People want to be heard: This week on Track Changes, Paul and Rich bring on their design team to talk about The Design Elephants — Poslight’s quarterly event dedicated to tackling difficult issues within design. From there we go onto discuss one of the main ways agencies find their clients, the RFP. Paul and Rich share their thoughts on the process as a whole and how they prefer a more genuine and empathetic approach to sales.
Rich Ziade There are different degrees of RFP-ness. Right?
Paul Ford Oh boy, well [laughs boisterously].
RZ Hold on.
PF But wait—
RZ Let’s go back and really frame this for people. Some people don’t even know what an RFP is.
PF Let’s never say RFP-ness again.
RZ Oh shit. [Paul laughs] I didn’t [laughing] get it.
PF [Laughing] This is a disaster [voice fades out, music starts, plays alone for 16 seconds, ramps down]. Rich, you know a great thing?
PF About life in a company? Is when people start doin’ stuff that’s great for the company and you find out about.
RZ It is a wonderful thing.
PF Yeah, when it’s just like—
RZ It means you’ve reached a certain scale but also that the people are taking it [music fades out].
PF That’s right! That’s right. It’s always been a part of leadership here and about growing the firm is we say, “Look, we have a beautiful space, we like to invite people in, build something.” And you know what group did that?
RZ Who, Paul?
PF [Deep tone] Design.
RZ This is a great thing.
PF It’s called The Design Elephants.
RZ I’m gonna confess something. I get design ideas and then I say to myself, “That’s none of your business.”
PF Yeah, no, leave that alone.
RZ Leave that alone.
PF You don’t want that look in the eye when you’re like, “Hey, I have this design idea—” And then they—But that’s not what this is about. This is about The Design Elephants. Let’s have two of the leaders from our design group introduce themselves.
Aimée Reed Hi! I’m Aimée Reed, Director of Product Design here at Postlight.
Nora Vanni I’m Nora Vanni and I am a Senior Product Designer.
PF Thank you for coming on Track Changes. What’s Design Elephants? Why elephants?
AR Well, so Design Elephants is a quarterly event that the design team has kicked off where we’re gonna talk about four different topics that we find are still—I don’t wanna say the word ‘problematic’ but are areas that we still need more definition, we need more discourse, we need more conversation around. And these are four identified elements that we as a team don’t have the answers to but we definitely wanna invite people to come in and have the conversation with us. Both as more educated people who can speak around these areas, and also as the public coming in who is just as curious as we are as a design team.
PF Alright so quarterly. What is the first one and what’s it about?
AR The first one is accessibility and working with Nora we have come up with this great event which I’m gonna kick over to her to speak about more.
NV Yes! So, we are hosting an event in our office, here at 101 5th Avenue on February 27th that focuses on accessibility. So obviously it’s not a new topic [chuckles]. It’s been around for 20 years now, since 1999 when the WCAG [pronounces it ‘wee-kahg’] was first drafted. But we don’t talk about it enough—
PF What the what was first—?
NV It’s an impossible thing to say, it’s an acronym. W-C-A-G, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
NV And . . . we just don’t talk about it enough as designers. I think the onus most of the time gets put on engineers. Like, “Oh ok, we designed this thing, can you also make it work for everyone?” [Laughs] And—
AR I think the onus also goes onto the accessibility community to solve this problem as well.
NV Yeah, the disabled community definitely has too much pressure put on them to advocate for their ability to use basic products. And we think that designers can really help shape and lead discussions around accessibility because it does start when you’re first formulating the concept for . . . the thing. And that’s what designers are there for, they’re out there to help make the product better.
PF So, who—what is the event?
NV It is a [sic] evening of discussion with two guest speakers. We have Regine Gilbert who is the author of Inclusive Design in the Digital Age [sic—Inclusive Design for a Digital World] coming to speak with us here. And we also have Wallei Sabry from the City of New York, he is a Digital Accessibility Coordinator from the mayor’s office for people with disabilities. And they are both going to be speaking on the fundamentals of inclusive design, but also, like, practical implications. So like, what do you need to be thinking when you’re designing for screen readers, for example. And then I’m also gonna be speaking and just kind of discussing some of the common pitfalls or objections you might get from clients and other stakeholders, and things you can take away and have in your toolbox when you’re working.
