Please click 'download' above to view the summary of the February 2021 Artemis CMO Roundtable.
I wish I could tell you the five (or 10 or 30) things you should do that will guarantee you win your next major opportunity.
I wish I could tell you how to create a capture machine. One that can manufacture winning pursuits like SUVs on an assembly line.
But I can’t. Any such attempt would be misleading. Here’s why.
There’s one inescapable truth that all capture teams face: They are selling to humans. As humans, their thought processes and decision-making criteria will not always be rational. There will be some expected consistencies, especially at the 30,000 ft level. Price – Quality – Experience – Timing. How much of the decision will those measurable criteria really drive? What about the factors that exist at the micro, truly personal level? Trust – Fear – Ego – Politics?
(And don’t talk to us about “scorecards.” Prospects will claim scorecards add a large measure of rationality or objectivity to the decision process. Almost every time we hear that a prospect used a scorecard, we find out that they’ve argued among themselves about how to score a certain element, or they’ve changed the scores to meet their predispositions. The notion that scorecards are objective is like saying the Oscars are objective.)
Will an assembly line approach to pursuits do you more harm than good? Quite possibly. Artemis would be disingenuous if we told you “here’s what you must do to win.” On the other hand, after 25 years and over 400 high-stakes engagements, we’re very sure of this:
We know what teams do that cause them to lose.
If you want to improve your capture rates, you should take the time to dissect your losses. Avoid the “We did our best … we couldn’t have done better … it’s not our fault” hypotheses. Assume it was, indeed, your fault, and try to learn from your mistakes.
Maybe you’re a lot like me. While the wins feel good for a while, the losses stick with you a very long time. Not that we agonize over them. If we did, we’d be reluctant to ever get back into the game. We make sure to dissect each loss to see what we can learn about it. Sometimes, there’s absolutely nothing we or our clients could’ve done differently. The other guys just had a better idea or product than we did, and there was no way to predict that until the pursuit was decided. Or maybe some competitor swooped in and blew the client away with a fee proposal that we couldn’t have matched under any circumstances.
While teams can take comfort (maybe) in thinking the loss wasn’t their fault, we challenge them to think otherwise. Because except for those rare instances above, hindsight almost always reveals something the team said or did or didn’t say or didn’t do that hurt their chances.
So, we can also say this with confidence:
If you avoid the things that capture teams do that almost always lead to a loss, you’ll improve the chances that you can win.
Not sure what even qualifies as a mistake? You’re not alone. That’s why this document exists. To show you the errors that pursuit teams commonly make. And to give you a way of preventing them, or recognizing them before they torpedo your efforts.
Here are the Top 10 mistakes that we’ll cover here:
1. Start the pursuit when you receive the RFP.
2. Say yes.
3. Meet the requirements specified in the RFP.
4. Focus your intelligence gathering on the decision makers.
5. Ensure the prospect knows what makes you great.
6. Try to present the absolutely best solution.
7. Show up on the day of the presentation or interview.
8. Be a great presenter.
9. Have the best answer to every question.
10. Expect trust.
As you read the list, you might say, “Funny, some of those look like the right thing to do, not a way to lose.” And that’s exactly why teams lose. It’s not that doing these things is the problem. It’s that doing ONLY these things will leave you way short of winning.
Let’s look at the 10 in some detail. Our tour guide has a Master’s Degree in the Longshot Pursuit (MLP) We’ll call him DJ, the head of business development for Three Letter Acronym (TLA), Inc.
MISTAKE 1: Start the pursuit when you receive an RFP
DJ can’t be more excited. He’s just seen a message pop up on his iPhone screen. It says “RFP attached.” It’s from Marshall Bridges Industries (MBI or “Bridges”), a company he’s been hoping to do business with. A significant player in its category. DJ hasn’t had much contact with Bridges before. But he’s been hoping and hoping and hoping to get an RFP one day – a legitimate shot at a project. A chance to add that company to TLA’s client list. A chance to finally chalk up a big win.
DJ’s surprised and ecstatic. He’s going to blast a message to the higher-ups and formulate a pursuit team. His email, which will include the RFP, will be go out with the subject line: “Great New Opportunity!”
But is it really? Read the next paragraph and then tell me where you think the flaw in his reasoning is. And why he’s about to embark on a path to almost certain disappointment.
While TLA has been checking in on Bridges for a while, it’s had no prior contact with most of the key individuals associated with this project. Shouldn’t be a problem, DJ reasons. “We know we can come up with a great solution for them. We fit the description of the kind of provider they want to work with. And chances are everyone receiving the RFP has had no prior contact, meaning that the competition will take place on a level playing field.”
Found DJ’s potentially false assumption?
Artemis has learned that there are at least two things that should be predictable, but are rarely considered by business development leads.
1. Just because you haven’t had prior contact with decision-makers or influencers, chances are close to 100% that someone among your competitors has. Maybe they’ve already done projects for one or more key decision makers or influencers. Maybe they’ve been courting that company for months before the RFP dropped.
2. There’s always a favorite. It’s human nature. At the start of a major, high-stakes search, there’s always at least one contender that the project owners consider to be the firm they hope to work with. (And there’s usually one they think is almost certainly not going to win, even if they were invited to bid.)
As my colleague and friend, Neal Foard, says, if you sit down at the poker table and don’t know who the sucker is, it’s you. Or, to bring it to our world of business development:
Everyone doesn’t have an equal shot. The playing field is never level.
Your best play in business development is to get to know prospects long before the RFP drops. You need to be seen as the favorite, or at least one of the top three contenders when the formal evaluation process starts. Otherwise, your odds of winning are very, very slim.
Should TLA participate in this RFP?
Let’s take a closer look.
