On being ... too earnest

By Ingrid Sapona

As a consultant, responding to requests for proposals -- RFPs -- is a necessary evil, since lots of lucrative, interesting, projects are awarded that way. Because most RFPs are awarded based strictly on submissions -- there’s rarely an interview or negotiation of any sort -- putting together a good proposal is crucial and doing a good job is incredibly time consuming.

If you don’t win the bid, usually all you get it a brusque “thanks for responding”. Though I always ask for feedback on bids I don’t win, often the comments are either pretty general or a bit vague. Last week, for example, on one proposal I was told the fee I quoted was high and that they found the fee structure confusing.

Besides being disappointed at not getting that work, I was disheartened because I had painstakingly set out and explained each element of the quote. As I understood the project, it involved a number of steps, some of which had a number of variables that impacted on the amount of work involved. So, I set out a fee range based on the variables, along with an absolute maximum (an amount they could use in their budgeting). I based the quote on my normal rate, which I believe is pretty much the going rate for my line of work and experience.

I mentioned to Elizabeth (not her real name), a friend who works at a big consulting firm, that I was discouraged about the comments and about another recent proposal that I lost to a lower bidder. (They never tell you what the actual winning bid was, they only tell you that yours was higher than the winning bid.) Elizabeth wondered whether some consultants might be low-balling on bids in hopes of snagging the work, and then figuring out a way to up the price once they’ve started on the project. At the risk of sounding incredibly naive, I had to admit I hadn’t considered that -- much less thought of doing that.

As we talked, I realized maybe she was on to something. I told her about a consultant I know, for example, who often tells me about work she’d doing where she’s decided to ask her client for more than she quoted because she feels she’s doing more than she agreed to do. She refers to such work as “out-of-scope”. Though I’d never said anything to her about this, I’ve always wondered whether she just has an awful lot of clients who misrepresent projects, or who demand major changes mid-project, or whether she’s just very bad at gauging the scope of projects and way more gutsy than me when it comes to asking for more money.

As I said to Elizabeth, that sort of thing almost never happens to me because before I quote on a project, I make sure I understand the deliverables and all the steps. Then I estimate the time the project will likely take and the quote is based on that. The way I see it, when clients hire me for a set fee, I promise to produce quality work on time and on budget -- it’s all part of the deal. If something ends up taking more time than I anticipated, well, that’s the risk of quoting a flat fee.

Recently, for example, a client hired me to write three guides. Before quoting, I asked for details about what each guide would cover. After the project started, the client decided a topic slated for one guide was more appropriate as a separate guide, so we ended up doing a fourth. Putting together an extra guide meant a bit more work for me, as I had to write a separate introduction, conclusion, etc.

Though I could’ve made a case for charging more, I took a number of things into account and I decided not to. For example, I considered that I didn’t think the client purposely misrepresented the project. I also figured that if I’d have been more assertive in our preliminary discussions, we might have realized the need for a fourth guide, in which case I would have been justified quoting a higher amount. Finally, I considered whether what I was paid for the work was fair and I figured it was.

Elizabeth and I discussed the approaches other consultants might be taking and I reiterated that I think it’s better to be painstaking and thorough in quoting -- even if it means the quote seems a bit high -- because I’m willing to suffer the consequences if a project takes more time than the time than I estimated. I concluded the conversation complaining that my problem is that “I’m too earnest”.

No sooner did those words escape my lips than I thought of something I overheard a classmate (let’s call him Mr. Big) say in law school years ago. Mr. Big was telling his buddy about how he did in an interview that morning with a prestigious firm. When asked by the interviewer what he thought his worst quality was, Mr. Big answered: “I sometimes work too hard”. I vividly remember that when I heard that, I wanted to gag. The nerve, I thought, of making it sound like he’s a victim of something he knew a potential employer would see as a virtue! A moment later I realize the connection my subconscious had made between Mr. Big’s comment and mine about being too earnest.

I’ll never be able to be anything but earnest when it comes to my business, which I think most would agree is appropriate. But, like so many things in life, moderation is the key. Being “too” earnest has clearly become a problem for me, as it might be jeopardizing my chances of winning bids, and it might even have become a bit of an emotional crutch.

Well, I guess if I hope to win future bids, I’ve got my work cut out for me: I’ve got to find a way of quoting that I’m comfortable with but that isn’t too earnest for my own good.

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


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