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Feb. '06 Build Business: The Other Side of the Table: An Inside View of the Selection Process

by Stephanie Craft, CPSM, MARKETLINK
February 14, 2006

Editor’s note: As a monthly contributor to ArchNewsNow, the Society for Marketing Professional Services is sponsoring Build Business. The series, written by industry experts, focuses on marketing and business development best practices to help you build business and advance your career.


I was planning to interview the Facilities Director of a Community College District in California for this article. Every year I call a variety of end-users/owners to get their input on what impresses them in project interviews and what doesn’t. Much to my disappointment the Facilities Director declined to be interviewed, but did make me an offer I couldn’t refuse: Rather than taking his word for it, he invited me to attend their next interview to experience the process myself.


I have only attended interviews as an observer with a presenting team. Afterward, we review how well it went. Now, having had the experience of sitting on the other side of the table, I better understand what goes into the selection decision and how important those presentation techniques truly are.


Here are some of my observations as a non-voting member of a selection committee.


The Format


Each team was to provide a short presentation (15-20 minutes) followed by nearly an hour of Q&A. It was interesting to see how each team chose to spend their presentation time. Some brought just their architectural team with one key consultant, while others brought every team member in anticipation of the Q&A session.




There’s always been the rule floating around our industry about only bringing people to the interview who have a “speaking” part. In this case, some did and some didn’t abide by the rule. It didn’t seem to make a difference with the selection committee.


One of the teams brought more than a dozen members. A selection committee member made an effort to direct questions to those who hadn’t spoken during the presentation. This primarily involved asking how their discipline/specialty was important to the project and a differentiating factor for the team. A consulting engineer on the team interrupted to introduce his firm in response to a question, which wasn’t needed or appropriate. He actually commented that he felt his firm needed to be heard. I was stunned. To be part of a “team” means to answer questions – when asked – to help the team succeed, but he just jumped in, not wanting to be overlooked as an individual firm, when his engineering firm had the smallest part of the project and his interruption added no advantage.


Other interesting tidbits about the presentations:


One team didn’t let the Project Manager (PM) speak. The seasoned, gray-haired principal did all the talking. Occasionally, when there was a break in the monologue, the PM would dive in, but it was rare. The selection committee was not impressed. They didn’t have a chance to get to know the person they would be working with. One selection panelist kept telling me that he sees the egos of principals get in the way all the time – they like to hog the spotlight. Sometimes it’s because they love their firm and truly want to sell it as the best, but more often than not, it comes across as ego.


Another firm closed its presentation not by saying how the team could help the client or provide the best solution, but rather by saying they hoped to selected by the college because they hated working in their local city and wanted to work someplace else for a change. On the way out, the firm’s principal happened to comment to one of the selection committee members that he hoped they didn’t have to make the drive to the college again because it was so far away. Little did he know, but he had just sunk his firm’s chance for the project.


I have to say how impressed I was that all but one of the teams stuck very close to their allotted time limit for their presentations. The only firm that went over had a technical consultant who went so deep into the details of his work that he forgot the time. It was amusing to watch – the principal tried to stop him by clearing his throat repeatedly, and then handed a sign to the gentleman next to him to hold up, which I can only presume had the word “stop” written in large letters! Despite that, though, the selection committee didn’t seem phased, nor did they hold it against them. The fact that they were a quality team was much more impressive than someone going on too long.




The selection committee had 18 questions that were to be asked in rotation by each committee member, allotting approximately three minutes to answer each question, which seemed reasonable enough. Did we get through all 18 questions with any of the teams? No. Most of the answers were so long-winded and rambling that sometimes the question didn’t even get answered. Important note to team members: answer questions concisely and then stop. Don’t get caught up in so much detail that you overshoot the question. The committee is only looking for a clear, concise answer, not your entire history.


The whole purpose of such a long Q&A was for the committee to not only get the answers to their questions, but to also get a feel for who these teams were, how they communicated, how well they listened, how thorough and concise were their answers, and how comfortable the College would feel working with them.


This was also an opportunity for the teams to build rapport with the committee. Two teams did the best job. How? 1) The principals answered very few, if any, of the questions, deferring, instead, to the PMs. 2) The PMs responded to the questions citing examples from their past work experience to support their answers. This allowed the committee to learn how each solved problems and helped a client throughout the design and construction process. 3) The PMs conveyed an ease in answering the questions. They were confident in their abilities, yet low-key in their communication style, so they both came across as knowledgeable and easy to work with.


One of the best questions on the list was: What is your weakness? This seemed to stop each team cold. You could almost see the wheels spinning to figure out how to take a strength and position it as a weakness, as we’ve all been advised to do for job interviews – the old, “I work too much” as a weakness. I think every team should have a credible answer to that question. Every firm/team has a weakness. We don’t want to talk about it, but we should have something prepared that sounds real. One selection committee member said he just wanted to see who would be “real” with them and acknowledge that they’re not perfect, have things they could work on, and maybe list one or two things. Sounds like a good place to start formulating the answer.


Selection Discussion


Let me start by saying the leave-behinds were not used at all in this selection discussion. That’s not to say they are never used, but for this project, the committee took enough notes on their scoring sheets to know how they felt about each team. Perhaps if the interviews were split up over a couple of days, a leave-behind could be helpful, but from this experience, I really wonder if they’re not a wasted expense in the selling process.


What impressed me most about the selection discussion was that it came down to one simple concept: a group of human beings talking about what they liked or didn’t like about the prospect of working with another group of human beings. First, they acknowledged all the teams were qualified or they wouldn’t have been interviewed, so what was the deciding factor? It was determining which team presented themselves as being the best at listening to them (the College’s users) and guiding them through the building process. The selection committee discussed their scoring sheets for each of the teams while making such comments as:


       “I was impressed with their credentials, but I think they would overpower us.”

       “I liked this team’s personality. I think they would be good to work with.”

       “I think this team is very competent, but I didn’t get the impression they would really give us the attention we need when they have so many other larger clients.”

       “I liked that I knew clearly who their PM was and who we’d be working with.”

       “I liked the way this firm communicated with us. I could work with them.”

       “Their team was so large I wasn’t clear on who we’d really be working with.”


So, after all of this, how do you get selected? From this experience, I would say it is by presenting that you are the most qualified in such a way that the selection committee feels you hear and understand them. You have to create an emotional experience for them because it is basically an emotional decision they are making. In this case, because all of the teams were qualified, the decision was based on the committee’s gut instinct about which team they felt would be best to work with. Clients want to hire the team that has their best interests at heart – and if they don’t feel that, you will only lose points.



Stephanie Craft, CPSM, is a partner in MARKETLINK, a marketing consulting firm with offices in Sacramento, CA, and Salt Lake City. The firm specializes in developing client perception surveys, business development activities, strategic planning, public relations, and marketing training seminars for both marketing and technical staff.


The Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) was created in 1973 by a small group of professional services firm leaders who recognized the need to sharpen skills, pool resources, and work together to create business opportunities. Today, the association has 50 active chapters and a membership of 5,500 marketing and business development professionals representing design, building, and related firms.



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