• Frank Lippert and Kate Robinette

How to Say “No” and Up Your Position With the Client

Lately, at GO Strategies, we’ve heard from several marketing professionals that their companies are taking a ‘shotgun’ approach to proposals. Across the country, a staggering number of RFPs are hitting the streets at a time when firms are facing an increasing degree of uncertainty and anxiety. We’ve heard many CEOs say, “We just don’t know what the future holds, so we have to get as much work on the books as possible.” Fear is rampant.


At a time when cash is critical, when maintaining a healthy balance sheet and retaining your best talent is paramount – why are we making so many long-shot “go” decisions? Some marketers report that their firms are spending between $5,000 and $10,000 on prime proposals. Double or triple those figures when the proposal goes to interview. We think those calculations are low, especially now that many are working from home where it’s easier to spend extra hours on marketing and not track it.


Stop the madness! You can say “no” to clients and “no” to new work, and still win with clients in the long run. Here are some tips for politely and professionally declining to propose that help you deepen your client relationships:


1. Emphasize Quality: Industry-wide quality control is suffering. In almost every client perception study we have done in the last couple of years, clients complain about quality. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cutting-edge architect in San Francisco or an established engineering firm in Boston. Declining QA/QC is partly a result of the retirement of our vast Baby Boomer expertise and partly a result of being “too busy.” When you decline an opportunity to propose (especially with an existing client), tell the client that you need to focus on delivering the current work at a high-level. Tell them you are choosing to focus on quality over quantity.


Pro-tip: To really up your game, refer your client to a trusted minority-, women-owned, or emerging small business where you can offer a staff person to support the team. Inspire your clients with your confidence in a stellar M/W/ESB business, and help that small business really shine.


2. Share Your Expertise (Carefully): GO partner, Kate Robinette, tells a story of an engineer she worked with who possessed very specific expertise. They had almost a one-of-a-kind resume in the market. They we’re constantly overbooked. Kate helped craft ‘no thank you’ letters that included expert advice for the client. For example, “While we are unable to propose at this time, we can offer you some expert advice here. When you are selecting a consultant for this project, the following aspects of the design will be important….” Then they listed three things the client really needed to consider.


Pro-tip: Kate’s engineer positioned himself as a subject matter expert and was often awarded (without competing) small stand-alone contracts to QA/QC work or to advise the client project manager.


3. Address the Urgency: If a lot of RFPs are coming from a client where you have good relationships, pick up the phone and call them. Ask why so many RFPs are coming all at once and what the urgency is for doing that. Help them understand the marketplace “glut” and what that means to firms’ ability to deliver. Ask if some RFPs might be delayed until other projects are complete or other proposals have been awarded, so firms can more realistically gauge their workload capacity.


Pro-tip: If they can’t delay and you can’t propose, offer to help them with the selection as an unbiased, objective reviewer. While that doesn’t usually work with public sector clients, GO partner, Frank Lippert, has seen it work well in Higher Ed, K-12, and other quasi-public markets. It demonstrates that while you may not be able to help them long term on a project, you want their projects to have a great team.


4. Emphasize Capacity: Admit when your resources are stretched thin. In most markets, the clients know this before you say it. They’ve seen your construction banners all over the place. Telling them, honestly, that your manpower is stretched to the max shows that you care about project performance. You care enough to not waste your clients’ resources or burn out your own staff.


Pro-tip: Surprisingly, we’ve seen this result in some great hires. The conversation goes something like this: “When you guys were so honest with me on that project, I knew you cared about your employees and your firm must be a great place to work.”


5. Educate About Pre-Proposal Positioning: When you really are the best firm, but you have done zero homework before the RFP, you have an excellent opportunity to educate the client about how they can get the best proposals next time. As you decline the RFP, explain the industry best practice of meeting with the client early (6 months or a year ahead of the RFP) to learn about the project and get to know what kind of results the client wants. Explain how these conversations can actually help the client brainstorm early solutions and fully flesh-out the depth and type of expertise they need.


Pro-tip: Few clients fully grasp this concept. They see pre-proposal meetings as ‘marketing’ or something sneaky, which they are not. Take the opportunity to educate a client on what homework is all about and how helpful it is to them – and how much better the proposal submittals can be. You’re setting the stage for all of us.


These are just five ways to say ‘no’ and still develop winning client relationships. If we’re all submitting on every RFP that’s out there, we are not submitting our best work. We’re exhausting our resources and it will start to show in our proposal (and ultimately our project) quality. It won’t take long for clients to get proposal fatigue from evaluating so many, potentially lackluster, proposals. I’m sure a lot them are already there. If you really care about your client’s well-being, call them. Check-in and talk. Help them balance the proposal load. Help them understand that saying “no” to a proposal is not saying “no” to them, but “no” to underperforming when they need you most. Don’t stack one more shotgun proposal in their face.

GO Strategies, LLC helps A/E/C firms develop stronger marketing, business development, and people processes. If you’re having trouble saying no, please reach out. We can help. Please drop anyone of us an email at frank@go-strategies.com, kate@go-strategies.com, or kathryn@go-strategies.com.


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