Which details matter, and which ones don’t, in construction marketing and business development?

bug dust

Matt Handal has a phrase to describe time-wasting details in the proposal process: “Bug dust”.

As an example, it doesn’t make sense, really, to labor over the finest proposal cover design details. And the finest language details hardly count, if your proposal’s technical details don’t match the specified criteria.

Of course, many details matter, a lot. As an example, as I was working on some editing, in one of our stories, I described a project in the millions, not billions of dollars. Fortunately, I caught the slip-up before anyone could see it. But if you drop a decimal in a key line item within your proposal budget, you may be on the hook for some nasty losses, or lose an opportunity through unintentional over-bidding.

And there are cases where little things add up, if scale is relevant. As an example, if you are designing a component that will be used in a million projects (or repeated a million times in the project), then a one cent cost saving per item will be worth $10,000. You wouldn’t want to sweat for a year on that sort of detail, but it is certainly worth a day’s work!

An extreme example of bug dust gumming up the works occurs when bean counters start messing in the business development (sales) process, perhaps thinking that a few dollars can be saved by reining in sales commissions and expenses.

The bean counter sees a salesperson coasting on recurring revenue from established clients, and thinks it is okay to turn these accounts into “house” accounts, or removes them from the salesperson’s territory. Yes, this brutal strategy could make sense if it is within your contract rights and the sales representative isn’t really that good — but I can assure you, if you push the cost-saving too hard, you almost certainly will lose your top producers to the competition. You’ll save a penny or two, but you’ll lose thousands of dollars in revenue.

Sometimes you need to know the boundaries between rational savings and over-focus on trivialities; and here you will experience even more in the world of contradictions.

As an example, in the early part of the last decade as we expanded the business from its Ottawa home base, I had a thing about ridiculous business-related air travel costs. Some of this frustration truly was based in reason — a “day trip” to Toronto by air (one hour each way) cost $700 compared to stay-over-Saturday fare of $200; and these problems became even greater with our expansion to Washington DC — where the airlines gouged $1,800 for a round-trip ticket. (The airlines were reasonably setting the prices at the service’s market value. After all, who but someone on an expense account flies between the two capital cities for a business trip.)

So I studied Air Canada’s Aeroplan program and worked on my work-around, that involved obtaining frequent flyer status and gaming the program rules. This meant picking up some really detailed and esoteric knowledge, and taking a few carefully planned extremely short trips over long distances (on extremely discounted business class tickets.)

Fair enough — but all the fun and games with the airlines were at the expense of me focusing on the business’s fundamental health, and it wasn’t good. As I took sometimes unnecessary trips to prove the cost-saving systems worked, I drained my attention from what really mattered. We barely survived a severe business/debt crash, and in any case, most of the cost-savings techniques I devised for Aeroplan were superceded by new program/airline rules.

The counter-point to this argument relates to other time-wasting detailed focuses that have resulted in long-term savings and advantages. Even today, my airlines knowledge is helpful in vacation planning many years later. My seeming obsession with Google’s AdSense ad serving program may have only marginally improved our business results, but the technical knowledge and relationships as well as decision to invest in Alphabet/Google shares has paid off substantially in retirement/investment accounts.

How do you deal with bug dust and misplaced priorities that might conversely provide you with focused advantages? The best strategy is to pull your head out of the dusty details and look around, making sure you have good reason to spend your energy on the little things or special projects that excite you. Don’t necessarily ignore the “bug dust” but keep it in perspective. Little things can matter, but you don’t want to miss the big picture either.

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