Every time we marketers have difficulty getting technical staff to participate in proposal development and related activities, we wonder why they don’t seem to be more cooperative. When they use the excuse of the project work already on their desks, we ask ourselves if they understand the concept: What will you work on tomorrow if we don’t sell a new project today?
The fact is that technical staff do understand the need to sell new work, as well as the fact that marketers need their help because there are proposal sections only technical folks can write. The real difficulty results from something that marketing staff often don’t understand, because it is just not part of our daily work experience.
While both groups have to respond to deadlines, marketing staff are envisioned to be part of the firm’s overhead expense. As long as we don’t blow a deadline, things can generally take as long as they have to take. We don’t have supervisors standing over us with figurative whips screaming, “Billable hours, billable hours!”
But the drive for billable hours is the ongoing — and often overriding — truth of a technical person’s daily experience.
So if we marketers want to get the best cooperation from technical staff within the timeframe that lets us meet our proposal and other deadlines, we have to find ways to help technical staff minimize their overhead hours so they can maximize their billable hours, while still providing the help we need within our deadlines.
Here’s how I do it.
I check with the person who performed the original “Go/No Go” analysis. I assume that when that person looked at the RFP and thought, “We can do this,” they had specific people, projects, and firm capabilities in mind. This is the logical starting place in determining what information will make the proposal a success.
In a quick phone conversation, I “mine” the Go/No Go person’s thought process to make sure we have the right people on the proposal team in the first place, and have identified those people, projects, and firm capabilities that will help us check the right boxes in the RFP.
By the way, if the person who did the analysis can’t tell you the people, projects, or firm capabilities that came to mind when reading the RFP, that might be a good reason to have someone else revisit the Go/No Go analysis.
I don’t ask technical staff to write proposal sections I can write myself. There is no reason for a senior engineer to be writing an introduction to the firm. Marketers can recite multiple versions of this in their sleep, and have access to many versions found in previous proposals.
In an early engagement with a national full-service firm, I went to speak with the principal about a new proposal effort. This principal was a major shareholder in the company. I found him with three of my previous proposals opened on his desk, working with yellow legal pad and pencil, creating an “About the Firm” section from some of those documents, by hand rather than by cut-and-paste. I guess he wanted me to think he had written the section himself, not realizing that I would probably recognize my own writing.
So I lifted his arm off the legal pad, took the pad and pencil from him, and said, “This is much better done at my salary than yours.” He looked surprised. Apparently, this was the first time any marketer had equated what he was doing with taking profits right out of his pocket.
Further, technical staff often know only about the things their own program, department, division, or branch office does, and precious little about what goes on throughout the rest of the company.
Many years ago, I worked for a nationally known and respected environmental firm that hired a senior engineer in its fledgling transportation engineering department. After a year with the firm, she still didn’t know that the firm provided ecological environmental studies and permitting support, and that those services accounted for more than half of the firm’s revenues. Apparently, when asked why she brought in a subconsultant to handle the environmental tasks on a roadway project, since the firm had a complete environmental division, she responded, “We have an environmental division?”
This lack of knowledge is an unfortunate reality in many multidiscipline firms and results in many lost opportunities for cross-selling services. But that challenge is beyond the scope of this article.
In most cases, marketers can develop all but the technical sections — the project approach, the schedule, and the fee section — of a proposal.
Marketers can often draft the project understanding, but clients generally want to see more than just their own words from the RFP. With a little research, or a quick interview with the in-house client manager/advocate, marketers can also find out the why of the project — why it is being done, why it is being done now, what happens if it is delayed or canceled, etc.
Many marketers believe they can write a project approach, but I believe that this requires the technical knowledge of the engineer, architect, environmental specialist, or other technical person. However, many marketers can draft a project approach using previous similar projects to give the technical staff a draft for editing.
I don’t ask technical staff to face a blank page or screen. Many people have no problem crossing out an entire page or deleting an entire screen’s worth of text and rewriting from scratch, but can’t start from the blank page or screen. If I can’t provide a reasonable draft, I try to provide at least an outline to use as a “go by” in developing required technical text. When such guidelines are not possible, I make an appointment for a 10-minute interview, take notes, draft the section myself, and then ask the technical person to edit my writing.
I try to be as clear as possible about what I need and when I need it. I don’t give fake deadlines, ever! When you give a technical person a fake deadline, they invariably find out, and from that moment on they stop believing your deadlines. I give each person with a writing assignment a copy of the scope of work so they know what must be addressed, what the adjacent parts are, and who is writing them. And I’m very clear on why I have set up the internal deadlines as I have. Then I tell them to let me know if the assignment or deadline poses a problem they can’t solve on their own, and I help them find a solution.
If the person is brand new to the firm and its marketing process, or brand new to marketing activities, I spend some time with them and bring them up to speed on our process and how it works. A part of this training session is to help them see how proficiency in marketing and business development can help advance their own careers.
This training includes a few minutes spent discussing how long the selection process can take, especially when the project is for a public agency. I have seen public-sector selections take longer than a year, so this can be critical to a new person’s understanding of the “what will you work on tomorrow if we don’t sell a new project today?” concept.
If a technical person is seriously overloaded, I try to limit the scope of their assignment to something they can manage with their own project deadlines. Sometimes, it’s about refining my understanding of their part of the proposal, perhaps to enable me to draft something for them to edit. This is particularly helpful if the RFP has requested a detailed work plan in addition to an overall approach.
If nothing can be done to limit the scope of their assignment, I talk to their supervisor, department, or division manager to see who else might have the knowledge and time to complete that part of the proposal.
I do my best to not ask for the same information twice. After almost four decades as an A/E marketer, I know that technical folks get angry at marketing staff when we ask for the same information more than once. So I have developed a process and system to make sure that updates to the database are captured when they occur and implemented when there is time to do so. This system distinguishes between updates strictly for the current proposal and updates to the database. The system ensures that such updates are not lost before the database can be updated.
I make friends with the accounting staff. Instead of waiting for technical staff to alert me to a new project, a contract modification, or some other status change, I arrange for the person in accounting who opens new projects and tasks and changes fee and budget information to send me a copy of the relevant forms and the new Contract Scope sections. This allows me to draft project descriptions and updates for editing by the project manager, and create the first sentence of a résumé description for every person who works on the project.
The biggest challenge for me throughout the proposal process and related marketing activities is to remember that the technical staff whose help I need have a very different set of priorities from mine, that they are driven by a different definition of individual success, and usually work under a different set of instructions and expectations from their supervisors.
As long as I can demonstrate that I am trying to minimize their time away from billable hours — i.e., “real” project work — I can almost always get the cooperation I need from the firm’s technical staff, and get it within my time requirements.
Bernie Siben, CPSM, is owner and principal consultant at The Siben Consult, LLC, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultant located in Austin, Texas. Contact him at email@example.com or at 559-901-9596.