Monday, April 30, 2012

Submit a Proposal to Introduce Your Firm?

I've long advocated that you shouldn't submit a proposal if you haven't been talking to the client beforehand. There are exceptions, of course. If the your firm is uniquely qualified, if you have worked for the client previously, if the selection will be based mostly on price (and you're able to compete on that basis)--these are among the reasons you might want to ignore my advice.

But the most common reason I hear for submitting a proposal cold where there's little to no chance of winning is to "make an introduction." Do you think that's valid strategy? If so, I'd like to try to convince you otherwise.

Consider this scenario: A new neighbor recently moved next door. When you see him in his front yard, you decide it's a convenient time to introduce yourself. Unfortunately, your appearance makes it obvious that you just got out of bed, standing there in your bathrobe and boxer shorts. Convenient perhaps, but not a great way to make a good first impression!

Likewise, an RFP may seem a convenient time to introduce your firm to the client. But is that your best chance to make a positive first impression? Probably not. There are several factors working against you, including:
  • First and foremost, if you haven't been talking to the client, it's highly unlikely you can put together a strong proposal. You won't have had the opportunity to develop real insight into the client's concerns and priorities (don't expect to get this from the RFP and preproposal conference alone!). Most likely, your proposal will be heavy on self-promotion and weak on client focus.
  • Adding another proposal to the stack (and from an unfamiliar firm) is not the best way to get the client's undivided attention. Naturally, the known firms will attract more interest, especially the ones who have been talking with the client about the project previously. Clients often make a quick review of the proposals received to determine which really deserve their attention. Do you think your introductory submittal will make the cut?
  • Clients know what opportunism looks like. It's displayed by firms who show no interest in the client until the RFP comes out. Consider this: Some of your competitors have been cultivating this opportunity for some time. Now you show up at harvest time expecting the client to take notice? Better have something unique to offer.
  • Even if your proposal should somehow draw the client's attention, that's a pricey way to make an introduction. Do you really think you can accomplish more through that $3,000 proposal effort than through an hour-long sales call? There's also the opportunity cost involved in preparing a proposal. Every hour spent on that long-shot submittal could have been better invested in...well, things like actually meeting with prospective clients.
In most cases, submitting a proposal without previously engaging the client is an attempt to shortcut the normal sales process. That process enables you to reach some critical milestones in positioning your firm for success, such as:
  • Confirming mutual interest in working together
  • Building trust and rapport with the client
  • Uncovering the client's real needs and objectives (unlikely to appear in the RFP)
  • Helping the client determine the best solution
  • Positioning your firm as a go-to source of help
  • Mutually defining expectations for a successful proposal
On rare occasions that cold proposal may actually win the job. But that shouldn't encourage you to keep trying. Instead, redirect those precious hours to more productive business development tasks, including moving more time upstream in the sales process. This is the model for sustained BD success.

When it comes to making introductions, convenient doesn't mean opportune. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Lead with Personal, Not Positional, Power

No doubt your firm has principals and other managers who are regarded as leaders. Whether they actually function as leaders has relatively little to do with their position. Recognition as a true leader is earned, not bestowed by appointment.

A leader is one who engages the willing involvement of others in creating positive change. A leader may have positional authority, but getting people to follow depends far more on influence than compulsion. Indeed, the real power in getting things done successfully in an organization lies with the doers, not the leader. They ultimately control how well the job is performed. 

I explored this dynamic in an earlier post: "Why Negative Reinforcement Seems to Work." A manager can, of course, exert his or her authority in telling employees what to do. Implicit in that authority is negative reinforcement, the threat of an unfavorable consequence should the employee fail to comply. So the task is done mostly because the employee has to.

But the quality of such "compliant effort" will never equal what could be accomplished through the influence of an effective leader. A leader understands how to use positive reinforcement to draw out "discretionary effort" from employees--meaning effort beyond what is required or demanded. Discretionary effort is a gift from an employee to the firm, given because the employee wants to. 

