Monday, October 26, 2020

Helping Clients Do More for Less

Leaner times are coming for the A/E industry. Depending on what markets your firm serves, the business impact of the pandemic may range from tepid to terrible in 2021. If state and local governments constitute a substantial part of your client base, the impact may be particularly severe. Their combined budget shortfalls next year are projected to be between $250 billion to $400 billion, and that on top of massive losses this year. The commercial sector has also been hard hit, among others.

What's the best way to respond to a downturn in business? Get closer to clients. That was the lesson from the Great Recession. I looked at several studies from that time, spanning multiple industries (including our own), to determine what strategies best correlated with growth in a stagnant economy. There was a clear winner—recentering the business around customers to better serve their needs. And those needs became more fluid and unpredictable in those uncertain times, requiring greater focus and attention from service providers.

Are you ready to reconfigure how you serve clients to meet their changing needs? It might not be that easy. As clients' budgets have decreased, their needs have changed as well. They are preparing to get more from less, to stretch limited resources as far as they can to address their pressing needs. Is your firm prepared to help them in that quest? A few suggestions:

Stay engaged with your clients even when they don't have active projects. These times may test your commitment to client relationships. Will you continue to nurture those relationships even if there's no short-term financial payback? Some A/E firms apparently won't, as many stopped calling on cash-short clients during the previous downturn. This presents you with a good opportunity to solidify your relationships (and steal a few from your competitors). The fundamental role hasn't changed: You're there to help your clients, even if that involves some measure of free advice or discounted help.

Help your clients characterize and prioritize their needs for the foreseeable future. Many of them, of course, already have a pretty good handle on this. They likely have a facilities or capital improvement plan; some have gone a step further with asset management planning. But those plans probably didn't account for a substantial shift in revenue and funding. You might be able to provide valuable guidance in rethinking facility or infrastructure needs and how best to address those in the evolving financial climate.

Provide operational assessments and consulting. Many clients will have to make do with current facilities that were planned for replacement or upgrades. That may require some creative thinking with regards to possible operational changes or low-cost modifications. As an outsider with relevant expertise, your firm may be better positioned than the client to objectively assess these situations and offer makeshift solutions. The fact is that all organizations can benefit from retooling their operations to eliminate waste and inefficiency, and tight budgets can provide just the needed jolt to make that happen.

Explore strategic alliances to better serve your clients' changing needs. This is always good advice, of course. But the downturn creates new opportunities to package complementary services and products to help clients. For best results, you may need to step outside the box of convention. Examine your clients' emerging and unmet needs, even if they're not directly related to your current services. Consider what kinds of expertise is needed to meet those needs, then explore how you might merge that with what your firm can do.

Provide more affordable off-the-shelf solutions. I was talking with the administrator of a rural county who questioned the need for custom designs for facilities like a fire station, small branch library, or vehicle maintenance shop. He wondered why he couldn't choose a basic design from a selection of prototypes, similar to how people use house plan books. I remember pitching the same idea to an architectural firm that had designed fire stations for small towns in their state, but was already seeing that market decline. As you might expect, they didn't respond favorably to the suggestion.

But don't the difficult times call for more economical alternatives? And shouldn't we use our specialized expertise to help provide them? The problem, of course, is rethinking the solutions we routinely provide to offer alternatives that don't compensate us as well. But as this administrator observed, sticking with old business models may well mean these projects don't happen at all for the next few years.

The coming year might bring difficulty for both our clients and our firms. But it can also bring opportunity to think afresh about how we uncover and satisfy client needs. It might be a time to make some strategic investments that could pay off well in the future. It starts by going deeper with clients, to better understand their evolving needs and repositioning how we respond to them.

 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

How to Edit a Proposal for Impact

Among my many responsibilities as the corporate proposal manager for a national
environmental firm, my role as editor was particularly important yet probably underappreciated. Like any proposal professional, I depended on others to generate the most crucial content—notably that related to our strategy for making the client's project a success. I worked with some of the smartest experts in our business, but they often didn't look all that smart in writing.

Weak writing is prevalent in our industry. Technical professionals don't typically get much training in writing skills, which is unfortunate considering how much writing they do. For environmental professionals, their most common work product is a written report. They generate countless emails communicating with clients, coworkers, and other project stakeholders. And they usually have to write a proposal to get the next contract. Many of them need an editor to convert their writing into something more readable and impactful.

As a proposal manager, I typically performed what is called deep editing. This involves going beyond the usual cosmetic editing that focuses on catching typos, misspellings, punctuation errors, and bad grammar. Deep editing strikes at the very heart of the communication process, addressing content, structure, style, and presentation. In proposals, it seeks to transform an original draft that is dry and stilted into a compelling narrative that demands the client's attention.

