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March 4, 2021

How A/E firms can increase proposal success in 2021

  • You must clearly understand the client’s budget for the project before pursuing.
    Middle of Six


    For many architecture and engineering consulting firms working in the public sector, 2021 will include more responses to requests for proposals (RFPs) and requests for qualifications (RFQs) in an increasingly competitive market. With the time, energy and expense required to respond to RFPs and RFQs, taking steps to increase your chances of winning is a prudent approach to make the most of your marketing budget.

    Before deciding to respond to the next RFP, pause and reflect on what your firm wants out of its business relationships this year, because winning projects through the proposal process requires more than simply being able to perform the scope of work.


    When contracting with a public sector client for architecture and engineering services, the contract period frequently spans a year or longer. Given this, it is wise to consider what type of client your firm and your staff would like to collaborate with over the next few years.

    Courtesy of Middle of Six, photo by Effie Gurmeza [enlarge]
    Winning proposal responses require time, dedication and collaboration between marketing teams and the design and engineering teams.

    First, spend time defining what an ideal client looks like for your firm. Beyond the size and makeup of the client’s capital projects budget, examining the potential client in terms of shared values and culture alignment with the firm is more likely to result in a pleasurable working relationship for all parties.

    If you don’t know what’s important to your potential client, and just as critically, what’s important to your team who will deliver design services, take the time to find out. Because, with certainty, there is another consultant who has invested that time.

    As your marketing department’s capacity begins to stretch and competition increases for every project pursuit, protecting the financial well-being of your company becomes even more significant. That is why you must clearly understand the client’s budget for the project before pursuing. While there are times to pursue a passion project, or to go after a loss-leader to break into a new market, these should be the exception, not the rule. Before you invest the time and resources towards a pursuit, assess if you can be profitable doing the work, because the longevity of your company depends on it.


    Once a clear financial justification for moving forward has been established, it is time for a more granular examination of the project pursuit to inform your go/no-go process. Answering some key questions backed by an established scoring criteria will help you take some of the emotion out of the process and provide data to inform your decision making. While there are many versions of go/no-go questionnaires in the architecture, engineering and construction industry, below is a swift and actionable assessment your firm can start using today.

    Five-question go/no-go template:

    • Were you tracking this project before the RFP/RFQ was issued? Yes = 1; No = 0

    • Do you have a positive existing client relationship? Yes = 1; No = 0

    • Do you have sufficient time and resources to actively complete the pursuit process? Yes = 1; No = 0

    • Do you have at least three recent, relevant projects to feature? Yes = 1; No = 0

    • What is the anticipated gross profit margin?* 0—7 % = 0; 8—15% = 1; Greater than 15% = 2

    (* Adjust profit margin percentages to match the profit expectations applicable to your firm.)

    Scoring: 0 to 3 = no-go; 4 = possibly**; 5 to 6 = go

    (** Consider additional factors to confirm if this is a worthwhile effort, such as competition, project funding and other opportunities your firm is pursuing.)


    Once your firm’s decision makers have given the go/no-go questionnaire an honest assessment, consideration of the time and resources required to put forth a competitive pursuit effort should be analyzed. Beyond the capacity of the marketing department to prepare the proposal or statement of qualifications, there is also the time that may be required of a firm principal or project manager to write a compelling project approach and draft a project schedule. It is prudent to verify that the whole of the pursuit efforts fit into the billable work commitments of the firm.

    The firm’s proposal development process may also require input from other parties. That may include content and approvals from other staff in the firm, or collaboration with subconsultants for scopes of work outside of the firm’s service offerings. By verifying that these contributors have capacity to effectively support the pursuit response, a last-minute scramble before the proposal deadline can be avoided.

    With most selection processes for publicly funded projects, it is common to anticipate a shortlist interview following the initial scoring of the proposal, so an accounting for that time commitment is necessary. An effective interview presentation requires preparation time. This may include two to four meetings to plan and practice the presentation in addition to time to prepare visuals to support the presentation such as a slide deck, conceptual renderings or virtual models.

    It takes a strong commitment, focus and energy to win work, so remember to consider the entirety of the pursuit process and all parties involved in the effort as you assess your firm’s resources.


    “We forget that while proposals are at the heart of an A/E/C marketing department’s ‘engine’ this core service is surrounded by four key foundational functions: marketing administration, client and partner outreach, communications and events,” wrote Allison Tivnon in “Marketing at Low Tide: How to Recession-proof Your Marketing Department”

    Another point of caution, because this justification has been stated many times in the AEC industry: “I just want to submit a proposal to get our name in front of the client.” This approach usually signals that a critical examination of the investment to submit a proposal was not conducted.

    Whether you have an in-house marketing department or use a consultant to prepare your response, there are costs beyond labor and materials — opportunity costs. Areas such as business development, client care or billable work may be compromised when resources are allocated to poorly vetted project pursuits.

    Consider if your marketing and business development team could be working to preposition the firm for the next pursuit instead of toiling away on a proposal with a low probability of success and the potential to leave a poor impression with the client.


    In the current market, competition for public work is fierce, with public clients seeing increasing numbers of proposals. Remember that your firm’s proposal is an extension of your brand and consider go/no-go decisions with purpose.

    Melissa English is principal marketing strategist at Middle of Six, a marketing consultancy.

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