MISTAKE 2: Say yes.
DJ has a chance to make the smart decision. He’ll sit down with TLA leadership to review the opportunity. And he’ll make the wrong decision, because he – and they – share the same old school, two-part paradigm:
A. This is their big chance. They definitely have the chops to handle the project.
B. RFPs like this don’t come around often. Hard to say no to it.
When fertilized by the immense optimism of BD leads, their bosses and their SME’s, these two ideas grow into immense redwoods that block out the sun and prevent TLA from seeing the forest. This business is probably not winnable. And an objective review of Go/No Go criteria would easily reveal it.
Sadly, TLA is like many companies out in the real world, falling into one of three camps.
1. They don’t have qualifying criteria.
2. They have qualifying criteria, but they’re too broad or maybe even ambiguous, to be of much use. 3. They have qualifying criteria, and they’re well thought out, but capture teams and leadership will either ignore it, or just adjust the numbers to suit their narrative.
In the Artemis point of view, qualifying criteria aren’t used to justify getting into a pursuit. Just the opposite. Qualifying criteria exist to prevent you from pursuing opportunities. Your motto should be this: Pursue Less. Win More. Do it any other way, and you’re putting yourself in a position to lose too often.
Back to DJ and TLA. However he qualified the opportunity, the decision to pursue was made. So he’s left himself vulnerable to the third big mistake.
MISTAKE 3: Meet the requirements specified in the RFP
DJ and his team carefully study the RFP. Their confidence has gone up. TLA can provide the required information for every question. They have capabilities, credentials, and cases which would seem to be just what the Bridges assignment needs. TLA has a competent proposal writing team. Information is gathered. The proposal is written and proofed. There are enough design elements to make it look good. DJ and the TLA team are confident the RFP response will get them to the next round.
Of course, they don’t.
If this is truly an important opportunity being put forward from a major company, the list of firms that are going to respond to the RFP will be lengthy. (And, as we said, already skewed towards a favorite.) Even if the playing field is level, we’re confident that many submissions will meet the requirements stated in the RFP. While TLA might be proud of its work, its history, its staff, its clients, and so on, that information is not likely to differentiate it from the competition. At least not from enough competitors to put TLA near the head of the pack.
Here’s something we’ve learned through many disappointments:
Senior decision-makers didn’t write the RFP. They probably haven’t even read it.
TLA has to provide the information requested in the RFP, or it has no chance of moving forward. Then, TLA must go beyond. It must make itself relevant to the real decisionmakers. It has to put its response in context meaningful to Bridges leadership. TLA can’t show that it’s a better firm than the competition. Instead, it must try to show that it has a better understanding of what matters to decision-makers.
Of course, it’s hard to know what really matters if TLA doesn’t start its pursuit of Bridges’s business until the RFP arrives. That’s the point we made above, and one we’ll make again.
MISTAKE 4: Focus your intelligence gathering on the decision makers.
DJ and TLA have done their homework on The Marshall Bridges decision makers. They know who they’re likely to be at the RFP stage and perhaps at the final interview. This is good. Now DJ has a real challenge ahead of him: Does he know what the decision-makers really care about? Does he know the lens or filter through which they’ll view the proposal (and all communication from TLA, for that matter)?
We’ve all seen “The Cone of Silence.” As soon as the RFP /RFI / RFQ has dropped, that Cone descends on each prospect stakeholder. The Bridges people will be prevented or at least discouraged from speaking with firms like TLA who are likely to propose on the project. At that point, TLA will need to rely on input from others who work at Marshall Bridges, or others who are somehow connected with the project at an early or late stage of development.
We think it would be a mistake not to be in touch with these sources. Not just out of necessity due to The Cone of Silence. But throughout the pursuit.
Consider this. You’re in the design and build space. The building you’ll be bidding on has owners, sure. And people with the responsibility of selecting providers to design and build spaces. Are they the only ones who care about the building? How about the users? The financiers (bankers or donors)? The building management group? The mayor and community board?
It’s possible that none of these others will have a vote. None will see the RFP response or the oral presentation. Yet their voices will count. If DJ can show that TLA has gone the extra mile to get their inputs, TLA will be a more valuable asset to the Bridges decisionmakers. TLA will create more separation between them and the others. They’ll be a stronger competitor.
The RFP response can now be tailored to address challenges, or dreams, of those decisionmakers. Even in a highly regimented response, TLA can use the cover letter, executive summary, or section introductions to make a compelling case to those decision-makers.
Knowing what the decision-makers care about – and reflecting that in all submissions – is essential to have a chance to win. Winning a high-stakes pursuit means you need to go beyond the decision-makers. You need to know what matters to a wide range of influencers and constituents.
MISTAKE 5: Ensure the prospect knows what makes you great.
We’ve been emphasizing the importance of deep and broad prospect intelligence in order to win a pursuit. Many companies fail to get this. They don’t even try. Why? They think they’ll win by doing the best job of explaining who they themselves are and how they work.
DJ knows that TLA has a long, distinguished history. It has great people. It’s done great work. That works flows from a robust, replicable process. He and TLA leadership are proud of it. He’s certain it must be a big part of the pursuit. If he’s successful at registering this with the prospect, Marshall Bridges will know for certain why it must put TLA at the head of the pack.
There are a few things that DJ isn’t considering, which will make this strategy a loser.
1. TLA is a well known firm in its space. If decision-makers even care, they can find out everything they need to know about TLA from its website, Google search, LinkedIn, etc. They can use their network to get info from other client, prospects, even employees.
2. As a top firm, TLA is going to have similar capabilities, credentials, processes as do its competitors. A straight recitation of them, no matter how thorough and authentic, won’t create the differentiation DJ wants.
