cycle at the same time. Instead of buying new computers, the company kept the dinosaur PCs under the desks and bought new flat screens. I thought the company was simply too cheap to invest; never did I imagine those frugal tactics were to help save the company.

Scanners are no different. They are a significant investment for any size company. In the past, they would become dated in about two years, which is not a long time to get your scanning services up and running. Consider that, by purchasing a scanner, you are literally starting a new business. Give yourself some help by making a separate business plan just to keep it busy.

There are some established markets and emerging ones in the scanning world. For years we’ve read about scanning in plants and petrochem facilities, offshore platforms, etc. But in reality, the majority of the potential markets are within driving distance, no matter where you live. I remember once showing a scanner to a land surveyor with a very established firm in Orlando. At the end of the presentation he smiled and commented how interesting it was, but then
cleared his throat and said, "That’s nice, but it’s not land surveying. It’s not what we do." Do you really care what the encyclopedic term of surveying is right now?!

Industrial surveying and metrology are booming markets. Construction projects are going on all around the country and "small" projects are categorized as being less than $10 million! EPC firms (engineering, procurement and construction) and owners need 3D measurements every day to maintain those facilities. The majority of the field measurements are being done by field engineers with clipboard, tape and maybe a set of antiquated design plans. From replacing a rusted-out hopper tank to laying out a concrete pad for a compressor, these jobs are well suited for scanning on the front end and performing conventional surveying during and after construction.

The reality is that 2009 will be a tough year for all of us. It may be a time to "re-up" our skills if we want to stay in business. I’ve heard other surveyors doing interesting things like having idle field crews break down nearby sections for their own records or come into the office to learn new techniques on their data collectors or CAD software. There are new things for owners to research as well, like new marketing tactics, websites, and getting involved in more industry events and trade shows to help network. Regardless, there is still work out there, and this hardship might very well make us better surveyors for it.

Ed Oliveras is director of 3D imaging and applied metrology at McKim & Creed, an engineering, surveying and planning firm with offices throughout the southeastern United States.

A 1.069Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE