Building Your Brand Through Failure
By Ron Sellers
I just had to give a potential vendor some bad news: their pricing was by far the highest bid we received on a project. In fact, it was about double the next-highest bid.
Their response? “Thanks for the feedback and best of luck on the project.”
What does this say about that vendor? To me, it says they’re not very interested in learning, improving, or growing. To me, their brand now means, “We want the low-hanging fruit, but don’t care to learn about your needs or discover how we could do better.”
Any time Grey Matter Research is not selected for a project on which we provided a proposal, I want to know why. And believe me, if the feedback is that we were twice as expensive as any other bid the client received, I’d really want to know why. I’d figure we messed something up or made some assumptions that no one else was making. Whatever happened, I certainly wouldn’t want to repeat the problem – I’d want to learn from it.
How a company acts in defeat tells me a lot about that company. I remember years ago, when I was working at a major bank, I received a recommendation for a new vendor. I asked them to bid on a project along with my regular vendors. Their bid came in about triple what anyone else offered. I figured they must have missed something on the RFP, so I called the project manager.
“No,” he sniffed, “that bid is accurate. That’s what it will take to accomplish the project.” When I told him how far out of the ballpark his price was, he haughtily informed me, “None of your other vendors can do this job properly. We’re the only ones who can.” I was floored by this, particularly since he didn’t even know who else was bidding on the project. What he basically communicated was that his company was the only one in the world that could do the project correctly, and I was an idiot if I didn’t recognize that. Needless to say, they have never received another RFP from me. To me, their brand is, “Arrogant.”
Another fairly common response I get is attempted negotiation coupled with indignation. “Why did you just give the project to someone else because they were less expensive? I wish you had told me – we would have matched their costs.” What you have just informed me is that you were happy to bilk me for extra money if you could get away with it, and now you blame me for your failure to get the project.
That type of approach does not provoke a lot of trust, particularly on projects where we’re very clear with vendors that we sent the RFP to a small group of firms we are confident can handle the work well, but from that group all bids were a one-shot, best-price approach. That tells me their brand is, “We’re out for our own interests – not yours.”
We often (after the award) provide all bidders with all of the costs we received (not identifying who else bid on the project). I’ve been asked to stop sending RFPs by vendors that are consistently on the high side (which is fine – if they don’t want to compete with others on price, that’s their prerogative). Inevitably, however, a new account manager comes in and then wants to know why we no longer send them RFPs. Wait – your company told me to go away, and now you want to know why I went away? That tells me your brand is, “We’re disorganized and don’t communicate internally.”
Some vendors leave me with a positive perception, even when I deliver a negative decision. I love it when vendors honestly want to know why they didn’t get the job, because it gives me the opportunity to provide feedback and maybe start a dialogue that will lead to better collaboration. When they don’t get defensive, don’t make snotty remarks about the company (unknown to them) which did get the work, don’t warn me about the terrible mistake I’m making, and don’t try to change my mind, but they do seek to learn from the experience, do ask questions that will help them craft proposals that are closer to what I really need, and do leave me with the impression that they honestly value my business and my feedback and want to do what’s necessary to win the job next time, their brand value goes up quite a bit in my mind.
This is true even if the reason they didn’t get the project had nothing to do with the vendor or their bid. For example, I frequently tell vendors they didn’t get a project because we went with a different methodology, because we’re using a different market, or because the client decided not to do the project at all. There’s nothing the vendor could have done to get that project. Even so, I’m rarely asked to provide any feedback on their rejected proposal. What a lost opportunity for the vendor to learn how their proposal compared to others, how well it fit what I was looking for, how I perceived the vendor, and other valuable insights.
Even when the client’s decision appears to be unwise, it’s a mistake to say or do things that will harm your brand. I remember giving a proposal to a non-profit organization and having them tell me they selected another vendor. When I explored the reasons for this, I was informed that although the other vendor had no experience at all in the non-profit world (as opposed to our extensive track record in that arena), the other vendor was really big. “They have something like nineteen buildings, and that really impressed us!”
Frankly, that’s pretty absurd criteria for selecting a vendor, but would it have helped my company’s brand for me to express that to the client in some way, or to question their decision? Unlikely. I would just appear to be a sore loser. Sometimes all you can do is wish the client well and emphasize how much you’d like to work with them in the future. But at least I knew there’s nothing I could have done to land that project (short of erecting twenty buildings to trump the competition’s nineteen…but unfortunately that wasn’t in the budget). And yes, I did take the opportunity to ask questions about how the proposal and my company were perceived, even though there was not a thing I could have done to get the work.
Everybody wants to win every project, and it’s disappointing not to get the business. But how you act when you don’t win the business is just as important to my perception of your brand as how you act when you do win the bid.