Getting real with construction marketing: There is no magic wand

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When you bid architectural and design public sector work in the U.S., remember the Brooks Act: Relationships and experience are important, price is less crucial.

This posting from Bernie Siben reminds us, starkly, that you cannot generally escape the importance of real relationships and connections when it comes down to marketing in the AEC world.

I’ll stretch copyright a bit, because the best way to share the story here is to repeat it:

An engineer in a branch office in another state asked me to obtain an RFP from his state’s Department of Transportation. He thought the DOT should be a strategic client of his office.

I asked if he had ever met and spoken with anyone from that DOT. He said he had not.

I asked how far away the DOT office was. He said it was a 15- to 20-minute drive.

I suggested that if he picked up the RFP in person, he might meet the DOT project manager, tell him a little about our firm and begin to establish a relationship, so that we wouldn’t be strangers when our proposal was delivered.

He didn’t want to take the time to do that.

I suggested he call the DOT project manager and ask if they could fax or email the RFP to him. That would at least allow him to make first contact on the phone. He said he would think about it.

Twenty minutes later, the office manager called. He was very angry. “Getting the RFP is the marketing department’s job,” he told me,stressing that his people were much too busy to be chasing down RFPs and meeting prospective clients.

I asked if he really believed he could make the DOT a strategic client if nobody on his staff thought enough of them to visit in person, or even call.

He said that if my marketing staff wrote a good enough proposal to win, his staff could take care of the relationship during normal project interactions. I wished him luck with that.

I called the DOT and got the RFP sent by mail to my office, 350 miles away, because I didn’t want DOT to figure out that someone only 15 minutes away wasn’t sufficiently interested to drive over. Three days were wasted. Then I faxed the RFP to the engineer.

We began to draft the proposal. Unfortunately, nobody in the branch office had a clue as to what the DOT did and didn’t like, or how their internal processes would impact the schedule.

Needless to say, we weren’t selected; we weren’t even short-listed.

We can all scratch our head about this stupidity, but alas it is more common than any of us would like to think. Architects, engineers and (to a lesser extent, contractors), “think” they should be able to win work well, because they are technically qualified or because they need the job, when they haven’t done the least amount of effort to prequalify and build/maintain the relationship with the relevant individuals at the contracting authority.

(There may be in some cases more opportunities for out-of-the-blue “low bid wins the job” opportunities in the purely construction contracting field, especially in the U.S., where Brooks Act rules don’t apply for public sector work — but I would think the most public and visible jobs would attract so much competition that your only chance of success is having enough insider information to know when/how you will succeed with your change order claims — and know these before the job even starts.)

You can’t win good work in this business by chasing RFPs after they are issued. You need to know about them before they are drafted — in the best situation, you should be helping the owner draft them. You will only find these opportunities either by (a) having excellent, close and deep relationships with your current clients, generating repeat business and (b) having a solid relationship-building matrix within your organization, building contacts and community with potential clients well before the RFP is posted.

There is no magic wand. Successful opportunities rarely happen on the spot — unless you have the connections and relationships well-developed beforehand.

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