This is why a true leader cannot rely primarily on positional power. Compelling others to do something because you're the boss can certainly get results, but they fall well short of what could be achieved by leading with "personal power." What is personal power? Quite simply, the ability to influence the actions of others without resorting to positional authority. Key attributes of personal power include:
  • Likability. Open, accessible, sensitive, caring, positive
  • Trustworthiness. Reliable, responsive, honest, exhibits integrity
  • Expertise. Knowledgeable, competent, has sound judgment
  • Communication skill. Persuasive, clear, passionate, connected
Do you lead primarily by personal power or positional power? You could answer that question based on your intent. But a better way is to look at the results. What percentage of the people who work under you regularly demonstrate discretionary effort? (Don't just look at the willingness to work long hours, but attributes such as initiative, innovation, service.) To what degree do they meet and exceed your expectations?

To further judge your personal power as a leader, you might consider the self-assessment below. I use this in my leadership workshops to help participants think about their "personal credibility," which relates to how worthy they are of others' trust and respect. Answer the following questions based on how you think your coworkers would respond. Use a scale from 5 (always) to 1 (seldom).
  • You tell the truth even when it's not in your best interest.
  • When you tell someone you'll do something, you follow through.
  • You keep the deadlines you agreed on with coworkers and clients alike.
  • When you ask your staff to make extra commitments, you model the same.
  • If you lack competency where it might be expected, you're not afraid to admit it.
  • When you are to blame for a recognized problem, you publicly take responsibility for it.
  • You live by the values and priorities you espouse to others.
  • When you have a problem with a coworker, you listen before criticizing.
  • You show genuine interest in your staff as people, not just workers.
  • You praise your staff's achievements, not taking undue credit for them yourself.
  • You refrain from disparaging coworkers to others behind their back.
  • You can disagree with a coworker without belittling motives or character.
  • Even when busy, you make time for coworkers when they need it.
  • You characteristically project a positive, enthusiastic attitude about your work.
  • When you share opinions, people respect them because of your demonstrated expertise.
How your colleagues would answer these questions goes a long way toward determining your personal power. 

One final point: I don't mean to suggest that exercising positional power is never appropriate. It is in many circumstances, especially in setting boundaries for what will or won't be tolerated in the organization. For example, you should not allow anyone to willfully violate your firm's values. Doing so effectively invalidates those values.

But show me a "leader" who relies predominantly on the use of positional power and its implied (or explicit) negative reinforcement, and I'll show you someone unworthy of the title. Leaders bring out the best in people, and you never accomplish that by compulsion.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What's Wrong With Your Proposals

I've had the opportunity to look at hundreds of proposals from engineering, environmental, and architectural firms over the years. It's remarkable how similar they are in many respects. Unfortunately, most of those similarities are shortcomings that contribute to low win rates. I suspect that your firm's proposals also share at least some of the following common deficiencies:

Lacks client focus. The client, not your firm, should be the centerpiece of your proposal. Above all, you want to demonstrate an understanding of the client's concerns, needs, and priorities; what solution is best for the client's situation and why; how you're going to deliver that solution in a timely, economical, and responsive manner; and what the expected outcomes will be.

Most proposals, of course, violate this advice. And clients promote the problem with their misguided RFPs. They suggest that qualifications will be the primary factor in selecting the successful firm. Do you believe that? Clients make their selections based on comfort, familiarity, chemistry, and confidence that the proposing firm really understands their needs and can effectively solve their problems. Of course, they still expect you to comply with the RFP!

Lacks a central theme. The best proposals have a story to tell, a central narrative that weaves all proposal elements into a cohesive message. The basic storyline usually involves linking the client's concerns, needs, and aspirations with what your firm
specifically has to offer. Most proposals are a paint-by-numbers response to the RFP--and little else. They are often prepared by multiple writers who have made too little effort to define a common thread among their individual contributions. The results come off as piecemeal and unfocused.

