During my 25 years in the A/E/C industry, I’ve attended a fair amount of client panels. A lot of them. Sometimes they are revealing and provide useful information to help me do my job better. Sometimes they provide a “soft” introduction to a potential client – instead of a “hard” cold call phone introduction. Often times the client participants are guarded in the information they share or, even worse, say what they think the audience wants to hear – whether or not it is the cold, hard truth.
However, if there is one client panel that sticks out heads and shoulders over the others, it is a panel discussion hosted by the Philadelphia Chapter of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS).  The panel was entitled Brutal Honesty – What Clients Really Want in BD and Marketing. The client representatives were asked to hold nothing back and to speak “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” to a roomful of professional business developers and marketers. 
In other words, it was sometimes painful for the audience to hear what the clients had to say!  SMPS Philadelphia delivered an excellent slate of panelists, including representatives from a nationally-renown research university, major regional health care system, one of the largest integrated real estate companies in the nation, and a three-state economic development group.  The representative of the latter also previously served as a county commissioner and with a state department of transportation.
The panelists were asked a series of questions, and provided insightful, thought-provoking, and occasionally stinging commentary.  Below is a sampling of some of the questions and responses -- but be warned, some of it really is brutal!
Q: What are the best ways for initial contact?
“If you cold call, you (probably) won't get me. If you do, I’ll be less than impressed. Introduce yourself to me at networking events. In other words, no cold calls.”
“I hate cold calls. If I don’t know who it is…well, I screen calls and the best part of my day is to watch a call from an unknown number ring until it stops. If you get me, I’ll ask: ‘Who are you,’ but I will never buy anything you have to sell.”
“I need a ‘face’ to go with a name for people calling or emailing me. Tell me who told you to call me. How did you get my name?”
“I will accept cold calls, but not email or snail mail … However, you better have a hook if you are calling me cold. Show me value. Be very targeted if you are calling me.”
Q: Do you prefer qualifications via email or hard copy?
“I don’t do paper. If it is interesting, email and I will circulate it to others. Call ahead though. Let me know that you are sending something.”
“Email is better than print for forwarding to others.”
“I prefer print and will delete any email you send me. Pretty pictures sell.”
“Brochures with histories and extraneous things are totally useless. Don’t send me the Sears Catalog.”
“Half of what you do will be wrong, but only the client knows which half!”
Q: Any advice on the frequency of touches (email, phone calls, mailings)?
“If you’ve called me two times and not heard back, try a different medium. If you don’t hear from me after you’ve changed mediums, I’m not interested in what you’re selling.”
“I go through my voice mail once per month … but I always respond to email. Of course, my response may simply be, ‘Not interested’.”
Q: How do you feel about being entertained?
“You are in a precarious business. I will only dine with those where I’ve had pre-existing relationships – I don’t want us to end up on the front page of the newspaper!” (from the public official perspective)
“I don’t like to go to lunch with people. Ever.”
“This practice is very uncomfortable from the client perspective. First, we are too busy for lunch or dinner with you. You should always ask yourself, ‘what is easier for clients?’. The practice of entertainment has fallen away. I have ten minutes to give you, no more.”
“If you want to impress me, ask for ten minutes, schedule the meeting for 10:50, and leave my office at 11:00!”
“I won’t do anything that conveys ‘obligation’ – like if you buy me a meal or give me sports tickets. And I don’t have time to lunch with you anyway.”
Q: Should BD staff remain engaged after a project is awarded?
“The person who will ‘seal the deal’ is the person who will be doing the work. Don’t bring BD (business development) people to interviews – they have no value to me.” 
“If you are establishing a relationship, it is important that you are working toward multiple jobs with me – not just a single project. So if you are in BD, there is a role for you as ‘client advocate’ – call me occasionally and ask, ‘How are things going?’.”
“Don’t sell and disappear, otherwise you are no different than a car salesman.”
“You (BD) arranged the date, but I don’t need a chaperon! One call to me during the project duration is enough. I want the relationship with the person you brought to our intial meetings, not with you.”
“My relationships are developed with principals, so I want them to call and ask how things are going, not the business developers.”
Q: What are your thoughts about creativity in proposals – creative design, use of recycled materials, etc.?