Most proposal professionals aren't given the latitude I had to essentially reorganize and rewrite the drafts provided by our technical experts. That freedom was the result of a 75% win rate for our firm's largest and most critical proposal efforts (representing over $300 million in new fees). I earned my colleagues' trust, although some of them still described the process of seeing their drafts totally reconstructed as "painful." But they were willing to endure it in hopes of securing another key win.

What follows is the editing workflow that I typically used. If no one person on your proposal team has been empowered to do the deep editing described, then the team can collectively apply the basic process. In either case, this is a proven technique for taking your proposals to the next level. This work flow isn't intended to suggest a fixed sequence of activities, but generally I would work through the four "filters" (or steps) in the order indicated above. Here's a breakdown of the four filters:

Filter #1. Access

Access is the door into your proposal's content. Ignore this step (as most do) and the subsequent steps may be for naught. The key here is to present your most critical messages in a manner that they can be readily found and understood. The vast majority of proposals I review have no apparent central theme or key messages that convey the core of the proposal's content. They simply passively respond to RFP instructions to provide this or that information. Boring!

The starting point for defining Access is what I call the Two-Minute Drill. This exercise imagines that you had to orally present your entire proposal in just two minutes. What would you say? Usually this exercise yields a central theme or differentiator and 3-5 key messages that support it. These provide the superstructure upon which the rest of the proposal will be constructed. Before you get to this step, your firm should have identified as part of the sales process which key messages will resonate with the client.

Don't assume that your proposal will be read word for word. Most reviewers skim and skip around, looking for the particular information they're most interested in. Unfortunately, most proposals are written as if the authors intended for them to be read in their entirety. They don't make it easy for key information to be readily found.

The Access step is primarily about making the proposal skimmable so that key messages are easy to find. If you don't make your proposal skimmable—and almost no one does—then you've lost message control. You're expecting reviewers to read your proposal to find those key messages. Not a good idea! I offered some tips for writers on creating skimmable content in this previous post. As an editor, the first things I generally do are:

  • Skim, don't read, during this first editing step. Assume the role of the typical client reviewer who won't be reading word for word either. You want to first assess the effectiveness of your proposal draft from the skimmer's perspective.
  • Look for key points and highlight them in the form of bold inline headings (as used in this post). Organize the text accordingly without worrying at this point about sentence structure, grammar, etc. By doing this, you've already begun to make the proposal more skimmable.
  • Consider creating simplifying graphics early in the process. Ideally, this happens before the writing begins, because the exercise of developing such graphics can help writers clarify their ideas. But you might find that the process of organizing content for skimmability inspires you to add other graphics during this stage of the editing process.

Filter #2. Clarity

Once you have organized the original draft to facilitate skimmability, the next step is to make the content more understandable. Usually clarity has already been improved by identifying key points, highlighting them, and initially reorganizing content accordingly. But now you dive into paragraphs, sentences, and words.

Shorten paragraphs and sentences. Technical professionals have a propensity for writing long sentences in long blocks of text. So the first thing I typically do at this stage is to break down paragraphs and sentences into shorter units. General rules of thumb to keep in mind are (1) 15-20 words per sentence and (2) 3-5 sentences per paragraph (and less than 100 words). More importantly, you want to limit paragraphs to one main idea and sentences to one main point.

Correct unclear or awkward sentences. There are usually plenty of these in the proposals and other documents I edit. You probably observe the same in your firm. Obviously, you want to fix grammar and punctuation errors. But more importantly, you want sentences that clearly communicate the message. Short and simple is usually better. A good test: Read what you've edited out loud. If it sounds clear spoken, it generally works in print.

Minimize the use of jargon and initialisms. You should edit proposals for a general audience because there's usually at least someone on the selection committee who doesn't have a technical background—or who has expertise in a different field. Jargon can exclude key decision makers. If you need to use such terminology, be sure to define it. Another form of jargon is the excessive use of initialisms, a common problem in our industry. I recently reviewed a proposal that had this sentence: "The team will review the CQA Plan prepared by the DBT and understand deployment and testing of the GCL, GM, and GC." C'mon, really?

Occasionally check your edits against readability statistics. Microsoft Word offers a couple popular ones: Flesch Reading Ease (50-70% is recommended) and Flesch-Kincade Grade Level (8-10 is recommended). It's a good idea to pay attention to the prevalence of passive sentences as well. Technical professionals tend to use these much too often. The advice for business writing is to have no more than 20% of your sentences in passive voice. If you want to do a more thorough assessment of your writing or editing, consider using ReadabilityFormulas.com.

