My firm received a letter informing us of the good news -- we had been shortlisted for a project.  The proposal had done its job.  But near the end of the letter was one of those statements that sends chills down the spines of people who do what I do: "Kindly leave your sales and marketing staff back at the office."
Say what now?

Sure, I was used to requests to bring the project team, but the specific request to keep me and "my kind" back at the office was a bit of a slap in the face!  Whether or not I actually would have been part of the presentation team was irrelevant. 

Suddenly having that option removed from consideration was a rude awaking to the changing dynamic of project interviews.

Owners are tired of dog and pony shows, even though sometimes that is exactly what they ask for.  By the time they've shortlisted a firm, they have a pretty good idea about the firm’s experience and capabilities.  Interviews should be about chemistry, dialogue, and ideas.

So whom should the firm being interviewed bring to the show?

The CEO?  Probably not, unless there is a special reason for him or her to be there.  CEOs rarely have a project role, and often their interview involvement is simply to introduce the team.  Of course, there are some anecdotes out there of executives totally derailing shortlist presentations by talking too much or even contradicting comments made by their own team members!  As John Perez, vice president of Cumming Corporation, recently told attendees of a SMPS panel discussion at Build Business, “Bringing principals can be a complete disaster.  I saw a CEO destroy his team during an interview.  It is not necessary to bring in firm leadership.  They are the ones that screw it up.”  According to John, “It's important to let the people you hire do their jobs.”

What about marketers or business developers?  In many firms, these are the most capable presenters.  These professionals often speak publicly at professional associations or business groups.  They don’t just know how to build a presentation, they also how to effectively deliver it.  But will they actually have a role in the project? 

Probably not. 

However, there are some reasons when it makes sense to bring marketing/BD staff along to the interview -- and not just to run the technology.  (Why is it that otherwise brilliant project managers and engineers seem to freeze in terror at the thought of connecting a projector to a laptop?)  If the business developer has been directly involved with the project pursuit, and developed relationships with members of the owner's team, that continuity could be extremely important.  They can help make introductions and actually make it easier for both the interviewers and interviewees because there are few things worse than extended periods of awkward silence! 

In most cases, however, owners really want to interact with their project team -- the project manager, project executive or principal-in-charge if (and only if) they will have a prominent role on the project.  Lead designers make sense, as do superintendents who will be interacting daily with the owners.

Of course, these folks don't always have the best presentation skills, leaving you in a catch-22 position.  Owners have repeatedly told audiences of Society for Marketing Professional Services programs, as well as SMPS Foundation research, that they want to meet with the people who will be doing their project.

Even so, marketing and business development staff still have a critical role to play.  Marketing staff create the presentation, often informed by intelligence gathered from business developers.  Value messages are critical, and BD staff is essential to determine the key message(s) while marketing is necessary to package those messages. 

Business development staff make great coaches for technical people needing to increase their presentation skills.  And yes, CEOs have roles, too.  They can sit in rehearsals and represent the owners, asking key questions that might come up during the presentation.  The tougher the questions, the better, because presentation teams must be prepared! 

What do you think?  Who are the most critical people to bring to project interviews?