Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Responding to What the RFP Doesn't Say

I don't trust RFPs. I've been hoodwinked by them too many times in my 30+ years as a proposal manager. They've told me to do one thing when the client really wanted something else. They've withheld critical information that I needed to compete. They've pretended to be objective when in fact their requirements wired the selection for another firm.

Given my distrust of RFPs, I've never understood the unwavering faith that so many people place in them. These individuals pore over RFPs as if they contain some kind of secret code. They slavishly follow not only every instruction, but every implied message that may (in their minds) reveal what the client is really thinking.

Of course, if you wait until the RFP comes out before trying to figure out the winning formula, you probably don't have any other option but to trust the RFP. That's unfortunate, because many RFPs are more likely to mislead than enlighten. Here are a few of the most common deceptions that I've seen:

Your firm is not the centerpiece of this process; the client is. The RFP would have you believe otherwise. Tell us about your firm, it beckons, your history, your services, your office locations, your relevant experience, your project team. If you trust the RFP, you might think that this information is actually the primary influence in the client's decision who to hire. Not likely.

The client is much more interested in how well you understand their needs and aspirations, whether you have a compelling solution, and whether you can convince them of your ability to deliver it. These are factors that the RFP too often downplays, if not ignores altogether. Make no mistake, the client has probably had conversations about this with your competitors if not your firm. If your proposal doesn't weigh in on that discussion, you're likely to lose out.

The client is buying outcomes, not services. As a general rule, people don't really buy products or services; they buy what those products or services will do for them. The same is true of our clients. Yet how often do you read about results in one of our proposals? This is perhaps our greatest omission in the proposal process, to give the client a scope of work without addressing the desired outcomes it will produce.

Not that the RFP suggests that the client wants this. Only when you describe expected project results in your proposal does it become evident, because the client mentions that this was a prominent reason for selecting your firm. You see, the RFP doesn't always include all the key selection criteria!

The working relationship is very important. Again, the RFP won't tell you that; it's too squishy a topic to formally include it in a supposedly objective selection process. Yet client surveys tell us that the "client experience" is highly valued. In fact, you're far more likely to lose a client over poor service than technical deficiency. At some point—usually in the shortlist interview, since proposals generally avoid the issue—the client will be assessing whether they think they'd like to work with you.

If you explicitly describe in your proposal how you deliver exceptional client experiences and optimize the working relationship, you're likely to be the only one of the competing firms to write about it. That's an easy point of differentiation that you can claim because the RFP overlooked it.

First impressions really do matter. Years ago, before in-house color printing was commonplace and only a few firms went all out on fancy proposal covers, some government agencies would remove the cover of your submittal before ever opening it. They didn't want to be unduly influenced by first impressions.

Yet these same reviewers would dutifully subject your proposal to a few preliminary screening criteria, a review that might take as little as one or two minutes. If you failed to meet those criteria—which were largely unpublicized—your submittal was tossed out before they even checked your compliance with the RFP. First impressions still mattered.

And they continue to matter today. Not that you necessarily need to go overboard with appearances or worry about secret screening criteria (although I'm sure some clients still use them). A more important consideration is how the reviewer handles your proposal. What does he or she look for first? What factors most influence first impressions? Is your proposal designed accordingly? How will you know what matters? Ask...before the RFP is released.

Making your proposal skimmable is the secret differentiator. Speaking of first impressions, imagine your proposal was easy to skim and discover its central themes. Of course, most clients are skimming your proposal anyway. So why does your firm produce proposals that demand to be read? If the client is skimming and your proposal is not skimmable, you've lost message control. There's no way you can be confident that the most important messages in your submittal will be seen and understood.

Want a quick tip on how to make your documents more skimmable? Present your key points using boldface inline headings, like I've used in this article. Many of my readers will miss this tip because the headings will be all they read. But they still will get the gist of my article!

A strong executive summary can make a big difference. RFPs rarely ask for one, but clients are swayed by them more often than you might think. The big advantage of a strong executive summary is that it allows you to address the important topics that the RFP may have missed or underemphasized. You can capture the essence of your proposal narrative in a few well-designed pages, in a manner that may have been impossible by merely following the outline of the RFP.

I've had many clients over the years tell me that our executive summary played a key role in distinguishing our proposal—even though they didn't ask for one. So my standard advice is to always include one unless the RFP clearly forbids it. In that case, you will need to find another way to feature the elements of your executive summary elsewhere within the prescribed framework.

Remember: RFPs are generally designed to eliminate your competitive advantage, to level the playing field among all competitors (unless it's wired). So why look there for the keys to success? Fully comply with the RFP, but don't be complicit. Figure out what the client really wants to hear and then find a way to overcome the RFP's limitations to tell that story.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Staying Close to Clients in Uncertain Times

Last time we faced an economic downturn, I set out to research growth strategies for businesses that faced low growth conditions in their respective markets. One strategy rose to the top—getting close to your customers. A few excerpts from studies I reviewed (all from the 2010-2015 period when economic growth was less than 3%):
  • "The solution [for low growth] is to focus more intensely on customers by building a customer-centric organizational model." (Gallup)
  • "A corporate culture centered on customers is the factor most likely to yield financial results." (American Management Association)
  • "Our analysis shows that no leadership competency matters more [for growth] than customer impact, meaning a deep understanding of customer needs." (McKinsey)
  • "Strong client focus was identified as CEOs' top strategic priority." (KPMG)
  • "Firms with a clear plan for client focus grow 3x faster." (Hinge)
But within A/E industry in which I labor, there was evidence of firms moving in the opposite direction: "I feel like our engineering service providers have abandoned us since we're not spending money on capital projects," lamented one public works director whom I interviewed. Another told me, "Just because we don't have the budget doesn't mean we don't have needs. I'd appreciate any help trying to figure out how to do more with less."