Filter #3. Tone

The tone you use in your writing affects how the reader will respond to your message. That's because tone goes beyond the mere transfer of information; it introduces emotional context to your writing, which is critically important when you're trying to persuade someone. The technical style of writing commonly found in our proposals—with it's impersonal, dispassionate tone—is a poor choice for a document meant to sway decision makers.

Edit to achieve a business style of writing. This is more personal and less formal than the technical style of writing that permeates our profession. If you're unfamiliar with what this kind of editing entails, spend some time reading popular business periodicals and books, noting the difference in tone. It's more conversational, less stodgy, with ample use of personal pronouns. If someone suggests this style is less "professional" (as several have told me over the years), ask them if Harvard Business Review lacks professionalism.

Encourage your technical colleagues to write as they would say it. I touched on this valuable tip earlier. This is generally the quickest way to improve one's writing, especially in our business. Besides producing clearer writing, write-it-as-you-would-say-it helps technical professionals overcome the tendency to revert to "technicalese" in their proposal and business writing. And, of course, that means less deep editing for you or your team.

Use first and second person. This is the easiest way to make the narrative more personal. Several studies dating back to the 1960s have come to the same conclusion—you is the most persuasive word in the English language. So you clearly want to use it in your proposal. It facilitates the sense of connection between you and the reader. "We will work with you to develop the right solution" is considerably more effective than "ACME will work with the City to develop the right solution."

Trim the hype. While you don't want your proposal to read like a technical report, you don't want it to come across as too salesy either. It's an odd but not uncommon contradiction that the same engineer who considers it unprofessional to include the word you in a proposal has no qualms with piling up the superlatives regarding the firm's qualifications. So you find lines such as "industry-leading design" and "unparalleled client service" in even the driest proposal. Hype doesn't boost your qualifications; it only makes you look insincere. As editor, make the case for the substance of your qualifications without the embellishment.

Filter #4. Impact

Impact relates to how successful your proposal is in fulfilling its purpose, that is, to convince the client that your firm is the best choice. I list this step last because it is the final and most crucial test. Obviously, you shouldn't be developing proposal strategy at this late stage, nor deciding what client outcomes constitute success. If you haven't done that work early, you're almost certainly in a weak position to finish well.

But as editor, I have often found myself needing to bring those themes to the forefront. We too often "bury the lede," a journalistic term describing the practice of including too much detail at the cost of not clearly communicating the main message. Yes, the previous editing steps described above should have whittled away the superfluous verbiage and highlighted key messages. But the Impact step provides one last refinement of the narrative.

This final editing step works at two levels—skim and read. Do a skim level review again to confirm that the proposal's primary messaging is clear and readily accessible. Tweak as necessary. Sometimes I will add another simple graphic or table where I feel a key point needs further emphasis. The read level review takes a final look at tone, flow, and readability—as well as watching for any missed errors or omissions.

Write or edit the executive summary. There's a strong case for including an executive summary in every proposal, even if the RFP doesn't request one. Done right, the executive summary can be the most important section of your proposal, tilting the selection process in your favor. Unfortunately, most executive summaries I see are pretty tepid, hardly a game changer. A typical format that I use is to identify critical success factors and briefly describe how your firm will deliver each one. Make sure you keep the focus on the client, not your firm!

This editing workflow, as described above, omits a number of important details such as designing the document's layout, crafting your proposal story, and ensuring compliance with the RFP. But I've tried to feature aspects of the editing process that are often overlooked. Perhaps I've also changed your perspective on what is typically viewed as a rather mundane quality control activity. On the contrary, deep editing is a crucial part of the creation process. Master the process and watch your proposal success take off!

 

Friday, August 7, 2020

Getting the Fundamentals Right for an Effective Content Marketing Program

Facing the economic and business impacts of the pandemic, many A/E firms are giving renewed attention to their marketing efforts. It's about time. As I've noted in this space previously, I believe the power of marketing is grossly underestimated in our industry. Done right, marketing can generate a substantial portion of your sales leads, not to mention the less discernible but crucial benefits of raising your visibility in the marketplace and reinforcing your brand.

For marketing to have this kind of impact, you need to move away from the traditional self-promotion. Client-focused content marketing, or inbound marketing, has become the dominate strategy for professional services. But most A/E firms have been slow to embrace it. Many believe that publishing information about their firm and their projects constitutes content of interest to clients. Others can't seem to find a way to get busy professionals engaged enough in marketing to make it work.