“It doesn’t matter. We’re very prescriptive. In fact, our RFPs state, ‘brevity will be rewarded’.”
“Don’t waste my time with cute stuff.”
“I’m not impressed by gimmicks.”
“It’s risky to do this. It really depends upon my mood. Ninety percent of the time it will be a turn-off – what I want to know is, ‘What will you do for me?’.”
Q: Fill in the blank: The ideal proposal takes ___ minutes to read.
“One minute!”
“If you’ve been prequalified, I’m going right to the fee. But fees are gray – what is included, and what isn’t? I don’t want to see add-ons. People like me are too busy to read proposals!”
“Focus on what I’m looking for. I don’t care that you’ve done something similar across the country, I want to know that you understand local issues.”
Q: Who should attend the project interview?
“The principal and project manager are the two most important, and the PM is the key. Others may be acceptable, but I’m not impressed by a roomful of people. Anyone in the room must have a role.”
“Everyone must have a role, and that role can’t just be to carry bags.”
“The highest level principal you bring is important to show that you have respect for us and the project. But your PM/doer is going to be on the spot, and must answer specific project-related questions. The principal should not answer them.”
“The principal doesn’t need to say a lot. And definitely don’t fumble around with A/V equipment!”
Q: What do you think of PowerPoint presentations?
“I would rather have oral surgery. In ten years, I haven’t seen a worthwhile PowerPoint.”
“If you have text on slides, don’t you dare read it to me!”
“If you start reading PowerPoint, I will literally pull out my phone and begin checking email.”
“There is nothing more embarrassing than coming to present and realizing that you brought the wrong information, or that your AV is not working. The truth is, your presentation must be flawless. Don’t ask me for an extension cord. We’re judging you on the little details.”
“When it comes to selecting your firm, price is important. Not getting me fired is more important. Show me that you won’t get me fired. And be highly rehearsed before you present.”
Q: What do you think about presentations with firm history, project profiles, etc.? Or should we go right into your project?
“If you are shortlisted, you’ve already been vetted. You can have 2% of the allotted time to tell us how wonderful you are.”
“The project, the project, and nothing but the project.”
“You can have one slide that tells me about your company.”
Q: How do you define “relationship”?
“I don’t need friends, I need someone to take care of me.”
“BD reps are only appetizers. The relationships developed with the project team are the main course.”
Q: What is your preference for technical vs. non-technical business developers?
“If you can’t answer a question in a first meeting, you and your firm will not be considered.”
“I’m an architect, and anyone calling on me should speak my language.”
“How can a non-technical business developer possibly offer value to me?”
As you can see, the client representatives held nothing back – even though they were presenting to an audience of marketers and non-technical business developers! 
There are quite a few excellent takeaways from the panel discussion, but here are a few that really jump out:
Half of what you do is wrong, but only the client or prospect knows which half. Two of four panelists don’t accept cold calls. One does, but you must have a hook. Another wants to know how you got their name. Email prospecting works for some, but not for others. Same for digital vs. print brochures. The moral here is that you have to be flexible with your sales and marketing approaches – one size definitely does not fit all.
Prospects want to meet with project team members early in the process. This comes through again and again in research by the SMPS Foundation and others. They have limited time to take meetings with A/E/C firms wanting their business, so those initial meetings better provide value, or you won’t be invited back. Some clients see a role for business developers, others do not. But they all agree that BD professionals must speak “their” language, meaning that it is imperative for dedicated business development staff to learn both the A/E/C business and clients' industries, understand their firm’s products, and be able to have some level of technical conversation. Or bring the proposed project manager with them for the initial meetings.
It’s rarely ever about your company. Sure, prospects need to know that your firm and staff are qualified, but once that is established, focus on the client and the project. Stop trying to reinforce what they already believe – that your firm is qualified. Doing so at the expense of focusing on them is a sure-fire way to lose a project.
And finally, don’t get your client fired! I love that quote, which demonstrates that there’s always more to it than just price. Don’t focus on being their friend, focus on taking care of them and their project.
Compared to just a few years ago, there’s a lot more insight into client preferences when it comes to being sold and marketed. But is your firm still using a 1990s-vintage approach, trying to win work by demonstrating how wonderful you are? Or have you developed a truly client-centric model for your sales and marketing program?