4.2 Pre-bid Matters

Pre-bid discussions with potential clients are crucial to a project's success and should accomplish some critical things and answer some critical questions. Surely these discussions are largely about defining the project scope, but they must reveal other things too: the character and expectations of the potential client, if the timeline constraints fit your availability, or if you have the required capabilities to successfully complete the work…and if so, can this actually be a successful project? Ultimately and most importantly, you need to discover if you should accept or decline either the client or the project.

For some of you, the preceding may make prefect sense. To others, these concerns might seem ridiculous. For some agencies and freelancers the only relevant pre-bid concerns are, “Is there a slight possibility that I can do the work?” and, “Can the client agree to my price?” For these folks, nothing else is relevant to pre-bid discussion. The likely result of this foolish approach is a succession of nightmare projects with only periodic success, and a stressful and unhappy life and/or staff as the norm.

I suggest that you take a more professional and discriminating approach to client vetting and selection. In this section I will offer some suggestions for how to go about conducting your pre-bid discussions with potential clients so that you can better shape success for your clients and yourself.

What About RFPs?

No professional should ever deal with a Request For Proposal. RFPs are appropriate for commodity goods and services only. Design professionals do not deal in commodity services, but rather professional services. Such things require more than a mere outline of requirements as the basis of an agreement to enter into a relationship. There are many other problems with RFPs that preclude their consideration, including…

No responsible agency can bid a project simply from an RFP. Bidding a project is based on loads of information that cannot be found in an RFP. This fact alone should preclude any responsible professional from employing or answering one. What's more, asking for a bid in this way is a clear indication that the company regards design and development as pure commodities. Only the most irresponsible agency principles will enter into a relationship on such a basis. Also, by using an RFP the company asking for your commitment before either of you knows anything about the other…and that's just plain dumb.

An RFP typically circumvents relevant communication. The first step in any client/agency inquiry should be concerned with getting to know one another in order to gauge mutual suitability. Sure, you need to know what the potential client's project is about and what they're generally expecting, but you also need to get to know the individuals involved and discover if they meet or can agree to your standards. You need to know if they're the type of client you're willing to commit your team and your brand to working with. The potential client needs to know how your team works and what you will demand of them. Only after getting to know one another can you and they then decide whether to move on to details or to part ways.

An RFP puts the cart before the horse. RFPs are typically voluminous and filled with loads of information that is irrelevant to a first step. It therefore embodies a waste of effort and reflects poorly on the potential client's company.

An RFP indicates the potential client doesn't understand professional relationships. Professional relationships are built on mutual responsibility and respect. An RFP demands strictly one-sided responsibility (from the “vendor”) and indicates a measure of slight regard. It also indicates that the potential client is mostly interested in maintaining control of the project rather than allowing the design professionals to bring their skills to bear for the client's benefit. It is unlikely that the client or the client's staff is practiced at running design projects, so it is unseemly and irresponsible of them to attempt to seize control from the beginning.

An RFP places emphasis on the wrong things. RFPs invite competition, not suitability. An RFP basically asks, in spirit or in plain text, that you dazzle the potential client with bullshit…in combination with the lowest bid. None of this has anything to do with your getting to know one another, or anything else that makes for a successful project.

Defining Success

Before we get to the particulars of pre-bid discussions, you may have noticed earlier that I made a distinction between having the capability to successfully complete the work and having a successful project. The first can be objectively defined by comparing your skills to the project requirements; easy to figure out on a case-by-case basis. The second is something you must define for yourself and it relates directly to your own or your agency's core values, and does not change from project to project. Once you define what for you is a successful project, all of your potential work must be compared to this ideal.

For me, the possibility for a successful project is defined by answering “yes” to all of the following questions:

  1. Will I or my team be allowed to bring our best work to the final result?
  2. Is the client prepared to engage in the project appropriately?
  3. Is the client prepared to begin this project?
  4. Is the client prepared to invest trust in my or my team's ideas?
  5. Am I or is my team prepared to fulfill or exceed the project requirements?
  6. Is this client and this project right for me or my agency?