3. Here’s the Big One: Prospects don’t care what you can do. They only care about what you can do FOR THEM.
I want to be clear. The mistake isn’t talking about yourself. The mistake is talking too much about yourself and not enough about the prospect. And the companion mistake is talking too much about yourself too early in meetings, proposals and presentations. It’s self-centered. It’s boring. It’s not as effective as you think it is, even if you’re really good at it, and really enjoy doing it.
You all know “ABC” from “Glengarry Glen Ross?” Always be closing. Artemis extends this to ABCC: Always Be Client Centric
Should TLA say nothing about itself? That’s not our recommendation. Very early in the pursuit process, decision-makers might be missing some important info about TLA. And when replying to an RFI/Q/P, DJ should answer the questions, many of which are about his company.
To have a chance to win, he’ll have to frame those answers to make them relevant to the decision-makers. Show how TLA’s capabilities reflect the challenges facing Marshall Bridges and that specific project. To make those answers Client Centric.
We like to think of it this way. When a decision-maker tells you, “Tell me about yourself,” they’re really saying, “Tell me about myself, how you can make things better for me, and why I should believe that’s true.”
MISTAKE 6: Try to get the absolute best solution.
Not every project pursuit requires the submission of a solution recommendation. Some specifically prohibit it. (These are our favorites. We don’t approve of RFPs that ask for free work. And we want our clients to think twice about participating in these pursuits.)
But some projects require that solutions in some form be proposed. DJ and TLA are now looking at this requirement for the Marshall Bridges Industries project.
Naturally, then, TLA goes all out.
The solutions team goes to 24/7 mode, led by Kim, a strong product innovation director. The goal: Come up with a solution (in fact, several) that will exceed expectations. There’s not nearly enough time in the schedule to do this the way TLA would do it if Bridges was already a client. Oh well. That’s life in the capture lane.
The team generates ideas. Kim kicks them all back, looking for something better. Meanwhile, DJ’s team is waiting for Kim to come forward with the recommended solution, so they can build their proposal and orals around it.
But Kim isn’t going to let TLA show anything to Bridges that isn’t awesome. At the end of the process, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that everyone at TLA agrees the solution that’s to be delivered to Bridges is great. The bad news: it’s now so late in the submission process that the solution is going to be served up in a really clunky way. The presentation of the solution will lack persuasion. It will appear to Bridges that TLA barely had time to figure out how to present it. Of course, they’ll be right.
DJ – and Kim – have learned what Artemis has known for decades:
A ‘B’ solution, well sold, has a better chance of winning than an ‘A’ solution badly sold.
In most – not all – project RFPs, the request for a solution is essentially a request for proof of concept. Competing firms are trying to make the case that they understand the challenges and are capable of developing and delivering an answer. The offered solution might not even be likely to be executed.
Instead, the solution needs to fit into a narrative that essentially goes this way:
1. You -- our prospect -- face these challenges or have this opportunity.
2. You will have access to our capabilities, people, insights, processes that will help you overcome this challenge or capture this opportunity.
3. Here’s an example of what we’ll do to get you the best possible outcomes.
4. Here’s why it’s likely to work for you.
It’s more important to get 1, 2, and 4 right. Then, 3 will flow organically into the narrative. If 3 comes too late, and Kim hasn’t considered how to sell it in the context of 1, 2, and 4, TLA will lose.
You can build that cohesive, persuasive, even fun narrative with a good solution. You don’t need a great one.
Oh, and to be clear, we’re not advocating that you can win with a poor solution. If poor is the best you can do, buh-bye.
MISTAKE 7: Show up on the day of the presentation or interview.
(For our purposes, we’re going to assume that, somehow, TLA was invited to a final round meeting.)
DJ’s capture team at TLA is stretched. All SMEs have ongoing project responsibilities. The proposal team is working on six other RFPs. Despite the Cone of Silence, there are important constituencies who can be consulted at Marshall Bridges, and there are a couple of calls allowed with project decision makers. Yet few on the capture team can find the time to be part of these meetings.
And as far as a robust rehearsal schedule is concerned – good luck with that.
Rashad is senior exec on the SME team. He told DJ, “Don’t worry. My people will show up for the interview. They’ve done it before. They’ll be fine.”
Ahh, so Rashad subscribes to the Philosophy of Life that’s often attributed to Woody Allen (when he was funny and relevant): “80% of success is showing up.”
I don’t want to mislead you. It would be a mistake not to show up to the interview. What I’m talking about is this: Thinking you have a great chance to win because you show up at the interview.
This has two manifestations. Both are bad.
One is expected. You’re more likely to lose when your pursuit team comes across as uncoordinated. On autopilot. Indifferent to the prospect. Maybe even indifferent to each other. (More on that later.) That’s a big problem when the team doesn’t work together early in the pursuit process. When they don’t get on the same page for messaging, for approach, for authenticity. For style.
This can happen even when some teams rehearse. DJ saw it himself a couple of years earlier in a major rebid. Felicia, the CEO, flew in for two days of rehearsals. Her role was to close the interview and ask for the business. When it was Felicia’s turn to rehearse, she told the team, “I don’t need to rehearse. I know what I’m going to say.” Maybe you can guess what happen. Though Felicia was smooth and confident, her content cost DJ’s firm the account. Feedback from the now ex-client will stick with DJ forever: “You had it won until Felicia got up to speak. Then we remembered all the reasons why we put the account into review.”
Back to showing up.
The second problem has nothing to do with rehearsal. Marshall Bridges Industries has had little to do with TLA prior to the RFP. At the same time, it’s likely some of the competitors on the bid have already invested time and energy in getting to know Bridges, its people, its challenges. They “showed up” long before the TLA team received the RFP. To Bridges, TLA hasn’t shown up at all until now.
