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Saturday, September 27, 2008

"Wiring" the job (or three card monte) (2)

In case you want to learn how three card monte is played on the street, you can learn how in several youtube videos, such as this one.

members have added further insights into Matt Handal's observations about the way the bidding in supposedly fair projects is played -- where the winner is often decided up front and other professionals are invited in purely to legitimize the selected original client. Handal compared the process to the street con game Three Card Monte in a provocative posting reported earlier here.

The challenging issue is of course not in the cases where you know things are fixed or there are strong existing relationships and you are trying to get in through the front door when you see an RFP or invitation to bid notice. Most professional service firms avoid these situations -- they don't flail around submitting proposals for every project and opportunity that arises -- and they can usually smell a 'rat' when the conditions and terms of the proposal would favour someone else.

The issue is much more complex when you have a very good relationship -- perhaps current or ongoing work -- with a client -- and that client asks you to bid a job knowing someone else is selected. Here, the issue is whether you play the game knowing you will 'lose' the immediate contest, while maintaining your client relationships and ongoing work opportunities.

Ellen Moore at Aker Solutions in Houston describes this process in a fascinating story:
My personal "Three-Card Monte" experience occurred in a previous professional life when I worked in Marketing for a civil engineering firm. At (literally) 3:45 p.m. one afternoon -- as I was packing up to leave promptly at 4 p.m. for a badly needed and long-anticipated haircut (having arrived at the office that day at 6 a.m. to assure an on-time departure for this important event), I got The Monte Phone Call. One of our regional office managers informed me that we "had" to submit a proposal to an existing municipal client by 11 a.m. the next day. This was, of course, the first I'd heard of any proposal to this particular client. I asked a lot of rapid-fire questions and found out that yes, our regional manager had been "asked" by the municipal client to "propose" on a project. The client actually informed our regional manager that we would not be awarded the project, but the client needed a proposal from two other firms besides the Designated Winner to make this procurement "official." As our firm currently had a significant project underway for this client, the client judged correctly that our regional manager would not say no. And, in fact, he said yes, then
called me.

I consulted our Senior VP of Marketing, who called the regional manager from my office to elicit all the sad details. At the end of that conversation, the Sr VP told the regional manager we would comply this time, but added "don't EVER do this again."

I worked from 4:30 p.m. that day until 8 a.m. the next morning to write, produce, and box up our Monte proposal. To deliver our Monte by the client's "submittal deadline," one of our engineering staff was waiting in my office at 7:30 a.m. to take the box of Montes from my hands and drive it to the submittal city. Once I handed over our Montes, I went home, poured a large glass of wine, and rescheduled my haircut appointment at the earliest possible date: 4 1/2 weeks in the future. I did not have a happy day.

Once I calmed down, I tried to look at this situation from both sides. Our regional manager held ultimate responsibility for feeding his staff (and their families). In a smaller municipality, there are far fewer opportunities to win and execute significant projects than in a city the size of Houston. Everybody really does know everybody, and most everybody knows who is friends with whom, whose brother-in-law owns what company, who golfs with the mayor or city manager, etc. etc. Doing business in that environment really is a lot like being a fish in a fishbowl. I can sympathize with a regional manager who is called to the office of one of the firm's largest clients -- while the firm is in the middle of executing a significant project for that client -- and being blindsided by a Monte. I suspect that, taken by surprise, the regional manager's first thought was to do whatever was necessary to protect the existing contract and, by extension, his ability to pay all his surbordinates without a significant revenue interruption. It could not have been a pleasant conversation for the regional manager.

On the other side -- MY side -- it seemed to me we were setting a VERY bad precedent, certainly with this particular client, but also with any other existing or future clients in that municipality who might learn about this travesty called Monte. We also were not providing a very good, professional "lesson learned" for our regional manager -- or anyone else in the firm who might face the same situation in the future. Instead, we caved. And, of course, it was patently unfair for me or any other Marketing professional to be pressured to work all night to produce a Monte proposal regardless of the sacrifices required or the impact on me. Since we already knew we were NOT going to be considered seriously for the "new" project, this Monte exercise truly was a slap in my face as a Marketing professional. I noticed that no engineer or CADD designer was asked to stay all night to work with me on Monte. I guess their time was much more valuable than mine, and their need for rest, ditto. Instead, I was told to take text from this and that previous proposal, combine it, edit it, format it, and produce the required number of Montes. Back then, I stupidly thought I HAD to comply to keep my job. Now, it would be great fun to get a Monte "request." I assureyou, I would laugh amusedly all the way to my hair appointment.

Typically I would respond to Matt that the BD professional assigned to a client trying to pull a Monte ought to have spent enough time with the client to know a Monte when he saw one, and therefore, to anticipate the possibility of a Monte and be prepared to side step it adroitly. But, as my own up-close-and-personal experience with Monte shows, this response really wouldn't have precluded our Monte. Our regional manager WAS savvy. That is why he was the regional manager. He knew a Monte when he saw one -- but what he didn't have ready was an Official Response from Our Firm.

