Excerpt from: Growing Your Client Base, Chapter Four – Projecting
One of the downsides of being well known within a particular professional discipline is that a firm may be asked by all sorts of prospective clients to bid for their work. The post is opened one morning and in it we find an Invitation to Tender or an invitation to pitch the firm’s capabilities. And what is wrong with that, many professionals ask us? In sales parlance these unexpected opportunities are known as ‘bluebirds’ – pretty creatures that ‘fly in through the window’. However, not all feathered creatures are bluebirds. Some are emus – birds that will never fly. Some may be albatrosses – creatures we would not want around our neck.
Three examples of bluebirds
On one of our workshops a well known and highly respected lawyer gave us the following anecdote. At a meeting with one of her best clients the client said to her that she needed to be aware that they were going out to tender for their future legal work. “They must have sensed by something in my reaction that this had taken me by surprise”, said the lawyer. “I was a little taken aback because the work and the relationship were going ever so well – but I had tried to hide my shock. Having sensed my reaction the client quickly said to me, ‘Don’t worry, there’s no problem. We’ll appoint you again but we need to go through this process due to our internal rules. Actually, we were wondering if you could help us to write the tender document?’”
The tender document was duly written and went out to a number of firms who must have concluded that this was a nice bluebird as they spent considerable effort in formulating their written responses. To what end? They never stood a chance of winning the work. They never stood a chance of even being taken seriously.
This second example involves the public sector. A property consultant who had spent 18 months on secondment to a very substantial central government department’s property section told us this story. He had been party to the appointment of a number of professional advisory firms including engineers, other property advisors and lawyers. Our discussion at the time had been on the subject of procurement processes and in particular the use of Decision Matrices. (A Decision Matrix is a tool that has the names of bidding firms down the left hand column and a number of important Bases of Decision criteria along the top, with certain criteria having different weightings. The aim is to score each bidder on a one to ten scale on each of the criteria. Once the mathematics is worked out then the winner is the firm with the highest score. Nice and objective – and provides an audit trail as to how decisions were made and how firms came to be appointed.)
Looking a little askance the property consultant opined, “I’d be a little careful about taking these decision matrices too seriously. What I observed and what I took part in at (Government Ministry) didn’t quite work that way. What tended to happen was that when we knew who we preferred to work with, we scored the decision matrix accordingly!” So much for the even playing field!
He told a specific anecdote about one appointment of lawyers. There was a lot of ongoing work from this ministry so the work concerned was highly prized. The ministry, with a lot of input from the seconded property consultant, created an Invitation to Tender. This was sent out mainly to major London law firms that had a reputation for real estate expertise.
“The firm that came last,” said the property consultant, “we never heard from until their written document landed on the mat at the eleventh hour. In addition to the proposal all of the firms also had the chance to do a one hour pitch but they had to field the team who would carry out the work. On the pitch day this team turned up led by a senior partner. A seemingly aloof sort of fellow, he introduced his team. They said ‘Hello’ and then he proceeded to deliver the whole presentation. At the end he fielded every question and his team concluded their contribution by saying ‘Goodbye’. It wasn’t hard to find the appropriate scores.” “The team that won took a totally different approach. When they received our ITT one of the partners gave my boss a call. He said that his firm was really keen to win this work but that, as good as the ITT was, there was lots of detail that they would like to bottom out in order to really understand the brief. Could they come in and talk with us? My boss said, ‘Yes’. It transpired that one meeting led on to another and then another. The first partner was involved in them all but other lawyers also participated in some meetings. A few of our team got involved in these discussions and we got to know these lawyers. They were nice people. Don’t get me wrong, they were good property people but we also felt comfortable with them and whoever the ministry appointed there would be an on-going relationship over at least a two year period. Their proposal was a good one – more in-depth and specific to our needs than most of the others and their pitch again reflected the work they had done up front. Also they made use of all of their whole team in the one hour, most of whom we had already met. It wasn’t a difficult decision. We put the appropriate scores on the doors and we chose the people that we liked – again.”
Contrast example 2 to the experience of a group of lawyers from a well-known London based firm with international capabilities. A partner told us of the following experience.
