Monday, April 17, 2017

The Problem of Project Myopia

One truism of business you dare not overlook is: The more value you deliver to customers, the more value is returned to your company. This returned value can take several forms, including higher fees, more profit, revenue growth, increased sales, loyal customers, more interesting work, etc. Keep this principle in mind as you consider the following:

Most professional service providers (e.g., attorneys, accountants, management consultants, advertising professionals) achieve a significantly higher labor multiplier than architects, engineers, and environmental consultants. The difference is on the order of 4-6x for other professional service firms compared to 3x for A/E firms. I would argue that a firm's average multiplier is a reasonable measure of value—how much mark-up a client is willing to pay.

Why this discrepancy? I've pondered that question for years. No doubt there are several factors. But one stands out in my mind: Those other professionals do a better job of delivering business value than we do. They help their clients succeed in meeting strategic objectives.

Wait a minute, you might argue: We do that too! Of course we do. We design the infrastructure that supports modern society. We design buildings that house critical business functions—including hospitals where lives are saved, schools where children are educated, laboratories where incredible new products are conceived and tested. We advise clients on how to protect the environment and comply with complex regulations.

Our work is obviously important...but less valued. Could that be a result of not clearly demonstrating how we deliver business value? Or, in fact, hardly even talking about it? Want proof? Consider how we describe our work—indeed, how we promote the value of our work experience in our proposals, marketing materials, and websites. A sample:

Groundwater Quality Assessment. [Our firm] developed the physical model for the groundwater management zones (GMZs) for [a Southern California water district], consisting of the specific yield and elevation of the effective base of aquifer for each model grid cell. Each model grid cell measured 400 meters by 400 meters in area. The average current ambient groundwater quality (AWQ) for each groundwater management zone was calculated by a volume-weighted approach based on the results from each model grid cell within the groundwater management zone. However, the specific yield and elevation of the effective base of the aquifer included in the physical model was developed in the 1990s. We employed more recent information to update the physical model to improve the accuracy of the AWQ recomputation...
Oh, there's more, but I'll spare you. This proposal project description is more jargon-bloated that usual, but it illustrates an all-too-common plight—our failure to capture business value (or even context) in descriptions of our work. They read more like a routine task list than a response to a complex, crucially important client problem—in this case, the declining availability of suitable drinking water in the Los Angeles basin.

The root of this problem, I'm convinced, is what might be called project myopia. It's the tendency, common among technical professionals, to get caught up in the details of executing a project and not see the bigger picture. It's a focus on project tasks rather than goals. It's analysis divorced from strategy. Some of the prevalent symptoms of project myopia are:

  • Failure to identify the project's strategic drivers. There are always desired business outcomes behind the projects we perform. These define why the project has been moved to the top of the priority list. When I work on proposals, I always ask the lead seller-doer(s) why the project is happening now. I rarely get a satisfactory answer.
  • Viewing success as a completed project. If we perform the scope as defined, on budget and on schedule, is that not a success? Well, not if it failed to achieve its stated (or unstated) objectives. Outcomes drive any successful venture.
  • Not talking about the business value our work delivers. I touched on this earlier. Perhaps you're thinking if it was important to clients, they'd bring it up. I'd suggest they usually don't because we've pigeon-holed ourselves as technical specialists who don't get involved in their business.
  • Focusing business development on pursuing projects rather than clients. Considering how critical enduring client relationships are to our business viability, it seems odd not devote more of our business development efforts to seeking and initiating such relationships. Yet the typical A/E firm's approach is almost entirely transactional—just win the next project, and hopefully a few of these client relationships will develop into something long lasting.
  • Creating plans for managing the project, but not for managing client relationships. Most firms handle client relationships with intuition rather than intention. They would never apply the same approach to their projects. Is that because they think they're better at cultivating relationships than performing projects? You know the answer.
  • Failing to uncover the client's service expectations. Clients usually define what they want the project to be in some detail, but rarely are specific in describing what they want to the working relationship to be like—unless we ask. The problem is, we're more inclined to make assumptions about how the client wants to be served. That's why most service breakdowns are rooted in the firm's lack of awareness about what was expected.
  • Investing far more in strengthening technical skills than client skills. This investment includes training, tools, processes, and oversight. The relative availability of options reveals the discrepancy in demand: For example, there are countless training programs for technical skills, but where do you turn for help with client skills?
As these symptoms suggest, the real problem of project myopia is who gets caught in the blindspot—the client. The client ultimately engages our firm to deliver specific outcomes, not just complete a scope of services. The interaction the client has with our firm during the project is a large part of the value provided. 

