The Fast Lane: First impressions


This article first appeared in The Zweig A/E Marketing Letter (ISSN 1549-9588)
Issue # 110. Originally published


You never make a good impression with a bad proposal.




An RFP arrives on your desk, sent by a firm principal. You pull out your “Go/no-go analysis” form and work your way down the page.


The RFP lists six major disciplines. The first is an area where your strength is average; the second and third are areas where your staff has limited experience, but your firm has never done that kind of work— so you really have no viable project manager to offer. The last three are areas where neither your firm nor your staff has technical qualifications.


You’ll have to give away almost 55% of the work to other firms on your team, but the RFP says the prime must do at least 60% of the work.


You’ve never heard of the client before, and it’s a good guess that client has never heard of you. At best, your proposal can’t respond to the client’s needs; at worst, it will be a BAD proposal.


You think, “This is a “no-brainer!”— The RFP has “No-Go” written all over it. So you check the “No-Go” box and send the form to the principal.


Later that afternoon, the principal calls. “I got your Go/No-Go Analysis,” she says. “The thing is, I really want to put our face in front of these folks.”


You respond, “We’re working on three strong proposals right now. And we have great credentials on all three— strong experience, strong project managers, all the right staff available. If I assign marketing staff to an effort we can’t possibly win, we’ll be jeopardizing one or two of the others.”


The two of you talk a little more, but the principal keeps repeating her desire to “put our face in front of these folks.”


This is such a frequent nightmare among marketers that I shouldn’t have to convince you it does happen, much less how often— assigning staff to an effort you know is hopeless when you start, losing an effort you could have won if you’d applied sufficient resources and energy to it, ensuring that you’ll lose the hopeless opportunity because nobody does great work on a proposal they know they can’t win.


You finally ask, “What if I give you a more effective way to ‘put our face in front of these folks?’”


The principal is intrigued. Since finding the RFP, she has focused on submitting a proposal, and never considered that there might be another way— a better way. “Like what?” she asks.


“Well,” you say, taking another gulp of your Red Bull, “I don’t ever want us to be remembered as the firm whose proposal was totally non-responsive, or the firm that wasted their time with a bad proposal.” So you outline a plan that looks like the following:


∙ First, let’s find out as much as we can about this client’s business and organization, from friends, business colleagues, the Internet, local newspapers, and the library (they live for this kind of research!).


∙ Then, we’ll prepare a qualifications package aimed specifically at what the client does and what services we can provide that would help them do this better and more profitably. And we’ll make sure that the package answers the question “so what?” wherever it might arise.


∙ In the meanwhile, you contact the client and set up a meeting for 30-45 days after the proposal due date. If the short list is announced by then, we’ll have some knowledge of the kind of firms this client enjoys working with, and we’ll know how to present ourselves.


∙ In setting up the meeting, let the client know you’re aware of her recent selection process, and that you waited because you didn’t want to distract her from those activities.


∙ Ask the client if there are any special forms you need to fill out before the meeting, or if there is anyone else who should be included.


∙ Make sure the client knows you’ve asked for this meeting because you are convinced that your firm can do something (or things) for her company, perhaps better than any other firm out there— in other words, to show her why selecting you benefits her firm.


∙ Make sure you know your material, anticipate where the client might have questions and what those questions might be, and be ready with answers.


∙ Make sure your presentation focuses on the client’s needs, not on your firm.


Do everything you can to exchange an opportunity to submit a bad proposal for an opportunity to make a great presentation.


Bottom line: You NEVER make a good impression with a bad proposal.


Bernie Siben, CPSM, of The Siben Consult (Dallas, TX), has more than 25 years of marketing experience with AEC and environmental consulting firms. Contact him at (214) 681-0097, or

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