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Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Wiring" the job (or three card monte)

Matt Handal at Trauner Consulting Services, Inc. in Philadelphia, PA, sent members of the SMPS Marketer editorial committee a provocative article: "Learning to Accept the Three Card Monte" which touches on one of the most fundamental challenges (and opportunities) within the marketing universe -- the stacked deck, or "competition" where the winner is decided in advance.

Handal's story isn't public yet, so I can't reproduce or quote from it directly here, but the topic he discusses is certainly not a secret -- and is of real importance for anyone marketing architectural, engineering or construction services.

In the bidding and competition game, there are three possible situations. First, the bidding process is truly fair, and you will honestly be evaluated on your proposal's merit. In the second, you know you are going to win, from the start (if you don't blow things totally). In the third, well, Matt describes you as a "mark" (though I'm not sure I wish my name to be associated that way!)

Why does this happen?

Relationships are often forged over the years, and vendors wish to work with particular suppliers. In the pure private sector, this often isn't a problem; you just engage in an ongoing relationship -- if your work quality is top notch, and your relationships are strong, you'll win the repeat business.

But in the public sector and in certain corporate spaces, bidders must be seen as fairly evaluated -- and subject to a competitive process. So competing bids are encouraged and solicited -- and these competing bids can look 'real' to the victims of this game (because if they didn't then the process could be overturned by more senior officials concerned about possible improprieties or bid rigging.)

Often the game is subtly stacked, with terms of reference, and variations that only the insider knows -- in many cases, the insider is invited to prepare the bid documents. If you aren't there -- bam, you've just wasted your time on an expensive bid preparation exercise for a job you have no hope of winning. (As Matt says in his article, sometimes an organization legitimately wishes to spread the work around, so you need to play the game and submit your losing bid for the real opportunity later -- but I think if you are in that position, you'll know where you stand from the start, so the effort isn't really wasted.)

How bad (or good) is this stuff?

No one is going to go out and say they've been part of this process on the winning side, at least gloatingly to outsiders, but I think if we are honest, we'll acknowledge that if we are really successful in business -- that is, if we do really good work, and maintain the highest standards in our relationships, the good news happens -- we get the call and know we are on the inside. Do we turn down the business, act high and mighty, and shout: "We're behaving unethically because we have an unfair advantage?"

No, in the context of this blog's readership, this is just a sign that you've achieved true success in branding and building your business -- and you can claim to be a true success at marketing.

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