Is a difficult read. Proposals have certainly gotten better looking than when I started writing and studying them in the 1980s. The advent of color, better design, and more graphical elements has made a huge difference in their appearance. But I'm not sure they've come all that far in the critical area of functionality. They're still not that well written, are difficult to skim, and often aren't very easy to navigate.

A user-friendly proposal is characterized by clear writing, ample headings, effective graphics, and an intuitive organization. This not only makes it easier for the client to review, but facilitates better communication of your message.

Doesn't have an executive summary. I know, the RFP didn't ask for one. But if you put one in your proposal, I can pretty much guarantee it will be read. And if it's a good one, it can help you win. An executive summary captures the essence of your proposal in a few pages. It's usually read first (where it should appear in your proposal, of course). This allows you to put your strongest message front and center, regardless of how the RFP instructs you to order your response.

Is more tactical than strategic. Describing how you're going to help the client is the most important part of your proposal. But in most proposals I've read, this is the weakest section. If the A/E firm wasn't talking with the client before the RFP came out, it's usually evident here. The scope of services looks like a recycled write-up from another proposal with a few details changed (because, well, that's what it typically is).

But even when the firm knows the project well, the description of the work often fails to demonstrate it. A common reason for this is providing a scope of services without adequately describing the project background, objectives, and approach. In other words, it's tactics without strategy. Strategy involves linking needs and solutions, understanding the bigger picture, connecting to business-driven goals. Scope of services is a contract issue; project insight and strategy wins the day.

Is overly conservative. Another reason that proposals fail to demonstrate project insight is that the submitting firms are often reluctant to share what they know. There are two primary reasons for this, both unwarranted in my opinion. The first is a fear that proposal contents could be shared with competitors. That great strategy you could have proposed might have been implemented by the successful firm the client was going to hire anyway. That may happen on occasion, but I remain unconvinced that the threat is worth reducing your chances of winning by holding back your best stuff.

The second reason is the natural reluctance of many technical professionals, engineers in particular, to share ideas without adequate backup. "I don't think we want to offer that option in our proposal," I've been told on several occasions, "because we don't have enough information to know for sure." Why not offer it as a possibility, then? Clients value your insights--even your educated guesses--when sorting through potential solutions to their problem.

Don't be afraid to include the occasional tease in your proposal. The tease--sharing just enough information to create interest--has long been an effective marketing and communication technique. It doesn't commit your firm to anything, but it just might help get you to the shortlist.

Shouldn't have been submitted in the first place. Many proposals fail for reasons other than content and design. You lacked a relationship with the client, there was an entrenched incumbent, there was an unresolved service problem--any number of factors that should have resulted in a "no go" decision. You knew your firm was a long shot, but thought it was worth a try nonetheless.

Unfortunately, whatever improbable chance of winning you might have had was undermined by the shortcomings mentioned above. That's why it's best to limit your submittals to those that you have a reasonable chance of winning and can commit to doing them the right way.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Thinking Rightly About Time

Your time is your most valuable personal--and corporate--asset. You can't do anything without expending some of it. There's only a limited, finite amount of it. You can't replace it. You can't create more of it. You can't stop its progress.

Given the inherent value of time, you have to wonder why most of us treat it so lightly. We make too little effort to plan how to make the best use of our time
. What plans we make, we often don't follow. We are prone to simply reacting to whatever comes our way rather than setting priorities and sticking to them.

Our neglect of effective time management not only robs us personally of reaching our potential; it impacts the bottom line of our business. To manage your firm, business unit, or project well, you ultimately must master managing time well--both yours a
nd that of your subordinates. This ability starts with thinking rightly about time. Here are three vital conclusions about time:

Time is the currency of life, of incalculable worth

Imagine you received a gift of one million dollars. What would you do with it? I've asked that question of many groups I've trained and have received a wide variety of answers: Invest it. Apply it towards retirement or the children's education. Buy a new home. Start a new business. Travel. Give it to charitable causes. These are just a few of the responses.

