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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Proposals . . . and proposals

Architectural, engineering and construction industry marketers face constant challenges in responding to RFP deadlines -- especially when technical staff fail to provide materials in a timely manner. Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) members recently discussed these issues on their email Listserve.

Many members of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) have the sometimes unenviable task of preparing the documentation for RFP (Request for Proposals) submissions for large scale architecture, engineering or construction projects. The problem is the people doing this work are not the technical experts: They can't (themselves) decide if the proposal makes sense, has a realistic chance of success, and should be submitted in the first place. Adding to the problem, the technical specialists are often 'too busy' on current projects to bother providing the documentation and resources necessary to complete the proposal, so they wait until the very last second. And things are even worse now, because with work drying up, companies are rushing out more and more proposals for "possibilities" rather than "probabilities" in the faint hope that somehow the out-of-the-blue proposal will stick.

Jack Hennings at Bartlett & West headquartered in Topeka, Kansas, observed:
Please don't all laugh at this.

Getting technical staff to meet proposal production schedules has always been a challenge. The task of developing persuasive project approaches and updating project profiles and team resumes frequently takes second (or third) place on the priority lists of busy engineers faced with client deadlines.

We have lived with this for years and tried to manage it as best we could. And, of course, we have never missed a submittal deadline.

With the economic downturn has come increased competition for a shrinking number of projects, and the situation has gotten worse. In addition, firms are going after more and more projects.

Our marketing coordinator is facing situations where PMs are turning in key elements of proposals just hours before it is due with increasing frequency.

I won't ask how many of you are seeing similar trends. The question is, what practical steps are you taking to keep technical staff on a schedule to make sure not only that a proposal is submitted on time but that the process has had the necessary time for effective quality control.

Share your secret weapons!
Larisa Langley at Facility Programming and Consulting in Texas, responded with a short (and elegantly simple) solution:
Don't laugh at this back.

Lie about the deadline.
Others shared more comprehensive answers.

Fellow SMPS Marketer contributor Matt Handal at Trauner Consulting Services in Pennsylvania, wrote:
Jack and everyone.

I wrote an article called "What if the proposal doesn't get there." It appeared in the August 2007 Marketer. I think the whole issue can be downloaded from the SMPS website. I suggest anybody who interacts with proposals read it.

Here is what I said regarding this problem back then.

1. Remember this is your responsibility. If there is anything you can do to work around them, do it. Don't wait for their piece to do everything else.
2. Be proactive with help. If you feel confident enough to take a first stab at the technical approach, do it. You probably read a million of these and your best attempt might be equal to their version of "calling it in." It may be less intimidating for them if they only have to improve upon what you have already done. Just make sure your first draft doesn't end up in the final proposal.
3. Be empathetic, often these people are "last minute" because they have too much on their plate. Think in terms of what you can do to help them.
4. Never be late with your internal deadlines. You must lead the proposal process by example.
5. Decide on a firm deadline for their section and then move that deadline back a day or two.
6. Talk in terms of when the proposal is "going out" not when it is "due."
7. Never lie about deadlines, but refer to #5 and #6.

PMs giving you stuff "hours before it is due" is not something you fix in a day. Because you enabled that behavior for so long. Its going to take some time to change behaviors, starting with yours.

I personally schedule proposals going backwards. The due date is when it gets delivered. The day before that its in the air, on the ground, or in an email. The day before that it is in production. The day before that we need a full day for revisions. The day before that we need a full day of review. And the words "Proposal is due on ____" never crosses my or any of our marketers lips. We always say the "proposal is going out on _______." People now ask "When is this proposal going out?"

You have to get it out of your head and the heads of others that proposals get delivered the day they are due.

Another thing that I mention in the article is that this whole proposal thing is your responsibility. If that technical person gets hit by a truck, the owner is still going to expect you to get that proposal to its destination. So the question is not "how can i get them to do this by the right timeline?" The question is "what physical thing can I do to help them get this done within the timeline?" That may entail you and
your co-ordinators "stepping up their game." Going from someone who listens to a song to someone who can pick up a guitar and play the song. You don't have to be a Beatle to play a Beatles song. And you don't have to know how to design a streetscape to draft a proposal about how you will design the best streetscape project.

You gotta give to get. The "This is my job. That is your job." mentality is BS. Too many marketers have it and it only causes internal strife. One thing I did at my job was tear down a 20-year long animosity-filled relationship between marketing and the technical staff. If you honestly care about them, show compassion, and go the extra mile...they will do the same for you. Proposal success is often dependent on the internal relationships you build.

P.S. Lying is never a good strategy in this life.
Pamela Rigling Caffrey, Director of Marketing at John Poe Architects, Inc. in Dayton, Ohio, observed:
I learned very early on not to wait for project approaches, work plans, schedules, etc. After the first couple, I started writing them myself. You will be amazed at how
much you can regurgitate, just by having read a few and learning the lingo. And I would say that, as a GENERAL rule, marketing professionals are better writers than technical professionals. I also think the technical folks find it more palatable to edit something rather than write from scratch. And they like bullet points. If you ask for bullet points (which you can then eloquently transfer into poignant, passionate
and persuasive prose) you are much more likely to get something back.

The December issue of "Marketer" has a cover story that asks "What does it take to get to this table?" I would say we have to immerse ourselves in this world to the point where we can confidently author project approaches and work plans. We need the technical people to review things, answer questions and guide our understanding of project work but I think it might be easy to pile things on them that we should be able to do ourselves.

Marketing IS the voice of this business. Don't buy into the intimidated belief that we are on the outside looking in to some mysterious, inexplicably technical world. Jump in there and grab the bull by the horns! Think of how empowering it will be to not have to wait on someone else!
Here are my thoughts on this issue:
  • The most important thing in RFP situations is the 'go/no go' decision. You need to know whether you have a reasonable probability of success. Most publicly set proposals are wired ahead of time and you won't win the job no matter how much effort you put into it; and if you put in a half-baked effort you will undoubtedly lose. You need to ask "why bother" before even straiting the process.
  • Really good internal communications processes are absolutely essential. Hopefully your business has a systematized weekly meeting process. In these routine meetings (which can be co-ordinated by teleconference for remote offices) clear rules and schedules are set and followed -- and you don't waste time. You may find effective a meeting process including review of go/no go decisions, and then, once they are made, specific action item commitments on the part of technical and marketing staff.
  • The marketing department should have template material honed and developed over time for the basic proposal structure. This will lessen the stress and speed up production and sign-off of the document. Note: There is an argument that a picture is worth 1,000 words, so include images of relevant work examples if allowed in the RFP documentation rules.
Finally, although Laurisa Langley's answer "lie about the deadline" is probably not the entire solution (or even the right answer), something is said for simple, brief, and insightful solutions (which this blog posting is definitely not!). Does it feel right to proceed? Is this a waste of time? You need to know -- and have the courage -- when, and how, to say "no" to wasteful or ineffective proposals. Otherwise, you are wasting your company's time and draining its energy from real opportunities.


Craig Galati said...

Mark. I've found that the relationship matters most, even in public work. If you don't know about the RFQ before it hits the street--you are too late. If you do know about it, then likely you have a technical staff person who has been tracking it with the marketing team and therefore should be excited about working on the RFQ.


Mark Buckshon said...

Yes, indeed. Most of the times, it is a waste to chase public RFPs if ou don't really know and have intimate knowledge of the project well before it is posted -- of course in the hard economic conditions, businesses grasp at straws, and bid jobs they should know they have no chance of winning.