I save every proposal I’ve lost. I have a file full of them. They go back to 2013 when I first incorporated. There’s sixty-eight of them all together, and on the cover of each one, I scrawled the reason I didn’t get the job. Why would I ever want to keep these? I tend to learn a lot when things don’t go well. There was a lesson behind each lost proposal.
I recently went through all sixty-eight to see if there were any trends… and because I need the space in my filing cabinet. Here’s what I found:
Price – 33%
People think I’m nuts for saying this, but I’m HAPPY to lose a job on price. Early on I decided that, if there were three tiers of pricing in the industry, I wanted my rates to be in the middle of the highest tier. If I lose a job because the client found someone with less expensive rates, that tells me I’m right where I want to be.
If a potential client’s biggest concern is cost, they’re probably shopping around. They may be checking a box on a list of tasks to prepare for an event. Or they might not have done much research into the differences between different visual practitioners* and view them as being equally skilled. We’re not equally skilled. Some have amazing abilities in drawing and illustration that they’ve refined through years of practice and study. Others have deep knowledge and expertise in facilitation and group processes. Others draw in methods from related disciplines like design thinking, agile methodology, and project management. Others have years of experience as consultants and draw from their expertise in fields like strategy, communications, and organizational development. Others have impressive organizational agility and business savvy and can make sense of even the most esoteric of conversations. There is a best athlete for every job.
If a potential client starts the discovery conversation with “How much are your services?” I always answer with, “Well, that depends on what you’re looking for,” and I try to understand more about their needs and expectations so I can propose the right services to meet their outcomes. Sometimes they’re unwilling or unable to have that discussion. They may stick with, “We just need someone to show up and draw, and I’m trying to get an idea of prices.” That tells me that cost is more of an issue than partnering to create an extraordinary experience. In those cases, I will refer them elsewhere. In his book Lynchpin, Seth Godin says competing on price is a “race to the bottom.” I believe competing on price commoditizes our work. It cheapens both the value of what we do and the rich diversity of backgrounds of those in the field.
I’m happy to lose on price.
Disappearing Act – 28%
Sometimes, despite the best discovery call and what I think is a solid proposal, potential clients will drop off the face of the Earth and become completely unresponsive. I’ll send emails and leave voicemails in case the emails are stuck in a spam filter somewhere, and yet, I get nothing back. No response. Nada. Zilch. Static. White Noise. This is a tough one for me for two reasons. Number one, I like closure. Number two, it’s tough for me to NOT to make up stories about what’s going on. But the truth is, there’s no way to know what happens here.
Once or twice, a potential client HAS followed up with me after a long period of radio silence, full of apologies, and explaining that they didn’t have the attention capacity to follow through. I get that. Our clients are busy. It’s up to me to demonstrate that the value of the services outweighs the cost of time and attention it takes to bring them in.
No Funding – 11%
This one isn’t unique to the DC area, but it sure is prevalent here. There are a lot of non-profits, not-for-profits, associations, and third-party event organizers who get their funding externally from grants and sponsors. And sometimes, they haven’t sealed the deal on that funding before contracting with me. I’ve never been told this was the case until after being told, “there’s no funding.”
In one instance where this happened, an organizer wasn’t able to secure a sponsor for a knowledge wall at an association convention. We were lucky: I had previously supported another member of the association, and the organizer and I were able to sign them as a sponsor. But in retrospect, that was a lot of additional work for me and should have been the organizer’s responsibility.
If I get the sense during the discovery call that funding may be an issue, I use it as an opportunity to mention my cancellation policy.
Didn’t Agree to Terms – 7%
File this one under, “C’mon, really?” There are about three pages of terms and conditions in my proposals. A lot of it is legalese like representations and governing law, but some of it lists conditions necessary to do the work. For example, I need time to set up and tear down. I need space in the room set up. I need to be able to hear what participants are saying. These seem obvious, but potential clients don’t always think of this.
In a few instances, potential clients don’t agree to my terms and conditions. Once, it was the half-day minimum. I don’t work on an hourly basis. They said, “You’ll only be actually facilitating a total of two-and-half hours over the course of the entire four-hour event. The rest of the time will be presentations and break outs. So we took your half-day fee, divided it by the time we need you, and here’s what we’ll pay you.” That wasn’t something I was willing to compromise.
