When the economy starts to look rocky and project opportunities may be diminishing, it can be tempting to start saying yes to work that’s not a great fit (but it’s work) or chasing RFPs.

I saw a lot of this happening during the Global Financial Crisis (2008–2009), and I’m seeing it again now. In times of uncertainty, of course, we may be more willing to take on a project that is not ideal. But too often, firms start to convince themselves that throwing best practices out the window is their best option.

In this issue of The Friedman File, we’re talking about why that’s not a good idea and offering some helpful guidelines for creating and implementing a thoughtful client selection process, one that strengthens your firm for the future.

What we’re doing that isn’t working

Many firms do have informal go/no-go processes in place. But the informality itself means that these processes are not always followed. (Sometimes, they are not followed at all!) When client selection criteria remains in the heads of principals and leaders, it can be changed at will by those who are emotionally attached to an opportunity, who are fearing a drop in workload or who are focused on their autonomy without vetting the firmwide impact.

This not only results in bad fit projects, unsuccessful pursuits and a lack of firmwide knowledge about what’s in the sales pipeline, it also sends the wrong message to staff. Add to that the stress and ineffectiveness passed down to your marketing staff who are dropping everything to prepare proposals with little advance warning.

All of this chasing and switching gears costs money: real time and resources spent on proposals and the opportunity costs of pursuing projects you lose or regret. In that same time, your staff could be building important relationships, doing billable work, or preparing a talk to 50 potential clients who do match your target profile.

Reframing the go/no-go process

A careful and effective review of opportunities is really not about pursuing the project or not. It’s about proactive client selection. This reframe can be a challenge for many firms, but it’s one that can have a huge impact on your growth and success. Why?

Maintaining control over what work you say yes to is a key piece of strong practice management. Focusing on interesting, challenging projects from clients who build your profile, pay what you’re worth, take your advice and want long-term relationships impacts your ability to attract and retain great people, provide them advancement and healthy benefits, and invest in the growth of your firm.

Creating a repeatable, understandable process with criteria that is grounded in your strategic plan creates buy-in and consensus for decision-making. Involving emerging leaders in that process can also provide important learning and development, helping them to more easily identify the right opportunities and relationships.

Creating accountability

An ideal process is the one that is followed. It is a tool, a core firmwide process with evaluation criteria that you can tailor as needed for individual client sectors. Every firm should have their own unique version of this, whether it’s a meeting of the minds, a weighted checklist or qualifying process (or a combination). But it’s not enough to have a process. You also have to use it. Consistently.

  • Establish a dollar threshold above which there must be a formal process.
  • Identify who’s involved. You may want more than one principal on the decision-making team, along with the marketing director, pursuit manager, and/or market leader.
  • Create a foundational process and criteria, with flexibility for areas of the business that may weight factors differently based on their goals.

Going through a standardized process is almost as valuable as the decision you ultimately make about the opportunity. It fosters discussion about what makes a good client, and provides essential modeling for emerging leaders and staff.

It also shows that you respect your marketing staff’s time and expertise and are selective about how they are utilized. This is important if you want them to be valued players in your marketing and BD strategy and not just paper pushers. A good marketing strategist will leave if they are not involved and effective in the role you’ve carved out for them.

What to consider

Here are some of the questions and criteria you may want to include:

  • What’s your relationship with this client (longstanding, new, referral)? Would a “no” impact the future relationship?
  • Is the client well-positioned or well-connected in the market? Are they a best-in-class organization?
  • How well are you prepositioned? Have you been on a site visit, and identified and met/talked with selection committee members? Do you understand the entirety of what the client wants to achieve?
  • Do you have a great story to tell that showcases similar projects, innovations, thought leadership or specialized expertise?
  • Do you have the capacity to wow this client? What are the resources needed and how will you meet them?
  • Is the funding in place? Is this a client who will pay on time?
  • How does the project size measure up to your goals, standards and capabilities?
  • Where is the cultural or values fit with the client? Do they value collaboration? Do they want solutions and innovations or a low-bid vendor to tick their boxes?
  • Who’s the competition? How many firms are in pursuit, and do they have a history or an advantage with this client?
  • What’s the investment required to win?
  • Can you make money on this project, and is that margin adequate?
  • Is it a growth project that you could learn from and leverage in the future?
  • Is this the type of work you want to do? Will it engage your staff? Is it high profile? Does it advance firmwide goals?

Your challenge

Yes, setting up formal client selection standards, training your staff to use them and staying true in times of market turmoil requires work and guts. But so does establishing effective project management protocols, or consistently eliciting thoughtful client feedback and using it to improve how you deliver services, or what services you deliver.

Anything that requires a behavioral and cultural change is work, but it is essential work with a significant return on investment. Your investment in and adherence to proactive client selection speaks to the kind of organization you want to build. It’s critical to your business fundamentals.

Depending on your situation, you may decide to be less stringent in your selection criteria on occasion, but it’s not your only option. And it shouldn’t become a habit. You can go back to the clients who love you and find out how can you help them in a different way. You can be creative in going after new markets. You may want to tap your local market for clients that you want to work with.

Spend quality time on your current and past relationships first, put a clear system in place and be judicious about evaluating other opportunities. I’d love to hear more about your firm’s challenges with client selection. Reach out to me at rich@friedmanpartners.com or (508) 276-1101.