When we narrow our focus to just doing technical project work, we may well miss seeing what's most important. I recently stumbled across a study that found our brains are only able to engage in either analytical thinking or empathetic thinking at one time. Perhaps this helps explain the problem of project myopia. When technically-oriented people focus on projects, many naturally become less attuned to more broad-based client concerns. It's not that they don't care about clients, but that their analytical thinking tends to take over.

Obviously, I'm not suggesting that we de-emphasize project work. That's what we're hired to do. But acknowledging the problem of project myopia does mean that we need to be more deliberate in focusing on the needs and expectations of clients. In my next post, I'll offer some steps for balancing our focus between projects and clients.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Is a Conversational Tone in Proposals Unprofessional?

One of my clients contacted me recently with a familiar concern. I had spent a couple of days a few months ago helping his firm improve its proposal process and content. One of the things I taught was to ditch the usual technicalese and write in a more conversational tone. Apparently, they took my advice and were now drawing criticism from one of their executive leaders.

This exec complained that the “colloquial language” he now found in their proposals didn’t project a professional image. He argued that perhaps you could get away with that style with less sophisticated rural clients, but not with larger municipal, state, or corporate clients. I’ve heard this line of reasoning before. It helps perpetuate the painfully drab and overwrought style of writing that plagues the A/E profession.

And it’s based entirely on supposition, not fact—at least in my considerable experience. Even if a few clients had echoed this concern over my 30+ years of proposal writing, I wouldn’t change my writing style or discourage others from following my example. Here’s why:

We’re talking about adopting the style used in the vast majority of business literature. Does the Harvard Business Review lack a professional image? How about any number of best-selling business books? The style in question here is the language of business, hence it naturally reflects professionalism. It’s terribly wrong to assume the way most technical professionals write proposals or technical reports represents a standard we should aspire to follow. On the contrary, it more commonly exemplifies weak writing—by any authoritative standard.

The way technical professionals write is fundamentally nonpersuasive. Traditional technical writing eliminates most of the human element that makes persuasion work. Technical writing is impersonal and objective, engages the intellect, and focuses on features. Persuasive writing is prominently personal and subjective, engages the emotions, and focuses on benefits and experiences. Obviously, writing to technical audiences, you must build a logical and evidence-based argument. But if you truly want your proposals to be persuasive, you must employ the language of persuasion.

We need to distinguish between business and technical writing. Most in our profession fail to do this. That’s why our proposals often convey all the personal touch of an O&M manual. There is a place for the more measured, impersonal tone of traditional technical writing—for example, in reports, manuals, specifications, standards, data sheets. But most of our writing, including proposals, should incorporate the tone of business writing. This includes personal correspondence, emails, copywriting, nontechnical journal articles, and internal memos.

Where’s the evidence that adopting a business writing style is viewed negatively by clients? Being a fact-based profession, it’s interesting how often we let misguided intuition guide our decision making. Usually this amounts to some variant of, “Well, we’ve always done it this way, so it must be right.” Even when it doesn’t work very well. When someone tells me that following the conventions of business writing in proposals is unbecoming of our profession, I am typically right to assume that their win rate trails the industry average.

On the other hand, I’ve written proposals to federal, state, and local agencies, to universities, to Fortune 500 companies, to scientific research labs, among others—and have never had a client tell me they thought my writing style or tone was unprofessional. But several have complimented me for my user-friendly, easy-reading submittals. And a 75% win rate over the last 20 years is all the evidence I need to conclude that the traditional notion of professionalism is overrated!

Agree or disagree? I’d love to hear your feedback.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Personal Preferences Shouldn't Dictate Proposal Standards

As an erstwhile proposal specialist, I prefer the sewer line running down the middle of the street instead of along the side in the grass. I like a brick facade on bridges. And I really love a tall, sunny atrium with trees planted in it.

But in all my years in this business, I don't recall my engineering and architectural colleagues ever allowing my preferences to influence even a single design decision. Why should they? I lack expertise in those areas. Yet I routinely find technical professionals dictating to their marketing colleagues what proposal standards should be because it's what they like or how they've always done it.

Marketers unite; it's time to take control of your realm. There are established design principles in publishing just as there are in engineering and architecture. There's an abundance of research into how design affects reading speed, comprehension, retention, and persuasion. In a profession that so values expertise, shouldn't we be applying more of it to how we do proposals?

Now let's be clear, success with proposals depends in large part on building client relationships, gaining critical insights before the RFP is released, and creating compelling content. But don't overlook the important role of design—how you present your insights, expertise, and qualifications in a proposal.

