Matchmaker, Matchmaker

In operating a consulting company, one of my challenges is to find suitable partners for our clients. It’s not about arranging marriages (or other encounters); the aim is to identify the right integrators to bid on a project. 

The goal is to get as many qualified bidders as possible to ensure the process is competitive and the quality level will be roughly comparable regardless of the vendor selected. 

On some projects this is can be difficult to accomplish. Government projects typically advertise, wait for responses and evaluate bids, according to fairly rigid criteria. Sure, in these cases some phone calls can be made to alert qualified integrators the project is being advertised, allowing them to respond on their own. Other projects present the task of filling a “bid list” and ensuring that there is sufficient participation. With this we’re representing to our client that we will be able to provide them with a minimum of three thorough, competitive bids on the specified project and a recommendation can be made from those choices. 

Further, the recommended bidder will be able to complete the project as bid, make everyone happy, and earn a reasonable profit. That last item is critical: if the integrator doesn’t make a profit on their jobs, they may not be able to stay in business long enough to support the project through the warranty period. 

As a result, this bid list is a fairly serious undertaking and a lot of time is spent working with integrators to ensure participation on projects. Since I’m asked about this so frequently, I thought I’d share some of the steps I take to qualify integrators and ensure competitive bids. End users who may be looking to do this work themselves can follow most of these steps. Integrators might also find interest in this methodology. 

Note that while this may be the preferred method of how one consulting firm handles the process, it may not be indicative of how other firms do this work. I’m sure many do it better than we do. As the car commercials say, your actual mileage may vary. 

Everyone Can Be a Winner
Keeping in mind that any integrator placed on our bid list has a chance of winning the job, we don’t want to just throw any name into the ring. If they are selected for the job you are stuck with them, so give as much thought to the bid list as you do to the final selection. We divide potential integrators into three categories: 

Personal experience — There are many integrators that we have worked with already, and we have an accurate assessment of their capabilities and limitations. We are careful to document the successes and issues on all of our projects, and also maintain database files on all participants. This helps us when deciding whom to select on future projects and also flags issues that may need to be improved. 

For example, one integrator we worked with had a good track record on the project, but did not communicate progress very well. While this was not a major issue on the project, it certainly could have been on a project with more serious obstacles. On the next job they bid we made it clear what our expectations were for project communications to eliminate the problem the next time around. 

Interviews — As I am always looking to add integrators to project lists, I spend a lot of time meeting with and interviewing prospective integrators. I learn about their past projects, time in business and overall business philosophy, facilities, and available resources. I am are careful to find out exactly what type of work they like doing best in order to determine their comfort zone. Some markets require a high level of specialization, and an integrator unfamiliar with a certain market may not be competitive or may miss things that will come back to haunt them. 

Reputation— This is perhaps the least reliable way of prequalifying an integrator, partly because it rules out so many. An integrator can work for years to build a good reputation, and one employee can have a bad day and ruin it all. Since you’re never likely to hear the integrator’s side of the story when they’re being knocked, it is often pointless to listen to negativity unless you really know the source of the remarks. Conversely, if you’re hearing great things, make sure a similar project is being discussed. 

On a personal note, I’ve seen as many failures by integrators with stellar reputations as I have successes with integrators who are put down. 

If you are unable to come up with enough perspective bidders to fill your list, asking for recommendations from manufacturers is often an excellent alternative. This works best when you have already selected a manufacturer, but if you haven’t settled on one be sure to compare notes. An integrator that is on top of two manufacturers’ lists is generally a good candidate, although it would be rare to find the same company on three lists (if you’re working with three or more manufacturers at project bid time, you will have other issuers comparing bids that can be covered in a future column). 

It’s important to get manufacturer recommendations in writing, as they can also be referred to as a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” If the integrator fails in the execution of your project, the manufacturer will generally step up to the plate and see the job through if your selection of the integrator was based, in part, on their referral. This may not be a legal requirement but it sure has been my experience. 

Ensure Plenty of Involvement
Once you’ve filled your bid list, you need to ensure as many integrators participate as is possible. You do this first by providing a brief description of the project, including your best estimate of the time frame involved, and asking them each if they would be willing to bid the job. Bidding a project is very time consuming and costly if done right and your project may not interest everyone. Don’t take this personally. 

There are lots of legitimate reasons for turning a bid request down, including workload, unfamiliarity with the specified product or projects that fall outside their comfort zone. Integrators want to bid on jobs they feel they have a good chance of winning. If they don’t feel they have the right experience for your project, and are already working on a lot of other proposals, they will likely pass. 

Above all, integrators state loud and clear they want a level playing field. If you have written a specification or had a consultant write it for you (or a manufacturer if it is to be a sole source project), you are generally in the clear. Not so if you’ve had help from another integrator. 

Many claim to have independent consulting divisions, and if that’s the case have them put their money where their mouth is: tell them if they design the system they are not eligible to bid on it (a fairly common practice). Even with that safeguard, other potential bidders may shy away. No one wants their competitor looking at how they bid and price projects. If the project is a “design build,” let each integrator come up with their own design. Don’t play favorites. 

Next month, we’ll take the next step: evaluating the bids and selecting a partner. We’ll show this isn’t just about numbers. Everything from the questions during the bidding process to the format of their proposal can be a strong indicator of whether you’re choosing a solid marriage – or a one-night stand.

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