The unfortunate reality is that many of us give attention to clients only as long as they're paying us to. Witness the common lack of follow-up with clients after our work is done (sometimes even while our designs are still being constructed!). At a practical level, this is somewhat understandable. Often it's all we can do to keep up with the demands of serving clients with active projects. But it does tend to make claims of how much we care about our clients seem overstated.

Yet with the likelihood of another recession on the horizon, we are presented with another opportunity to demonstrate where we really stand with our clients. Whether they continue to have work for us or not, here are some suggestions for staying close to clients during these uncertain times:

Show personal concern beyond project matters. This is always good advice, but is particularly important in times of crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we have faced and it impacts all of us at many levels. With most people working from home, it's become increasingly difficult to separate our personal and professional lives. Plus this is a life-threatening situation for many. In this context, it seems terribly inappropriate to limit client conversations to business only. But how deeply you probe into personal matters should be calibrated according to the nature of the relationship.

Discuss how this situation impacts both the project and the working relationship. I'm hearing that people have quickly adjusted to remote work, and that things are generally going smoothly with clients. That's good, but don't presume too much. I advocate reviewing expectations about how you'll continue to work together in this ever-evolving situation. Pay special attention to communication—how often, by what means, what time of day, etc. This is the area where I hear the most complaints from clients even under normal circumstances.

Be sensitive to changing priorities. Stay abreast of what factors are driving the client's agenda. Chances are they will be in flux in the coming months. Don't assume that priorities will remain fixed on the projects you're working on. On the other hand, new opportunities for you to help may arise from changing priorities. But you could miss them if you limit inquiry only to your current work. Which leads to my next point...

Understand the client's current needs, whatever they are. Again, this is advice for all times, but it takes on special importance these days. It's natural for us to be most interested in the work we're currently performing or other issues that are within our realm of expertise. Yet we sometimes miss important context when we are uncurious about the client's concerns not directly related to the services we provide. Your clients may have pressing needs that you're unaware of if you don't explore outside your usual scope of services. That makes you less helpful as an adviser, and could forestall a chance to at least provide useful information or make a referral to someone who could meet their needs.

Be proactive in helping define how any project changes or stoppages will be handled. As disruptive as these events might be for your firm, you'll build goodwill for the long term by acting in the client's interest. Ask the client about what specific challenges they're facing and what changes might be coming. Then offer to work with them in transitioning (as needed) the projects you're involved in as optimal a manner as possible, whether this would require pausing work or revising scopes and schedules. Your firm's perspective can be very valuable in this regard, but that doesn't mean the client might not involve you if you don't take the initiative.

Consider ways to offer your help at little to no cost. I'm starting to hear of client requests for reduced fees. It may well come to that, as was not uncommon during the Great Recession. But my preference is to instead offer help through what might be called "strategic investments" in clients, where you provide free or deeply discounted consulting or other support in areas of considerable value to the client. What's the difference? One action further contributes to the commoditization of your services, the other reinforces the role of trusted advisor. One is a concession, the other a gift. Of course, you must have something of real value to offer—even for free—for this to work. And you may be forced to eventually reduce some fees anyway.

Keep the client informed of how your firm is responding to this challenge. No doubt, your firm contacted clients weeks ago announcing steps you were taking to keep employees safe and still keep the work going. But since this is a dynamic situation, it's wise to keep clients abreast of how your firm's response continues to evolve. In particular, you want to inform your client of any internal changes that will or could potentially affect them. Besides the practical benefits of such communication, it also contributes to the sense of this shared experience we are having, which can help bring parties closer together.

Be diligent in collecting and sharing valuable content. Talking with clients isn't the only way to communicate you care. Sharing content and resources that address client interests and concerns is a good way to stay in front of clients between conversations. Doing this consistently depends on developing the habit of regularly collecting and sharing such content. I'm a content hoarder, constantly on the lookout for information and insights that might be on interest to my clients—and, of course, I create content myself. You can share content with individual clients via email or to a broader audience through social media.

Finally, take this opportunity to nurture your capacity for empathy. One of my favorite article titles of all time came from the CNET website years ago: "Eureka! Engineers Aren't Empathetic Because They Can't Be." The article shared news of a study that discovered the human brain seemingly cannot effectively engage in analytical thought and empathy at the same time—undoubtedly a convenient excuse for technical professionals who sometimes lack empathy. Assuming the study is true, this suggests that most of us need to consciously switch between thinking about project work and thinking about clients. In practice, that may involve putting down the pencil and picking up the phone.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Why Include an Executive Summary When the RFP Doesn't Ask for One?

The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is unfortunately still in front of us. How long this will last or what impact it will ultimately have on our businesses, no one can know with any certainty. Yet I'm reasonably confident in suggesting that now is a good time to consider how your firm can get better in bringing in new business. There will undoubtedly be fewer sales opportunities for awhile. What can you do to improve your win rate?

