What does the client want to know?


    Let’s say you’re a 15-year-old, 150-person firm that provides architectural as well as civil, structural, mechanical, and electrical design, and construction management services, mostly in a prime consultant role. You have completed public- and private-sector projects throughout the region in which your main office and three branch offices are located. You maintain professional resumes for 75 people, totaling more than 300 pages, as well as descriptions, photographs, and other images for more than 350 projects, and a long list of technical and organizational awards.

    You also maintain extensive information on your 10 to 12 favorite D/M/W/8(a)-certified subconsultant firms, in case you decide to pursue a public-sector project and the Request for Proposals (RFP) includes goals for participation by minority firms. Teaming with these subconsultant firms has enabled you to demonstrate that your firm consistently meets or exceeds client goals for D/M/W/8(a) firm participation on projects.

    One of your business development staff has just brought in a public-sector RFP that seems to “have your firm’s name written all over it.” You are convinced that making a submittal is a “must do” for your firm. And your “Go/No Go” evaluation has resulted in a “Go” decision.

    So you look at all the information you have already amassed about your firm — its staff and experience, awards, its preferred subconsultants, and other factors — and you ask yourself, “How much of this information do I want to tell the client?”

    That is definitely the wrong question

    Even the question, “How much of this information does the client need to know?” is subjective and must lead to a biased answer because you will always think that the client needs to know much more about your firm than he/she actually wants to know. The real question you should be asking yourself is, “What does the client want to know?”

    And the answer is, “less than you think, and much less than you want to tell them.” In actuality, the client wants to know exactly what he/she requested in the RFP — no more, no less, unless the RFP includes a place — as sometimes happens — for any additional information you think the client needs to know.

    Warning: If such an “additional information” section is included, this is not the place to insert your 125-page standard Statement of Qualifications (SOQ).

    The typical RFP asks you to describe a variety of things, generally including:

    • the firm — its history, services, location(s), staff, and other administrative information;
    • experience and awards;
    • proposed subconsultants;
    • proposed project team, its organization, and reporting structure;
    • history of meeting D/M/WBE and other similar goals;
    • descriptions of relevant projects;
    • QA/QC philosophy and procedures;
    • project understanding and proposed approach — including your management plan; and
    • proprietary assets (owned programs/apps, equipment, etc).

    The majority of the RFPs I have seen in my almost four decades as an AEC marketer have requested this same information in pretty much this order, which I am at a loss to understand.

    So let’s talk about what the client does want to know, regardless of the order in which it appears in the RFP.

    The majority of clients I’ve spoken with during the last 38 years have agreed that the most important thing to them is whether or not a consultant or designer understands what the project really is, the context in which the project is going to happen, the needs and stakeholders to which their project must respond, why the project is happening now, and the potential effects of a “no project” scenario.

    For reasons that I have never been able to understand, this item generally seems to come pretty low down on the RFP’s listing of required information. That’s why I always recommend a brief recap of your understanding and approach up front in an Executive Summary. If you can’t first show that your team really understands the owner’s challenges and that you can develop realistic, effective, efficient solutions, the owner has no need to read 25 to 50 or more pages about your firm or its staff, project experience, awards, testimonials, proposed subconsultants, or anything else about your firm or team.

    So the project context becomes important for developing a winning project understanding section, which then informs the project approach you develop. After convincing the owner that you understand his/her needs and challenges, having a great project approach will convince the owner that your team can deliver a successful and innovative project that makes the best use of time and budget while making him/her look really good in front of a city council, county commissioners, board of directors, or any other governing authority — and maybe even winning an award or two in the process.

    Once you have established that you understand the owner’s project and have the capability to develop a project to which the owner will point with pride, the owner wants to know that you’ve completed other projects just like his/her current project. And if the project involves a high-tech facility, there may be time limitations on your project experience because of the speed at which technology changes over time.