PF And also you’re being a little bit modest, you wrote a big piece for Postlight on—if people google ‘Nora Vanni accessibility’, they’ll find a good, thoughtful guide to current thinking around accessibility and design responsibility.
NV Yeah, thank you. Yeah, it’s basically like all of the things I’ve heard as I’ve tried to advocate for this in the design process. And some of the ways to help maybe reframe the conversation to get people on board.
PF Great, ok so when?
NV February 27th.
NV Postlight’s office at 101 5th Avenue.
PF What time?
NV We’re starting at six and the discussion will kickoff at 6:30.
NV Snacks, drinks, friends.
PF And also I think we should point out: the office is accessible but unfortunately we don’t have accessible bathrooms. So—
PF We should just let the world know that.
NV New York.
PF If you wanna attend and feel that that’s gonna be a challenge, get in touch, maybe we can figure something out.
NV Yeah, please do.
PF If anybody wants to talk to you about this?
NV Definitely reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org is my email.
RZ So how—If I’m interested in coming, first off, is it open to anyone who wants to attend?
NV Absolutely. It is geared at product designers or digital designers but everyone is welcome. And we have a [sic] Eventbrite link. You can find that—just generally check out Postlight on Twitter, probably you’ll see the link there or reach out if you have any questions.
PF Great, we’ll put the link in the notes for the podcast too. And—what are the other Design Elephants?
AR Yeah, so the other Design Elephants are around—the next event we have is April 22nd that we’re planning for and that’s gonna be around design. So the idea being how can design get a better seat at the table when it comes to business decisions? How do we unmask that veil of what goes into that end product which everyone sees? After that we’re going to do a [sic] event around ageism and how does that play out in design. And then the last one is going to be around screen-time. So how do you reconcile building products to encourage engagement but really wanting to get people off the screen and experience the world as is.
PF Hell yeah! Awesome! Thank you, Design—We should point to people: it’s the elephant in the room.
AR Yes, it is the elephant—
NV In case that wasn’t—
PF It’s not just these like adorable design elephants.
AR No, no, no, it’s definitely the concept is around playing with that phrase of ‘elephant in the room’ and these are things that exist and we all keep bumping into but we aren’t really—there hasn’t been a lot of real discourse around [mm hmm] and so we want to be part of creating a space for that discourse versus saying that we have the answer.
PF You know the other thing is that if you’re curious about the firm, this is a great way to get to know us. Like, you’ll meet the people.
AR Yes, it’s a great way—You know this is another kind of avenue we wanted was we really wanted people to come and experience the culture here at Postlight, and the design team culture. And that being, you know, hey, we can identify what we don’t know but we have space to ask. And we have space to talk about it. So, you know, we love to have these events because a lot of times we find people that we really want to bring into the culture here as well. So, if you’re—you know, we are actively recruiting right now, so please feel free to come, check out the space, come meet up with us, definitely come and speak with me cuz we are looking for great people to continue to be joining our team.
PF Great, and any questions in general: email@example.com. We’ll route them appropriately.
RZ Thank you, guys. We’ll be there for this event [music fades in].
NV Thank you.
AR Thank you [music plays alone for two seconds, ramps down].
PF Rich, I wanna talk about something that’s been [music fades out] on my mind lately.
PF We’re growing. So typical sales for Postlight. That’s me. I’m Head of Sales. People don’t know that about me, they think about me as a writer.
RZ Among other things [Paul guffaws]. You’re not just Head of Sales.
PF But I’m Head of Sales. I like being Head of Sales. You gotta own it. You gotta get in there and I’m—You know, just today I started to write—because here’s what’s happening—it used to be this is how we would sell services at Postlight: “Mike! Haven’t heard from you in a while. Oh my God, great to get your email. Yeah, totally, we are doin’ all kinds of stuff.”
RZ “How old are the kids?”
PF Yeah, “You know what? Let’s get coffee and I’d love to—If we’re a good fit, we’re a good fit. We’re doing some really good work. I’d love to talk to you.” That was sales for the first several years.
RZ Some of sales, yes.
PF Some of sales.
RZ Yes, yes, yes.
PF And then! And then it was like, “Hey, I’m at a big company, you and I met five years ago. I’d like to talk to you about this thing we’re doing.” You know, friends referring friends, so on and so forth. But then there gets to be a point where the brand’s working. Where people are like, “Oh, ok, Postlight.” You’re on that list of companies that do [yeah] platform driven web work. Good for you. Your marketing got out there. Your brand’s working. And you know your reward for that?