A single “no” answer to any of these should mean disqualification.

Your list might be similar or might differ in some ways, but the point is that you have to define success for yourself and aim for nothing less than success every time. If you don't know what, for you, is the definition for a successful project, how can you expect to ever have one?

Taking on a project where there is little hope of success—as defined by you or your agency's core values—doesn't make much sense. Doing so on a regular basis negates any claims of professionalism you may have. What's more, this sort of situation brings consequences I'm sure you'll want to avoid. I have several friends who work in environments where poor judgment and compromised professionalism rule the day. These are unhappy and unfulfilled individuals, desperate to escape. For an agency (and its clients!), this is a recipe for failure; the only question is how long until that happens.

Pre-bid discussion

In light of the preceding, initial discussions with potential clients are clearly about defining 3 things: project scope, mutual suitability, and possibility for success. Scope is easy enough to define, provided that you are diligent in finding all of the details. What remains and what takes the most work is gaining sufficient insight into your potential client's character and finding all of the other components that will define the possibility for project success.

To begin, you've got to do something that is implicit in the whole process: you need to get to know your potential client and you've got to allow them to get to know you. Much can be revealed in the course of casual conversation and I suggest that you take as much time as the other person will allow for this sort of thing. Get to know how they conduct a conversation, for you will likely be doing lots of this during the project. Ask questions several different ways to be sure you get a clear picture. Get to know whether they're patient or impatient, harried or laid back, shy or gregarious. Reveal the same of yourself.

Too often pre-bid discussions are regarded as a tricky negotiation, where each party is trying to learn things about the other without giving anything away. I suggest that this is exactly the wrong way to approach or conduct these conversations. During the course of your conversation(s), work to learn what is important to them—not just in the project sense, but on a personal level. Reveal the same of yourself. Work to learn what their standards and expectations are. Reveal the same of yourself. If you have secrets that might compromise the project if the client knew, you've no business asking the client for his project.

Now that you've got some idea about the overall approach, let's get specific to the things that will impact potential success. Note that perhaps not all of these questions need be covered. If you have any skill, you'll know which are appropriate and which are not, on a case-by-case basis.

Will I or my team be allowed to bring our best work to the final result?

This critical question is answered in all sorts of ways and you must be diligent in examining all of the factors that will contribute. Some of the things that will help you to answer this question can be discovered by asking the following sorts of questions. Some are about the client-side team:

  • Who are the decisions makers on the project and who has ultimate authority?
  • Who will be involved in our meetings?
  • Do you have an in-house designer or design team that will be involved?

And some are about the client's brand:

  • Describe your brand's characteristics
  • Who is your brand's or site's audience?

The first set of questions is concerned with defining how many individuals will be involved in approvals and who they are in the company (and who may be involved from afar). Circumstances vary, but as a general rule the more people involved on the client-side, the harder it is to get approvals and the more reworking of your efforts will likely be suggested.

As a rule, I never take on projects for my agency where there are any absent or uninvolved stakeholders with approval authority or where more than one individual has ultimate approval authority. These two requirements are deal breakers. When the designer is unable to directly interact with the ultimate authority there is seldom any chance for a successful project. Likewise, when ultimate authority rests with more than one person or with a committee, it demonstrates that the potential client is uncomfortable with responsibility. Therefore, they are unsuitable as professional partners.

The second set of questions is centered on the client's knowledge of their own brand. The more they know about their own brand, the better you'll be able to understand your mandate and how best to find the right solutions. If they're not sure about some of these things, it is unlikely that you'll understand how best to proceed or what constitutes the right result.

Is the client prepared to engage in the project appropriately?