“We had received a written Invitation to Tender from a German company. They are a global concern and would be a dream client for us. We were told that there would be two significant interactions in the bidding process. The first was a two hour face-to-face briefing meeting at their headquarters in Germany. At this meeting we could ask any questions that we needed in order to construct our pitch. The second was the pitch itself – a couple of weeks later, again at their HQ. Just before the first meeting was due the client cancelled. They said that they didn’t have time to see us. They had other priorities but they still wanted us to come along and pitch. We had to put the pitch together based purely on the written document. A team of four of us traveled from London to Germany to make the pitch. It didn’t go well right from the outset. You could see from their body language that they were not really interested. In hindsight we believe that we were just there to be ticked off the list – in case anyone in the future asked. ‘Did you ask (international law firm) to bid for this?’ We are a very credible name but it was clear that these people did not want us.”
At the end of his explanation the lawyer asked us, “What would you have done, given this situation?” Our reply – “We would have ‘no bid’ the opportunity. We wouldn’t have touched it. Once the briefing meeting was cancelled we would have gone back to the prospect thanking them for considering us but then giving a cogent reason why on this occasion we thought it inappropriate to bid.”
“We couldn’t do that,” responded the lawyer, “our Managing Partner would never allow us to not pursue the chance of winning work from (German company)!”
If that were true then the Managing Partner in question has a strange view of business development and an even stranger perspective on profitability. How much did it cost for four partners to prepare and deliver a presentation in Germany – with zero chance of winning – and what else could they have done with the time saved?
To pursue or not pursue – the bluebird checklist
We are not suggesting that all bluebirds are a waste of time. However, we know that many are. What still continues to surprise us in so many professional firms is the indiscriminate deployment of resources used in chasing bluebirds that will never fly. A question we often ask is, “Of all the opportunities you receive to bid for work, what percentage do you take up?” To this day this question can be met with puzzled looks and responses like, “What do you mean by percentage? We pursue them all.” As if any other course of action was somehow illogical! How can these same firms claim that they do not have enough resource to dedicate toward those more effective marketing and business development activities that remain stuck on their wish list?
If any firm believes that these messages about ITTs and pitches are an irrelevance to them and that they buck the trend, we don’t have a problem with their position. We would only ask that they confirm this belief to themselves by examining their proposal conversion rates – specifically in those situations where they are asked to bid where they have no existing relationship and no chance to develop one in advance of the bid. However, if a firm recognises these issues – and they are of some concern – then one action that should be taken is the construction of a Bluebird Checklist.
The checklist, an example of which is shown on the next page, enables a professional or business unit head to more objectively review an unexpected opportunity that ‘flies in the window’. Often the answers to the questions may be in the ‘Query’ column. That should be the signal to pick up the telephone and speak with the prospective client or others who may be able to give insight into the answers to these questions. If enough ticks end up in the ‘Unfavourable’ column then the decision should be made not to engage in pursuit of the work apparently on offer. On one workshop that we ran, the Managing Director took away the action point to construct his business’s Bluebird Checklist. He produced the finished article at a follow up workshop a few weeks later. Initial impressions were that it looked somewhat similar to the example on the previous page. He introduced his work as follows. “You will notice that the first check item is, ‘Did we know about this piece of work before we received the tender document or Request for Proposal (RFP)?’ The second reads. ‘Can we gain access to talk with the client about this opportunity?’ Then you will notice a heavy line. The way it works is that if you get a ‘No’ answer to the first two questions, then don’t bother looking at any of the other factors. You will be wasting your time. I have looked back over the last two years and all of the bluebirds that we have bid for. I have to tell you that I cannot find one instance when we have had a ‘No’ to both of these two questions, where we have ever won the work.”
Our own personal experiences (as illustrated in example 1) of having been given clear indications by clients that work is ours and is ‘in the bag’ before a proposal has ever been submitted by any bidder, must suggest that this happens to others – including our competitors. If this is so then there must be occasions when the pitch has been tilted so far against us that to bid for some work represents poor use of the firm’s resources and our own time.
It is time to be realistic, not optimistic.
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