Most failed efforts to make content marketing proficient, in my experience, can be traced at least in large part to poor fundamentals. In other words, these firms never build a solid foundation upon which to construct an effective content marketing effort. Below are elements of that foundation that I think are particularly critical to marketing success:

First, understand what content marketing is. This starts with a correct definition of marketing. There are still many in our industry—usually old guys like me—who fail to make a distinction between marketing and selling. You can't get marketing right if you can't define it! So here's a simple definition: Marketing informs and attracts prospects to your firm. Selling, by contrast, is working directly with those prospects to convert them to clients.

What's the best way to attract prospects through your marketing? Inform and educate them. That's the essence of content marketing. You're providing content, through various channels, that helps clients and prospects better handle the challenges they face and capitalize on the opportunities they have for success. The value of that content should stand alone. That is, it's helpful whether the client hires your firm or not.

Focus on serving your audience, not selling them. Your motives matter for several reasons. For one, it promotes trust. People are generally skeptical of marketing and selling because these activities are usually motivated by self-interest. If your focus is on serving your audience, you'll develop better content. This focus will also help you avoid the tendency to default back into self-promotion. Or to choose topics simply because they interest you, rather than being guided by what your audience values. Or being satisfied to merely address a popular topic without working harder to develop a fresh perspective on it.

Mix content curation with content creation. Content curation is collecting and sharing third-party content. Most A/E firms I've observed largely ignore this and focus their energy on content creation. I think that's a mistake. Why? Because most firms can't generate enough of their own content to fuel a robust marketing effort. Which means the content they create, particularly in writing, has less impact.

Let me explain from my own experience: I've produced a lot of my own content—through both writing and speaking—over the years. And the majority of my new clients have come through that effort. But most of the content I share is from other sources. That content has enabled me to build a much larger, more engaged audience. Thus my content has greater impact because it's reaching more people who have found value in following my posts.

I recommend that firms focus first on building their system for regularly collecting and sharing third-party content before tackling the challenge of achieving a reliable supply of their own content. That increases the likelihood of developing a successful and sustainable content marketing program. This article will help you get started.

Cultivate thought leaders as your primary sources of in-house content. Do you struggle to get technical professionals committed to creating content for marketing? Most firms do. And that's because most of our colleagues tend to undervalue the benefits of thought leadership. In fact, I would argue that our industry has a shortage of thought leaders, especially on the engineering side of the business.

So what's a thought leader? This is an individual who is recognized as an authority in a particular field and whose expertise is sought out by others. Surprisingly few in our industry seem to be interested in pursuing the status of thought leader. They are happy simply being known by their clients as qualified experts.

But becoming a thought leader isn't just about building a reputation; it's about enhancing your value and serving more people. The best thought leaders are relentless not only in building their expertise, but in sharing their knowledge and skills with others. As their sphere of influence grows, so does their value to clients. Indeed, they can command much higher fees than garden-variety experts.

A solid content marketing strategy requires a reliable source of content. You're not likely to find that among experts who just want to do their project work. So I advise finding professionals, even younger ones if necessary, who want to serve on a larger scale. Persuade them of the benefits of becoming a thought leader and help them grow into that role—and they can become your primary source of original content. This article will help you get started.

Strive to make content curation a part of normal work activities. As a consultant, I spend a good amount of time doing online research. Part of that is just who I am—a compulsive researcher who can't make a $20 purchase at Walmart without reading product reviews. But the main reason is my desire to provide clients with the best possible solutions and insights. So even when working on issues I know very well, I'm doing some research.

I'm assuming most technical professionals do some research as well as part of their project work. And that's an opportunity for fitting some content marketing into a busy schedule. Simply consider whether the information you found would be of interest to others—in particular, clients and prospects—and bookmark it in your browser in the appropriate folder. Later, you can determine how to share it with others, or perhaps use it as inspiration for creating your own content.

Integrating content curation with doing other work is a critical step toward building a sustainable process. The biggest challenge to content marketing is finding time to collect and create content. So it must become part of routine work activities to the extent possible. This may involve creating some new work habits, like doing more research. These can yield benefits beyond content marketing alone.

Imagine, having your clients essentially pay you for a portion of your content marketing efforts. I do, by sharing some of the content I find researching for work I perform for clients. In reality, those clients pay for the work performed, not the research. But I don't have to carve out additional time for a substantial portion of the content I share. That's important for busy professionals like you and me. This article describes this process further.

Maximize the repurposing of your content. Continuing with the theme of efficiency, it's important to find ways to extend the reach of your content by reusing or refashioning it as much as possible. For example, if you write a good post for your blog, consider the different ways you might expand its audience. Of course, you'll want to share it via social media, which holds the potential for others reposting it to much larger audiences. Other blogs with different audiences might reuse it unaltered or with revisions (I've had many of my posts used in this manner, usually in blogs with much greater readership than my own).