PF The RFP.
RZ Paul, what’s an RFP?
PF Well, Rich, I’m glad you asked. It’s the Request for Proposal. It’s the formal proposal process. This is what big agencies do, all day. There are teams working on ‘em. I used to—when I worked at big agencies, that’s what you do. You’d get a Word Doc and it would say, “We need to build a new thingamajig. Are you the right person? Here’s 35 pages.”
RZ The RFP process is born out of an idea which is this: “We’re gonna eliminate bias, favoritism, nepotism, fraternalism—all the things that would cloud a good call that is in the best interests of the company that is trying to hire a partner.”
PF Or the—Especially not for profit organization or government organization.
RZ In fact, there’s laws around some of the government organizations.
PF You can’t just hire your cousin’s digital products studio.
PF You have to open it up.
RZ Open it up, sometimes it’s blind, sometimes it’s—
PF Sometimes it’s all about price. Lowest bidder.
RZ A host of factors are put forward. Sometimes a committee is formed that’s gonna make a vote on determining which RFP they’re gonna—which proposal that’s gonna win. Sometimes it’s a winnowing down process where you’re going from like, “Oh we’re gonna get you—You’ve made it to the last four!” And then there’s another round of conversation. It could be really, really difficult and an arduous process. One of the interesting things about Postlight is a lot of our biggest clients come from—I don’t know what you’d wanna call it. What’s the anti-RFP?
PF Well it’s just relationship building.
RZ “Can I talk to you?”
PF Well, no, I mean, I think—
RZ “It’s time.”
PF Actually, for people listening, right? You’re listening to what is actually marketing, right? We’re doing this podcast and Rich and I—I mean, you know, we just use common sense. We say the things we would say if we met you on the street [mm hmm], it’s just like—but what you’re listening to gets the word Postlight in your brain and we do a lot of content; we write a lot of stuff; and we think of it as giving away lots of thoughts. Right?
RZ Being generous with our advice has been actually great for business.
PF It’s the best business move we could’ve made. It let us skip a lot of steps because instead of having to prove out every single detail of our expertise, people were like, “Oh, I read that article. You do know what you’re talking about.”
RZ And that comes into early conversation. When we have an anti-RFP process, essentially a conversational process, we’ve had people tell us—entrepreneurs tell us, “I just wanna thank—Like I can’t afford you,” or, “This isn’t gonna work for whatever reason but wow, you helped me gain clarity on what exactly was at stake and what was involved.”
PF “And you’re so good looking too. I mean it’s just really—”
RZ And then there’s basket filled with sausage and cheese and—
PF Yeah, no, and then they’re like, “Can I smell your sweater?” It’s just beautiful. That’s the kind of relationship that we have with our clients.
RZ I gotta say . . . I never feel crushed after making that investment . . . when they don’t go with us, for whatever reason. I actually—
PF Oh, no, it’s ok.
RZ—don’t feel bad about it. I see it as completely part of—
PF First of all, you can’t win ‘em all or we would die. We couldn’t survive winning—
RZ No! Of course not but honestly we love conversing. We love talking to people.
PF No, we talk, you know, there was a point where we were advertising on Facebook. Now I would heartily recommend against advertising your services on Facebook.
RZ I wanna pause the podcast. I’m fairly convinced that it’s not worth it for us to advertise on Facebook. If somebody could give us insight as to why we should advertise on Facebook.
PF Yeah, just call 1-800-Postlight, we need to know.
RZ firstname.lastname@example.org. Why would I spend money on Facebook? But maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.
PF We’ve talked about it—
RZ Because I get—I wanna talk about a product, I wanna go on a tangent off the tangent.
PF Go. Take. Go.
RZ There is an ad campaign that’s happening to my Facebook stream for a product called Pendo.
PF Oh, yeah Pendo.
RZ P-E-N-D-O dot I-O. Take a look at it.
PF Big Pendo fan right here.
RZ Nobody knows what this is. I don’t know what it is.
PF Ok. We need to tell people what we did yesterday. So, you and I like to take a little break during lunch and watch YouTube videos of enterprise software . . . being used or presented.
RZ In incognito mode.