This is an underappreciated discipline in our business. Technical professionals tend to think it's simply a matter of aesthetics. I don't know how many times I was asked to "pretty up" a proposal or other document. Frankly, many so-called proposal specialists in our business lack strong expertise in this area. They settle for making the proposal look good without giving enough attention to how it functions.

Here are some things to consider relative to your firm's proposal standards:

Good design facilitates communication. This is particularly true for audiences who don't read the whole document or publication. That includes most client selection committees. Design helps navigate the reader to the content of most interest, it highlights the most important messages, it makes key points more memorable, it makes the proposal more user friendly and efficient. The vast majority of proposals I've seen, by contrast, require too much effort to review and fail to distinguish key points.

Your proposal should look like a professionally-published document. If marketers designed buildings, the results would inevitably look amateurish, especially to a design professional. That's undoubtedly how most of our proposals would look to a publishing professional. But, you protest, that's not who is reviewing our proposals! True, but clients are exposed to professionally produced publications every day. Think they don't notice the difference? Given the emphasis we place on an image of "professionalism" in our business, why not apply the same standard to our proposals (not to mention our technical work products, like reports, that clients pay good money for)?

Proposal specialists should be masters of their craft. So who's going to lead the advance of professional-looking, function-driven, user-friendly proposals in our business? That role naturally falls on those whose job it is to produce them. Unfortunately, too many of our proposal specialists wield too little influence to bring about meaningful changes. I understand the organizational dynamics that contribute to this problem, but let's acknowledge that a big reason for this is that many proposal specialists haven't demonstrated that they're the real experts in this area.

I spent years building my skills as a proposal writer. I talked with clients, reviewed hundreds of competitors' proposals, read related books and articles, and dug into the details of effective document design. I used research and published design standards to convince my bosses to allow some changes. Then as my win rate increased, my credibility grew to enable me to encourage further changes. Eventually, I was winning three-fourths of the major proposal efforts I led as the corporate proposal manager, and had pretty much complete creative control. That comes with demonstrated expertise.

Borrow from the best. There are plenty of examples of good design out there. You can adapt those design principles to your proposals without ever having to read a study about font styles or characters per column width (although I would urge all proposal specialists to do the research). In particular, look for the design ideas that you see repeatedly in professional publications. That usually means it works. Look how USA Today transformed the design of other newspapers, in part because it was based on and confirmed by extensive reader research.

Imitation is a good way to be different. If your proposal looks like a professionally-produced document, it will stand out. Sounds like a winning idea, so why the pushback when such changes are proposed? Seems many technical professionals are more comfortable doing what they've always done, even if the results aren't all that impressive. Some assume that clients expect to see proposals in a predictable, time-tested format. And some simply have their preferences. Perhaps that helps explain why there's so little differentiation in our business.

Of course, good design without good content still equals a weak proposal. But good content presented in an ineffective manner can fail to gain the client's notice. An important strategy in winning more proposals is putting the two together—great content and great design. Is your firm ready to raise the bar? Let expertise, not personal preferences, lead the way.


Friday, March 10, 2017

Does Free Advice Devalue Your Services?

According to sales researcher Neil Rackham, the way the very best rainmakers conduct sales calls is practically indistinguishable from how they interact with clients while under contract. The overriding constant in both scenarios? It's all about helping the client. Hence my best advice on selling: Don't! Serve the buyer instead.

This philosophy is well supported by experience and research: Serving prospective clients is the best way to win their business. And for professionals, that service-centered approach to selling inevitably involves sharing information and advice.

But the notion of giving away expertise for free causes consternation for many in the A/E industry. If you're sharing your expertise for nothing, the reasoning goes, that's bound to devalue your services. Perhaps that fear helps explain why our industry has been slow to embrace consultative selling and content marketing—the two prevalent business development trends in professional services.

Does providing free advice and resources through your sales conversations and marketing, in fact, devalue your services? I think it does quite the opposite. Here are the reasons I would offer:

The internet has forever changed how clients buy. In the old days of selling, rainmakers were the primary conduit of information about service providers and their services. Now the internet serves much of that function. According to one study, 78% of executive buyers use the internet to search for information about professional service providers. Eighty-five percent say that what they find online influences their buying decisions. Another study of B2B buyers found that about 60% of the buying decision process is now performed online before they start talking with salespeople.

That means that buyers today are less tolerant of traditional sales pitches and posturing than in the past. In many cases, they've already taken the initiative to learn about you; now they want to learn from you specifically regarding their needs and priorities.