You might also consider ways to convert that blog post into other media, such as a podcast or presentation. It might serve as the basis for creating a webinar or YouTube video. You might expand it into an article for publication or a conference paper. You could combine it with other related posts to create an ebook that could be downloaded from your website.

Given the challenge of creating enough content, repurposing is key to getting the most from the content you do create. Thus I consider it one of the fundamentals for a productive content marketing effort. I know this is routine for many marketers, but I encounter many more who are not leveraging their limited marketing assets as effectively as they could. This article provides further guidance on repurposing content.

Obviously, I've not touched on many other crucial aspects of a competent content marketing program, but the above steps are common shortcomings I see. Too many A/E firms are trying to dabble in content marketing without laying the necessary foundation for success.

The best best way to think about thought leadership and content marketing is not as something you should do but as something that reflects who you are as a firm—a company committed to helping clients succeed at all stages of the engagement life cycle. That not only helps you get the job, but positions you as a regular go-to source of help and advice.

 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Keeping Employee Morale Up in an Upside Down World

If you play sports, or just follow them, you understand the importance of the mental side of the game. Winners are confident, focused, tough-minded. Losers may be less gifted athletically, but their toughest challenge is usually overcoming doubt. Yet when the weaker opponent is on mentally—or the stronger opponent is not—that's the recipe for an upset.

In the business world, we tend to underestimate the importance of attitude and focus. But you don't have to look far for evidence of the powerful influence of mindset on performance. Just crawl inside your own head. How much does confidence, focus, and attitude impact your work? Now multiply the effect by the number of employees in your firm.

That's why the issue of morale goes much deeper than how people feel. It affects how they perform. So here's the scenario facing many A/E firms these days: Morale is down due to a deadly pandemic, struggling economy, workplace disruption, societal upheaval, and future uncertainty. The good news is that after an initial drop in job satisfaction, productivity, and engagement, these measures are improving as workers adjust to the new normal.

Still, the situation remains fragile. Backlogs and billings are dropping, clients are slowing spending, reopening of the economy is not going smoothly in many states, many parents face difficulties balancing work and child care with scaled-back school schedules. Wise managers will be monitoring the emotional and mental state of their employees in the months ahead. They will also be taking steps to keep employee morale up in this suddenly upside down world. A few tips:

Don't embrace a victim mentality. It's easy to shift blame to the pandemic or the economy, portraying your firm as innocent bystanders in a malicious marketplace. But there are always firms that thrive in difficult times. Are they merely fortunate or did they earn their good fortune? The problem with blaming outside forces is that it seemingly leaves people with little recourse. Those firms are "riding out the storm" hoping that
"things turn around before too long."

A strong wind can topple a sailboat headed in the wrong direction or propel one to victory in a race. It's a matter of aligning yourself with opportunities and harnessing circumstances to your favor. Victims are in a dour mood these days; victors are busy trying to get ahead of the game.

Get everybody involved. Employees are more encouraged and confident when they feel they can make a meaningful contribution in tough times. It lends them some sense of control over the outcomes. One of the worst things for morale is when firm leaders retreat into their bunkers, hiding behind closed doors (in their homes these days!), limiting communication with staff, and making decisions that leave out but ultimately effect firm members. Strong leaders effectively engage their people in tackling the company's challenges, and the more people you can enlist, the better. It clearly boosts morale, not to mention the advantage of tapping into more problem solvers.

Develop and commit to a plan of action. Most A/E firms are by nature reactive. That may get you by in good times, but in our current circumstances you need a plan and disciplined action. Besides the inherent benefits of planning and action, it's good for morale as well. Employees want to know that the firm has charted a course through this storm. As noted above, engaging them in the process is even better. As things are fast changing, don't let your plan stagnate. Revisit it often and modify your course as necessary.

Speaking of mindset, let me encourage you to plan beyond merely weathering whatever challenges your firm is currently facing. There is a vast difference between firms that have what I call a "survival mindset" and those with a "success mindset." The former may lead you to develop a short-term corrective action plan, more defensive than offensive in tone. That does little to lift spirits. Whatever short-term corrective actions are needed should be done in the context of a longer-term vision for emerging from these times even stronger.

Balance honesty with optimism. Actually, to achieve a balance you need to go heavy on the optimism in tough times (that's why a success vision is so important). Perhaps my greatest failure as a manager was failing to realize this fact. I thought it important to be honest with staff about the difficulties we were facing. But I failed to offer enough hope and optimism to counter the bad news. My staff became discouraged and performance slumped when we could least afford it. Thankfully our downturn in business was relatively short-lived. This one probably isn't, and may go on much longer.