Showing up only when there’s an RFP or an interview isn’t going to help TLA win. It’s going to remind Bridges that TLA hasn’t cared about them until there was money to be made. And it’ll make the other guys – who showed up a long time before the RFP – look that much better.
MISTAKE 8: Be a great presenter.
The TLA team has been given a chance to meet with Marshall Bridges. They’ve been given an hour. DJ works with the team to put together the best possible presentations. He knows they could use more like 90 minutes to present all that they’d like to. But they’ve put together a strong presentation with a detailed slide deck that they can complete in an hour, with a stiff tail wind.
The team has rehearsed. They’ve removed their umms, improved their confidence. The deck’s been checked for typos. The tech is working. 60 minutes seems doable.
Kudos, DJ. Your team will feel like stars until they get the news that they’re not being considered for the Bridges project.
The mistake starts with the goal. It’s not a presentation. It’s never supposed to be a presentation. Go ahead and click on the word if you’re reading a digital copy of this. Look for synonyms. Demonstration. Performance. Exhibition. In other words, you talk. They listen. They’re entertained and impressed. Or supposed to be.
That’s not enough to win a competitive pursuit.
DJ shouldn’t plan a presentation. And he doesn’t need great presenters. He needs to plan an engaging, informative, memorable conversation in which the emphasis is on two-way communication. On engagement. On interaction.
I like to look deeper at the concept of “communication.” More specifically, successful communication. What’s your definition of successful communication?
Successful communication is when information is exchanged and understood, leading to something that has changed as a result.
A lot to unpack there. But right away you can see that a presentation isn’t guaranteed to lead to successful communication, though it certainly could.
The odds of success are improved when presentation elements are reduced in favor of engaging conversations that are enlightening and informative. Conversations in which both sides have points of view and open minds. Conversations that can guide the prospect to think, feel, or do something as a result of the communication event. The traditional oneway communication of the highly-engineered presentation isn’t guaranteed to get the prospect here. It may just lead to the opposite result.
MISTAKE 9: Have the best answer to every question.
DJ has learned that the first 10 minutes of a meeting with a prospect, especially if that meeting is the pursuit’s orals or interview, can foreshadow a win. He’s also starting to learn that the last 10 minutes are the most dangerous time in that same meeting. It’s in the last 10 minutes that Felicia torpedoed the meeting we talked about before.
It’s also in the last 10 minutes that Marshall Bridges Industries will ask its toughest questions. And things will blow up in DJ’s face.
The Bridges leader posed a question that was handled pretty well by one of the TLA subject matter experts. Before the next question was asked, Rashad added to the answer with something that was a little bit off message. Another question came. Rashad fielded it, then a teammate chimed in, then a third response came. DJ saw the Bridges people start to squirm.
Two more questions, six more responses.
Then déjà vu for DJ.
“You guys did great until the Q&A,” was the candid feedback. “Then you started stepping on each other, contradicting each other.” (DJ thought that was a bit of an exaggeration, but perception is reality.) “By the time Q&A was over,” feedback went on, “we weren’t comfortable that you were a cohesive team. It just looked like you were trying to show each other up. To grab the spotlight from each other.”
Oh man, that’s a sucky way to lose a pursuit.
The TLA team was driven to provide the best possible answer to the question. They didn’t see themselves as lacking cohesion. They saw themselves as trying to be as smart as possible. It didn’t work as planned. They should have expected it.
You’ve got to avoid this mistake. In Q&A go with the first answer. Unless it’s flat out wrong, let it go. Correcting might do more harm than good. Don’t worry about looking diminished in the meeting if your brilliant answer isn’t going to be heard because someone else answered before you. Your stature won’t matter to the prospect if you’re not hired to do the project.
MISTAKE 10: Expect trust.
DJ’s team is fully aware of the importance of trust in prospect decision-making. To them, it’s about Marshall Bridges Industries holding the belief that TLA is capable of delivering the project with quality, on time, on budget. They believe that should be a slam dunk in their favor.
So they’ve pressed hard on their own attributes. Their capabilities. Their CV’s. Examples of their work and the outcomes they’ve achieved. Their processes. You get the idea.
They’re not wrong. To a point. So why did we see the loss coming?
We’ve discussed the folly of too much emphasis on capabilities and credentials before. Here’s one more thing that we consider when we press teams to shift the focus of the pursuit. It relates to the well-documented Trustworthiness Equation, cited by Maister, Green & Galford in “The Trusted Advisor.”
Trustworthiness = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self Orientation
If you’re not familiar with this, please note:
First, it’s “trustworthiness” not “trust.” Trust isn’t something you’re granted. “Trust me,” means less than nothing. Instead, trust is something you earn through your values and behaviors. In other words, you prove your trustworthiness.
Second, notice the terms “Intimacy” and “Self-Orientation.” The traditional pursuit approach that emphasizes capabilities and credentials is, in this context, banking heavily on Credibility and Reliability. Intended or not, that’s what you get from the emphasis on what you do.
That emphasis reduces the visibility of the two elements of Trustworthiness that can surpass Credibility and Reliability in importance. Your capabilities don’t provide Intimacy (honesty, openness, authenticity), nor do they reduce Self-Orientation. Just the opposite. The greater the focus on capabilities, the more the prospect might see you as Self-Oriented. That automatically reduces your Trustworthiness.
Want to get a higher score in this pivotal element of business development? Spend more time getting prospects to talk about themselves. And spend more time sharing insights, visions, hopes, dreams, limitations. These will get your Intimacy and Self-Orientation scores moving in the right direction, which will boost your Trustworthiness.
Where do you go from here?
