Friday, January 29, 2021

The Problem with Qualifications-Based Selection

The A/E profession has fought long and hard for qualifications-based selection. It was formally
established by Congress in 1972 with passage of the Brooks Act, which required federal agencies to procure A/E services based on qualifications rather than price. Forty-six states have since passed their own version of this law, while QBS practices have also filtered down to numerous local governments, institutions, and even private sector organizations.

QBS is a remarkable achievement for our industry. I know of no other professional services sector that has such government protection from the inherent forces of the marketplace (i.e., the commoditization of undifferentiated providers). Perhaps that's part of my reservation about it. Whatever you think of the merits of QBS, I think it wise to recognize its shortcomings and adjust your competitive strategy accordingly. What follows are some of the issues I see with it:

QBS shifts the focus from the buyer to the seller. Perhaps the most popular sales advice is to focus on the customer. Yet QBS-guided RFPs consistently suggest that the focus be on your firm. They ask you to provide an overview of your firm, describe your relevant qualifications, highlight the project team's experience, offer a breakdown of your staffing mix, etc. Oddly, these RFPs often ignore or downplay the most client-centered qualifications, such as: How well you understand the client's needs, how you will deliver the business outcomes the client desires, or how you will craft a strong working relationship.

Regardless of what the RFP says, I'm convinced that clients ultimately act according to their own self interest. All buyers do. "It's all about us, not you" is Secret #1 in former client Gary Coover's book Secrets of the Selection Committee. But that reality is not reflected in most RFPs. This is not to suggest that clients intentionally circumvent their own selection process to get the result they want. But the human factor is unavoidable, no matter how objective the client tries to make the process.

It's difficult to objectively differentiate between firms on qualifications alone. For any given solicitation, the likelihood is that there are several competitors that are fully qualified to perform the work. Is the firm with the stronger resume necessarily the best choice? Often not. There can be a number of factors not addressed in the RFP—such as greater familiarity with the project, an existing relationship with the client, proximity to the site, or the client's preference for working with a smaller or larger firm—that favor a firm with lesser credentials. Even when the RFP lists evaluation criteria and assigns points to each, the actual process of determining those point totals is inherently subjective, especially among firms that are all fully capable of doing the work.

Unfortunately, most firms follow the RFP's lead and assume they must win the job primarily based on their qualifications. Rather than focusing on providing a strong value proposition that resonates with the client, they devote far more space to hyping themselves. If they could view their self-indulgence through the eyes of the client, they would recognize how little difference there usually is between their qualifications and those of their competitors.

Qualifications are the proof, not the product. Clients aren't selecting your firm because of what you've done for others, but what they believe you will do for them. Ultimately, they're deciding which firm offers the best value proposition. Huh, what? When did you ever see an RFP that asked for your value proposition? Yet every buying decision is predicated on the perceived value received. And that value is embedded in the delivered outcomes.

Your qualifications are merely the evidence that you can deliver those outcomes. But QBS rarely frames the procurement process in those terms. And too many firms miss the point, passively responding to the RFP's emphasis on qualifications without ever considering what the client is really buying. Of course, this presents a golden opportunity for those of us who take the initiative to go beyond the RFP and offer the client a compelling value proposition.

QBS isn't the solution for our commoditization problem. A few years ago, ACEC surveyed engineering firm leaders about the growing commoditization of our industry. Respondents indicated that they believed it was a substantial threat to their business. When asked what they thought was the best strategy for combating commoditization, they responded—by more than 2-to-1 over any other option—that our firms needed to educate lawmakers and clients to enforce and expand QBS rules.

Missing from the list of recommended anti-commoditization strategies? Stop acting like a commodity! Commoditization is a market-driven consequence of failing to differentiate. Ironically, QBS procurements often seduce firms into trying to construct competitive advantage out of what is typically a nondifferentiator—their attempt to demonstrate superior qualifications. QBS helps protect us from the consequence of lack of differentiation, but does nothing about (and often exacerbates) the root cause.

Despite my criticisms of qualifications-based selection, I must admit that I've benefited greatly from it as a business development and proposal professional for many years. That's because I typically run counter to the direction that most of my competitors take. While they're faithfully responding to the letter of the RFP, I'm responding to what the RFP doesn't say (while still complying with it, of course). While they're focused on showcasing their strengths and qualifications, I'm featuring our value proposition—solution + outcomes + benefits—offering our qualifications as proof we can deliver. While they're writing about their past successes, I'm writing the story of the client's future success.

And I want to encourage you to do the same. That's the primary reason for this article, not to critique but to inspire. QBS is only an impediment when you try to make it your competitive advantage. Focus on the client's interests instead and watch your win rate soar.