Showing beats telling hands down. The above findings make it clear that having a good website is important. Indeed, three in four buyers say the quality of a firm's website influences their decision. But don't overestimate the value of the self-promotional content that fills the typical A/E firm website and other marketing vehicles. Buyers prefer helpful content over sales copy, and expert advice over self-advocacy.

Consultant David Maister told the story of when he needed legal help with a probate matter. He was referred by friends to three law firms with expertise in that area. The first two firms he talked to expounded on their qualifications. An attorney with the third firm said little about his firm, but focused questions on Maister's needs and understanding of the issue. He offered to send Maister a checklist that would guide him through the process—what steps are needed, who to contact, and when he would need legal help.

Which firm do you think he hired? Not necessarily the most qualified, but the most helpful. Are buyers of your services any different?

Helping buyers builds trust. This is a huge issue in professional services because our services are more personal, strategic, and potentially risky than most. Thus building trust is your most important task in advancing the sales process. Yet selling is among the most distrusted professions. Why? The perception of self interest on the part of the seller.

When you sell instead of serve, you help confirm the suspicion that you're primarily looking out for your own interests. On the other hand, focusing on the buyer, helping solve problems, and providing helpful information and advice demonstrates concern for the buyer—the most important trust-building dimension for professional service sellers.

Trust clearly adds value to what you do. When you enable the prospect to sample your services by sharing your expertise, you remove some of the uncertainty from the buying decision. You get the chance to show your value instead of just talking about it.

Sharing expertise helps build your reputation. survey of A/E/C service buyers by Hinge found that the most important selection factor was the firm's reputation. So how do you build a reputation that factors into the buying decision? Other than referrals or previous experience with the client, the obvious way is through your marketing. So tell me: What better builds your reputation, touting your credentials or sharing your insights?

When I worked with RETEC, people were often surprised to find that we were a much smaller firm than they had imagined. They judged us in large part through the lens of our marketing activities—numerous journal and magazine articles, conference presentations, white papers, regulatory alerts, active participation in industry trade groups, and—at one time—the best environmental resource site on the internet. Our market focus also helped; as we concentrated our marketing efforts on just four core markets.

Certainly our accomplishments (e.g., being pioneers in bioremediation and risk-based solutions) constituted the substance of our reputation. But people learned about it through the various marketing vehicles we used to spread the message. And we spread the message mostly by sharing our notable expertise with our audience. We mastered the practice of content marketing long before I ever heard the term.

Serving buyers is the best way to close the Value Gap. Ask A/E service buyers what they value most between receiving great expertise (technical value) and a great experience (service value), and the answer will surprise most technical professionals. It's 50-50. That's the finding of a survey by Kennedy and Greenberg in their book Clientship. But when technical professionals were asked in another survey what distinguishes their firm from the competition, about 80% said it was their expertise. 

The difference between those two perspectives is what I call the Value Gap, and it's substantial. In fact, I believe that closing that gap is probably the best differentiation strategy you can choose. That means, of course, providing exceptional client experiences after the sale. But it also means serving the client before sale by providing helpful advice and information—both in person and through your marketing.

We can all point to a few situations where this strategy backfired. You helped the client identify the best solution during the sales process and they hired someone else to implement it. But I can point to many more examples where giving some free advice made all the difference in winning the job—and helping build our reputation. I'll take those odds in doing the right thing for the client, which means being helpful. What about you? I'd love to hear your perspectives on this topic.


Friday, February 24, 2017

How Leaders Undermine Their Own Initiatives

I've participated in numerous strategic initiatives and other change efforts over the years. They've involved issues such as leadership transition, business development, project delivery, client service, quality management, employee recruiting and retention, and safety—to name a few. To be perfectly honest, most of them failed to achieve the desired goals.

That's no real surprise. Research shows that about 70% of corporate change initiatives fall short. There are many reasons why this is so. But in my experience, one reason stands out: Leaders failed to lead. Often these were individuals who weren't fully on board to begin with. But a surprising number of these initiatives stumbled mostly due to the failings of their own creators—CEOs, principals, and other top executives, in many cases.

So how can leaders undermine their own initiatives? Here are some common mistakes that I've observed and how to avoid them:

Failing to make the business case for the change. The typical A/E firm is populated by smart people who are independent thinkers and resist making changes just because management said so. Externally-driven changes are easiest to sell; management prerogative much less so. It's also important to try to personalize the benefits. "This is good for you," is far more persuasive than "this is good for the company."

Being too prescriptive in what steps need to be taken. I often see leaders who are many years removed from doing technical work dictating how technical work should be done differently. It's generally bad form for leaders to hand down specific work process changes without seeking input from those who must implement them. Who's the expert here? You'll not only get more buy-in when people have a say in how to improve what they do, but you'll probably get better ideas as well.

