The Interview – From the Client Perspective (Part III)

by Danielle Hilmo, BWBR Architects, Inc.

This month’s program exceeded expectations, with diverse perspectives from the client panel. Attendees appreciated the way Colleen Lichtsinn peeled back the curtain about MnDOT’s selection process. JoAnna Hicks and Kevin Wiese have both served multiple roles at a broad range of companies, and they have experience as both submitters and reviewers in the selection process. A lot was covered – here are some points that stood out for me.


  • Lack of clarity – Reviewers are frustrated if they cannot easily determine whether a firm is qualified for a specific project. Does the firm’s project experience fit the RFP criteria? Do they understand the project?
  • Long and/or rambling boilerplate narratives – Be specific and concise.
  • Proposals over the page limit – MnDOT actually rips out any pages in excess of the limit and reviewers never get to see them.
  • Bid form not filled in properly – Don’t just note “service included” on every line item. This is NOT helpful. The RFP issuer wants the details; that’s why the form is included.
  • Team lacks the proper experience – Show a team history of success on similar projects. Don’t feature high-profile/national projects that no one on the proposed team has worked on. Selection committees also want to see team members with experience working together.


  • Choose a project team with relevant experience – Related to the pet peeve above. Resumes don’t have to be filled with projects “just like this one,” but they should have some kind of relevant aspects which are specifically explained. Example: “[Name] has extensive experience working on renovations in occupied buildings.
  • Show relevant experience, but not too much – Kevin recommends picking the five most relevant projects – less is more. Work can be applicable from different markets, just show the parallels. Example: A proposer for a Michelin plant had no prior tire facility experience, but had a 30-year history in the beverage industry. The proposal explained how those manufacturing processes are similar and could be brought to bear on the tire project.
  • Ask a lot of good questions – Take the time to make sure you really understand the project. Visit the site. Many private sector clients will take calls and set up one-on-one meetings, even when there is no immediate project (go for coffee!). Typical government processes allow written questions and may have a pre-proposal site visit. Active engagement demonstrates interest. It also enables you to create a tailored, creative approach that will impress the selection committee.
  • Project understanding and approach is key – All three panelists said this is crucial to evaluating proposers and was the #1 or #2 on the criteria list (team is the other top criteria). Let the client know how you can help them be successful.
  • Show it in graphic form – The quicker and more intuitively a selection committee can absorb information, the better. An effective custom graphic or matrix is 100 times more effective than a long narrative.
  • Fee is not the biggest factor in selection – The panelists agree on this point. Typically clients are looking for fees to range 10-15% around their predetermined target. Fee can actually be an indicator of project understanding! Usually firms outside that range do not have the best grasp of the scope or complexity.
  • Video trend – One audience member shared that a recent RFP required the entire proposal in video format. Our panelists didn’t seem to like that idea too much. Nonetheless, marketers should be prepared for this trend.

FATAL MISTAKES: Things that will get a team kicked out

  • Bad work plan – Either a work plan is not included or the client knows it does not make sense/is not going to work.
  • Carbon copy content – It’s obvious when someone takes a previous submittal and just copies it for the next client…especially if the last client’s name is still somewhere in the proposal!
  • Just going through the motions – Do not take your status for granted, whether you have great qualifications and/or already have a relationship with the client. Arrogance, complacency, and lack of enthusiasm are killers.


  • Give the project manager a leading role – Selection committees want to meet who they will be dealing with on a day-to-day basis. Example: Designate the PM to “direct traffic” as topics and speakers transition throughout the interview.
  • Don’t bring too many people – Avoid bringing staff to respond to questions “just in case.” The PM should have enough knowledge to give a brief answer. It is acceptable to offer to follow up with more detail later after checking with an in-house expert who isn’t present.
  • ALWAYS rehearse – There’s nothing worse than a well-qualified team coming in unprepared, literally reading from a script or rambling on, being really boring, and unable to read the room to gauge whether they are connecting with the audience. However, don’t over-rehearse. It doesn’t have to be really polished, but the team must clearly communicate how they bring up issues and solve problems.
  • Don’t use technology as a crutch – The stories matter most. Whether you’re using boards, 3D fly-through graphics, or a physical model, the tools should support your message. There was agreement that a BIM model can be impressive when used right. Example: Use VR to demonstrate in a meaningful way your thinking behind a concept.
  • Be prepared for unscripted Q&A – Kevin likes to ask questions “on the fly” to see how interview teams interact. Colleen does not allow prepared presentations. Instead, she asks questions which are not made available in advance of the interview, since “there is no rehearsal when solving problems on projects.”
  • Be honest with yourself – Colleen has asked, “Tell us your biggest weakness and how you handle it.” One responded, “We don’t have one.” Wrong answer!! Be honest about when things went well and when they didn’t. Whether you are presenting to a repeat client or your prospect is checking references, the truth will come out.
  • Get feedback – Whether you win or lose, go back after the interview and get a debrief.

Join us for an upcoming program! Click here to see a listing.

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