During the 1980s, the commercial environmental services industry grew by leaps and bounds -- growth rates of 25% and 30% per year were not uncommon, often for several consecutive years. Even in the 'softer' and more competitive segments of the environmental business, simply hanging out a shingle was often enough to attract increasing business in this seller's market.
This type of growth, common through the end of the ‘80s, left most managers understandably somewhat complacent about building formal sales departments and developing strategic marketing plans. Most focused their attention on operational challenges and the technical requirements of getting the work done (see Figure 1). The sales and marketing activities that did get done were usually conducted by more technically oriented people, or by the chief executive on a time-available basis.
The conventional wisdom in the middle 1980s -- that the demand for environmental services would continue to grow explosively, leading to sustained growth and profitability -- was quickly proven to be short-sighted. As we now know only too well, the emerging environmental industry fell victim to the powers of the free enterprise system, and quickly turned into a more competitive marketplace. With ever greater numbers of firms vying for a more steady volume of work, management attention in the environmental industry necessarily began to shift toward increasing or simply maintaining sales revenues, as shown graphically in the second phase of Figure 1.
Most sectors of the environmental industry are service businesses, and many -- like the environmental consulting sector -- are properly categorized as professional service businesses. Service-intensive businesses must differentiate themselves on the basis of their market understanding and customer service -- their ability to understand what the customer wants, and how those wants and needs are changing. Today, and going forward, the nurturing and management of a creative and productive marketing function, to strategically direct the company and support its direct sales efforts, represents one of the most critical prerequisites for future success.