Not building consensus among the right people. Change management guru John Kotter writes that forming a "guiding coalition" is critical to success. This means that you need to assemble a team with enough authority, influence, and expertise to lead the change process. They must also have enough wherewithal to overcome the inevitable laggards and skeptics in the ranks, some of whom will occupy positions of influence themselves. Senior executives often overestimate their singular ability to get employees engaged in a change effort. They need a strong team, speaking and acting in concert with each other.

Being too uninvolved. The potential downside of having a strong team is the temptation to step back from actively leading the effort. Leadership by ideas and words is not nearly so powerful as leadership by example. If you want people to think that the change is important, you need to be personally involved in it. You may not be directly needed to lead many of the activities associated with the initiative (in fact, it's often better for others to take the lead), but your mere presence sends the message "this matters." 

Overlooking the power of culture. Imagine an arm wrestling contest between your firm's strategy and its culture. Which wins? Culture, hands down. Many a strategic initiative has been defeated by entrenched corporate culture. The two must be aligned, or one has to change. If it's culture, you have a monumental challenge on your hands. It's doable (and necessary at times), but it takes a careful plan and strong leadership across the organization.

Not talking about it enough. If I wanted to know what really matters in your firm, I could ask. But I'd get a more honest answer by simply listening over a several days to what your people talk about. The power of conversation is widely underestimated in change initiatives. If you want to change actions, change the conversation. And talk about the new way a lot. Stories are particularly powerful reinforcers.

Acting contrary to the message. One of the quickest ways to bring down your efforts to change course is to contradict what you say by what you do. I mentioned a common example of this earlier: Not being personally involved in something you said was important. Or perhaps you personally fail to make the changes you have asked of others. Or not providing positive reinforcement to those who get on board, or holding accountable those who don't. When you set a new direction, remember that others will be watching to see if you're walking that way.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Do You Really Need an Elevator Pitch?

Back in the days when I attended industry trade shows, I always spent some time roaming the exhibit floor checking out our competitors. I would make note of their exhibits and collect their handouts for later analysis. Occasionally I would learn something from competitors that I wanted our firm to emulate. More often, I learned what not to do.

For example, I was frequently entertained by competitors' responses to a common question: "So what does your firm do?" Their answers more often than not indicated that not much forethought had gone into them. The large national firms that we usually competed against seemed to struggle most. Their most common answer? Some variation of "we do a little of everything."

I suppose that response was intended to impress. It always had the opposite affect on me and, I suspect, on others. So I worked at perfecting my so-called "elevator pitch," a 30-second summary of what distinguished our company. It was unique and to-the-point, and I could deliver it flawlessly, whether manning the trade show booth or mingling at a networking function.

Yet it never quite felt right to me, perhaps because it was more like reciting lines of a script than conversing. Maybe it was because it was designed to provoke still further inquiry about my firm, shifting the focus from the other party. Eventually I came to believe that the importance of having a pre-rehearsed elevator pitch was overhyped.

That conclusion flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Google the term elevator pitch and you'll find that the overwhelming sentiment is that having one is essential—both for your firm and yourself. And don't get me wrong, I think being able to respond in a coherent and concise fashion to the question "What do you do?" is far better than the run-of-the-mill answers I usually hear.

So my advice is this: Give some thought to how to effectively introduce yourself and your firm with an economy of words, but without coming across like telemarketer. A few tips to keep in mind:

Avoid the hype; state simply what you do. Many sales experts advise starting your pitch with a slogan or hook that sets you apart and creates immediate interest. To say, "We design spaces that bring out the best in the people who occupy them" certainly is more memorable than simply saying, "We're an architecture firm." But what first impression are you really creating? For many, that kind of line comes across as cheesy. Better to stick with the facts without seasoning them with unsubstantiated or arguably trivial claims.

Be specific without trying to be comprehensive. Of course, there's a better answer than merely stating, "We're an architecture firm." You should add a few details to at least distinguish your firm from every other architecture firm out there. For example: "We specialize in educational facilities, anything from vocational schools to universities to military training centers." But what if your firm works in several other markets? This is where many feel they have to choose between taking five minutes to answer or summarizing with something like the aforementioned "we do a little of everything."

A common mistake in marketing departments across our industry is trying so hard to be inclusive of all the firm does that they give too little attention to what the firm does best. When your window is only 30 seconds or so, you can't afford to be comprehensive without sounding generic—unless your firm is narrowly specialized. So highlight your strengths. If these don't align with what the other party might be looking for, you can add something like: "Plus we have worked with a number of manufacturing companies like yours" (if that's true, of course).

