Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Ending this blog

January 20, 2012

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that I haven’t posted anything new in some months. As my communications practice continues to grow and become more demanding, finding the time to post has become a challenge. So, I’ve decided to step away from the responsibilities of blogging for now.

Thank you for reading and for all the great comments over the years.

Please stay connected by following me on Twitter at DZanke.

Do you use email responsibly?

August 2, 2011

Email recently turned 40 years old. Hard to believe it’s been that long and even harder to believe that given its longevity, it’s one of the communication tools that is so often misused. Many of us feel so overwhelmed by our email in-boxes that we incessantly check our computers and mobile devices day and night trying to keep up.

A number of blogs and books have sprung up to help people manage email and to use it effectively. The blog, NetMatters, offers numerous tips and missives on the proper use of email and even urges people to take an “email etiquette pledge.” Danah Boyd, senior researcher at Microsoft, has gained attention for her promotion of the email sabbatical and provides details on how to take one when you go on vacation.

Even though I’ve noticed that teens and young adults appear to dismiss email as a form of communication in favour of SMS and chat, in the workplace, email still rules. Now that this communication tool has firmly reached middle age, maybe we can finally learn to manage it.

When I look at my own in-box and how I use email, I recognize areas that need reform. Here’s my personal list of resolutions and tips:

1. Not always responding – I try to be good about this, but sometimes I catch myself responding to an email even if I’ve just been copied on it and it’s a matter that does not require my input. There’s no need to contribute to the sender’s overloaded in-box with a response that simply says, “Thanks for the info.”

2. Clear subject lines – It makes me crazy when I’m searching for an old email using every keyword I can think of only to find that the original subject line from the sender was “Re”. That is not a subject line. I’ve resolved that when I get an email with an unclear subject line, I respond and insert a proper one. This makes it easier for me to search in future if required and, I hope, sends a subtle message to the sender that a clear subject line is required. Somewhat related is when someone uses an old email message in order to hit “reply” to send an unrelated new message. The person should start a new email thread to make searching for it later easier and to avoid confusion.

3. Vacations – I  need to improve here. When someone is on vacation, I need to stop sending him/her email. This is a tough one because if the person is gone for awhile, I’m afraid that I’ll forget that I need to inform him/her about something upon the person’s return. I think I can solve this by creating a draft email and waiting until the person returns to send it. That way, it’s written and just sitting there waiting for me to click send. I hate it when I return from vacation and have too many emails to deal with, so I need to set the example. Danah Boyd’s solution is a bit drastic but I can see its merits.

4. Visible email addresses on mass emails – I never do this on purpose but it annoys me when others do it. If you’re sending a mass email to multiple addresses, do a blind copy to all the recipients rather than making the addresses visible to everyone. My business email address is public knowledge but the Gmail address I use for personal correspondence is something I want to give out at my discretion. This public group email practice can also lead to the dreaded “reply all” thread that results in email conversations I don’t really need to be part of, which leads me to #5.

5. Reply all – Don’t do it unless everyone in that email address box really needs to be part of the conversation.

How about you? How have you tried to tame your email box? Share your success.

Should we shred the RFP process?

March 8, 2011

Vintage Post: This post originally published October 13, 2009

shredded-paper

When selecting professional services, many businesses and nonprofits use a Request for Proposal (RFP) process to make a decision about the best firm or individual for the project. Seems like a wise way to approach buying services. Is it?

According to Cal Harrison of Beyond Referrals, the RFP process, which varies wildly in format and content, needs a major overhaul before coming even close to being effective, objective and cost efficient. He’s on a quest, of sorts, to bring buyers and sellers of professional services together to come up with best practices to improve the RFP—perhaps get rid of the process entirely.

I attended an event Cal recently facilitated that aimed to define these best practices for procuring professional services. In a room of 50 or so buyers and sellers of services, it was clear that although everyone seemed to agree the RFP process has problems, it was a challenge to get consensus on a set of best practices. There was some progress but it’s clear it will take some time. I’d be interested in what ideas/thoughts readers of this blog have on the subject.

Generally, none of those who attended the forum embrace the prospect of either responding to an RFP or evaluating that response. The process is often expensive, time consuming and sometimes downright confusing. Ironically, the RFP process is supposedly set up to ensure an objective and transparent method of evaluating professional services. However, upon scrutiny, the very process appears to be fraught with evaluation problems and can be manipulated for unfair advantage.

Because of these realities, some of the larger, more successful consulting practices have stopped investing time and money into responding to RFPs. If this trend increases, it will mean that buyers using RFPs will be disadvantaged by not having some of the best professionals qualified to meet their needs at the table. Clearly, some best practices are needed.

Cal’s written a thought provoking white paper about the costs of the RFP process for buyers and sellers so I won’t rehash all of his points here but I do want to highlight a few of them.

Who bears the financial costs?

It is rare for a professional services company to be compensated for participating in an RFP. The firm is expected to “throw their hat into the ring” solely for the possibility that it will win the business.

I’ve been involved in pulling together RFPs for both my own business as well as for others. I was involved in one RFP for a consulting company that was worth millions of dollars. The firm spent many thousands of dollars crafting its response. Countless staff hours were dedicated to the process and they hired me on contract to copy edit the responses. It was a complex, very time-consuming process involving many late nights because of the tight deadline. In the end, the firm did not win the business.  Who do you think paid for the RFP response?