Every pitch is different because every human is different. But they’re all human. (At least until we get to AI decision-making. Don’t get me started.) For humans, there are predictable elements of communication and persuasion that qualify as nearly universal truths.
Not every decision-maker in every company in every sector is turned off by all 10 of the mistakes we’ve covered here. Some decision-makers actually lean into some of these. “Presentation” is a great example. In creative fields like advertising and entertainment, the presentation counts a whole lot. The bigger and better the production, the better. We’ve worked on multiple successful Olympic bids that turned on stagecraft and theatrics.
Nevertheless, these factors, when taken cumulatively, has an inverse effect on your likelihood of winning. One or two might not matter at all. But five or six – that’s a problem. And seven or eight (not all unusual for us to see as outside observers) – well, that’s a surefire loser.
As leader of your firm’s business development activities, use this as a negative checklist. The fewer boxes you can check off as you proceed with your pursuit, the better the likelihood of winning.
About the author.
Bob Wiesner has over 25 years of experience helping major corporations pursue and win new their most important opportunities in the most competitive industries and professions. His clients have included KPMG, Deloitte, JPMorganChase, BBDO, TBWA Chiat Day, Saatchi & Saatchi, AECOM, Gleeds, and many others. He has also helped firms raise capital and has worked on two Olympic bids. As a founder and managing partner, Americas, for The Artemis Partnership, Bob is responsible for the company’s strategy, and supports critical client projects. Prior to beginning his consulting career, Bob was a senior executive at McCann Erickson advertising. He’s the author of a new book, “Winning is Better: The Journey to New Business Success.”
About The Artemis Partnership.
Artemis exists for one reason: To help its clients win their most important pursuits more often and earn higher profit. Since the mid-1990’s its three founders - Bob Wiesner, Ian Forbes (EMEA) and Graham Kean (APAC) have helped clients on over 400 high-stakes bids, resulting in a cumulative 75% win rate. Artemis has 40 professionals globally, all with deep experience in consulting, business development, and sales.
You can reach The Artemis Partnership at:
To receive a new chapter of “Winning is Better: The Journey to New Business Success” each month at no charge, please opt-in at WinningIsBetterBook.com .
It’s a core Artemis principle that’s been proven in hundreds of competitive bids that we’ve tracked: You establish yourself as a favorite (or a longshot) long before you receive an RFP. Basically, if you haven’t won the bid in the minds of decision-makers before they start the formal evaluation process, your chances are slim.
That shouldn’t be hard to believe. Remember, you might not have had much contact with the prospect prior to the RFP. That doesn’t mean all your competitors are in the same position. The playing field is never even. If you don’t have the advantage of a strong pre-RFP relationship and reputation, then someone else does. That firm is the favorite. You’re the longshot.
This is a very timely message. Vaccinations are accelerating. We are hearing of a return to a new version of pre-pandemic life by the end of the summer. We can anticipate significant government spending. There will be more corporate projects out for bid in sectors like architecture, engineering, construction, aerospace, defense and others. Businesses will have a greater need for advisory services as they prepare to compete in a stronger market. Marketing communications programs and innovations will be more highly valued. FinTech and AdTech will gain tremendous momentum.
That’s all down the road, and in some cases nearly here. So here’s the question: What are you doing NOW to get ahead of these opportunities?
Perhaps it’s already too late.
The Best Offense is a Good Offense
The authors of this HBR article, “Should Midsize Companies Play Offense or Defense in a Downturn?” (find it here) make a persuasive case for immediate, assertive action.
“…mid-size companies that made significant increases or decreases to their investment plans during a recession experienced contrasting results during recovery. When comparing market value, sales growth, and return on equity.”
Most striking to us is the contrast in sales growth. Growth was no less than +40% in companies that invested, and as high as +57%. Companies that didn’t invest saw declines of -1% to -8%. Here’s just one of several implications they noted:
“There’s an opportunity to attract dissatisfied customers from competitors by offering superior products and services.”
Let’s unpack that from the Artemis perspective.
There’s no doubt that having “superior products and services” is vitally important to growth. Here’s the challenge: How do you convince a prospect that your products and services are “superior?” Especially in very competitive markets, when most of the top firms pursuing high-value projects will be viewed by decision-makers as essentially equally capable?
The Window of Winning
There’s one foundational truth in highly competitive new business pursuits: Real differentiation of products and services is damn hard to achieve. Yet firms can have a better chance of establishing the possible superiority of products and services by all they do before they respond to the RFP.
It’s the period before an RFP drops that you can contact decision-makers and influencers with insights and wisdom that establish you as a legitimate option for them. This is also the time when you grab a virtual or literal cup of coffee with a prospect to exchange ideas. To align values. To demonstrate culture. To understand politics. To tilt the uneven playing field in your direction.
Success also depends on investment as this window remains open. To improve your chances of winning, consider doing any or all of the following, starting ASAP:
Sadly, we’ve come across too many firms that are still hunkered down in their bunkers. Not yet ready to invest in growth. Or willing to invest, but not sure how to do it effectively. Or investing, but doing so ineffectively.
The “window of winning” is open now, before the expected increase in new business opportunities. It won’t be open for long. Now is the time to take a very hard, very honest look at your growth strategy and available investment supporting it. You’re hearing this term a lot: “Big Bold Moves.” Let’s add “Smart” to it, and you have the mission you need to embark on right away.
- Bob Wiesner, Managing Partner, The Americas
Each month, Artemis Partnership’s ‘5 Thoughts from the Field’ will feature executives from a variety of fields to hear their insight on business development, pursuits, secrets to success and more.