When it comes to proposals, there are a number of relatively simple, yet largely neglected, steps for differentiating your proposals from the competition—making them distinctly client-centered, telling the story of how you'll deliver success, keeping them concise and skimmable—to name a few. Another effective step that most ignore is including a compelling executive summary.

Why should your proposals have an executive summary? Well, for one thing, there's a strong consensus in favor of them among the experts. A sampling:
  • "The executive summary is the single most important part of your proposal. It's the only part that's likely to be read by everybody involved in making a decision." — Tom Sant, probably the best known expert on writing business proposals
  • "The Executive Summary is often the most important section in the proposal. It sets the tone for individual evaluators and are sometimes the only pages read by decision makers." — Shipley Associates, a leading proposal consulting firm (I was trained by Shipley and was briefly under contract as one of their consultants)
  • "The Executive Summary might be the only thing we read." — Gary Coover, author of the book Secrets of the Selection Committee and former member of numerous private and governmental selection committees
  • "The Executive Summary is your most effective and important selling piece and deserves all the effort and attention you can give it." — Robert Hamper and Sue Baugh, authors of the book Handbook for Writing Proposals
So, you should include an executive summary in your proposals because it might be the only part that the entire selection committee reads, it sets the tone for the rest of the proposal (hopefully the right tone!), and it can be a powerful influence in your firm being selected. To this list of reasons I'll add the following:
  • An executive summary gives you a greater measure of message control. RFPs tend to nudge everyone in the direction of sounding alike. That's my observation, having reviewed thousands of A/E firm proposals over the years. More importantly, clients agree, based on my conversations with many of them.
  • An executive summary enables you to lead with client focus. A truly client-centered proposal has an edge over all others that focus instead on the offerer. Yes, they're simply responding to the RFP's instructions to feature their qualifications and experience. An executive summary, on the other hand, allows you to open your proposal with the spotlight directed where it should be—on the client.
  • The executive summary is the best place to deliver your value proposition. This is the persuasive business case for selecting your firm versus your competitors. By outlining your business case in the executive summary, you're focusing on outcomes that you know constitute the client's definition of success. This is often quite different from the formal "selection criteria" listed in the RFP.
As you've probably detected, I have an uneasy alliance with client RFPs. I certainly advise being fully compliant with the RFP, but not in the manner of passively "answering" its directives as you might answer a questionnaire or fill out a form. The latter seems the favored approach for most proposals I review. By contrast, I advocate what I call assertive compliance where you satisfy RFP requirements without sacrificing best practice and common sense.

This leads us back to executive summaries. Why don't most firms include one? Because the RFP didn't ask for it! So does that omission comprise a prohibition on including an executive summary in your proposal? Do you take a risk by including one? Not in my experience.

Over a 20-year period, I served as the proposal manager for a national environmental firm and then a regional engineering firm, meaning I was ultimately responsible for all aspects of the planning and preparation of key proposals (typically with contract values in excess of $1 million). We won 75% of those proposals, for combined fees totaling over $300 million.

I always included an executive summary, except on rare occasions when the RFP specifically excluded one. And...the RFPs almost never asked for one. In over 200 proposal debriefings, there was never a situation where we were criticized for including an executive summary. On the contrary, it was evident that clients consistently read them (in contrast with cover letters, which are often ignored) and, in many cases, they played a significant role in our being selected.

I'll take those odds. What about you?

As noted earlier, a good executive summary sets the tone for the rest of your proposal. It can also say something about your firm. Passively answering the RFP can suggest your firm is merely an order taker—tell us what to do and we'll do it. It occurred to me recently that both firms mentioned above more commonly inhabited the realm of trusted advisor. We included executive summaries because they provided us optimum space to feature what we thought needed to be said—whether mentioned in the RFP or not.

Our industry has fought long and hard for Qualifications-Based Selection, but I must confess I'm not a fan (I know, that's heresy to some). My biggest complaint is that it doesn't align with how research shows buyers make decisions. People don't really buy products and services; they buy what they believe those products and services will do for them. Similarly, buyers aren't inclined to pick vendors or service providers based on what they've done for others, but what they anticipate the provider will do for them. Past experience and qualifications are simply evidence that the provider can deliver what they promise.

This gets muddled when QBS is applied to the buying process. Yet I remain convinced that most buyers of A/E services still select firms based on the promise, not the past. Many RFPs seemingly constrain our ability to adequately feature that promise. Ask for a work plan or scope of work, and most firms will respond with just that—essentially a list (in narrative form) of tasks to be performed. We become so conditioned to this response that even when the RFP requests a "project approach," many firms pass on the promise and provide just an SOW.

A well-developed executive summary swims against this tide, giving you 2-4 pages at the start of your proposal to succinctly tell the client what they really want to hear—that you understand their needs, what outcomes will define success, and the best approach to deliver those outcomes. Will you pass on this opportunity because you weren't asked?

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Management Communication Advice for Anxious Times Like These

Note: This is an update of an article I wrote in 2008 in the midst of the financial crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic may not yet constitute a serious "problem" or "challenge" for your firm as references below suggest, but it likely will become one. So I think the language fits what you're ultimately going to be facing.