But no one has ever suggested that they'd simply put it in their checking account, spending it whenever the need or impulse struck until it was all gone. Yet think about how we use something of far greater worth than a million dollars--our time.
How many of us take a "checking account approach" to life? Pay as you go. No clear plan, little investment, few deposits. Simply spend it until it's all gone.

The first step to better time management is fully appreciating how precious it is. The Bible says, "Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a
heart of wisdom." Obviously, we don't know the number of our days. But the point is that our days are numbered. We gain a heart of wisdom when we begin to treat our time as the finite, invaluable resource that it is.

The Bible also instructs us to "redeem the time." The word redeem in the original language is taken from commerce; it means to buy or purchase.
Basically, it involves an exchange of value, usually roughly equivalent value for both what is expended and what is gained. When we redeem time, we seek to spend each increment of time on activity that is of commensurate value. So how valuable is your time? Is it not priceless?

Like money, we can use our time in three prim
ary ways:
  • We can spend it
  • We can waste it
  • We can invest it

The first two choices are fairly obvious, but what does it mean to invest our time? This involves using our time in a way that yields a future return or enhances the value of how we spend time later. Investing time includes things such as getting an education, learning a new skill, teaching someone else, or developing a relationship. Most of us could do a much better job of investing our time.

Application to your business: While your personal time is priceless, you do place a monetary value on corporate time. In our business, we have historically sold our services in increments of time. Most have an hourly billing rate, or hourly cost to the firm. This has tremendous ramifications in how you and your colleagues collectively use your time.

If you bill an hour to the client, the rate is usually the same whether you are developing an complex design, typing a letter at 30 wpm, or just putting an extra hour on your time sheet to help meet your utilization goal. Obviously, the difference between those choices is very significant, especially when multiple hours are involved. If you fail to manage your time effectively, either the client or your firm is going to pay for it.

More likely, you recognize that like life, your days on a project or other assignment are numbered as well. There is a budget established that determines whether the firm makes a profit or the client pays appropriate value for the work delivered. Therefore, you should be highly motivated to make the most of your time at work.

We all have more things to do than time to do them, thus we must make choices

Many people simply try to do too much. Perhaps you're one of them. There are far more alternatives for spending our time than we have time to spend. This would seem to dictate that we choose not to do some things. But many people seem intent on trying to cram as many things into their life as possible. Unfortunately, adding more activity often doesn't translate to more productivity or more satisfaction. In fact, it can have exactly the opposite effect.

As everyone knows, effective time management involves setting and sticking to priorities. But this is much more difficult in practice than in concept. When training people on this subject, I ask them to list in order the top five priorities in their life. I then ask them to rank the items they listed based on how much time they spend on each. As you might expect, the exercise confirms, with rare exceptions, that we don't spend our time in proportion with our priorities.

Why don't our priorities drive our time usage? There are a variety of reasons we might name, including failure to plan, poor choices, lack of discipline, circumstances beyond our control. But probably the most prevalent factor is what some call the "tyranny of the urgent" (which we'll explore below).

Application to your business: Companies, like people, also have an unlimited number of choices for the finite amount of time available to spend on them. Similarly, firms are often prone to spread limited resources across too many activities, sometimes failing to excel in any of them. In the process, high priority activities are neglected while lower priority, but urgent, matters consume most of the available time. Sound familiar?

Our choices are driven more often by urgency than importance

Most people are extremely susceptible to the pull of the urgent. Stephen Covey's Time Management Matrix is an excellent tool for illustrating how we spend our time:

Most of us spend most of our time in Quadrants I and III. Giving attention to Quadrant I is certainly necessary. The problem is when we confuse anything urgent with being important. When this happens, the important, non-urgent matters (Quadrant II) typically get shortchanged.

Our culture accepts excessive busyness (defined as uncontrolled activity driven by urgency rather than importance) as normative. But this condition comes with substantial costs. I noted one effect; crucial Quadrant II activities get crowded out. Busyness also takes a physical and mental toll. When people are overloaded, their productivity suffers. Many are on the verge of burnout.

