Columns by Eric J. Adams
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How to Build Winning Recommendations
Congratulations! You won a new gig based on your stellar personality, a few well-turned phrases, and an impressive track record. Now it's time to develop and present your first full-fledged set of recommendations. This might not be the all-important first impression, but it's your first chance to impress the client with a true grasp of their business challenges, environment, realities, and, more importantly, your capabilities.
So how do you go about putting together a set of recommendations detailing the best courses of action? It's not about a colorful presentation or a slick sales pitch, though these things may be helpful. It's about two important factors over which you have no initial control -- reality and consensus. Let's take a look at each, starting with the elements of sobering reality.
Cost. You have all sorts of great ideas about what needs to be done, but are they affordable? Cost is usually the first slap of reality to shape a recommendation. Keep in mind, though, that cost is not your client's primary concern. The fact that they hired you in the first place is a clear indication that they're willing to pony up to get a job done. Your client's primary objective is getting value out of the cost.
That means that all your recommendations should include an accounting of benefits as well as an accounting of the cost. After all, cost is only relevant when measured against benefit. Make sure that every cost you propose has a commensurate benefit that's clear and defined. Yes, tell the client, that Option A costs X amount of dollars, and then outline the benefits they'll receive if they choose it.
Client Needs. Your client's external pressures and market needs are other critical factors. Does your client have to get to market quickly? Is their goal to build market share? Is high quality the only thing that matters? Every company -- every person, actually -- operates in a small universe that defines their needs at that very moment. Be sensitive to their celestial position and your recommendations will be closer to the target.
Client Resources. Next take into account the scope of your client's resources, including the time and inclination your client has for helping you complete the project. Some companies have plenty of money but no employees, others have people galore but cash by the thimbleful. If your task requires additional internal help, better figure out in what form you should ask for it: people or money.
At times, it's best not to ask for help at all. The company may have hired you precisely to rid themselves of one big headache. If that's the case, draft a recommendation for doing it all yourself, or hire outside help.
Corporate Culture. Step back and take an honest look at the client's corporate (or personal) culture. Your most brilliant ideas may run counter to a very conservative culture and, hence, will meet with resentment, if not downright hostility.
Sure, try to shake them up a little bit with some interesting suggestions, but also try to get an understanding of how your client normally does business. As they say in Hollywood: do the same thing, only differently. If, on the other hand, you're working for a company that demands creative solutions, you had better come up with some.
Politics, Politics, Politics. Ah, yes, the silent killer of great ideas -- office politics. If your idea upsets the status quo in a company that idolizes status quo, it probably won't fly and you'll be considered an outside agitator (I, for one, love the title, but it doesn't read well on a business card). If your recommendations bypass the input of an overly controlling manager, your recommendations probably won't fly either.
It's awfully difficult to assess the internal politics of a company, particularly when you're new to the environment. But a little sensitivity in this area can go a long way in helping you present recommendations that will be appreciated and, most importantly, approved.
Okay, you've taken into account your client's needs, resources, financial position, organization culture, and internal politics. Now comes the hard part, building consensus.
I remember when my wife and I first started looking for a house. With each showing, our realtor was, of course, providing her recommendations. The first house of the day was a dazzler that we could never afford. Then she showed us a series of houses in our price range. She ended the day's tour by taking us to a dump that we could afford but would never want to buy.
I didn't understand her strategy then, but I do now. By showing us the mansion (it was a mansion, at least in our eyes) she was giving us a good dose of cost reality. By ending the day with the dump she was helping us understand the true benefits of the middle-of-the-road houses we could truly afford. In essence, she help us form a consensus by presenting two recommendations that were clearly not right for us. We bought a "charmer" at the end of a cul-de-sac.
You can use the very same strategy. And indeed, it's good advice to let your client choose from a menu of options, some of which clearly may not be practical. Present your recommendations in a clear and coherent manner -- the lowest cost, fastest completion time, highest quality. Lay out the costs and the benefits of each. Be passionate about your ideas, and don't be afraid to speak your mind. Ask for feedback. Lead a discussion. Keep your client involved in the decision making process. Be honest and frank. And then, let your client make the final choice.
Your goal is to gently force them to take ownership over their actions. Because when they own it, they're invested in its success, and having your client on your side is the easiest way to get a job done well.
Reality and consensus -- these are the two most important elements in your recommendations, even though these words might never show up within the pages of your beautifully drafted proposal.
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