Quickly shift the attention to the other party. For many, the ideal elevator pitch has the other person asking further questions, giving you more time to toot your own horn. I don't agree. Many of the questions asked in conversation between strangers have more to do with being courteous or trying to keep the conservation going than actually being interested in the other party. If your elevator pitch practically begs an explanation, don't assume that follow-up questions are an expression of real interest.

The one thing you can be certain about is that the other person is interested in himself or herself. Therefore, the best way to have a conversation that might lead to something more is to encourage the other party to do most of the talking. Quickly answer the introductory question about you or your firm, then shift the focus away from yourself. Ask great questions that show genuine interest, not the usual salesy interrogation. There will be a time for you to do more of the talking, but try to avoid doing that at the start of the conversation.

Be memorable for what you don't say. I like this advice from consultant Michael McLaughlin: You're more likely to make a favorable first impression if you demonstrate more interest in the other person than in what you have to say. People who ask insightful questions, who really listen, and who seem genuinely interested in others are in short supply. Be one of them if you really want to stand out. It's much better than even the most clever elevator pitch.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Does Sharing Financial Data Improve Performance?

I'm working with a family-owned engineering firm that has tentatively decided to take a bold step: to start sharing financial information with all their employees. I must confess that it's been hard for me to understand their reluctance to do so. Most A/E and environmental firms that I've worked with over my career have practiced some degree of what's known as open-book management (OBM).

But I've been surprised to learn that my client is in a substantial majority. According to one survey of 1,300 chief financial officers with private companies, only 7% shared financial data with all employees. Another 17% shared this information with only select employees, while 76% provided no such data to their staff.

OBM is more common in the A/E industry, with 21% of firms sharing financial information with all firm members according to the Zweig Group. Yet 36% of "fast-growing firms" practice OBM compared to only 8% of "no growth firms" and 13% of declining firms. Is there a trend here?

Zweig reports that 81% of firms that were Best Firms to Work For Award winners shared revenue data with all employees, whereas 65% shared profit data. Meanwhile, 85% of companies in Inc. Magazine's 2010 Top Small Company Workplaces practice OBM, as do 40% of Inc.'s Top 500 fastest growing companies.

There seems to be a significant correlation between doing OBM and being successful. And it makes perfect sense. Sharing financial information with employees promotes trust and collaboration. It gives employees a better sense of connectedness to the company's success. It enables them to make more informed decisions about how help improve performance and profitability. It improves employee engagement, retention, motivation, innovation, and corporate sustainability, according to a white paper published by the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Research directly linking OBM to improved financial performance appears to be lacking, but the anecdotal evidence is abundant. Spend some time reading on the topic and you'll learn of many companies that attribute their success at least in part to becoming more transparent in sharing information with workers. It's easy to see how OBM would help increase employee engagement, and the financial advantages of having a more engaged workforce are well demonstrated.

Clearly, the decision about whether to use OBM or not is a reflection of the firm's culture. One author suggested the change from keeping financial data private to sharing it with employees denotes a shift from a patriarchal culture to a participatory one. I think that's an apt description. The former is akin to playing in a game where only the coach knows the score. It's harder to build a high performing team when such information is withheld.

So if your firm is in the majority but you're open to, well, being more open, where do you start? Here are a few suggestions:

Determine what information to share and how often. Despite the name, OBM isn't an invitation to open your books completely. Certain data, such as individual salaries, should be kept private. The fact is that you can achieve many of the benefits of OBM while sharing only limited information. The most important data is that which employees can act on—helping meet sales targets, reduce expenses, increase efficiency, for example. Sharing financial data quarterly keeps staff informed, but monthly updates probably have a greater influence on performance.

Educate employees about what the numbers mean. Most are probably not adept at reading balance sheets and interpreting financial trends. OBM advocates advise executives to focus on increasing overall business literacy among their staff, explaining what makes the firm successful and giving the numbers meaning. That's more reason for being selective in what is shared, to avoid overwhelming with too much data that people don't really understand.

Sell the importance of profitability. We live in an age when profit is under assault, characterized as a benefit enjoyed only by the affluent. Fortunately, 9 in 10 A/E firms have some kind of bonus or incentive compensation program in which profits are shared with employees. So that makes it easier to sell them on the importance of making a profit. But there are other purposes that profit fulfills relative to keeping the firm healthy and employees happy. Make sure that message is communicated along with the numbers.

Provide context. Explain marketplace trends, industry benchmarks, and what the firm's numbers over time indicate. Show employees how their work contributes to the bottom line. One of the greatest advantages of OBM is giving staff members a sense of ownership and control over how the company fares.

