Solving the big problem in AEC marketing: Achieving effective proposals and bids

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Over the years in this blog, I’ve often expressed exasperation about the architectural, engineering and construction industry’s approach to marketing and business development. I asserted that far too many contractors and professional services rely on public bid opportunities or simple inertia through repeat business with existing clients.

Sometimes it seems like an environment of lemmings chasing the same thing at the same time. In the fixed price contract world, that leads to situations where either the “biggest (bidding) mistake wins the job” or, less ethically, the contractor that finds the biggest mistake in the drawings and figures the likely change-order cost succeeds when others fail.

Among professional service, the story is a bit different, especially in the US with jurisdictions operating under Brooks Act rules (qualitative rather than money-based selection criteria). Here, incumbency is king — if you do your jobs well, you’ll score high on the subjective performance rating/quality evaluation criteria, and you’ll be very hard to dislodge.

Fair enough, but under most circumstances there is one hurdle and point of opportunity both for incumbents and opportunistic newcomers — the public tender or RFP opportunity. And the question then becomes: How well are you really managing this crucial element in the marketing process?

Often there is a disjoint between executive leadership and the staffers at AEC firms responsible for the proposal or bid preparation process. A relatively junior (powerless?) person is given the task of preparing the documentation and getting things ready. Go/no-go decisions are handled with varying degrees of quality and effectiveness. (Some firms get it right with a rigorous criteria; for others it is often a case of a senior person throwing something messy at the wall and hoping it sticks.)

One California architect solved the issue but only because it had an extremely granular work-time measurement system. Everyone was required to log in their hours on various pursuits and projects — and this architect discovered that if senior principals were actively engaged time-wise in proposal preparation, the success rate went through the roof. So it set the “go/no go rules” for proceeding with a RFP based on how much time the senior principals spent at the pre-RFP stage.

But I suspect your business/practice doesn’t have that sort of system — and it will be like pushing a boulder up-hill to get that sort of change internally.

How can you address these concerns in a practical way, then?

I think there is a good argument for enhancing the training budget for proposal co-ordinators and estimators. You can connect with some qualified services through the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS), which offers its own certification and training resources. I know Matt Handal in the Philadelphia area (he provides services across the US) and he offers both online and in-person resources.

My sense is that improving your proposal and bidding process through incremental improvements in your training and systems management will be productive simply because it is such a vital and central bottleneck in the overall marketing and business development process. Take some time to think about these things, and then take some measures to improve your RFP/estimating approaches. You’ll see the rewards in the months and years ahead.

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