    So in addition to the basic description of the project and its components, the client also wants to know two specific things:

    • how your example projects are like his/her current project; and
    • the challenges of the project and the solutions you developed.

    Consider the following hypothetical roadway project:

    • 25 miles of new concrete highway between one large- and one medium-sized city, traversing a corridor that is currently light industrial developed;
    • the new facility replaces one that sees heavy truck traffic every day, and will be two lanes in each direction with a planted median;
    • the road will include two bridges, one over a swiftly flowing stream and one over multiple railroad tracks, as well as a half-dozen roadway overpasses; and
    • there are no obvious environmental constraints to the project or long-term impacts beyond the construction phase.

    Now, consider these elements one at a time.

    Project planning has been completed by another firm; the final corridor alignment has been delineated.

    • Show your proprietary software to help a school district project where new facilities will be needed in five to 10 years so they can buy land now? Probably not.

    You have a number of long-distance highway projects in your portfolio. Describe one or two comparable concrete projects of similar length.

    • Show a few of your two-lane blacktop county road or municipal street projects? Probably not.
    • Discuss your proprietary software that allows you to maximize the number of lots in a large residential development? Probably not.

    Your firm has completed a number of roadway projects in high-traffic corridors. Describe one or two projects with concrete pavement designed to accommodate heavy truck traffic.

    • Show your projects involving two-lane private roads on corporate or university campuses? Probably not.

    Although none of your roadway projects have included bridges, your firm has completed a number of bridge design projects, including bridges over moving water. Describe two projects that included scour studies and/or design for heavy truck weights and many trips per day.

    • Show your beautiful, photogenic pedestrian bridges on a municipal golf course, or in small neighborhood pocket parks? Probably not.

    Environmental studies were previously performed throughout the corridor by another firm, which found nothing of concern.

    • Show one of your projects in an environmentally sensitive area and the compliance activities your team performed? Probably not.

    Ultimately, projects are not completed by firms or teams; they are completed by people, so the client wants to know about your proposed project staff. Specifically:

    How the team is organized — The RFP will probably ask for an organization chart; a few paragraphs describing the interaction, authority, and reporting structures within the team will be helpful.

    Training and relevant experience of your project manager — Include his/her education and professional registration(s), experience managing projects like this one, experience managing multi-firm teams, and experience with specific challenges anticipated to be encountered on this project.

    Training and relevant experience of each technical discipline leader — Include their education and professional registration(s), their experience designing projects like this one, and experience with specific challenges anticipated to be encountered on this project.

    Training and relevant experience of other professionals on the team — Given the size of the project, the client might need to know about the qualifications of the CAD manager, public involvement manager, utility coordination person, permitting person, construction manager, etc. Confine yourself to the information relevant to the project and the role each person will play.

    Whether or not you anticipate needing to hire additional staff to complete the project — This can be answered in one or two sentences.

    In the days when interactive databases were new, one of my previous employers acquired a database program of almost infinite capacity. It took months to get the firm’s resumes and project information entered, formatted, and ready for output in usable form. Once this task was complete, some of the headquarters marketing leaders seemed to adopt an attitude of “never give a man 10 pages when you can give him 100 pages.” Their SOQs often ran to 200 or more pages, and included dozens of project descriptions, and resumes often running to more than 10 pages each. They dumped information from their boilerplate directly into their SOQs and proposals, and never edited the information to match the RFQ/RFP.

    What happened? They told prospective clients everything they wanted to tell them — and their short-list rate cratered.

    When a client appoints one of its staff to a selection committee, that person’s normal workload doesn’t go away, so they don’t have time to waste on information that is not relevant to the solicitation. They want to see the information they asked for — no more, no less — and organized in the way they specified.

    In some ways, we treat our firms like our children. We think the entire world wants to know everything about them. Be warned: This attitude can get you into a lot of trouble.

    Bernie Siben, CPSM, is owner and principal consultant with The Siben Consult, LLC, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultant located in Austin, Texas. Contact him at siben@sibenconsult.com.