Don't withhold bad news, but maintain optimism. There is often concern that sharing the truth about poor performance with employees will be harmful. Won't they get discouraged and maybe even consider jumping ship? That's possible, but aren't they also a critical part of the solution?

The best approach in most cases is to share the bad news but couple it with encouragement that the firm is facing the issue head-on. Describe what corrective actions are being taken, or even better (when appropriate), solicit staff input into what should be done. Of course, if laying people off or closing business units is potentially part of the solution, you'll have think hard about how much information to share in advance.

Promote a culture that handles transparency responsibly. Many firms don't share financial information because they fear it may cause conflict or rivalry between offices, departments, and managers. If that's true, you're better off focusing on negative cultural and structural influences than withholding valuable information. OBM works better in firms committed to community and collaboration. Chances are your decision to share financial information indicates a desire to strengthen those cultural attributes. Don't let a little bad behavior discourage you from pursuing that goal. Instead, fix the root of the problem.


Friday, January 13, 2017

Win More by Writing Client-Centered Proposals

Whenever I do sales training, I start by asking participants what their immediate impressions are when I mention the word salesperson. As you might imagine, their responses are overwhelmingly negative. Why are salespeople so widely disrespected? Because most of us suspect that they put their own self-interest ahead of the buyer's.

True or not, the perception persists, and you dare not ignore it when selling your own services. Nevertheless, although most technical professionals thrust into the sales role disdain the self-orientation of traditional sellers, they often mirror the same behaviors. Talking too much, listening too little, and focusing the discussion on themselves or their firm are all indicators of a lack of client focus.

When it comes to proposals, this problem is magnified—and clients contribute to the problem. Their RFPs encourage us to write proposals that shift the spotlight to ourselves. It's the little-acknowledged dark side of qualifications-based selection rules, which our industry has fought hard to establish, but which seduce us into thinking that clients actually do select on qualifications alone.

At least our proposals would suggest it. From start to finish, the average A/E firm proposal is one long (in some cases, very long) advertisement. The prevailing theme: Look how wonderful we are! Except to client reviewers the distinctions between competing firms are often barely perceptible. What does stand out is the rare proposal that puts the focus where it belongs—on the client and their project.

I've sought to make writing client-centered proposals my primary advantage over the last 20 years. It seems to work, resulting in a 75% win rate for over $300 million in fees. In this post, I'll highlight the key steps I follow in preparing client-centered proposals:

1. Uncover the client's real needs. Why is the client doing this project and what are the desired outcomes? Answering those questions would seem an obvious place to start planning your proposal. But I continue to be amazed how often the teams I work with are unable to give me satisfactory answers. Don't expect the RFP to give you the insight you need. You must engage the client before the RFP to uncover the real needs behind the project.

I break down client needs into three areas: (1) strategic needs, (2) technical needs, and (3) personal needs. Responding to all three is key to consistently writing a winning proposal. Most technical professionals understandably focus on technical needs. The RFP usually encourages this. But meeting strategic business needs is the overriding, if unstated, goal. Since there are people involved—client representatives and their stakeholders—addressing their personal needs is also an important part of delivering a successful project.

Doing the upfront work to uncover all three levels of needs gives you an advantage right out of the blocks in competing for the winning proposal.

2. Focus on goals and strategy. Most A/E proposals I read are task-oriented rather than goal-oriented. That's a notable shortcoming, especially in appealing to executive-level decision makers—those who usually have the final say in the selection. They will likely be looking at the business value your solution delivers, an angle typically missing from our proposals.

Connecting your work to the strategic driver(s) behind the project is an easy way to distinguish your submittal. Your proposal should include some formulation of the following:
  • Project background—client needs, project history, site conditions, challenges, regulatory context
  • Project objectives—client vision, critical success factors, desired outcomes, business metrics
  • Project approach—overall strategy, project narrative, project management process, client relationship
  • Scope of work—work breakdown structure, contract scope, budget and schedule
The proposals I see commonly neglect or under-develop the first two elements, where the connection to business value is typically made. Keep in mind that minimizing the description of the client's problem and desired outcomes tends to diminish the value of your solution.

3. Highlight the client experience. Clients value the experience in working with you as much as they value your expertise. If you doubt that conclusion, consider the circumstances where you've lost a client. Was it a technical problem or a service deficiency? My informal polling indicates that it is overwhelmingly the latter.

Yet almost no one writes about the client experience (or the working relationship) in their proposals. What steps will you take to provide great service in the course of the project? Answer that question and instantly differentiate your submittal. Don't settle for the typical bromides like "we listen carefully to your needs" or "we are committed to being responsive to our clients." Describe in specific terms how you actually do those things.