Even in the best of times, management communications with staff are often problematic. I've conducted and reviewed several employee surveys and have found management-to-staff communication to be among the most commonly identified shortcomings. When a firm faces tough challenges, the need for effective communication is even more crucial. Unfortunately that's when many managers struggle most in this area.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, we enter an unprecedented time of uncertainty. How will this affect our industry? Our national economy? How should we respond? The answers remain elusive and rapidly evolving. Most A/E firms still retain a healthy backlog of work, but with growing restrictions on business activity and social interaction, will that continue? What if the federal government orders a widespread "shutdown" to try to contain the spread of the virus?

We simply cannot predict what the impacts will be. This is uncharted water. We've been through tough times before, but this one leaves many business leaders scrambling to determine what steps they should take. And as soon as they've made a decision, the situation has likely changed. Despite the uncertainty, there is one truth that holds in every crisis—good communication from management to staff is critically important.

Drawing from my experiences as a leader in economic downturns, layoffs, bankruptcies, reorganizations, mergers and acquisitions, and the like, let me offer these suggestions:

Formulate and share your response plan now. The past few days we've all received numerous emails from businesses describing how they are responding to the pandemic. Yet many A/E firms have been slow to react. The time is now to determine how you will protect your staff, serve your clients, and get the work done in the age of social distancing. Yes, you may have to update it in a few days, but getting the word out now communicates that firm leaders have things (reasonably) under control. Don't wait until the crisis actually visits your firm; being proactive is the imperative these days.

Increase interaction with staff. Faced with tough challenges, many managers become distracted and distant. They're too busy dealing with problems to spend much time talking with their employees. But that's a problem in itself and it neglects one of the most important responsibilities of being a leader. In tough times, managers should increase, not decrease, communication. Effective leaders become more visible in tough times. Given the evolving nature of this crisis, more frequent and timely communication is of even greater importance.

Help other managers improve their communications. In larger firms, it's difficult for the CEO and other corporate officers to interact adequately with multiple offices or departments. Unit managers need to communicate for the company at the local level (although this doesn't replace the benefit of communication from corporate management). The CEO or other officers can help this local communication in two key ways: (1) support frequency by communicating regularly with unit managers and informing them about what needs to be communicated to staff, and (2) support consistency by providing talking points to unit managers so they can convey the same messages across the organization.

Be honest, but accentuate the positive. There's a tenuous balance to strike between being open about the problems or uncertainties your firm faces and creating an atmosphere of optimism. Too much concerning news can overwhelm and demotivate. On the other hand, too much positive spin comes across as insincere and dishonest. You must try to mix the right proportions of both. Here's my advice: Be honest about the concerns, but spend more time talking about what's being done about them.

Keep your vision and values at the forefront. Detours are easier to endure when you know where you're going. Some firms handle adversity by moving into "survival mode." It's akin to throwing the cargo overboard to help stay afloat in a storm. These firms lose sight of their vision (if they have one) and focus on the present calamities. It's easy to get stuck there. A better approach is to renew your vision and blend corrective actions with your strategy for the future. There's no need to shift from "success mode" in tough times.

It's also important to make your values a recurring theme in your communications in difficult circumstances. Why? Because your values should be an anchor in stormy seas. The economy may change; the firm may undergo changes. But the one thing that shouldn't be subject to change are those immutable principles that guide all corporate activity. Keep reminding staff what you stand for and that these things are non-negotiable. Of course, walk the talk! Strong corporate values give employees a much-needed assurance in uncertain times.

Beware of the convenience of email. Because it's easy to distribute a message across the firm via email, managers are often tempted to use it improperly. Sensitive, emotionally-charged messages are better delivered in person. If that's not practical or wise in these circumstances, video conferencing or a conference call would be the next choice. Why? Because voice tone and body language provide important context for communicating sensitive messages. It's hard to convey concern and empathy by email, for example. Plus it's beneficial to give employees the immediate opportunity to ask questions.

Another downside of email convenience is the tendency to spend too little time crafting important communications. Which leads to my next point...

Appoint a communication team to screen all potentially sensitive company-wide emails and memos. We have probably all seen important emails or memos that were unclear, misleading, inaccurate, sloppy (typos), or even inflammatory. These communications often do more harm than the good that was intended. It's a simple fact that many technical professionals, including A/E firm executives and managers, are not strong writers. Even among those who are proficient, it's still wise to have others preview important company-wide communications before they're delivered. I would suggest that CEOs have someone check all written company-wide communications from them, because any message from the top executive can be considered important.

Remember that communication is two-way. The effect of communication is not determined by how it is delivered, but by how it is received. I have sometimes been blindsided, thinking I had eloquently made my point only to find that it had been grossly misinterpreted. You've probably experienced the same thing. That's why effective management-to-staff communication must have a feedback loop. This can be done formally or informally (both is probably best). The key things are to make sure you (1) actively solicit feedback, (2) listen empathetically, and (3) respond appropriately to what you hear. If employees think you are listening and care about them, they will be more tolerant of any shortcomings in getting your message across.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Importance of Connnecting Your Work to the Client's ROI

I've long pondered the disparity in financial returns for architects and consulting engineers compared to other professional service providers. A/E professionals trail most other professionals in hourly rates, profitability, and labor multiplier. Why? Isn't our work of comparable value? Apparently not, the marketplace would suggest.

