A Tale of Two Emails

I received the nicest email yesterday afternoon. The email was a form ‘letter’ from a State of Washington agency to which my team and I had submitted a proposal. The short note thanked me for submitting, acknowledged how much work the proposal had certainly taken, and apologized for a delayed decision. It provided a date when the decision would be made and let me know what to expect in the process. For some reason, this short note made me feel good, that my work mattered, and that the man at the other end of the email really did care about the impact his words and his agency’s actions have on my organization. Uncharacteristically, I actually sent a short reply thanking him for his email and letting him know his ‘nicety’ had made a difference in my day.

Compare this to the email I received this morning. This email was another mass email asking me to submit a proposal to a local county for a project that looked quite enticing. The difference is that we aren’t interested in responding for this project—or for any project with this agency. About a year ago, my team and I submitted another proposal. We’d made the requisite phone calls, researched the project, wrote a responsive proposal, and even drove out to the peninsula from our office in Mill Creek (a four-hour round-trip journey) to hand deliver it.

It wasn’t the fact that we weren’t selected that bothered me and caused me to hit delete after reading today’s email. What still ‘sticks in my craw’ is the officious and cold letter I received almost six weeks after we submitted our proposal after I’d left a voice message requesting information about project status. Despite this individual having sent me a personal email asking me to submit, having had several conversations about his agency’s interest in working with us, I received a form letter, not addressed to me nor even coming to my email but delivered to our info@ address. The letter was brief and to the point, letting ‘to whom it may concern at Communication Resources’ know that we had not been selected for the ‘aforementioned project’. I decided then and there that I’d hit ‘delete’ any time an RFP or request solicitation came from this individual or agency.

How we deliver information matters and how we make requests matters. Having served in both City and County government, I’m very aware of the time constraints on public servants. I’m also keenly aware as a consultant how much time and effort goes into the average proposal, even those when a procurement officer has tried to make the process as easy as possible. The average proposal, even a short one takes an organization 50—100 hours to analyze, write, edit, design, proofread, and produce a document that will be responsive to the prompts, reflect the character and quality of your organization, and that respects the unique nuances of the project. That’s about $10,000 for a small organization, much more for a larger organization on a more complex project.

For most of my A/E/C clients, the average cost of a proposal is between $20,000 and $50,000. For any sized organization, this does not count the cost of business development, industry outreach, collateral development, and the maintenance of an overhead function within the organization. With overworked marketing departments, principals writing into the wee hours of the morning to get proposals out between client and project requirements, and ever challenged budgets, two things must happen: our firms need to get smarter about what we pursue and our clients need to be more thoughtful about what they ask for and who they ask.

I’ve written and spoken before about making effective Go/No Go decisions as being the most important thing any organization can do to positively influence its hit rate. Today, however, my message is more direct: I think we need to augment our Go/No Go decisions to consider the ways in which our potential clients procure work and make requests for proposals or bid. We need to push our clients and potential clients to consider the cost of the pursuit and the adverse impact on businesses that their actions in the procurement process may have.

I have three requests to potential clients, particularly those in the public sector:

  1. Take time to write your RFP document in a way that is clear, concise, and direct. Only request information that you need to make a good decision. Read your document and ask yourself how much time it would take your agency—and you in particular—to respond to this request. Read it again to make sure the requested information is not redundant and that the prompts are clear to the reader as to what exactly you request. Align your page limitations to the realities of the questions you’ve asked. Simply asking for a ten-page proposal is not enough; you have to limit the questions to enable a writer to fit what you’ve asked for in that space.
  2. Only short-list firms you really would consider for the work. And prior to that, don’t lead a marketer or firm principal on who calls you for information, wanting to know if their firm or team might be competitive. I know there are procurement rules that limit what you can say. But, make sure the RFP and your comments about the RFP make it really clear what you will and what you won’t accept as minimum qualifications.
    For example, I’ve worked with smaller construction firms struggling to get noticed in my state’s relatively new GC/CM procurement environment (Washington State’s version of construction management at risk procurement). They’d been encouraged by friendly procurement representatives to throw their hat in the ring, told that indeed their negotiated work portfolio would be enough, only to find out in the debrief that their lack of specific GC/CM experience kept them from being awarded the work. This after spending tens of thousands on the proposal and another huge sum on the interview.
  3. And, when you must write the inevitable letter or email telling a firm they have not been awarded the work, be specific, gracious, and kind. Thank the firm for taking the time and making the investment in the pursuit. Address the individual who signed the proposal letter directly and make sure the firm’s name is spelled correctly. Acknowledge the significant effort of the people who wrote the response and participated in the interview. Remember, you may not have selected this team or firm for the current project, but you want them, and their colleagues from other firms, to consider your agency for future pursuits.

If agencies really do support small business, and business in general, they will think carefully about the incredible expense it takes to compete for their work. And, they will align their practices to truly be supportive of those businesses. While my requests may not make a difference, I hope they get read by an owner or procurement officer or two. I think it’s time for agencies and organizations to recognize that it is in their best interests to rethink their procurement practices, returning to a more intentional way of asking for proposals or presentations and a more gracious way of doing business.

My clients and colleagues, and my own team, need to remember that the way we are treated in the procurement phase is likely a good predictor of how we will be treated when working on the project. For example, my team and I are working for a wonderful client in the Seattle area, one who values our team’s work and who reminds me on a regular basis that we are a valued part of their team. I think back to what happened in the procurement process. What sticks out is when my team delivered the proposal to the front desk, the security guard called up to the main office and the Director of Operations came down personally to thank my team for submitting. He was charming and gracious. In the interview process, the selection committee was welcoming and interested, and they had carefully read our proposal. How they were in the selection process paralleled exactly how they are to work with on projects.

I’m certain most agencies and organizations want highly qualified teams and firms to compete for their work. So, as teams, we need to be more selective, not just for the project for which we complete but the people who make the request who are the first and most visible representative of the culture of the organization. I’m advising my clients, and my own organization, to make the procurement practices of the agencies with which we work matter a great deal in our business development and marketing decisions.

So, let me send an anonymous shout out to the representative who sent me the nice email about the status of your agency’s procurement process—and who is very likely not reading this blog. (I’ll send it to you after you make a decision.) Thank you for being gracious. Thank you for writing an incredibly clear RFP document, one that minimized our time and maximized our ability to think creatively about your work. Thank you for keeping us informed. As of this writing, I don’t know if we’ll get the chance to work together, but I do know that my team really wants to work with you and your team—as much for how you treated us in the marketing process as for the scope of your project.