I've gotten good mileage out of my unique service delivery process. In fact, it has played a key role in winning some large contracts. For example, the selection committee chair for a major airline remarked during the interview, "Why are you guys the only ones talking about this? The reason we're replacing our current consultants is that we're not happy with how they've served us. You're the only ones to tell us what you're going to do differently." We won that national contract despite some serious holes in our resume.

4. Humanize the proposal narrative. Want a cure for insomnia? Put a stack of proposals beside your bed. Why do our proposals have to be so bereft of humanity and something interesting to say? The problem starts with how we've been taught to write. Technical writing is characteristically impersonal and stuffy. Indeed, it is the polar opposite of what constitutes persuasive writing.

So you need to stop making your proposals read like technical reports (not that reports should read like that either!). Connect emotionally, not just intellectually. Share your opinions, not just dry facts. Use personal language like first and second person (you is the most persuasive word in the English language).

A great proposal also tells a story. The classic story spine has these elements: (1) reality introduced, (2) conflict arises, (3) struggle ensues, (4) conflict resolved, (5) new reality results. The conflict is the problem you're solving. The struggle is the consequences or potential implications of that problem. The solution is more than a scope of work; it's a description of how the problem is to be resolved and what the new reality will be.

Your proposal story should also satisfy these narrative elements:
  • There are actors, actions, and interactions. People drive the story, not organizations. Use first and second person. Refer to specific individuals where appropriate. Excessive use of third person tends to result in overuse of passive voice, which weakens the story's action. And don't ignore how people will interact—communicating, collaborating, decision making.
  • Stories reveal thoughts and feelings. Share your thought process, even if the final answer is yet to be determined. Acknowledge people's emotions (e.g., frustrated client, angry community group, delighted stakeholders). Your solution ideally addresses both objective and subjective, felt needs.
  • There should be dramatic tension and release. This is perhaps the most important element of a good story. When you jump to the scope of work (and your qualifications) without adequately explaining the problem and its consequences, you rob your proposal story of much of its power.
Because storytelling in proposals is so rare, I'm sure many of you will automatically discount its potential influence on the selection committee. That's fine, because that makes it all the more effective for those of us who decide to build a compelling storyline into our submittals.

5. Make your proposals concise and skimmable. Proposals have come a long way in eye appeal since I first started writing them in the 1980s. That has come with the advent of professional marketers, digital technology, and on-demand color printing. But I've generally not seen any notable improvement in the functionality of proposals—that is, how easy they are to read and navigate.

Making your proposals user friendly is a powerful, yet routinely ignored, differentiator. On this point, we shift from client-centered content to client-centered presentation. That means you need to go beyond pretty to practical. It's of little value to have the right message (as highlighted above) if it's buried in the pages. The typical A/E proposal is a tedious read.

Let's start with document length. I commonly see proposals exceeding 100 pages and wonder what their authors were thinking. Do you know how much time it would take to read a proposal that long? About three hours! Do you think selection committee members will spend that much time with your proposal?

Of course you don't. You know that they'll skim much of it, at least in the first review or two. So why aren't you making your document readily skimmable? Almost no one does. They write page after page of text as if they expect them to be read word for word. If you want to win over the client, make your proposal reader friendly—concise and skimmable.

6. Lead with client-centered content. The RFP is not your friend. Of course, you must comply with it. But don't mindlessly follow its vague suggestions and implied meanings. Many do, as if the RFP contains all the answers if they could only crack the code. I prefer an uneasy alliance, where I pursue what I think will work best for the client, unless the RFP directs me otherwise. That's because I trust what the client has told me (and the accumulated feedback from other clients) over the repurposed boilerplate that typically comprises the RFP.

One area I find myself frequently pushing back is the order of content. If the client is the centerpiece of my proposal, then I want to put the client-oriented content first (e.g., project background, objectives, approach, and SOW). That is, unless the RFP specifies something different. I typically don't assume that a bulleted list of contents means it must be in that order. But a numbered list probably does.

If that approach sounds too risky, there's another option—include an executive summary that puts the most important (client-centered) content up front. I always include an executive summary unless the RFP specifically precludes it. This summary distills the essence of your proposal, with the client at the heart of the story, in a few hard-hitting pages.

In my debriefs with clients, I've learned that the executive summary is almost always read (even when not requested) and is often a key factor in the selection decision. So if the RFP requires that you open with an overview of your firm (arrgh!), you can counter with a well-written executive summary that immediately makes it clear that the client's interests come first. That sells!