Thursday, September 26, 2013

Writing Effective Proposal Resumes

Several months ago, I reviewed an engineering proposal that weighed in at 34 pages (not bad), plus another 38 pages of resumes (ugh!). Sometimes I wonder if we forget that someone is supposed to read these things.

Or do they? RFPs almost always ask for project team resumes, but I've long questioned how much client reviewers read them. I suspect there's scant information in them that clients care about, meaning that most of the resume content has the potential for getting in the way. 

I know that's hard to hear for someone who's proudly summarized many years of work experience in a multipage resume. But unless you enjoy reading other people's resumes, I think you can empathize with the client. So the challenge is to write proposal resumes that serve their intended purpose, and nothing more. Here are a few suggestions:

Limit resumes to one page. This advice has been commonly repeated for years and most firms are getting the message. Yet I still encounter multipage resumes often enough to warrant saying it again: One page, no more! If the individual has a lot of experience, that can seem challenging. But the purpose of a proposal resume is not to give an overview of that person's career; rather it should highlight the individual's qualifications most relevant to the proposal. That can be accomplished in a single page no matter how long the career.

Make the most important information skimmable. The definition of "most important" will vary by client and project. For example, some clients are particularly interested in seeing that members of your project team worked on your firm's most relevant projects. Whatever projects you feature in your proposal should be well represented among the resumes included. Some clients are looking for specific screening criteria, such as whether the project manager is a registered engineer or how long the person has been with your firm.

Once you've identified what resume content matters most to the client (or made your best guess), you want to present that information in bullets, boldface headings, or the like to make it easy for reviewers to find. Obviously, having a consistent resume format will also help clients uncover what they're looking for.

Clearly identify the person's project role. I often see stock resumes being used that don't indicate the individual's role on the proposed project. That forces the reviewer to refer back to the organization chart, which is an extra step that you don't want to create. Years ago, one of my Corps of Engineers clients requested that all resumes be accompanied by the org chart on the facing page. That's an idea that I've used in many other proposals as well, in particular those with a fairly complex project organization.

Use no more than 3-4 lines per project description. When highlighting the individual's project experience, a common mistake is to include more information than needed. This obviously limits how many projects can be referenced. Keep project details to a minimum, featuring those that are most relevant to the proposed project. The one exception I would make is when the person worked on a very similar project with another employer. In that case, a few more lines of description might be justified since this is probably the only place in your proposal where that personal experience will be recounted.

Consider using mini-resumes instead. Over the years, I've moved away from including one-page resumes in the body of the proposal and instead using mini-resumes. These are brief, readily skimmable summaries that enable placing 4-5 of them on a page. With mini-resumes, I avoid breaking up the flow of the proposal while providing all the detail that the client really needs to assess the team's qualifications. I often supplement these with other related information, such as a matrix showing the team's experience with the different aspects of the proposed project. Usually, I'll include the one-page resumes in an appendix.

Beware of making your project team too large. While not really a resume-writing tip, this can certainly influence client perceptions of your resumes. When you have too many, the impact of each resume is potentially diluted. I've made this point before: Too much information provided often means less information communicated.

Loading up your project team can have other unintended consequences. What you thought showed depth might be interpreted by the client as being noncommittal. Client reviewers may suspect that you're flashing your best resumes without intending to actually use those people on the project. Or trying to show depth may reveal the opposite—those second-tier resumes sometimes aren't as impressive on paper.

Hopefully these suggestions are helpful. But a picture is usually better, so I'm attaching a sample resume that incorporates most of the tips above: 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Writing Compelling Project Descriptions

If we were to be brutally honest, we'd have to admit that most of the marketing content and proposals we produce are pretty boring. You can confirm that by reading a lot of your competitors' materials. Do you find it really interesting reading? I didn't think so. Now ask: Is your content any better?

Sometimes it's hard to be objective about what you write about your firm. It seems interesting because you're personally invested—as are your colleagues who seem satisfied with what you produce. But what matters is what prospective clients think. And based on the occasional honest feedback I've gotten from them over the years, I think they're bored.

So I want to spend a few posts sharing my ideas on how to generate more compelling marketing and proposal content. Today, let's start with project descriptions, which are important elements of proposals and qualifications statements, and are used to support other marketing and sales functions as well. How can you prepare better project descriptions?

Focus on outcomes, not scope. Every project is intended to meet specific client needs, yet we often describe them as merely a set of tasks and features: "We conducted an engineering analysis." "The renovation included 2,200 square feet of additional office space." But what was the basic problem that we solved? What operational goals did we achieve? Our project descriptions often neglect talking about results, which is what most clients care about most.

Tell a story. The project narrative is almost always far more interesting than the scope of work. People are naturally drawn to stories, so you should describe the project in such manner. The most basic elements of a good story are: (1) conflict introduced, (2) struggle, (3) resolution. So your project description should start by answering the basic why question: Why was the project needed? What was wrong or lacking? Then describe the struggle: The challenges involved. The special skills or approach needed to meet those challenges. Finally, as noted above, talk about the outcomes—how the "conflict" was resolved.

Don't ignore the nontechnical aspects. Our profession delivers significant human and societal benefits, but we often focus only on the technical aspects in describing our project experience. That's unfortunate, not only because it tends to devalue our work, but it fails to align with how most clients view projects. Your project descriptions should address how you met the client's strategic and personal needs—financial savings, operational goals, satisfied users, competitive advantages, great customer experience. 