Beware of letting your staff get bogged down in the current reality; give them a hopeful vision of the future to carry them through. But don't whitewash the present situation or paint an overly optimistic view of the firm's prospects. That will undermine your credibility. Do your homework. Get the facts right. Outline a realistic plan. There are many opportunities, even in the current circumstances, to build competitive advantage.

Be generous with praise and appreciation. We tend to be stingy with this—not intentionally, but by distracted neglect. Now is a time to make it a priority. There is abundant research that points out how important this is, yet receiving recognition and feeling appreciated are typically among the lowest scores I see in employee surveys—and that's in the good times! Push everyone in supervisory roles to step up their praise for good work and hard effort among their staff. Establish or reinvigorate formal means for recognizing employees' accomplishments. These are simple, but powerful, steps for boosting morale and job satisfaction.

Keep communication flowing. Even in normal situations, communication is problematic for most A/E firms. Now with a dispersed workforce, with work and personal lives increasingly blended, it's vitally important to step up communication. I'm sensing that project teams are doing pretty well overall, with some reporting that there's even greater team communication via virtual meetings than there was when people were working at the office. But firm leaders are often less visible now, and they play an important role in setting the tone for this odd remote workplace. If you're a leader, make it a priority to regularly communicate with staff, using multiple channels to broaden your bandwidth. Visible leaders exert tremendous influence on the work environment, and especially so when employees are scattered.

So what's the mood among your employees and coworkers? Have you taken the time to find out? Among the various strategies you might be exploring to navigate your firm's way through this challenging period, don't ignore staff morale. It's the mental side of the game that may ultimately determine whether you win or lose in this hyper-competitive marketplace.

 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Is Expertise Hindering Your Ability to Sell to Clients?

If you're selling engineering, architectural, or environmental services, you're obviously selling expertise. So clients naturally favor working with sellers who have some expertise of their own, who can talk knowledgeably about the relevant technical issues and solutions.

But is it possible that expertise could be a liability in sales? The evidence suggests it often is. That's because expertise is not the most important thing you're selling—it's trust. And experts commonly struggle with the interpersonal dynamics of trust building.

Charles Green is perhaps the foremost authority on the role of trust in professional services. His book Trust-Based Selling is highly recommended. He proposes four principal attributes that comprise one's trustworthiness: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation. His research finds that experts characteristically exhibit high levels of credibility and reliability, but come up short in the trust attribute that most contributes to sales success—intimacy.

What is intimacy in his trust equation? Green describes it as the "safety or security that we feel when entrusting someone with something." In other words, it largely comprises the emotional context of selling. Yes, it's important to know what you're talking about and to consistently follow through on what you promise. But buyers want to feel that you care about them. They want to feel comfortable in choosing to do business with you.

The consulting group Huthwaite, which has probably conducted more extensive research on selling than anyone, comes to a similar conclusion. They break trust into three elements: concern, competency, and candor. In one study, they asked clients what percentage of professional service sellers they would rate as adequate or better in demonstrating each of the three trust elements. 

The lowest score? You probably guessed it—demonstrating concern. Only 35% of sellers of professional services were rated at least adequate in showing they cared. That compares to 66% who demonstrated they were competent and 83% who came across as honest.

By the way, Huthwaite also surveyed buyers of large capital products, asking the same questions. You would expect capital product companies to employ more professional sellers, whereas professional service firms would rely more on practicing experts (what we often call seller-doers). Which group showed more concern? Over half (53%) of capital product sellers were rated adequate or better in this trust element.

How is it that experts fare so much poorer than professional sellers in showing they care, which is not an attribute we typically associate with salespeople? My guess is that experts are often more focused on the work than the client. They may be less inclined to really listen because, well, they're the experts. Many of them lack strong communication and interpersonal skills.

So how can you overcome the shortcomings that befall many experts when selling? Below are a few suggestions:

Cultivate the skill of empathetic listening. Green concludes that listening is critical to sharpening your intimacy skills. He notes that listening is partly a skill and partly an attitude. If you don't care what the other person has to say, you're not likely to be a good listener. I'd also add that it's important to go beyond just listening for information, but to listen for identification—seeking to understand the person and not just the associated facts. That's at the heart of empathetic listening.

Why is listening so hard for many of us? In a previous post on this topic, I suggested two main factors: ego and expertise. Ego is reflected in our tendency to spend most of our time in conversation either talking or thinking about what we're going to say next. We like being the center of attention. Being an expert means we have a lot to say and often find it hard not to share what we know. Isn't that how we provide value? Not necessarily. Remember the old axiom: People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Really listening conveys caring.