You cannot rely on your own expertise to force a successful project. The project will be about collaboration, and success is possible most often with a client that understands this important fact. Finding out how well the client understands can be accomplished with questions like these. Some are about time constraints and client availability:

  • Are you available throughout the project for consultations and approvals?
  • Are you prepared to stick to our strictly-defined schedule, especially with your approval process?
  • We'll need to work directly with you on these (defined) days. Will you set aside the required time for these meetings/calls?
  • What are your time constraints?

Others are about client preconceptions:

  • Do you have any specific design ideas that you want to see articulated?
  • What factors are driving this (re)design effort?
  • Whose idea was/is it to redesign your site? Why?

Answers to the first few questions can tell you just how prepared and committed the client is to the project and its requisite process. The latter section of questions are about defining what sorts of possibly problematic constraints might creep up or what stakeholders might be hidden from view. All of these factors can impact the client's appropriate engagement in the project.

Is the client prepared to begin this project?

It is not uncommon for a potential client to initiate contact when they're nowhere near ready to start—or when they've got a flawed view of what needs to be done. You can learn about the client's preparedness and perceptions by way of these questions:

  • Is the content ready?
  • Who is writing the content?
  • Do you know precisely what the app will do and exactly how it will do it?
  • Do you need us to merely design the app's interface or will we be asked to define the app functionality with you?
  • What has been done already and what do you need us to do with you?
  • What is your budget?
  • What is your profit model?

Answers to these questions will likely provide important information about what the client thinks needs to be done vs. what actually needs to be done. So armed, you can then respond accordingly.

Is the client prepared to invest trust in my or my team's ideas?

You cannot be successful if you don't have the client's trust. Of course you've got to earn that trust in large measure, but before you choose to engage with a client it is best to know whether or not they're prepared to trust at all. You'll never be successful if your work is constantly second-guessed and if your ideas are regularly “committeed into shape.” Find out about your client's trust disposition with the following sorts of questions:

  • Why did you contact me/us about your project (rather than someone else)?
  • What do you know about my/our past work?
  • Is this your first attempt at the project? (Read: Have you tried and failed with someone else before? So are you reluctant to trust us as a result?)
  • Do you have any specific design ideas you want to see articulated?
  • Who will be evaluating the design effort?
  • On what basis will you evaluate our work (before publication)?
  • Why not use your in-house design team for the project?
  • What do you believe will make for a successful design?
  • What do you believe will make for a successful project?

For these questions, there may be no right or wrong answers. You're going to have to use context and your own abilities for discrimination to decide if the answers suit your preference. For instance, when asked about what will make a successful design, an answer like, “well, that's what I'm hoping you can tell me” is greatly encouraging.

Am I or is my team prepared to fulfill or exceed the project requirements?

You're on your own here, my friend. After learning the project requirements and about the client's disposition and character, you either are or are not prepared to fulfill or exceed the requirements. No one knows this but you. The point is you have to first learn about both the project scope AND about the client's character in order to answer this question.

Is the client and this project right for me or my agency?

Surely you must have some idea what sorts of clients or projects are right for you or your agency and what sorts are not. The fullness of your pre-bid conversations and research should paint a clear picture of the client's suitability and the appropriateness of the project. If after your pre-bid discussions you find that you don't have this clear picture, you still have work to do.

The main point

Much of what I've covered here relates to gaining a better grasp of the scope and potential problems. However, some of these questions are—indeed the entire overall objective is—concerned with exercising your values as a professional or as an agency. I think you will find that defining and staying true to a set of strict values will allow you to avoid some of our profession's common bear traps.

If you have defined your own or your agency's core values and you live and reflect on them regularly, you'll find that your processes will evolve to naturally include elements that uphold your professionalism and protect the good work, well-being, and confidence of everyone involved. A responsible approach to pre-bid discussions with potential clients is an important component to having a successful practice. With better processes you'll be able to bid projects more accurately and enjoy better results. Oh, and you'll likely sleep better at night, too.