Last year I was working with a group of senior engineers with a global construction company based in New York City. They were on the short list of teams to receive a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a huge, coveted project. Most of them were native New Yorkers who had been involved with some of the city’s most spectacular projects.
Starting at the Beginning
From the conference room overlooking Park Avenue, I listened to a 70-minute dry run that was jammed with data, details and cluttered slides. When the last speaker finished, they all looked my way.
I heard myself say something I’ve said over the years, in many different ways: “There is too much information and technical detail—the genius behind all of your experience and who you are is hidden.”
David, one of the most animated engineers, piped up and said “The client expects us to get into the nitty-gritty details. Otherwise, we’ll sound like we don’t know what we’re talking about!”
“How is it that you are one of only three companies given the opportunity to pitch this business?” I asked. After a little bit of prodding, my friends admitted they were on the short list because they enjoy a reputation for extraordinary work and honest dealings. The purpose of the presentation was not to prove they knew what they were talking about. Nor was it to faithfully march through slides, putting the client’s brain to sleep.
7 Steps to Winning Your Next Project
Here are seven steps we discussed that day–steps that you might consider the next time your team receives an RFP:
- Shift your thinking. Give people a chance to feel what a collaborative relationship with you will be like. Instead of a one-sided monologue followed by a formal Q&A, create an experience that inspires clients to share their insights. Information does not build rapport. But ideas, stories and solutions will motivate people to join in the conversation.
- Start before the presentation. Apart from the boring RFP documents, send the client an attractive, easy-to-absorb executive summary of the presentation. This way, your agenda is warm when you walk in the door. There will be more room for conversation.
- Build support. Talk to as many people on the other side of the table in advance as possible. Research their past projects. Dig into the issues that matter the most. This will help you ask intelligent questions that engage the decision-maker.
- Set the tone. The CEO or senior leader can offer a warm welcome, and a few words about what you see in the client as a potential partner. It’s important to let them know you understand who they are (of course, you can never, never fake this).
- Orchestrate. Project leaders should facilitate the flow of the presentation, with a small handful of team members who can speak with the most relevance. You can bring others to answer questions specific to their area, but don’t overwhelm the client with a fleet of people. It can backfire.
- Practice, practice, practice. Make sure the team is well practiced in addressing their topics so they don’t have to think about the content, and can focus more on connecting with the client. Warmth, eye contact and earnest listening will build chemistry. There is no replacement for it.
- Keep the visuals simple. Use a clean deck that leverages beautiful photographs of your projects. Photographs make an imprint on the brain. Busy slides do not.
Let me share an example of how this approach can pay off. Several years ago, Tom, the owner of a respected architectural firm, called on a Tuesday afternoon. He said they had a big pitch coming up in two days and the team wasn’t ready. To top it off, they had less experience with the type of project they were pitching, as compared to the competition. He wondered if I could spend some time with them that evening.
We practiced the approach you see in the seven steps into the night. They were instructed to do a final dry run the next day, and get a good night’s rest the following evening.
Thursday morning, Tom walked away with the business. Elated, he called me to share the news. “I asked the client point blank why we won the business,” Tom said, “And you know what? She said, Tom, we just feel good about working with you and your team. It’s going to be a real partnership.”