02 26 2015

RFP Madness

Individuals, not companies, make decisions.

I have a few sound bites that I like to use with my clients when I’m consulting on a pitch. They’re a handy way for me to remind them what matters when you’re developing one and to prevent them from lapsing into bad habits. One expression that I find myself saying a lot, especially at the outset, is “Individuals, not companies, make decisions.”

I want my clients to be clear from the get-go that the company they’re pitching (i.e. the commercial enterprise) and the individuals that work in that company (i.e. the real people with the complex set of rational and emotional needs who’ll be deciding the fate of their pitch) are two very different things.

To that end, when I first meet with clients, I pay close attention to the language they use. If they speak in vague generalities about the company whose business they’re after (“They’re looking to diversify” or “They need to cut costs”), I see it as a red flag, because the language people use says a lot about how they think. In this case, their language tells me they’re thinking about the company as an abstraction. But if they don’t know anything about the needs of the individuals who’ll be deciding whether they win or lose, who’ll be influencing that decision — and to what extent — then they don’t really know anything. And if they start out without that information, they’ll waste their time. Unless the game is rigged, without it they can’t possibly win.

That’s why at the beginning of Phase One of the Pitch SSP process I always ask my clients to create a Power Map. A Power Map is a visual representation of the key people who’ll be making the decision, the degree of influence they’ll wield over it, and their roles in the organization. I’m not a big fan of guesswork, so I hand out a Power Map worksheet and ask clients to do three things: list the names of all the individuals who could affect the decision at the various levels within the organization (C-Suite, Senior Management, Contract Management and Administrative Support); assess the quality of their relationship to that person by giving themselves a relationship score based on whether they know them well, vaguely or not at all; and calculate the degree of influence each individual has over the final decision by assigning that person an Influence score based on whether they’re tangential to the decision, a significant influencer, or the key player.

What’s interesting about this exercise is that it forces team members to think about the specific individuals who’ll be green-lighting or passing on their pitch, how much strategic information the team possesses about those individuals’ needs, and how much more info they’ll still need to acquire. It also forces them to compile and assess that information in an objective way early in the process.

I can’t tell you how useful a Power Map is, especially when clients have been wandering around aimlessly in the RFP desert responding to a long list of requirements. Aside from giving them a strategic way to target their pitch, it teaches them that addressing the decision makers’ needs is the first order of business, and by far the most important. (Yes, they still have to address RFP requirements, but that’ll come later, and they’ll approach the task in a more proactive way.)

The other huge benefit of creating a Power Map, they soon discover, is that it can dramatically change the direction of a pitch. I worked with a software company once that was looking to provide new payroll software for a pharmaceutical company. Because the tech people from both companies had been talking to each other, the pitch team assumed that someone in IT would be making the decision. After doing some reconnaissance, however, they discovered that the head of procurement and the project director would be deciding. After more digging they learned that for reasons having to do with her precarious position within the organization, the project director was less concerned with the software’s technical virtuosity than she was with its capacity to integrate seamlessly with the company’s existing software.

As the intelligence-gathering process unfolded, the Power Map evolved, and the team shifted the pitch’s focus to highlight its software’s integration features and thus meet the project director’s needs. In doing so, they fended off a potentially time-wasting problem early in the process. Oh yeah, almost forgot. They also won the pitch.