There are no doubt several factors contributing to the shortfall, but I believe that one trumps all others—business solutions are more valuable than technical solutions. Other professional services are more readily associated with business results. Clients are willing to pay extra for those services that are perceived to most directly affect their bottom-line success.

It's fair to argue that A/E professionals do indeed deliver strong business value. Our work enables new business operations, improves efficiency, helps create necessary infrastructure, reduces liabilities, strengthens balance sheets, boosts shareholder value, converts distressed properties into productive use, brings facilities into compliance, helps build public good will. Why then don't we get more credit for the business value we help create?

Two reasons are foremost, in my mind: (1) there is a gap between delivery of our services and realization of the client's return on investment and (2) we generally do a poor job articulating the connection between our work and business results —particularly on the engineering side of the business. The reality of point #1 makes the impact of point #2 all the more substantial in devaluing our services.

ROI is a critical measure of the success of a key business expenditure. Here's what we need to recognize: If a client spends $100,000 for an engineering study or design, there's a delay before the value of that investment can be realized. A/E professionals generally don't implement their study recommendations or construct their designed facilities. Therefore, when we finish our projects, they still constitute a cost to the client.

I suspect we don't fully appreciate this. We're rightfully proud of our work, and if it's technically sound and delivered on time and on budget, we proclaim the project a success—or at least our portion of the project. But the client cannot really call it a success until the ROI is realized. That comes later.
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Interestingly, client feedback data collected by Client Savvy shows that over the course of the A/E portion of a project (and even into construction contract administration) that client satisfaction generally declines until there's an uptick at the end of construction. Could the delay in ROI contribute to this trend? At the very least, we should acknowledge that our view of project success likely differs somewhat from that of the client.

So what can we do about this? It's hardly our fault that the timing of our services usually precedes the client's return on investment. We are to blame, however, for our failure to make the connection between our work and ROI more explicit. Want evidence of this? Read our websites, our proposals, and our marketing materials and see how seldom we talk about the business results of our work. We seem more interested in talking about the tasks and services we performed.

Similarly, we too often give little consideration to client business goals during the planning of our projects. Nor are they incorporated into many of our quality review processes. If our scope of work ends with the planning or design phase of the project, we may not follow it through construction and startup, or track results after the facility is in operation. In other words, we sometimes show little interest in whether our projects are truly a success.

Does failing to clearly articulate the connection between our work and the client's ROI help devalue our services? I'm convinced that it does. Thankfully, more recent project delivery models—such as design-build and P3—put A/E firms in closer proximity to the realization of ROI and, not surprisingly, tend to yield higher fees and bigger profits (for various reasons).
There's ample opportunity for your firm to differentiate itself by demonstrating a focus on delivering business results. A few tips in this regard:
  • Diagnose client needs at three levels: strategic (business), technical, people. This helps push your project managers and staff outside their technical box where they're most comfortable. It also helps them better align their project perspective with that of the client, by seeing the bigger picture.
  • Uncover the client's desired outcomes at the same three levels. Every project will have expected results relating to how it meets strategic, technical, and people needs. No, the client isn't likely thinking specifically in these terms, but breaking it down this way helps you better draw out how project success will ultimately be defined.
  • Let these outcomes drive your design process. Keep this connection at the forefront of your discussions, both internally and externally, about design or solution alternatives. Whereas technical professionals often see technical problems in need of a technical solution, this framework can help your team better envision how that technical solution will deliver business results. 
  •  Consider incorporating a business review into your QC process. The technical aspects of the project are usually the focus of A/E firm reviews, but in some cases there is great value in having a third-party review of the business aspects of the project before it goes to the client for review. That perspective might be found in your firm, or you might decide to subcontract an outside expert for the task.
  • Stay involved in the project, even after your scope is completed. At a minimum, contact the client periodically to track project progress. Once the solution is implemented or the facility is constructed, check on whether it is performing as expected. Even if you're not compensated for these ongoing conversations, it helps connect you to the realization of ROI.
  • Learn to describe your work in terms of results, not just tasks or services. Perhaps spending more time on those project descriptions can yield more benefit than just making marketing staff happy. Consider it practice in articulating the true value of your services. Work at it until it becomes natural to specifically talk about how your projects deliver client success!

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Proposal Smarts: Don't Waste Your Advantage as the Incumbent

I've reviewed a few proposals in recent months where the incumbent firm failed to win the next phase of the project or contract. So they asked me to do a postmortem. There are a variety of reasons why an incumbent might lose that have little to do with the proposal. Yet there were some common deficiencies in these proposals that probably helped contribute to the outcome.

I've written many posts here about how to build lasting client relationships. This post will focus on leveraging your strengths as the incumbent in your proposal. The fact is that among the proposals I've seen, incumbents typically fail to take full advantage of their position. Hopefully this post will help you better protect your turf in future proposals.

