Monday, December 8, 2014

5 Contrarian Steps to Winning the Shortlist Interview

How to differentiate your firm has long been a hot topic of discussion, with many concluding that it is increasingly difficult to do so in the A/E industry. But is the problem a matter of discovering what to do, or having the courage to do it? Conformity seems to be a powerful force in our business. How else do you explain the remarkable similarities in how we market, sell, write proposals, and conduct shortlist interviews?

For the sake of this post, let me focus on the latter, which puts us closest to the purchase decision where differentiation matters most. Can you take a different approach to shortlist interviews than your competitors—and win more than your share? Indeed you can, as I've learned in winning about 80% of the interviews I've helped firms prepare for over the last two decades. Below, I share five contrarian steps I routinely advise my clients to take:

1. Seek authenticity over polish. Clients typically ask you to spend the bulk of the time making a presentation. Odd, isn't it, that they give so much weight to something that most technical professionals are not that good at. Is the secret to winning the shortlist interview really about proving yourselves to be the more competent presenters? I think not.

Feedback from clients indicates that soft factors such as trust, personal chemistry, commitment to the client, and genuine interest in the project drive the final decision. Your competence was assessed during the proposal stage; now the focus shifts to making the client feel comfortable about the prospect of working with your firm on this project.

Public speaking, ironically, makes most technical professionals look uncomfortable. Focusing on helping them flawlessly deliver the presentation should hardly be the primary objective. More often than not, the net effect of that approach is a competent but detached presentation, often with the essence of phoniness. When the goal is to engage your audience and persuade them, I'll take a speaker who comes across as authentic over one who is merely polished.

So I push the shortlist interview team to find their comfort zone, where they are best able to present themselves as people you'd like to do business with. How? I few suggestions:
  • Make your presentation personal and interactive. I'll say more about this below.
  • Limit formal speaking parts. Don't make the mistake of concluding that every member of your interview team has to stand up and speak to PowerPoint slides. Even if they are all accomplished speakers (highly unlikely), that makes for a disjointed presentation.
  • Interview team members instead. Many technical professionals are much more impressive in an informal exchange than a formal speaking part. Ask them questions and have them share their insights instead of making them presenters.
  • Don't just talk; do something. Write something on the flipchart or white board, spread out a site plan on the table and speak to it, hand out a checklist that outlines critical steps of your approach. Actions are more engaging than words alone.
  • Practice until it looks natural. That's my goal rather than trying to turn technical professionals into compelling presenters. What client doesn't want to work with real people instead of the coached-up (or unprepared) ones they often see at this stage?
2. Engage the selection team in a dialogue. Your proposal was a one-way presentation, so why resort to a verbal monologue when you have the client in the room? The obvious answer is because they asked you to. But don't assume that's your only option. Simply ask if you can have a dialogue. In my experience, the selection team will agree 99% of the time.

Here's how: Ask, "To confirm that we're speaking directly to the issues that matter most to you, would it be okay to ask you a few questions during our presentation?" Or something to that effect. Of course, you will have already prepared your presentation in anticipation that it would include some two-way discussion—adding a few questions at critical junctures.

When your team and the selection team are conversing over the course of the shortlist interview, you have staked out a powerful advantage over the firms that simply follow the instructions. Dialogue has many benefits, including promoting comfort, helping you target your message, previewing the working relationship, confirming understanding, and uncovering and resolving concerns.

When you engage in a dialogue from the start of your presentation, the usual Q&A period at the end disappears because their questions have already been answered. Think about it: Would you prefer to have 45 minutes of conversation with the client or 15 minutes (of Q&A)? The answer is so obvious, I'm baffled why more firms don't ask the question: "Can we talk?"

3. Expand on your proposal. Another mistake that A/E firms commonly make is to spend the shortlist interview mostly rehashing their earlier proposal. If you want to increase your chances of winning, you need to tell the client more. Take this opportunity to advance your proposal to the next level.

This starts with a commitment to put in the effort. I don't understand why most firms spend far more time writing a proposal when the odds of winning are longer than preparing for a shortlist interview with much better odds. When I work with shortlist interview teams, they often comment that they've never spent so much time preparing for an interview. "That's why you don't win more of them," I respond.

So what's involved in building on your proposal? You might offer some preliminary design concepts, additional site information, more detailed cost estimates, further definition of your client service process, introduction of new solution options, or a response to perceived weaknesses in your proposal.

4. Talk about the working relationship. When the selection team is trying to assess what it would be like to work with your firm, why would you not talk about it? Yet A/E firms rarely do in either their proposal or the shortlist interview. That's another key opening to distinguish your firm from the competition. 

Describe how you will deliver an exceptional client experience. For it to be believable, you need to outline specific steps and commitments you will make. I've been able to garner major wins over the years largely because our firm was the only one to address this, proposing a unique client service delivery process. Of course, this message won't resonate with every client. But the potential competitive advantage is too significant to ignore it.

5. Neutralize your liabilities. Client selection teams often face a difficult choice, to pick one firm among two or more that offer similar advantages. In a close competition, the client usually looks for reasons not to select you. Thus you should try to determine where you are most vulnerable to being deselected and address it head-on. Your competitors will typically avoid doing this.

Most likely, you have a sense of your potential weaknesses. Your credentials are not as strong, you haven't worked previously with the client, you didn't do the best job uncovering project insights during the sales process, etc. It's always a good idea to ask the client if they have any concerns or questions after reviewing your proposal that they'd like you to address during the shortlist interview. Sometimes they'll share that information with you.

There are a number of ways to address your vulnerabilities, including:
  • Lessen their impact by leveraging your strengths, assuming you have some notable strengths that can offset perceived shortcomings. Do this in the context of explaining your project approach and outcomes, not in bragging about your strengths.
  • Describe how you'll shore up an apparent weakness. For example, if you don't have an existing working relationship, describe the steps you'll take to build it quickly (see above.)
  • Indirectly highlight your competitor's flaws. This obviously requires some nuance, but can be very effective when done correctly.
  • Prepare for the toughest questions the client could ask. It's critically important that you anticipate the hardest questions that might come up during the interview, and spend time working on your answers in advance.
Clients say they want shortlisted firms to be well prepared, to personally engage the selection committee, and to show their enthusiasm. Nothing earth shattering there. But it's interesting how seldom those three traits are all evident. Much of the blame is due to misplaced objectives (e.g., focusing on your qualifications) and putting in too little effort.

Remember, the goal is to stand out, not fit in. Don't follow the crowd, become a contrarian. The following table highlights the differences:


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