About Eric Dinges:
Eric Dinges, AIA, NCARB, CLGB, LEED Green Associate, is a Vice President and the Regional Managing Principal at AECOM leading the America’s East Region design practice which includes architecture, interior design, engineering, urban design, master planning, economics, and technology solutions. He is responsible for growing and diversifying the practice in addition to overseeing its operational performance. The East Region design practice is comprised of approximately 800 employees with an annual gross revenue of more than $200 million. A consummate leader, Eric has developed long-standing relationships in his 25 years’ experience with some of the industry’s most demanding clients and has led large multi-disciplinary teams on complex projects around the globe.
With a passion for design, Eric is an elected Board Trustee of the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, supporting the vision of the museum to educate, entertain, and engage people about the built environment and advocate for a sustainable and equitable future.
1. Architects, engineers, etc. usually don’t enter their profession to be salespeople. What qualities do you look for in a subject matter expert that tell you that person will be successful on a capture team?
True, when you study architecture or engineering in school, the focus is on the technical and creative aspects of your work and less about the reality of how you will sell those ideas to potential clients. That said, the role of a person on a capture team is very different from a typical sales position. We aren’t just selling a built project, we are selling relationships and trust. We look for people who are apt at building those relationships with clients. There are a lot of firms out there, so we find it crucial to position ourselves as more than just a firm that can build a project. A lot of firms can do that. We search for team members who are not only knowledgeable about their field, but also relatable people and passionate about their work. At the end of the day, we want to build trust with clients that goes beyond building a project, but towards solving the challenges they face on a daily basis. We want clients to feel confident in us as designers, team members, and people as that trust is the key to a successful project.
2. Business development activities changed during the pandemic. Do you think any of these changes will stick when conditions have improved to look more like 2019?
I think some of the changes we’ve experienced over the past year will stick to a certain degree. Clients have gotten more accustomed to video calls, presentations, workshops, etc. and it has been easier to reach clients that way during this time. So for the sake of time efficiency, I could see things like an initial meet and greet may be more welcomed by clients in a virtual platform than via in person. That said, I don’t think anything will replace the chemistry, connectivity, and trust building that you get from meeting in person and I believe that will remain critical even as the world evolves into the new normal.
3. Have you seen changes in how decision-makers have gone about selecting firms? Do you think those will be with us for a while, or are they temporary caused by the pandemic?
Largely, we have not seen changes in how projects are selected. Although interviews and selection meetings are happening virtually, projects are won because of trusting relationships. In fact, I would say that an existing client relationship is the single most important factor in winning a project when you’re working virtually. Because you aren’t able to meet in person, it can be difficult to establish that same level of trust with someone you don’t know, or haven’t worked with, because you are missing that personal connectivity. That said, when projects are pitched in the virtual world, it is more difficult to personally connect with decision-makers and as such, clients may see a benefit to using more systematic methods for deciding on the selection of a firm. That aspect could be something that sticks around moving forward.
4. AECOM is committed to driving positive change for women in the global workplace. Can you tell us about one or two specific steps you’ve taken in this area in your region?
AECOM is committed to driving positive change for both women and minorities. We raise awareness within the firm so that our team is solidified on where we stand as a practice, region, and company. We exhibit this by holding leaders accountable for their decision-making processes in hiring, promoting, empowering, developing, and elevating women and minorities. We believe that as a large firm it is important for us to be leaders in change and we follow data to monitor our progress. Personally, I have always valued diversity of all kind in the workplace and have brought that to the forefront of discussions with our leadership team. We do our best work when we are able to see problems, solutions, relationships, and design through the lenses of others. The more diversity we have on our team, the more lenses we can look through.
5. AECOM was recently recognized by Ethisphere are one of the 2021 World’s Most Ethical Companies. What do you do as business leader to ensure that everyone upholds this standard?
believe that being a leader means that you lead by example. There are number of decision points made on a daily basis that demonstrate a person’s character from filling out your timesheet correctly (or not over expensing that taxi trip) to ensuring that positioning for a project is executed in a fair manner. Additionally, where I have seen or been made aware of some questionable decision-making, I have held conversations with those individuals and let them know where I stand on doing things in an ethical manner and then provide corrective action if so warranted. So for me, it’s leading by example and holding and maintaining accountability for that culture holistically across the region, practice, and company.
Yes, you need to dump the Go-No Go process you use to vet incoming new business opportunities. It’s costing you money, draining your organization, and harming your reputation in your market.
You need to replace it with a new, more objective, dynamic process based on your likely probability of winning. I’ll describe it to you in this article. But first, some context.
We at Artemis have been increasingly alarmed as we see how many business development teams are pursuing every single opportunity that comes along. We believe firms are needlessly burning cash, man-hours, energy and morale in the fruitless pursuit of opportunities they have virtually no chance of winning. If they were rational about assessing their real position in the pursuit among their competition, they’d make better decisions. But so many who make such decisions use processes that are supposed to emphasize objectivity yet are gaming the system.
Here’s what I mean.
I know hundreds of professionals who are actively engaged in new business pursuits. They work in diverse professions such as advertising, architecture, engineering, aerospace and defense contracting, accounting, management consulting, and many others. And they have two things in common.
First, they’re optimists. Really big optimists. They have a strong, sometimes almost dogmatic belief in the capabilities of themselves, their colleagues, their internal processes and systems. Their ability to innovate. There isn’t a problem they can’t solve. And they think they can do it better than anyone else.
Second, they have an incoming opportunity vetting mechanism that’s designed to lead to a Go-No Go decision. And almost always leads to a Go. That’s because the typical Go-No Go process is easily manipulated to align with the optimism of the team. The team thinks that, since they believe they’re capable of winning (and might be fearful of losing out on a chance to win), they will score the Go-No Go in a way to lead to a Go.
