The beautiful ones (law firm responses to tenders)

13 12 2010

Aware that often the third part of a trilogy can be a disappointment (think Return of the Jedi….) I want to finish my musings on how law firms respond to tenders on a high. In the previous two posts (here and here) I’ve looked at some of the mistakes I’ve seen when evaluating law firm responses to RFPs (requests for proposals), now it’s time to celebrate some of the goodness!

Inspiration for the tender design was taken seriously at Scratchit & Co

When I think back to those responses that have really impressed evaluation panels (and not just me), I think the key word is “relevance”. The more effort the law firm puts into the document or presentation, in terms of tailoring it for the prospect’s specific needs, the stronger the submission.

The challenge for me is to give examples without giving away any trade secrets. So here goes.

One project that I put out to tender five years ago spanned around 15 European countries. The firm who won the project submitted a tremendous document that had a huge amount of material that really created value for our organisation. It had points for us to think about both for the project as a whole and for each country in the project scope.

This did two things. Firstly it showed that the law firm had experience of the areas of law we needed help with, in these particular countries. Secondly it give us a “heads up” of things we should be aware of, even if we didn’t select the law firm in question.

The other thing that the winning law firm did on that pitch, was make sure that all examples of experience were relevant (even down to tailoring CVs). The amount of responses I’ve seen where standard blocks of text and vanilla CVs have been appended on the back is huge, so when a firm goes to the trouble of really thinking about what the prospect organisation wants, it stands out a mile.

I’ve seen a similar approach taken at presentation stage. At a pitch I ran for financial services legal support, the winning firm gave a virtuoso presentation. The lead partner had asked some great questions early in the process, and had clearly spent significant time thinking about the issues we would face, and how best to deal with them. Rather that the presentation being a verbal version of the paper RFP response (which often happens, with firms taking the opportunity to spend an hour using extensive powerpoint to tell the prospect how good they are) the partner and his team took the evaluation panel through a mini-workshop, illustrating  points with war stories and other relevant examples.

We came out of the presentation with a much better understanding of the project, a good rapport with the law firm, and a clear action plan if we chose to work with that firm (we did).

Another area where firms can distinguish themselves is in the presentation of the document. I’ve seen a wide variety of creative approaches, from mocking-up a trade publication, through using corporate colours and imagery, to just some really nice, clear presentation (I respectfully refer people once again to Impact by Jon Moon and Presentation Zen Design by Gary Reynolds). Of course presentation is superficial, but it does make a difference, particularly if it makes the content easy to digest. It’s also another area where law firms can demonstrate they have thought about the particular client, rather than just plugged the information into the tender-team sausage factory.

So, it’s relevant, it adds value and it looks great?

Go forth and win!





The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (RFP Responses)

30 11 2010

Having just completed another RFP (request for proposal) process for legal services for a BPO company, and closed out the subsequent feedback process, it seems an appropriate time to consider the many type of responses I’ve seen when running these exercises.

Trevor from procurement was not impressed by Goldman & Partners' RFP response

Firstly a word about my approach. I’ve run RFPs covering legal support for outsourcing, commercial, employment, financial services, property and one-off projects in my time. My approach is generally to try and make the process as painless as possible both for my internal clients and for the law firms.

Let’s be honest, if the law firm is sweating over a 50 page response, and the potential client has six of these to read, evaluate and discuss, how many of the client senior management team will REALLY read and digest all that material? You may have your own view, but for those who think that execs have the time and inclination to plough through this stuff in a meaningful way, I’d respectfully suggest you read Davenport’s book “The Attention Economy“!

So, starting with the bit lawyers usually enjoy to hear about (when it’s not their firm) – the ugly;  the horror stories; the car crashes.

Names and other identifying details have of course been omitted to protect the guilty.

Perhaps my favourite was the international law firm, that tendering for a large scale, one-off project, set out in some detail how the project management function would be performed by a well qualified, senior associate. No problem with this so far. Methodology seemed sound, experience of the individual looked relevant and the cost of this person was transparent.

So where’s the beef?

Well, the fees section included a £75,000 project management fee. When I phoned up to enquire what this was for (when the cost of the associate performing the project management role was already baked in to the fees) I was met with an uncomfortable silence then a promise to “get back to you”. The resulting explanation was no less unimpressive.

Fail.

Another project management blunder was the law firm that on a project with the potential for high-six-figure legal fees put forward as a project manager a junior lawyer who despite being both (a) a very competent lawyer; and (b) a genuinely nice guy, was utterly unqualified for large scale project management.

This was evidenced at firm interview stage, when he described the firm’s project management methodology as “Lists. Lots of lists”. Sorry……

Inflexibility around fees is another bugbear. One project saw the company I was working with give sufficient information to price the work with a variety of fee structures, and specifically stated that hourly rate charging would not be considered. Five of the six firms bidding managed to put together compelling charging models, the other explained “We charge the following hourly rates”.