As the incumbent, you should have two distinct advantages: (1) you know the most about the client's project or program and (2) you have an established relationship with the client. Your proposal should reflect these advantages. Yet I'm amazed how often incumbent proposals fail to capitalize on these. Here are some of the shortcomings I've seen recently:
  • The incumbent wasn't sure which technical solution the client preferred, even though the firm had done all the upfront work. How can this happen? Believe me, it happens!
  • The incumbent failed to demonstrate in their proposal that they had any special insight into the substantial nontechnical issues associated with the project.
  • The incumbent said nothing of their strong relationship with third-party stakeholders who were crucial to the success of the project.
  • The incumbent wrote nothing in their proposal that showed familiarity with working with the client—how they would communicate, collaborate, share decision making, address inevitable problems, etc.
I could go on, but these examples will suffice. In fact, these are the most common omissions I've seen. So if your firm is the incumbent, what are some steps you can take to make your proposal darn near unbeatable?

Address any lingering service problems or relationship concerns. In some cases, the mere fact that you're having to write a proposal for the next phase is a sign of trouble. Be proactive in addressing concerns before they become significant problems. Be sure you know where you stand (are you soliciting feedback from the client?) and promptly take steps to correct any shortcomings the client points out.

Develop your proposal with the client in advance of the RFP. When you're the incumbent, there's no excuse for having to guess which solution or alternative the client might favor. Yet I've seen this happen on several occasions. Begin working on your proposal early, seeking the client's input and agreement on your strategy. This advance access to the client should be a very difficult obstacle for your competitors to overcome.

Make your familiarity advantage obvious in your proposal. Don't fall into the trap of simply preparing a rote response to the RFP. Include the distinct project perspectives and insights that only your firm can claim. You should have a better understanding of the client's biggest concerns, highest priorities, most critical success factors. You know about the hidden risks, the biggest challenges, the greatest frustrations, what has transpired to date and how it impacted the project. Talk about these things in your proposal!

Be honest about your vulnerabilities and tackle them head on. Some incumbents are reluctant to acknowledge these concerns in their proposal. But I prefer being open and proactive. Does the client have some doubts about your ability to take the project to the next stage? Don't avoid this in your proposal; instead make your case for why you're the most qualified to continue the work. Have there been some problems in your relationship with the client? Take responsibility for it, and describe the steps you've taken to prevent such problems from happening again.

Write about how you'll tend the working relationship. Firms rarely say much in their proposals about the relationship with the client, although this is a critical success factor. Why the omission? In part because RFPs usually don't ask firms to address the matter. As the incumbent, you have a distinct advantage here. So be sure to describe in your proposal how you'll manage an effective working relationship. There's a good chance no one else will, and an even better chance that no one else could do so as well as you.

Make it personal. Most A/E firms avoid using first and second person in their proposals, which helps rob them of the human element that makes for effective persuasion. Don't make this mistake, especially as the incumbent where you have an established relationship with the client. Writing in third person as the incumbent comes across as stilted, impersonal, and just weird, to be honest. Don't forget who your audience is. You're not writing to the faceless masses, but to people you know.

So don't squander the built-in advantages you have as the incumbent. Your proposal should clearly reflect the distinct insights and familiarity you have. But because firms often are negligent in nurturing client relationships and leveraging their advantages, competitors have a better chance than you might think to steal clients away. For tips on how to displace the incumbent, check out this earlier post.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Benchmarking Client Service Expectations

If you're not taking steps to uncover your clients' service expectations, you're missing a valuable opportunity to distinguish your firm and strengthen client relationships. In my last post, I tried to make the compelling case for doing what I call "service benchmarking" at the outset of every project. I also outlined the general content of that process and offered a helpful resource to use from my website.

In this article, I'd like to go further in describing how you can benchmark service expectations. Every client is different, so you'll need to tweak the process to fit both the client and your firm. 

How to Do Service Benchmarking

Talk to every key client contact who will experience your service. Client perceptions of your performance are rarely limited to a single person. Yet it is not uncommon for us to talk about client preferences with only the primary point of contact (e.g., the client PM). Instead, attempt to meet with all key client contacts with whom you will have significant interaction.

Determine how many benchmarking meetings are appropriate. There are advantages to meeting with multiple client contacts in a single benchmarking session. Besides the efficiency of getting feedback from different individuals in one sitting, the combined session enables them to better understand each other's expectations and to reach a consensus where necessary. But some client contacts (e.g., senior management or accounting) might be better engaged in a separate meeting.

Take time to plan the meeting. Having a standard questionnaire provides a general outline for the benchmarking session. Yet you should review the questions in advance to determine which are appropriate to ask and what additional or modified questions should be added. Different client contacts will undoubtedly warrant different questions.

Expect to spend one to two hours in the benchmarking session. The time involved will depend on a number of factors—how familiar you are with the client, how many client contacts will be participating, how much time the client is willing to commit to this discussion, etc. For large projects or contracts, I've found that a two-hour meeting is pretty typical to cover the bases.

Consider collecting the information in multiple conversations. The average client will likely balk at spending two hours—or any amount of time—to formally benchmark expectations, especially on smaller projects. But don't abandon the process too quickly! You can collect the information in multiple meetings and phone conversations—even without the client being aware that you are doing "benchmarking."

Be sure to allow the client to bring up issues you may not have anticipated. One disadvantage of a standard questionnaire is that it can lead you to be too focused on the questions listed, perhaps bypassing issues of importance to the client. Instead, keep the conversation loose enough to allow the client to venture into issues that might not be addressed in your questionnaire. Be sure to ask, "Is there anything else we haven't discussed that you'd like to talk about?"