Application to your business: A/E firms are also vulnerable to the tyranny of the urgent. We use imagery such as "fighting fires" and "trying to keep my head above water" to describe our commonly over-stressed workplaces. The most crucial, strategic corporate initiatives are often displaced. Our firms are then poorly equipped to grow, change, and improve in a time when such outcomes were never more important.

Covey's research found that high-performance firms spend 65-80% of their time on strategic Quadrant II activities, a remarkable percentage in comparison with the norm of just 15%. Most firms, like people, spend the bulk of their time in Quadrants I and III. Thus the obvious goal of firms seeking to maximize their time usage is to shift more time from Quadrant III to Quadrant II.

This leads us to another important conclusion about time: Time management isn't just a noble personal discipline, but a valuable strategic opportunity for your firm. For ideas on how to capitalize on this opportunity, check out these earlier posts:

Monday, April 2, 2012

When the Client Isn't Happy

No reasonable client expects flawless service. But every client is entitled to expect a helpful response to a service breakdown. How you respond in such situations--what I call service recovery--is a critical moment of truth in your relationship with the client. Your recovery effort (or lack thereof) is more likely to leave a lasting impression than the problem that precipitated the need for it.

How you respond, obviously, depends on the circumstance. But the Golden Rule is generally a good standard to apply: What would you want done if the roles were reversed? Unfortunately, offending firms often start with a different premise: How do we best protect our interests? This is particularly true if there is even a hint of potential liability involved.

Yet one thing that almost 40 years in this business have taught me is that the best way to minimize your liability is to do the right thing for the client. In most cases, the right thing involves at least the following when the client is unhappy:

Seek to understand the client's perspective of the problem. Remember, perception is reality. This doesn't mean you have to passively accept the client's version of the problem. But you certainly want to understand it, because that's the problem you're trying to resolve--not what you think it is. What the client really wants at this point is your empathy, that you understand why the client is unhappy (even if you don't fully agree).

Take the lead in resolving the problem. Often the service provider's first inclination is to try to deflect blame. You may well need to defend your actions later on, but don't start there. Taking responsibility for the resolution is not the same as taking responsibility for the problem.

I remember a situation where I in
curred a substantial additional cost in part because of my oversight. When I called the service provider, their first response was, "We'll take care of it." I was quite relieved. They easily could have blamed me. But retaining me as a customer was more important to them than assigning blame.

Define a mutually acceptable approach to resolution. A quick response may be appreciated, but don't jump to this step without first doing step number one--characterizing the problem from the client's point of view. There's a least two key reasons why this is important: (1) you can't define the proper solution if you don't really understand the problem (and in this case, the problem may be largely subjective), and (2) you often can change client perceptions in the course of having that conversation.

Don't overlook the fact that you're usually addressing what is at least in part a perceived problem. The client may have felt a slight or wanted
something different. The effective resolution, then, must address both the tangible and intangible dimensions of the problem. That's not a natural response for many technical professionals. So it may be wise to engage others who are more attuned to the interpersonal and perceptual dynamics of serving clients.

Take steps to keep the problem from recurring. In my experience, most A/E firms do an admirable job in being responsive to their clients--most of the time. They rearrange schedules, put in long hours, and
even eat costs when necessary to try to satisfy the client. That's what I call "situational responsiveness."

Where we're not as good is providing what might be called
"systematic responsiveness." This involves making structural or process changes to improve service levels, especially when there's been a pattern of service breakdowns. Clients will typically tolerate an occasional screw-up, but they are justifiably offended when a problem recurs.

That's why I believe an important part of the recovery process is telling the client what you will be doing to prevent the problem from happening again. I
t would be a good idea to again seek the client's input, because the client is the ultimate authority on what constitutes great service. Of course, whatever course of action you determine, be sure to follow through. It now constitutes a promise you've made to the client.

By the way, if you're not having to resolve many service problems with your clients, beware: It may be that you're not getting the regular, honest feedback you need to uncover such problems before they become potentially unrecoverable!