After a Successful Proposal, Don’t Skimp on the Interview

“One Riot. One Ranger.” It’s an old saying in Texas, based on an apocryphal story about the Texas Rangers’ 1896 response to an illegal boxing match in Dallas.

Called in to stop the fight from happening, the state law enforcement organization sent just one Ranger, who was allegedly met at the train station by an incredulous Dallas mayor wanting to know where the rest of his group was. According to legend, the lawman’s reply was something along the lines o”how many fights you got?”

Beginning with the fact that this wasn’t actually a riot, but was instead a well-attended prize fight, the “One Riot, One Ranger” phrase is loaded with misinformation and exaggeration. Over the years however, it has become strongly associated with the group. It has also taken on its own life as a saying that means “don’t send a group to do what one capable and determined person should be able to handle on their own.”

I had a boss for many years who liked to invoke the “One Riot, One Ranger” principle when deciding who would attend interviews for projects where we had been shortlisted. He also regularly cited legendary architect Philip Johnson’s ability to win multimillion-dollar commissions with only the most basic presentation techniques and minimal preparation.

While I like the idea of one person being able to go in and tell a firm’s story with such conviction that the client decides they are the perfect fit for a project, it almost never works in real life. Once you’ve survived the proposal process and made it to the interview round, the client is looking for a fuller picture of what your firm offers, and how you’re different from other finalists. Relying on the personality and institutional knowledge of just one individual typically isn’t going to get you over this hump.

When you show up for a project interview with a skeleton crew, here are some of the ways it might be interpreted by the client:

You’re not enthusiastic about the project.

Clients know that you have multiple projects going on at any time, but no one wants to feel like theirs is going to be the one you care the least about. By skimping on the interview effort, you’re opening the door to this suspicion.

And what if you really aren’t that enthusiastic about the project? What if its size just doesn’t justify the time commitment and travel costs associated with sending a larger team? While you always have to tailor your level of investment to the possible return, this may be an indication that this wasn’t a project that you should have pursued in the first place.

You don’t have enough bandwidth to handle the project.

Are you there by yourself because everyone else in the office is too swamped with work to attend an important interview? Sure, you want to give the impression that you’re a successful, busy firm, but if you don’t have the resources to handle the interview, how are you going to do the work, right?

You’re too small.

A variation on the bandwidth issue, showing up at an interview for an important project with just a handful of people can leave clients with a “where is everyone” feeling. Showing 8-9 team members in the proposal and then just 1-2 live bodies at the interview raises some questions about your ability to actually field that team when it’s time to do the work.

You don’t understand the scope of the project.

Whether or not you think the project is significant, the owner probably believes that it is. By making a minimal appearance at the interview, you’re liable to give the impression that you and the client have very different ideas about what it’s going to take to successfully complete the project.

By not sending a significant portion of the team to an interview, you’re also missing out on some other valuable opportunities:

You’re missing the chance to “show your wares.”

As much as we like to think that we’re selling our results or processes, most clients that are hiring professional services firms still feel like they’re paying for people. This means that your people are your product, and buyers always like to touch the merchandise.

You’re limiting the odds of making a winning personal connection.

Don’t underestimate the importance that personal connections can play in the decision-making process, especially when it comes down to the last few finalists. Every client team is made up of different personalities, and you never know who from your office might have a communication style, personal background, or sense of humor that resonates with one of the decision-makers. Bringing more people to the table increases your chances for scoring big on these intangible factors.

I know that some of you are committed to a strict rule of “don’t have anyone in the presentation who isn’t presenting.” While I agree that you don’t want to have someone sitting inexplicably in the background, you may just need to expand your definition of “presenting.” For example, a brief speaking part during which they explain their role in the project, along with participation in the Q&A, could be ample justification for their presence at the interview.

Of course, if you’re a one-person firm and are going to be doing the bulk of the work on your own, then this doesn’t really apply to you. Walk into the interview and celebrate that fact that you’re introducing the client to the person that they’ll be dealing with, and the one that will be doing the work.

If you’re proposing multiple team members, however, and it’s a project you really want, consider pulling out all of the stops for the interview. Because that interview isn’t a riot, and you definitely aren’t a 19th-century Texas Ranger.

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