How to Do Service Benchmarking

It's natural to think of applying this process only to new clients or new projects. But it can be entirely appropriate to employ it with current clients or later in the project. Since great service is primarily about meeting and exceeding expectations, understanding those expectations better is worth pursuing at any stage of the project or relationship.

Begin uncovering client expectations during the sales process. This enables you to better address client service issues in your proposal or presentation. Indeed, giving attention to the working relationship can be a substantial competitive advantage, since likely no one else will. Doing this in the sales process also shortens the benchmarking step after contract award.

Initiate the formal process shortly after contract award. The insights gained from service benchmarking should be integrated with other elements of project planning. There are many obvious advantages in doing this process at the outset, enabling a mutual understanding of what's expected before the work begins. Many of the service problems I've encountered could have been avoided if the two parties had gone through this step at the start of the project.

Revisit the process at key project transition points. Client expectations often change to some degree over the course of the project. You will be wise to check periodically to confirm that your initial understanding of client expectations is still valid. A convenient time to do this is at project transitions such as planning-to-design, preliminary-to-final, design-to-construction.

Fill in benchmarking gaps at any stage of the project. If the project is already underway, a full-blown benchmarking session is probably tough to sell to the client. But you should still attempt to fill in gaps in your understanding of client expectations. Be careful not to assume too much. Check to make sure that what you think you know is accurate.

Employ the process when there are service problems. If you didn't do benchmarking at the start, you should at least use elements of the process in response to any service issues that arise later in the project. Sometimes clients who were reluctant to participate early are eager to do so after problems appear.

Of course, service benchmarking is only the start of an effective client service process. But even your best service efforts will fall short if you don't understand what the client expects. So don't fail to ask, whatever form that may take.

Monday, February 10, 2020

To Deliver a Great Experience, You Need to Understand the Expectations

Expectations define the experience. That's one of the fundamentals of delivering exceptional client experiences. The client is the sole arbiter of what constitutes great service (i.e., a great experience), and that opinion depends as much on what was expected as what was delivered.

So what steps does your firm take to ensure that you understand the client's service expectations? In my experience, few firms follow any formal process for clarifying expectations. Worse still, most do a poor job of soliciting this input even on an informal basis. The focus instead is on determining the usual scope, schedule, and budget.

Yet the traditional project parameters usually fail to outline client expectations adequately. To illustrate this, consider your own experience procuring a technical service—in this case, hiring a mechanic to fix your car. What explicit instructions do you give the mechanic? Diagnose the problem. Fix it. Perhaps you ask when the work will be done, or for an estimate of the cost.

Where in that conversation do you discuss your service expectations? Usually this matter is largely ignored. Do you want the mechanic to inform you of other problems with the car? If you trust him, probably yes. But if you don't, such information could be perceived as a ploy to try to take more of your money. Do you want manufacturer's or aftermarket parts? Do you want to see the old parts that are removed during the repair? And so on.

There are several expectations you have about the transaction that likely won't be discussed. But what factors will determine whether you continue to do business with that mechanic? Fixing your car is a given. Are not the service you receive and trust you build the primary determinants of a continued relationship? Yet how can the mechanic know how best to serve you and gain your trust if you don't discuss your expectations?

This is the situation you face with your clients, especially the ones you have limited experience with. And by the way, don't merely assume that you know your long-term clients' expectations if you've never asked. Through the many client surveys and interviews I've conducted, I've learned that many A/E firms don't know their clients as well as they think.

I've been involved in troubleshooting many service breakdowns over the years, including a few that could not be sufficiently resolved to retain the client. These situations resulted from a variety of shortcomings, but one central underlying cause has been evident in most every case—the firm did not adequately understand the client's expectations about how they wanted to be served.

In most cases, the service providers merely assumed they knew what the client wanted. After all, they understood the project requirements, scope, schedule, and budget. What more did they need to proceed with confidence? An understanding of how the client envisioned the working relationship. That interaction is a substantial part of the value you're delivering.

So what can you do? I recommend a process I call "service benchmarking" to clarify the expectations at the outset of the project (and to be revisited periodically over the course of the project). This activity can be conducted formally in a meeting with the client (the preferred method) or informally over several routine conversations. Following are the kinds of issues you want to explore as part of service benchmarking:

Communication. How often does the client want to communicate on a routine basis? By what means? Who are the key points of contact within both organizations? What kinds of communications is each responsible for? How many meetings are expected? Who is responsible for facilitating those meetings?

Decisions and involvement. What kinds of decisions does the client want to be involved in? Who will make what decisions? At what specific points in the project is client approval needed? Does the client want to participate in any internal project team meetings or joint strategy sessions? At what stages does the client want to review draft work products?

Information and data. What information does the client want you to routinely report to them? What information will the client provide? What specific records should your firm maintain for the client's purposes and in what form? What are the best electronic means for sharing information and data?

Deliverable standards. Does the client have specific deliverable standards? Are there any special document control requirements? How many copies are needed and to whom should they be sent?

Invoicing and payment. When should invoices be delivered to the client to ensure timely payment? What attachments or backup information does the client require? Are there any special payment methods that might be beneficial to both parties?

Changes. Does the client prefer a specific change management process? What is the basis for estimating extra costs? What approval is needed and how long should this take? How does the client want you to respond should a mistake occur?