Another time, the client wasn’t willing to pay for travel or accommodations. Rolling expenses into the overall cost wasn’t an option in this case. The venue was a four-star resort deep in the mountains of West Virginia, by the way.
I was happy to lose these proposals.
Contracting Bureaucracy – 5%
This one saddens me. Sometimes, a client’s own contracting department has procedures that are so complex the client can’t untangle them. I’ve tried to make this easier for my federal clients by trying to understand as much as I can about federal contracting policy and procedures so I can offer options they may not know about. But if it’s a big company that’s hiring me, learning their processes can be like learning a new language. I once had a company send me over four hundred pages of forms and documents to read and complete, and this was just to teach two half-day workshops!
If a client doesn’t know how to manage contracts and tries to navigate their own bureaucracy, it can a huge burden. I try to do what I can to keep things simple and provide options, but sometimes clients throw up their hands and give up.
Downscoped – 5%
This is where the potential client withdrew the visual component from their event altogether. In every case, the overall format of the event had shifted from being a facilitated discussion to simply informing participants of a decision that had already been made (read: death by PowerPoint.) And in every case, I was happy to lose the work.
Better Qualified – 4%
On two separate occasions, the potential client informed me that they had found someone that was better qualified or was a better fit for their organization. Interestingly, both clients happily told me who they’d gotten. In the first case, I completely agreed that the person they’d selected WAS the better fit: she had made a career in that industry before breaking out as a graphic facilitator. In the second case, I had no idea who the person was. After the event, I reached out, and I’m happy to say she’s now a part of my network and someone I continue to learn from.
Prime Mark-Up – 3%
This one really burns me. It’s probably more prevalent in the DC area. I get a lot of work from prime contractors (other companies) who are hiring me to work on their behalf for a client. Nearly all of them have been great partners. We collaborate on designing and co-facilitating events. They pass my fees onto their clients, along with a reasonable mark-up. I get the work, the prime makes a little money off my services, and the client gets the outcomes they want. We’re all happy.
But twice it’s happened that the prime contractor marked up my services exorbitantly. I hadn’t had a prior relationship with either company. In both cases, I found out through back channels how much their mark up was, and it was upwards of two or three TIMES my rate. And remember, I’m in the middle of the high end. So the prices quoted to the clients were ungodly.
Needless to say, the clients didn’t approve the rates, the jobs didn’t happen, and I didn’t work for the prime contractors, then or ever.
Missed Flight – 2%
This happened only once, five years ago, but I’m still mad about it. I got stuck in St. Louis in one of those rolling delay situations where the airline says, “It’ll be another thirty minutes,” then after thirty minutes, “it’ll be another forty-five minutes,” and on and on. And because it’s not a cancellation, they don’t let you change your flight. This went on all day until there were no other flights departing St. Louis. I missed the kick-off of a three-day offsite that I was facilitating. The client was understanding but cancelled the contract without rescheduling, and I was out around $10k.
So yeah, I’m still mad about it.
When I travel, I always “bookend” my trips, allowing a day before and a day after in case of disruption. No more red-eyes from one event to the next. This has an added benefit of giving time to reset after an event to clean up charts and catch up on email. And on the few occasions where schedules don’t allow bookending, I always have a back-up: I’ll walk another facilitator through the approach and agenda and make sure they can step in if I get stuck somewhere.
Unresponsive Until the Day Before – 2%
This is another one that only happened once, which hopefully means I learned from it. I thought it was a disappearing act: after a good discovery and solid proposal, I got no response to numerous emails or voicemails. For three months, basic questions (like the exact location of the event!) didn’t get answered. Then, the day before the event, I got the signed proposal in my inbox and an email that said, “OK! We’re good to go! See you tomorrow!” I had already written it off and taken on another job.
After that, I rewrote the Acceptance section of proposal to read:
By signing this proposal, I acknowledge my acceptance of and agreement with the terms of this proposal and authorize work to begin. I understand that, due to the time required for planning and preparation, the terms in this proposal are valid until [date, usually 3 weeks before.] If a signed proposal has not been received by Lizard Brain Solutions by [date,] the proposal is no longer valid.
*I’m using the term “visual practitioner” to include graphic facilitators, graphic recorders, visual consultants, visual coaches, sketchnoters, whiteboard animators, vision mappers, and any other practice that uses visuals with active listening and group processes.