PF Exactly. You need to because otherwise, no seriously, they will come chasing your entire accounts.
RZ It is something.
PF They love to market. Anyway, Rich—so I’m like, “Hey, it’s enterprise software lunch. Let’s sit down.” I was like, “Ah, we’ll do a little Salesforce Dreamforce.” And I mean that is an amazing one. There are people dressed in costumes and, you know, Macklemore is playing—
RZ That’s sort of the top end of it, yeah.
PF But then we’re like, “Ok, what you actually get—” You can never see enterprise software. You can’t see it. They won’t let you use it or demo it or give you screenshots. You go to the website for the enterprise product company and they’re like, “Digital transformation delivered now!” And there’s a picture—
RZ Yeah, a lot of abstract shapes.
PF There’s a picture of a 25 year old woman . . . like giving you the thumbs up.
RZ Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PF Yeah. And so you’re like, “Ooo-k.”
RZ “What is this?”
PF “What is this?” And then you keep reading and the copy’s just confusing.
RZ And you go to YouTube.
PF And you type it in and you can usually see somebody actually demoing and saying—this is how we learned about Sitecore, right? A big content platform that a lot of people use. Sit there and watch for an hour and you go, “Ok, I get it. I see it.” Pendo, on the other hand—Rich bursts in yesterday and is like, “I gotta understand Pendo.”
RZ Well the marketing worked.
PF Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RZ [Laughing] Cuz I found myself—
PF “What the hell is it? I see Pendo everywhere. What the hell is it?”
PF And so we bring it up on YouTube and what did we learn?
RZ We learned nothing.
PF [Chuckles] I can’t figure out what the hell it is.
RZ We learned nothing.
PF I think it’s like a content platform that has analytics and, like, sort of CRM style funnel built in, so you can be like, “Oh they read this and this and they came back three times last month.”
RZ I think there’s an internal goal. I’m gonna take a big shit on Pendo right now.
PF Ok, first of all, when you actually see the demo and you see the—
RZ It’s infuriating.
PF Lemme just—I’ll put it very gently: they used a lot of design patterns.
RZ Oh my God. I think they have, like, an internal goal like one feature a day.
PF Yeah [laughs].
RZ And they’re just caking on all this shit and it is—
PF One design toolkit a day, one framework a day.
RZ It’s incomprehensible. If someone knows what it is you’re allowed to tell us in five sentences or less at email@example.com.
PF What Pendo is.
RZ If you can do that, in five sentences or less, we will mail you a Postlight sweatshirt.
PF Yeah, absolutely. Be worth it.
RZ It’ll be—
PF It’s a bargain!
RZ Completely worth it. Not just the sweatshirt, what’s that little like plunger thing you put on the back of a phone? What’s that called?
PF Oh, pop socket. We have Postlight pop sockets.
RZ You’ll get a sweatshirt and a pop socket if you can explain to me what the hell this thing is cuz it looks like—
PF And you have to explain in the context of the real world. You have to be like, “It’s like a content management system for,” or, “It’s software that does this.” You can’t—
RZ It’s a pile—
PF Don’t be like, “It’s an integrated marketing cloud.” Or we won’t give you a sweatshirt.
RZ No, you won’t get the sweatshirt for that. It looks like InVision had a bad night and just threw up all night.
PF A lot of things look that way [chuckling, Rich laughs], frankly. A lot of the web.
RZ Anyway, I don’t wanna market on Facebook.
PF Well, cuz, you know—
RZ I don’t think it’s right.
PF We did a thing. Again, as Head of Sales, there’s certain things you only learn by grinding and sort of gnawing on the bone. So all the Facebook leads come in and the—I took every phone call. It was amazing! We’ve talked a little bit about this on the show before but it’s like—it was just sort of like, “My music company—I’ve signed a man named Edgar to write guitar songs and we’re gonna compete with Spotify.” And I would take that call, it was wonderful.
RZ I have a name for these.
PF Mm hmm?
RZ When someone calls us up and they had an idea, and they’re like, “Postlight’s awesome.” I call it the GoDaddy inbound.
PF Oh yeah!
RZ Essentially it’s the—
PF “I’m gonna sign up for the domain name and talk to the agency.”
RZ Yeah. It’s like there’s—reality hasn’t really—“We’ve deferred reality for a minute. We’re gonna just talk to the agency that charges actually a lot of money and we’re gonna buy the domain name for 11 dollars.”