Use your expertise to formulate great questions. Being a strong listener, of course, involves asking effective questions. As a technical expert in a sales role, give particular attention to two lines of questioning: (1) asking open questions that reveal the client's perspective and needs and (2) asking alignment questions that influence the client to be receptive to what you have to say.

The first line of questioning is straightforward; you simply want to learn how the client sees things. You don't want to bias or influence the responses in any way. In the second line of questioning, however, you want to bring into alignment how the client sees things and how you see them. So your questions seek to gently influence the client's perceptions and nudge him or her toward certain conclusions (as, of course, you are doing in response to the client's answers).

As noted earlier, it's natural for you as an expert to want to share what you know. But in an age of information overload, expertise as measured only in facts and knowledge is a commodity. What people want most are insight and discernment, and those outcomes are better shared between the two parties. So rather than just telling the client what you know, try asking questions that help the client discover it for himself or herself.

How? Start by planning your sales questions in advance. Consider what advice you'd like to give, then determine what questions you can ask to help lead the client to the same conclusions—or least move in that direction. Of course, you can't always anticipate what issues may come up in a sales call that warrant sharing your expertise. So practice the art of framing advice initially with questions such as, "What if...?" or "Have you considered...?" Don't be afraid to pause momentarily before speaking, giving yourself time to consider how you might ask rather than tell.

See the big picture. Experts, especially in our business, are often analytical thinkers. Analysis involves breaking down complex problems into their constituent parts, ferreting out underlying causes and defining targeted solutions. That's a valuable skill in a technical profession, but it has its limits. Usually the problems you tackle are part of an integrated whole, involving dimensions that have little to do with your area of expertise. 

You add value to what you do by being able to connect it to the big picture. This is especially important when it comes to seeing the problem from the client's perspective. This comes more naturally for some than for others. So the recommendation is to collaborate with colleagues who are stronger at synthesis (putting things together) than analysis (taking things apart). This includes working with such individuals in planning your sales calls, developing your capture plan, or partnering on sales calls.

Beware of always being right. Another common axiom in the sales profession is, "The customer is always right." Of course, that's not factually true. The point is that what the customer thinks is what is true from his or her perspective. This often frustrates expert sellers, to the point that they may push for their point of view rather than persuade. That perceived inflexibility is a key reason why buyers often complain about professional service sellers not listening or showing concern.

There's also the distinct possibility that you're wrong. What may be the ideal solution from a technical point of view may not meet other criteria—such as cost or convenience—that matter more to the client. We don't sell products in our profession; we sell customized solutions and outcomes. That means you need to ply your expertise not just to come up with the right answer, but the answer that's right for the client.

Yes, expertise is critically important in our profession. But on its own, it's often viewed as a commodity. The real value of your expertise is when you can use it in such a way to better serve the client. And that requires skills outside your expertise—relationship skills, communication skills, collaborative skills. Master these if you want to be a true expert.

 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The First Goal of Proposal Writing: Be Different!

Over the course of my 30+ years as a proposal manager and consultant, I've reviewed thousands of A/E and environmental firm proposals. Know what stands out? The fact that it's extremely rare to find a proposal that does (stand out, that is). It's almost as if the goal was to fit in rather than to stand out.

How can this be? Aren't we trying to differentiate ourselves? Ultimately, the client's selection team has to find a difference, a reason to pick one firm over the others. Yet in proposal after proposal after proposal, I see a remarkable sameness in style, tone, and content.

It would be one thing if firms were trying to pattern themselves after the difference makers, those few firms that can produce truly distinctive proposals. But more often what I observe is a grudging mediocrity of poor writing, weak strategy, and me-too claims of superiority. We can do better, and it's not as hard as you might think.

We've yet to experience the full impact of this pandemic's economic damage. Firms in our business are generally doing well, but getting new work is bound to become a greater priority in the months ahead. Now's a good time to start figuring out how to win more than your share of dwindling opportunities. Here are some of my proven strategies for creating proposals that stand out from the competition:

First, let me review some key differentiators mentioned in my last post:

  • Make your proposal distinctly client-centered. This, in my experience, is your best differentiation strategy. Put their interests, priorities, concerns, and aspirations front and center. The RFP usually won't encourage you to do this. Do it anyway!
  • Focus on outcomes and strategy. Don't just write about your solution and your approach. Feature the results. This is an unfortunate omission in most proposals—any mention of what the project is supposed to achieve, or what defines success.
  • Describe how you're going to deliver a great client experience. The experience of working together on the project is a substantial part of the value the client receives. Why don't firms in our business talk about this more? So you can distinguish your firm in this regard!
  • Make your proposal skimmable and easy to navigate. The selection committee will be skimming and skipping about, so what not make it easy on them? They'll appreciate it, and you'll benefit from having communicated your message more clearly.
  • Include an executive summary. This is another thing RFPs rarely ask for, but clients usually read it if one is included. And a well-written executive summary can give you the edge you need to win the job.