Not to us you won’t be!

Another project, which went out to tender late one summer, explained that for budget reasons it would be helpful for the company to delay payment until the next calendar year. The company explicitly acknowledged that it understood that this may incur an additional fee to cover the cost of the capital, and simply asked firms to make that fee transparent if there would be a charge.

All but one firms came back with an appropriate solution (some of which were quite creative). One came back, helpfully explaining “we bill monthly in arrears”. Thanks.

Ironically, the budget picture internally changed, and a large part of the fee was paid early in the project, providing the successful firm with an unexpected cash flow boost.

Finally, it’s a thin line between an ugly RFP response and simply a bad one (which I’ll look at next week), but this is a tale of a firm walking down that tightrope.

A recent tender that spanned multiple work types asked responding firms for each work type to set out their competitive advantage. One firm responding was an incumbent, and their assessment of their competitive advantage (for each work type) was simply “we work with you, we know your business”.

Now while that is undoubtedly true, I suspect that’s an implicit barrier to entry that all existing advisors enjoy, and to be honest it’s not an insurmountable barrier. To me, the fact that the work is going out to tender suggests that the prospect is considering a number of possible solutions to their need and complacency is not a good idea. If the incumbent firm were bidding for work with a new client, presumably they believe they have some competitive advantage? Assuming that’s the case, I would have thought it best to mention this to build a compelling picture of why they should be selected, rather than rely on the fact that inertia might make keeping the status quo easier than changing.

Let me finish on a less depressing note by saying I’ve seen some stunning responses to RFPs in my time, and while the good and bad are often fairly evenly matched, the ugly ones are relatively few and far between.

But… if you’ve got a response to an RFP going out this week, just have a final look through…..





Smarter business development?

16 08 2010

One of my former commercial colleagues from corporate life was telling me the other day about an analysis they did of their business development spend. A huge proportion of their annual budget went into the team that responded to RFPs (requests for proposals) and yet their win rate for these opportunities was actually very low. The big deals came from existing clients, or through a network of trusted contacts and third parties that would allow the company to get visibility of the opportunity way before it went out to tender. Often, if the company could then show they could help the prospective client and had a strong value proposition for doing so, the buyer would see no need to go out to the market. If a tender was required, the company had often helped write the RFP or at the very least shaped the client’s thinking so the company was well positioned to win.

The chances of winning the work didn't look good

This then made me think about how much time lawyers spend being corralled into business development activity that is sub-optimal in terms of cost/benefit. In my experience, this plagues all stages of a lawyer’s career. From the trainee or newly qualified lawyer, forced to help compile a newsletter that goes out to a huge database of clients and prospects, but that very few people ever read (and let alone instruct the firm directly as a result)  to the specialist senior associate wheeled out in a pitch meeting to show expertise in an area that is really only on the periphery of the client’s needs, through to the partner spending  hours frantically pulling together a pitch document for a tender the firm has little realistic chance of winning. Surely there must be a better way?

What are the activities that really drive results when it comes to business development? Sadly law firms often lack the management information that help them make informed decisions in this area, and it may be necessary for individuals lawyers to think about this at an individual level.

While I don’t think there is a one-size fits all model, there are certainly lessons I can share from my own career, both as a buyer or seller of legal services. Written communications can have benefit depending on not just who they reach and how interesting they are to the audience, but what type of communication they are and how they are followed up. For example, while at a national firm I spent many hours writing a series of white papers on information security law topics. Making these freely available for download on the firm’s website would have limited value in my opinion, but working with our strategic partners to make hard copy versions a valuable “take away” from joint events, and using requests for electronic copies as a way of starting a sales dialogue to uncover prospect needs seemed to work well. Seminars were always great for increasing visibility in the markets, positioning my practice and making contacts, but it wasn’t until one of my business development mentors showed me how to take the contacts and add them to a sales pipeline that I really began to see tangible results from the activity.

Speaking as both buyer and seller, I’ve had some of my best business development results through investments in relationships. Whether it was strategic partnerships, solid account management, or the development of a personal relationship with a prospective client or intermediary, all have delivered in the end.  My personal learning from these situations is that the results have usually spun out of a genuine desire to learn about, and help, the other party in the relationship. It might sound idealistic or too altruistic, but it has certainly been true for me. By contrast many of the time-vacuums I mentioned early (newsletter editing, being dragged into pitches) often lack that personal connection and the ability to really understand the potential client’s needs.

Look at your diary over the next month: what are your business development commitments? Will that be time well spent? What are the items that are not in your diary but that are likely to appear at the last minute? What’s missing from your diary? Which key client or influencer should you be re-connecting with? Give them a call, and get some good karma by helping them solve a problem….