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.