Make it brief, skimmable. Most project descriptions I see have more detail than necessary. Adding more information on paper often means that less information is communicated. You shouldn't feel compelled to include every facet of the project, only those that matter most (see previous tips). Then present the main points in skimmable fashion, using bold headings, bullets, callouts, photos, graphics, etc.—don't expect your descriptions to be read word for word. Consider creative ways to present information visually with a minimum of text, which leads to my next tip...

Don't settle for less than quality visuals. I know this is easier said than done for firms that can't afford to pay for professional photography or graphic design. But there are steps you can take to upgrade your visuals without spending a lot. For example, find a talented student who's available for a low fee. Or pick someone in your firm who has the ability, but perhaps needs a little training, better equipment, or simply a formal assignment (a lot of the poor project photography you see was never intended to be used for marketing purposes, but that's all that is available). Keep in mind, of course, that there's a higher standard for architecture and planning firms that may demand spending more for quality visuals.

Highlight the project elements that are particularly relevant. I often see boilerplate project descriptions used in proposals, for example, that make no reference to the project being pursued. Worse still, the prospective client would have to dig to discover relevant aspects. Always make it easy for your audience to see the connections. Make those points readily skimmable, perhaps using a matrix to illustrate them. And as I touched on earlier, the common elements need to be more than scope related. They should also align where possible with similar client concerns, needs, goals, and expected outcomes.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Fair Trades for the Buyer's Time

Years ago when I had the epiphany that I really didn't like selling, the thing that most convicted me was the feeling that I too often wasted the prospect's time. No one told me that, but upon honest reflection, I knew it to be true. How? Because I had been in the buyer's role myself and I knew my approach to selling wasn't much different from those who I felt had wasted my time.

Salespeople routinely ask for our most valuable asset—our time. And what do we get in return? A sales pitch? An introduction to the seller's company? Perhaps a little bit of helpful information. I'm assuming that buyers of A/E services are much like me; they want a fair return on the time spent with sellers.

I call that fair return an entree. Typically your entree will involve providing information, advice, or help in addressing a client need or problem. That concept seems straightforward enough. But when I do sales training and ask participants to come up with an entree for their next sales call to an existing prospect, I often get answers that appear to fall short of a fair exchange. Let's consider some examples of both ineffective and effective entrees:

Ineffective Entrees

Show and tell. Many firms prepare presentations on various technical subjects and case histories in hope of impressing prospective clients. But they often miss the mark, especially if the show and tell occurs too early in the sales process. Sharing your insights work best when you can directly relate them to client needs and aspirations. Remember to keep the client, not your firm, at the center of the conversation. For example, instead of simply presenting a case history, use your clients' experiences to illustrate how the prospect's problem might be addressed.

Interrogation. On the other hand, you want to avoid going to the other extreme of asking too many questions without offering helpful information or advice. Many sellers seem to think that asking questions is client-centered because it indicates interest in learning more about the client. But without a mix of helpful information and advice, your asking a lot of questions is not likely to be perceived as working in the prospect's interest. An effective sales conversation should be a careful balance of give and take—with an emphasis on giving.

This can really help you—if you hire us. Perhaps the most common mistake I see in defining an entree is to attach strings to it. For example, "let's tell them about how our proprietary modeling software can help them plan their project." There is certainly a time and place for describing your distinct advantages as part of the sales conversation, but that doesn't make for an effective entree. Why? Because the benefit is conditional and thus is likely to be viewed as self-serving. Far better to offer some help that doesn't require the prospect to hire your firm.

Let's do lunch. There are surely still some prospects who enjoy a free lunch, but many will consider this an intrusion on their personal time if there isn't more than food to be gained. Asking a potential client to lunch is fine as long as you don't assume the client's reward is the meal (or the opportunity to spend time with you). You must still deliver a more valuable entree than what's on the menu.

Lunching one's way to the sale is particularly popular among those who practice the friendship approach to selling. That method works well for some and some clients seem to appreciate it. But I'm convinced that most clients prefer a profitable business relationship over a friendship that doesn't deliver business results. In other words, beware of thinking that your greatest sales asset is your likability.

Effective Entrees

Been there, done that. Prospects value your past experience when it's specifically related to their own needs. An effective entree usually is offered something like this: "I read about the difficult engineering challenges you're facing with your facility expansion. We dealt with a very similar situation working with Acme and wondered if you'd be interested in learning how they dealt with those issues." The subsequent meeting should involve a mix of clarifying the client's needs through well-planned questions and sharing relevant aspects of your experience and expertise.

Here's what others are doing. Don't limit your entree to your own experience. As an expert in your field, surely you're familiar with other projects and problems that are relevant to the prospect's need. If not, do your research. Most clients are more interested in hearing what their peers are doing than what you or your competitors are doing. So there's no need to link your entree to your firm. Be prepared to share the very best practices and insights that can help the prospect—no matter where this information comes from.

Here's a resource we're willing to share. Occasionally, you may find yourself in the position to offer some kind of tool or resource that can help the prospect. This might be data, maps, site information, a checklist, a planning guide, a spreadsheet. You might want to develop some tools that would be widely valued by prospective clients. Keep the principle of reciprocity in mind. When you are helpful and generous with information, that often creates a sense of obligation to reciprocate. It's a powerful sales tool.

There are, of course, multiple variations on the entree approaches summarized above. The common theme is a respect for the prospect's valuable time, enough so that you take steps to avoid wasting it. This helps build the trust that is so critical to sales success. Offer fair trades for your sales prospects' time and see if that doesn't make the time you spend on selling far more productive.