Get out in front of the RFP in jointly defining project success with the client. Yeah, yeah, you've no doubt heard this one before. But the majority of firms still try to sneak into the competition only after the RFP has been released. Not a good idea! In my last post, I outlined why the RFP is not a reliable source of insight into what the client really wants.

I've enjoyed good success as a proposal specialist, but I'd be the first to tell you that the most important steps toward writing a winning proposal are those you take in advance of the RFP. In particular, it's the relationship building and consulting collaboration (not selling!) that stack the odds in your favor before most firms are even aware of the opportunity.

Be fully compliant with the RFP, but don't limit your response to only what it asks for. Passive answering to the RFP is commonplace. That's when firms treat the RFP much like they would a questionnaire; they simply provide the information the RFP requested. That's a loser's tactic. I advise what I call assertive compliance where you do what the RFP asks but go beyond it where necessary to tell the story you believe needs to be told.

This would include, for example, inserting an executive summary when none was requested. Or adding a project narrative (story) when the RFP only specified a "scope of work." Or detailing the expected results of the project when the RFP was silent about desired outcomes. Assertive compliance, of course, is easier when you've been talking to the client beforehand. But even when you're not well positioned, you want to be bold enough to give it your best shot.

Frame your proposal planning with these two questions: "What does success look like?" and "How will we deliver that?" The first question focuses on outcomes, the second on strategy. If your proposal can simply answer those two questions well in the context of your project narrative and executive summary, you'll have a leg up on most of the competition.

Take it a step further with the question: "What are the needs driving this project?" Needs shape what outcomes are desired. To better align your understanding of needs with the client's, I recommend breaking needs down into three categories—strategic, technical, people. This helps combat the tendency of technical professionals to see the project only as a technical problem in need of a technical solution.

This doesn't mean you explicitly include the above questions or three levels of needs in your proposal. These concepts are first and foremost tools to help you develop your proposal strategy. But I'm convinced that I built my 75% win rate in large part on being among the very few to discuss these perspectives in our proposals—the expected business results from the project, how people's lives would be benefited, how our project approach would make things easier for the client, etc.

Make your value proposition clear. In every buying decision, there is what I call the "value transaction." This involves an explicit or implied offer by the seller to provide something of distinct value to the buyer (the value proposition), and an assessment on the buyer's part of the perceived value of that offer. Whatever the formal "selection criteria," the buying decision will ultimately be made based on how well the seller's and buyer's definitions of value align.

Here's the odd thing: Most RFPs for our services don't ask for an express value proposition, and most of our proposals don't offer one. Instead, there is usually the premise that the selection will be made based on the qualifications of the seller. But qualifications aren't value; they are merely evidence that we can deliver the value we promise (if indeed there is such a promise made).

I think it's a big mistake to ignore your value proposition and focus instead on qualifications because that's what the RFP intimated. Most firms struggle to demonstrate distinct qualifications—which ironically is why our industry has fought so hard for qualifications-based selection. Lacking any real differentiation among offerers, the default selection basis is price—which QBS has been established to prevent.

Of course, present your qualifications as convincingly as possible. But don't look there for the difference, in most cases. Instead, develop a powerful value proposition—whether requested or not—which is how you're going to deliver a successful project that achieves the results the client needs. Your value proposition is essentially that success story.

Don't just offer a scope of work; tell the story. Passive answering to the RFP typically results in information-laden proposals. The problem is that information alone doesn't make for a very compelling proposal. Telling a story does. And the story that will get the client's attention is how you're going to deliver a successful project.

Sounds simple. But the tendency is to take the most client-centered part of the proposal and reduce it to little more than a list of work tasks (often in belabored paragraph form). Don't forget that a proposal is supposed to be persuasive; it shouldn't read like a technical manual! Persuasion necessarily engages the heart, which is the particular strength of storytelling. Make the project story at its core a human endeavor, not just a technical scope of work.

As for a basic story outline, here's a what I recommend: Problem → Consequences → Solution → Results. Typically, this will be divided into two sections: (1) Project Understanding, which addresses the problem definition, goals, and challenges, and (2) Project Approach, which describes how the project will be executed. And be sure to include people and their interactions in your story!

 

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.