I’ve heard these conversations when I work with a client for the first time. It often goes like this. The first part of each line, in bold type, represents the previously agreed qualifying criteria. Following each one is the “workaround” that the team decides on.
Our experience in the category - We don’t have very much, but we can learn about it as we prepare the RFP submission.
Our capabilities to solve the problem - We don’t have very much right now, but we can acquire them or learn them.
Our relationships with key prospect personnel - Few or none now, but they’ll be very impressed with our credentials and our solution.
The availability of our own resources to handle the proposal or, if we win, the project - We’re stretched kind of thin, but this is too good an opportunity to pass up. We’ll have to take a deep breath and do what needs to be done. And when we win, we’ll go out and find the resources we need.
The prospect’s fee expectations will lead to the right level of revenue for us - We’ll address fee when we finish first. Even if it’s low, it’s a foot in the door. We can always make more on the business in the future.
Our likelihood of winning is high - It’s not very high, but even if we lose, we’ll have met the key players, they’ll be impressed, and we’ll be better positioned for the next one.
Sound familiar? You can see how the team (or maybe the team leader) has forced a “Go” decision to come out of the discussion. Is it optimism? Or, as psychologists say, a case of Overconfidence Bias? What do you think the odds are of this team actually winning?
And that’s where we can go to find a replacement for the Go-No Go process. One that will work better, even with the risk of overconfidence bias.
We call it the Probability Assessment. It’s based on our fundamental understanding of how decisions are really made in virtually all highly competitive pursuits.
Buyers look at four factors in evaluating firms.
While the relative weights of these four factors can differ from prospect to prospect, Artemis believes the defaults look like this:
So let’s use that to judge our Win Probability. You give yourself a score from 0% to the maximum for each area. Your highest possible score, of course, is 100% - 28 for Solution, 31 for Understanding, etc. If the firm in the example above was being even a little realistic in their assessment of their Win Probability, they’d have to give themselves a total score of no more than 30% (and I’m being generous). In other words, they’d see themselves as the longshot they truly are.
Could you rig the scores? Of course. But you’d be subject to more challenges. How can you give yourself a 28 for Solution, when you have no experience in the category and/or few existing capabilities? How can you say you’re 25 in Chemistry if you’ve never met the decision-makers, and will be limited by the “Cone of Silence” that descends when an RFP drops?
Could a team still decide to pursue with a very low Win Probability score? Sure, if they think they can raise the score during the pursuit. And they should continually reassess to see if they are, in fact, doing that.
The Win Probability mechanism will force many teams to be more honest about where they stand. It should allow even the most optimistic teams to make better decisions, reduce the number of no-chance pursuits, and raise their overall business development ROI.
- Bob Wiesner, Managing Partner, The Americas
Registrants Learned What Works and Doesn’t Work When It Comes to Winning New Business Pursuits in Today’s Changing Environment
The Artemis Partnership recently hosted a CMO roundtable with client- and agency-side professionals to discuss selection considerations and more in today’s changed and changing world. Bob Wiesner, Managing Partner, the Americas, moderated.
The pandemic has changed things. But not everything. Some things, panelists noted, have been flipped on their head, and others are “business as usual.”
Culture Still Matters – A Lot
Bob Kantor, CEO of Dawn noted that it’s the culture that has changed significantly. He stated it is “very difficult for individuals on Zoom to bring the culture of an organization and their personalities forward.” He referenced a recent pitch with health care professionals where, because of their business, participants had to wear masks during the presentation. “Talk about a difficulty in reading expressions and reactions,” he said.
He believes the significance/importance of culture in the selection process won’t change and pointed out that agencies that can express culture and personalities well in web presentations are doing better.
According to Mark Heavey, director of marketing & advertising for the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), the pandemic accelerated work to make MTA’s procurement processes more streamlined, transparent, and as quick as possible for a government agency, “which tend to be somewhat bureaucratic,” he admitted. Among the changes, a program to train small businesses how to approach and respond to RFPs for opportunities available to women-owned firms, minority-owned firms, and, more recently, businesses owned by veterans disabled during their years of service.
Some panelists, like John Morris, vice president of advertising & media, marketing and communications at Travelers Insurance, said it’s been more difficult to connect in the COVID-19 world. “We’ve sort of been in lockdown mode,” he explained. “It's harder to take meetings. We’ve had fewer conversations over the last 12 months than we had pre-COVID.
Video meetings need to be done better
Hasan Ramusevic, chief executive officer at Hasan+Shumaker, believes some pandemic-driven changes will linger, “and for good reason, because they'll strengthen the process.” For example, geographic restrictions are less important and will continue to be.
“The (video) meetings we're having right now are here to stay,” he said. “That's not to say that milestone meetings will be done this way. I truly believe you have to visit an agency, kick the tires of the environment, see what you're buying.” But interim meetings, briefings that used to be done via conference call, will take place via web video calls.
Heavey agrees. “People are getting used to the value of seeing reactions,” he said. “You don't get the facial expressions through a phone call or a conference call. People are seeing that value and it's here to stay.”
Wiesner stressed the importance of using video calls as effectively as possible “to replicate or transmit the energy, passion, commitment, connection and chemistry that was so important before we entered this two-dimensional world.”
Be fully present
Cyndie O'Brien, chief sales, marketing and retention officer for Aspire Health Plan, encouraged agencies to be present on such video calls. Fully present. “When people don't have their Zoom cameras on, it just feels so impersonal. If you want your client to feel like you're in it, that you're ready to work on their business, keep that camera on and spend the time like you were sitting across from them at a conference table; give them that attention. It's a small but important thing when you're trying to develop a relationship.”