Perhaps the best lesson learned from my Monte experience is this: Principals of a firm are supposed to be street smart, practice wise, savvy, fearless, and ferocious guardians of the firm's resources. The latter does, of course, mean greenbacks, but it also includes the human element. I am sure our Sr VP knew about Montes -- look how firmly he told the regional manager "don't EVER do this again." My question is:
Why didn't he tell this younger regional manager about Monte and give him the firm's Official Response BEFORE the poor guy was staring Monte eyeball to eyeball? Give your staff some muscle in advance -- tell them about Montes when you are training younger engineers to become PMs or managers of practice areas. I sincerely HOPE any AEC firm that prides itself on operating with integrity would provide a one-word Official Response: NO.

In my current job, one variation on the Monte theme involves being asked by a prospective client (no existing client would think we were stupid enough to fall for it) to provide a proposal for, say, one subsea Christmas tree (the single largest and most expensive piece of carbon production equipment we design and manufacture). Just one, lone tree. The tip-off here is that no subsea Christmas tree -- regardless of which
company designs and manufactures it -- operates without a set of controls attached to it. Sometimes a prospective client might choose to buy a set of controls from a company other than mine, but wishes to use our subsea tree. However, I can think of no LEGITIMATE (i.e., real, valid) request for a tree that does NOT involve telling us whose controls that tree will carry, if not ours. We must know that piece of information to ensure that our subsea Christmas tree will operate properly with another company's controls. When the prospective client insists we propose for a lone subsea tree and refuses to say whose controls will operate the tree -- that's a Monte even I can spot a mile away. Monte = Price Check in my world. That means this is no way, no how a LEGITIMATE request for proposal with a real Purchase Order waiting to be awarded at the end of the procurement process. Instead, it means the prospective client simply wants our pricing info to use to beat down the price of subsea trees from the company already earmarked as the Winner. We got one of these requests this past spring, and promptly called a bid / no bid meeting. Thirty seconds into that meeting, everyone in the room agreed this was a very poorly disguised effort to obtain price check info. We declined to bid. That, to me, is the best, most effective way to protect your firm and your staff from Monte. Just
say NO.
Frank Lippert, Marketing Manager, Water Environmental Business Line at David Evans and Associates, Inc. in Portland, OR, added his thoughts:
I have to say that there is tremendous opportunity for us as business professionals when the Monte is in play. As Ellen Moore pointed out in her wonderful and thoughtful response, there is a degree of professional judgment at play and it represents a very good opportunity to for all of us to demonstrate our value to our company's leadership.

That value centers on good, sound business judgment. It rises above the fears like, "I have to feed my staff and their families, so I must do as many backflips as our clients demand, no matter what the cost." (Aren't we really all ultimately responsible for feeding ourselves and making reasonable judgments on what's right and wrong?)

As marketers, we have a unique position and written or unwritten responsibility in most of our firms, and that is, to present the business case in every decision. Most of us work with brilliant engineers, talented architects, creative contractors; but few of them wrapped up their A/E/C education with an MBA and set out to be business people. In many cases, marketers are the business people. Our value to our firms is so much greater than "working from 4:30 PM to 8:00 AM" to get a proposal out the door.

I've built my reputation and know many marketers in SMPS that have built their careers by being the voice of reason, the voice of business logic. Yes, it's also the role of the No Go Policeman, the Wet Blanket, the Spoil Sport. But, in the end, over time, that voice of reason is a valued resource to the firm. It doesn't always result in a "no go" either. I've certainly submitted on enough Montes, but I've pulled a few rabbits out the hat in this case too.

When the Monte comes up, recognize it. Be creative in your response to it. Offer back something a little different from what the Monte is asking. If the client wants you to respond, so they can get their three responses; then they want an "apples to apples" comparison... that doesn't mean you can't give them a Golden Delicious when they are expecting a Granny Smith. Of course, that means everyone involved stays and works on the effort from "4:30 PM to 8:00 AM," but if they really "want" the job (have a real passion for it or truly fear that they must feed their staff) wouldn't they want to be there anyway?

In the end, I truly believe that clients aren't intentionally evil. They aren't trying to make us spend our money unwisely and they aren't playing games with us. It's OK to educate them on the cost of submitting at the last minute, odds are, the smart clients know this already. Sometimes, your "apple" can be as simple as a one page letter that states your fee for the work (ballpark it high) and a copy of your general firm brochure.
So, should you play the game? I would argue if the work required isn't great and you can finesse your way out of it (and keep your client happy) then, sure, go ahead, but you need to draw the line at burning all nighters and tying up your staff for an urgent proposal preparation just to keep a client happy. in these cases, the simple process of informing/educating your client about the true work and cost or preparing a compliant proposal might be enough.

Now, of course, if you know you are the winner, pull all the stops out and don't take it for granted! In these cases, I think you should deliver your absolute best, most thoughtful and carefully researched proposal that really delivers value to the client and would, if the competition really is fair, would really be the best.

Notably, if you are on the winning side of a three-card monte game, it can be really easy to pull together your team of sub consultants and professionals to help on the proposal: They know they are not wasting their time on a wild goose chase, and are usually quite willing to pitch in. Thus, we have the intriguing situation where indeed by pre-selecting the person/organization to 'win' the job in a seemingly unfair competition, the client truly receives the best value. Which, I suppose, is why the game is played so often in the real world.

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