Performance feedback. Is the client willing to provide honest feedback on your firm's performance? What is the best timing and process for soliciting this feedback?

These are just a few of the questions you might ask the client in defining service expectations. Be sure to write down the client's responses and share them with the client to confirm mutual understanding. You might develop a questionnaire for this purpose (or download my "Client Service Planner"). After filling it in, forward it to the client to confirm that you accurately captured his or her comments. This establishes the "benchmark" by which service performance during the project can be managed and measured.

Don't simply assume; ask! This practice can help both you and your client avoid trouble down the road.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

What Client Surveys Tell Us

Next month I'll be conducting telephone interviews of about 50 clients for a regional engineering firm, using a standard questionnaire that I've used for many years. The purpose is to learn how these clients really feel about the firm, now under new leadership, and what improvements they would like to see. Over the years, I've conducted hundreds of interviews like these. This article summarizes some of the key trends I've noticed in client responses:

Relationships matter. This is an obvious conclusion. Yet firms continue to neglect the basics of managing relationships, seemingly assuming that their technical expertise will carry the day. There are many engineers, architects, and scientists in our business who tend to focus more on the project than the client. But what keeps clients coming back is the quality of the working relationship, not superior technical expertise or work products.

Not surprisingly, clients tend to judge technical performance in the context of the relationship. A client who enjoys working with your firm will be more forgiving of technical mistakes or shortcomings. But a client who finds you difficult to work with will nearly always find fault with your work. So, does your firm have an intentional approach to building strong client relationships.

Flexibility is important. I know, this can drive us nutty: Clients who change their minds at inopportune times, who want us to dumb down our designs, who expand the scope but not the budget, who have their own unique invoicing requirements. Indeed, our clients' demands are sometimes unreasonable. But we are also sometimes unjustifiably inflexible and slow to adapt to our clients' needs.

The best way to manage these situations is to establish mutual expectations at the start of the project. Discuss with your client how changes will be managed, critical junctures in the project schedule when decisions will need to be made (and adhered to), how best to maintain good communication, how performance will be evaluated, what technical and regulatory criteria will drive the project, etc. With mutual expectations, reasonable boundaries can be defined that help enable flexibility without compromising your firm's needs.

Proactive client communication is crucial. One survey found that 67% of clients who dump their consultants do so because of perceived indifference. Poor communication is at the heart of such perceptions. When the client has to initiate most communications or is contacted only on a "need-to-know" basis, it's easy for that person to assume that he or she isn't really valued by the consultant. We sometimes overlook the fact that good communication is a critical deliverable. Clients depend on timely information and updates to meet internal deadlines, manage budgets, satisfy reporting requirements, and allocate time and resources. Simply meeting contractual deliverable schedules is not enough.

Clients also want to know our thought process—how we reached certain decisions, why we favored one solution over another, what other options were considered. Many technical consulting and design firms are prone to leave clients out of the loop. That means the client's input comes too late—after the deliverable is well developed—forcing expensive revisions and delays. It's better to engage the client early and often, starting with the project management plan, scoping documents, and preliminary concepts.

Clients see our organizational dysfunction. Clients often know more about our internal workings than we'd like. They seem to recognize when departments don't coordinate well, when the PM doesn't keep the project team adequately informed, when deliverable review procedures are not followed, and other such issues. They naturally associate these problems with the project screw-ups that happen from time to time.

When is this a particular concern? When performance deficiencies persist or mistakes recur with ongoing clients. Most clients understand that a few problems are inevitable on every project, and most consultants are responsive in trying to make things right when such problems occur. But clients grow frustrated when their consultants fail to address the root causes of lingering problems. Client surveys and interviews indicate that they know the difference between short-term corrective actions and longer-term, systematic responses to our shortcomings.

The best solution isn't always best. Imagine you're shopping for an economical compact car and the salesman persists in trying to interest you in his line of SUVs. Irritating, isn't it? Yet I'm surprised how often clients complain that their consultants keep offering them the "Cadillac solution" when they wanted a VW. Architects seem particularly prone to this. Clients are left to wonder whose needs are driving the design solution.

There may well be compelling reasons for nudging the client to a more elaborate or expensive solution—regulatory requirements, community acceptance, reduced liability, lower life cycle costs, etc. But sometimes we have to admit it's mostly our subjective preference. We like delivering the "best" solutions because we want to be among the best solution providers. Yet budget-constrained clients are increasingly asking us to deliver "good enough." Keep in mind that a good-enough technical solution is often part of providing great client service.

Bottom line: Make it easy for clients to work with you. The client surveys I've done reinforce the research that indicates that clients value the experience as much as our expertise. Simply put, they want an experience characterized by our concern and their convenience. They want consultants who understand and care about their needs.
Most clients have too much on their plate, so they're looking for low maintenance, trouble-free working relationships. That's why they tend to stick with their current consultants, even if they're not convinced they're the best available. But clients don't like being taken for granted, and the apparent complacency of their long-time consultants is a major reason why many eventually make a change.

One way to avoid appearing complacent? Get regular feedback on how you're doing, listen carefully, and make improvements where needed. By my own informal polling, only about 1 in 4 A/E firms have a formal process for getting such feedback. That's unfortunate. When I conduct client interviews, I always uncover a few surprises. Without feedback, those surprises—left unattended—can mean the untimely end of a valued client relationship.