Kantor stressed the importance of paying attention to body language when the camera is on. “It's easy to lose focus,” he said. “I hear feedback from clients that they didn't think presenters were enthusiastic. My advice is, record your presentations and go back and look at them. You will be really surprised by how you actually look.”
Artemis helps clients learn to optimize such pitches so they can win more new business pursuits. After all, winning is better. One piece of advice from Wiesner: Along with tactics around lighting, cameras, energy, body language, and eye contact, try to make interactions over Zoom much more conversational, much more interactive.
“It’s normal to check email while someone else is talking—we can multitask because the situation allows it—but a more conversational, interactive approach draws people in, holds their attention, lets them feel valued,” he said. “We all like to be listened to, we all want to be heard.”
Insights are difference-makers
Michelle Bottomley, CEO at Modern Growth Exchange, shared what she sees as a key differentiator. She said she has been in a number of pitches over the last few years that had a lot of technology and data behind them, “but what really stood out was the ability to bring insights to the table about the business, as in ‘I couldn't sleep last night because I was thinking about your purpose. Here are some questions and here's an angle we were thinking about.’
She also encourages and values a shift from activities to true collaboration. “I have found agencies that would say, ‘Hey, we have these insights. Do you mind if we have a work session, get some sandwiches—or now I guess it would be over Zoom—and just go over some of these ideas?’ Our teams were always willing to do that, because we wanted to think together, we wanted to know how these guys think, are they asking the kind of questions we're trying to get our head around, and do they provide a unique way of thinking about things that’s different from us?”
Morris added that when his firm made the decision to switch agencies, they really wanted to understand two things: “Obviously, yes, we've talked about chemistry being critically important, but the other thing was, ‘How do they think and how did they come at the problem? What were they grappling with? What were they struggling with?’
“If you can,” he added, “somehow demonstrate and engage us in a fun way around how you think about problems. In that process you see chemistry and how the team works together.”
Bring something of value
Sometimes it’s tough to get face time with potential clients for the first time. Showing up on someone’s radar is, according to Morris, “really, really hard.” How to overcome the challenge? “The obvious one first: Is there a connection someplace in the organization?” Morris said. Another idea: Break through on “something you know about me, my company, my team, something we're struggling with” and suggest solutions.
Heavey concurs. “What's most impressed me about firms we ended up hiring is them doing their homework,” he said. “Pre-pandemic, we moved nearly 6 million people a day on subways, buses and trains. Speak to them. If you have a hypothesis about something that would improve the customer experience, speak to customers. If you bring us a problem we didn't know about or an enhancement or solution worth exploring further, that's gold to me.”
Sometimes a simple compliment works. Morris explained: “We’ve done a really powerful campaign around distracted driving and an agency called and said, ‘Hey, we love that campaign; you guys have done some amazing work with that.’” Another firm took an opposing approach on a different campaign. “They said, ‘We've seen what you're doing; we like this, but we don't understand why you did it that way. That's not how we would have thought about that solution.’ I thought that was a really interesting tack.”
It's about them not you
Sharing ideas also can pay dividends. “One of the most impressive things to me in the last few years involves content—having agencies send me content that’s relative to my business,” O’Brien noted. “I'm always thirsty for new information. One thing that elevated an agency we recently hired was their content development and regular emails.”
Sometimes chances are blown. According to Bottomley, one of the biggest mistakes agencies make in responding to RFPs involves focus, and where it’s directed. “When an agency is talking about ‘me’ and ‘I’ more than about the client, it's really hard to listen as a client.” But it’s actually bigger than that. “When it's ‘I’ and not “we,” … that looks like a solo artist or a group of individuals and not a team. Even if the ideas are brilliant, it's a really hard to overcome that issue.”
It’s no secret that winning is better, but not every try takes top prize. What can an agency do to improve its chances of winning the next project that comes up? Kantor primed his answer with a dose of reality: “Somewhere close to 40% of new client-agency relationships don't last more than 18 months, so the client may be looking to make a decision before long. And more often than not, they go to the agency that came in second.
How to win next time
“By the way,” he added, “you probably know why you didn't win. What you really need to listen for is what to do differently to improve going forward. Too many agencies ask why they didn't win and what they really should be listening for is ‘What do we need to do differently going forward to improve?’”
Ramusevic concurred. “Sit down with the prospect afterwards and ask ‘Where did we miss the ball? What could we have done better in this case? Was it the team? Sometimes you need to prompt them, because we don't always know why we choose someone. Also, ask, ‘Why did whoever won win?”
“Keep in touch with that prospect, because things may change,” O’Brien said. “Or there may come a time where they need a one-off project where they’ll use you. Keep gathering relationships and don't lose touch with the individuals.”
Note: Some quotes have been edited minimally for clarity, brevity, and style.
About The Artemis Partnership:
The Artemis Partnership’s key objective is to help clients win more new business. Revenue growth in highly competitive categories has never been more challenging and clients turn to Artemis to improve success rates for their most important pursuits. Artemis has a unique understanding of how buyers make decisions in tightly competitive categories. From this foundation, Artemis’ consulting services guide its clientele to understand and emphasize those factors, which extend well beyond the technical and pricing elements of their proposals. Clients create real differentiation by focusing on the relevant, even emotional, elements that truly matter to decision makers. This approach results in a consistent 30 to 40 percentage point improvement in conversion rates, and on specific pursuits, clients win 80 percent of the time.
The Artemis Partnership, formed in 2019 by highly-experienced business development consultants Bob Wiesner, Ian Forbes, and Graham Kean, operates in the United States, Asia Pacific and Europe, and services clients across a variety of verticals including marketing, advertising, architecture, construction, engineering, infrastructure, auditing, management consulting, IT solutions, aerospace/defense, and professional/financial services. https://www.artemispartnership.com/