You may think that the consulting firm/vendor paid. In reality, the costs are passed along to all the customers of the professional services company. That’s because they build the cost of responding to RFPs into their fee structure. They have to in order to make up for all of the resources they’ve put into their unsuccessful RFPs.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the firms procuring service were getting good value from the RFP process. However, Cal argues convincingly that they are often not getting the best professional and the process is grossly cost inefficient.

Evaluation criteria

Cal argues that when selecting a professional service provider, you should consider only two equally weighted evaluation criteria. These are: sector expertise and functional expertise. Sector expertise pertains to how well the professional understands your industry and functional expertise is his/her understanding of your unique challenges.

Many RFPs ask for and evaluate factors that are irrelevant to choosing the best professional. These include items such as methodology or work plan (most are generally the same), hourly rate or proposed project budget as well as timelines.

What, not ask for a budget or fees?

The most inefficient RFPs don’t list a project budget and request the vendor to submit an hourly rate or project budget. Both are irrelevant in terms of evaluation criteria.  That’s because professional services differ from labour-based services (e.g. plumbing, electrical) in that there are likely several different approaches to the same need or problem. Purchasers should always provide a project budget so that vendors can tailor their response accordingly. This actually gives the purchaser more objective information. They can then evaluate the scope and scale of what each firm offers for the same amount. Otherwise, how do they ensure they are comparing the same level and scope of service for the money?

Careful what you measure

Many questions outlined in RFPs do not lend themselves to objective evaluation. They are vague or worded poorly. Questions must be as explicit as possible for any kind of reasonable evaluation. So, a question/qualification such as, “the candidate must have strong experience in delivering services of this type” should be replaced with, “does the candidate have five or more years experience delivering this type of service?” One can immediately see that the second approach is stronger in terms of objective evaluation.

Checking references can also be a vague and unhelpful measurement. Often buyers don’t have rigorous evaluation criteria for the information they obtain from references and it because a largely subjective exercise. Many at Cal’s forum agreed that references should only be used to verify the information in the written RFP process and shouldn’t be part of any scored evaluation. There was also some agreement that little useful information is obtained from references. They are almost always overwhelmingly positive.

Work plans and proposed solutions

I’ve participated in a number of RFPs that briefly outline the company or nonprofit’s need and then ask for a “work plan and approach to the solution.” This always stumps me. As Cal points out, unless the organization has some unique problem or set of circumstances, most professional consultants follow the same methodology for arriving at a solution. It would make more sense to ask for this after selecting the consultant.

Asking for proposed solutions is also problematic. Without going through the above methodology, providing a proposed solution is premature. It can also put up red flags for consultants who have seen ideas they proposed in an RFP executed by another firm who won the RFP. Not ethical, but it happens.

What’s the alternative?

If we got rid of the RFP, how would we ensure there is a fair and transparent process?  This is often the sticking point among buyers—particularly in the public sector where tax dollars are involved. The reality is, having an RFP process does not ensure it is a fair one. As Cal points out in his paper, we can look to the Gomery Commission Inquiry into allegations of inappropriate hiring of ad agencies for proof of that.

So, we go back to evaluating candidates based on sector and functional expertise. How do you evaluate that? By examining level of experience and professional reputation. Defining best practices in this area, I suspect will be the greatest challenge.

Your thoughts?

This post could go on for several more pages about the pros and cons of evaluating professional consulting services.  I’ve really only scratched the surface but I’d like to hear about others’ experience.

What do you find most challenging as a consultant or buyer of professional services with respect to RFPs? What are your suggestions for some best practice statements? Please leave a comment.

Is your charity fit for this ‘Groupon site for donors’?

January 31, 2011

While listening to CBC Radio One’s Day 6 the other day, I heard about a new website fashioned after the oh-so-popular concept behind sites such as Groupon. Instead of a daily discount deal, however, followers learn about a different charity each day and can choose to donate $1 to the organization. The site is called Philanthroper and in addition to featuring a different charity each day, the organization says that it evaluates each one to ensure that its business practices are solid. The concept addresses three challenges that face charities today.

1. Credibility – People are more skeptical these days about how charities use their funds. There have been cases covered in the media of blatant misuse of funds but there is also growing demand from donors for reassurances their donation dollar is getting results—that the charity is using the funds in the best way possible.

2. Communication – Competition for donor dollars is intense. How the charity tells its story is crucial. The charity profiles on Philanthroper are engaging and vivid and focus on how funds are actually used. Charities need to be better at telling their stories.

3. Accessing the vast number of online donors – The $1 per day donation structure is brilliant. More people are likely to donate–particularly younger donors who don’t have a lot of disposable income. This modal has the potential to build relationships over time and to tap into smaller donations made by huge numbers of people. As the Philanthroper site states, its goal with the $1 maximum donation a day is to make charitable giving a habit. It’s betting that followers of the site will end up donating more over the course of a year this way than if they were asked for the same amount in one shot.

To me, what the site (and others like it that will surely follow) reinforces is the imperative of charities telling credible stories about their causes that stress outcomes. Charities need to be prepared to answer donors’ questions about how the way they choose to spend donated funds relates to desired results. I see too many charities that are vague on this point.

So, would your nonprofit stand up to the scrutiny of a site such as Philanthroper? What do you think the chances are of your charity being featured? Maybe it’s time to fine tune your story.

*Note, Philanthroper is only available to U.S. donors right now but the site has plans to expand to international markets.