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Lessons Learned from Losing ‘The Big Job’

I managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory last week. We had a great meeting with the client and the builder told me the job would “basically fall into my lap.” Where had I gone wrong?

I managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory last week. We had a great meeting with the client and the builder told me the job would “basically fall into my lap.” Where had I gone wrong?

Image: Thinkstock
I went for a nice long run to center myself mentally. I began to retrace my steps to figure out how to improve next time. I had followed our large job workflow to the letter. The steps are very basic:

1. We first meet with the client to listen to their requirements and offer up preliminary suggestions based on their challenges (we call this “finding the friction”).
2. We then move into a discussion around how our process works by showing off our finished engineering documents (conceptual drawings, rack elevations, etc.). Our goal is to get the client to a follow-up meeting where we can show off a conceptual drawing and proposed budget range.
3. We’ll then work with the client to refine budget expectations and invoice a small percentage of the budget as a design retainer.
4. We then engineer a proposal based on the budget range and conceptual drawing and deliver it at a follow-up meeting.

Most of the time this process works well, and sometimes the follow-up meetings take place on the phone or over e-mail (not my preference, but we’re in the service business).

We emphasize in our initial meetings that the purpose of the conceptual drawing and rough budget is to get within the client’s comfort level. The rough budget isn’t meant to be a proposal or taken as our sales pitch. It’s simply a recap of what we heard in the initial meeting and serves as a good gut check for the client (and ideally a safe space for responding to sticker shock).

I went back and looked at my rough budget e-mail and realized my mistake. See if you can spot it in this excerpt (ignore the math, I removed some items to make it anonymous):

Please keep in mind these are rough numbers designed to get us on the same page from a system functionality and budget perspective. The next step is to refine as necessary and then we’ll invoice a 4% design retainer to produce a properly engineered proposal and set of drawings/engineering schematics. All these numbers include the time necessary to work with your electrician on the front end.

Rough Numbers:

Video Displays with Invisible Audio and Subwoofer: $15-$20k
Audio Distribution: Outdoor: $10k, Indoor: $31k
Video Distribution: $2,000
Automation and Control: $3,000
Power Quality: $2,000
Equipment Racks: $2,000
Video Surveillance: $5,000
Network (Wired and Wireless): $5,000
Lighting Control (Based on Square Footage): $30-40k
Labor (Installation – Included Above, Programming – Included Above, Project Management – 10% and Design/Documentation) – 6%)

Rough Budget Total: $182,000

My mistakes were obvious in hindsight. Instead of listing a budget range, I listed a total. Even though I told the client not to take the numbers as set in stone, he went to the bottom of the page and read my number as “take it or leave it.” He left.

I reached out to the builder a few weeks after sending the email above and asked where we were. He told me he’d be back in touch once the client got back in town. Another critical mistake here was letting the builder run interference without having the benefit of talking through our budget recommendations with the client.

A few more weeks pass and I checked in with the builder again. He told me that three other integrators were now in the mix and that they would be making a decision that day on whom to move forward with. We never submitted a proposal, and now I was being shopped by three other competitors. I’ve been there before. I’m sure you can relate. I call this place “The Twilight Zone.” That’s the place where your usual bag of tricks doesn’t cut it and somehow you find yourself on the outside with your face pressed up against the glass. We’ve benefitted from this much more than been hurt by it, but the sickening feeling of being shown the door with no explanation doesn’t get any better with time. Here are the steps we took to improve:

1. We decided that three meetings is probably two too many for a high-end job. Our clients are busy with very demanding schedules. There are pieces of software out there by Slateplan, D-Tools Mobile Quote, SalezToolz, and others that promise to reduce the meeting count to one. We’re evaluating these packages and are optimistic that we will work out a one call/one close solution soon.
2. Our rough budgets will now feature budget ranges ($120k-$180k) versus exact numbers, to prevent sticker shock.
3. We will present anything large in person and will go kicking and screaming to email or phone interactions. Exceptions can include established relationships.

We saw early success this week as a large job went our way using some of these new changes. I’m sure we will have more challenges in our attempt to write the perfect closing script for high-end jobs and welcome your experiences in the comments.

Stay frosty and see you in the field!