Responding to a Request for Proposal (RFP) is an expensive exercise. Proposals are labour-intensive, often last minute, and have the capability of greatly enhancing or diminishing a law firm’s reputation with the recipients.
Lawyers find proposals intrusive on their billable hours and think that their marketing staff should be able to handle the process. However, even the best marketing staff, who can research the prospective client and pull together a decent first draft, needs input from the lawyers on the proposal team. They need the lawyers’ insights on the client’s legal needs. They need relevant, specific examples of the firm’s work. They need to know what fee proposal the firm is willing to make. And someone must decide who should be on the proposed client service team.
Stress levels mount as the deadline looms.
You wouldn’t make a major investment in equipment, or hire an important staff member, without doing your homework. Proposals are a similar investment. So with all this value tied up in proposals, more law firms should be tracking whether they win or lose—and why.
Most marketing consultants recommend debriefing after a firm has put in a proposal to a prospective client—whether the work was won or lost. Why? For the same reason that most marketing consultants recommend doing client surveys—to find out what the client is thinking, and whether the firm’s approach to that client is the right one.
Most law firms, on the other hand, don’t debrief after proposals or survey clients. Why not? Usually because they believe they know what the client thinks, or they don’t want to take the time, or they don’t think they’ll like what they’ll hear, or someone doesn’t want anyone else to know what happened.
Debriefing, both internal and external, should be a core component of the proposal process in law firms. Why did the firm win the work (what can we learn that we can repeat)? Why did the firm lose the work (what did we do that we mustn’t repeat)? What has been the firm’s track record with proposals and why? What is the firm’s track record against other firms? This knowledge will tell us how the firm compares to the competition, and give insight into how the firm is perceived in the market. It will also document strengths and weaknesses.
Finally, profitability of work won on proposal should also be tracked. This will allow the firm to be judicious in its choice of work worth pursuing.
Internal debriefing with team members
Everyone involved in the proposal, both lawyers and staff, should discuss how the presentation went, and why the result was what it was. Notes from the debriefing should be recorded with the proposal. The debriefing should be approached in an open-minded way; it’s a learning session, not a blame-fest or a victory lap. If it is done for each proposal, win or lose, there is more chance of it being seen as an essential part of the process. An appropriate senior lawyer should chair this process.
Questions to ask:
- Did we have the right team?
- Did we address the client’s issues?
- Did we get the appropriate references?
- Did we fulfill the requirements of the RFP in a timely manner?
- Where could we have improved
- our research?
- our presentation?
- our materials?
External debriefing with the client
Many lawyers think that clients will be irritated by a request to debrief. Actually, many RFPs specify how and when the client is prepared to give feedback on proposals received. Clients actually welcome debriefings: they show that the law firm cares enough to find out how its team did. They’re an opportunity to educate law firms about client care. Above all, they help to improve the standard on both sides of the bidding process.
It’s important to position this with the client as an exercise in quality control, not an appeal for a different decision. If a debriefing is not specified to be part of the RFP process, request one. In fact, if there’s an opportunity to ask questions, ask for a post-decision debrief when submitting questions.
A senior lawyer who was not part of the proposal team, or a senior marketing staff member, or a third party consultant/researcher should interview the client, whether the work was won or lost. The interviewer should definitely NOT be the lead lawyer on the proposal team. I’ve found that clients will be far more candid with a neutral third party than they will be with the lawyer who signed the proposal documents.
In my next column I’ll discuss what can be learned from tracking proposal win/loss ratios.