PF Well that’s the thing, it’s free to get in touch. It has to be.
RZ It’s free to get in touch and we’ll talk to you.
RZ And we’ll talk to you.
PF Well, I mean, I think like, yeah, if they don’t write Deloitte because they’ll just sort of cancel that or send them a white paper.
RZ Yeah, yeah.
PF Right? Like they go into some funnel.
RZ No, we’re very high—we’re very engaged.
PF No, so—So anyway, let’s—let’s back this out to the RFP process. Suddenly over the last year or so the number of RFPs that have come in have probably quintupled, like just instead of—
RZ Yeah, many more.
PF—one every couple of months, we’re getting one a week.
RZ Sometimes we get the kind email saying, “Would you be interested in participating in this RFP process?”
PF Yeah, you get those but that’s actually like—yeah, there’s like the pre qualifier.
PF And then you get the RFP itself.
RZ RFP—are RFPs bad?
RZ How come?
PF [Sighs] Well I don’t—I don’t have a solution. I’m thinking about this because I’m gonna talk about it on stage relatively soon.
RZ Well tell me—I don’t want the solution, why are they bad?
PF They’re bad because they keep trying to quantify and qualify the intangible aspects, right? So it’s not like—It’s a relationship. Everything we do. We actually sell relationships with—We sell two things: relationships with Postlight and career progress for our clients. We’re gonna get you your thing so that you can grow in your career.
PF And you will look good and your boss will promote you.
PF And you’re going to have a good, healthy relationship along the way. The side effect of that is that we ship working software.
RZ Yeah. What you’re saying is the RFP is kind of anti-relationship.
PF Well, there’s a couple of different ones. There’s the bargain hunter, right? Where they’re like—it’s just a thrift store. They’re like, “I need these things. Can you also do some free design?” I love that request.
PF They love to ask for like, “What would the design look like?” And it’s like, “No, no, go ask your cousin.”
RZ No, but that’s not an RFP.
PF It is!
RZ Ah, I wouldn’t call that an RFP.
PF No, you get ‘em—no, no, it’s like—
RZ When you say RFP, I see 11 pages of PDF, single-spaced.
PF No but half the time it’s that and they’re like, “Please also show design samples.” I’ve seen that four or five times. So there’s the bargain hunter. There’s one that’s kinda like the Turing test where they’re just sort of like, “I need to say if you’re a robot or a human.” Like it’s just robots talking to robots. They’re like, “Here are the 45 factors that we are looking for.”
PF They want you to fill out a form but they won’t let you just fill out the form.
PF Mostly cuz they don’t know how to put up a form for you to fill out.
PF The best ones along those lines, they just send you a giant spreadsheet and are like, “Go ahead, tell us how you—”
RZ Fill in the blanks.
PF “What is the SEO strategy for your content platform?” And then you write three sentences onto the next.
RZ But you’re making a great point which we kind of glossed over which is the success and failure of an engagement is—I mean obviously gonna hinge on the people.
RZ And the RFP process actually tries to quantify and remove these sort of soft variables from the process. Like you’re essentially saying, “I’m gonna check all these boxes and we’re gonna have a matrix.” And then they present that matrix to some executives who are gonna say, “Oh ok. This looks good. This looks good.” You know all these factors are considered. It’s like a program. It’s almost like, “What’s the output of this RFP process?” And then that’s how we’re gonna make the call when in fact, that kickoff meeting—
PF Mm hmm.
RZ And we’ve been in our share of kickoff meetings.
PF Boy, have we.
RZ The people in the room and how they click—or don’t click—is going to determine the success or failure of that thing more than anything else. The big, big, big agencies, the thing they can do if you’re unhappy and you’re big, they literally will shovel 30 human beings out of the bucket and then put 30 new ones in. They’ll do that on a phone call.
PF “Don’t like Sam? How about Mikaela?”
RZ Yeah. And team. It’s not just one person. They will move everything around to keep the wheels turning. That’s something they can do. The smaller shops, you’re gonna live with ‘em. You’re making a bet on that shop. I don’t know how anyone can do this without making a bet. By the way, some of the RFP processes end up with, “When will you present?” You’ll actually present something.
PF Oh yeah. There is that. No, they gotta get you into that room but a lot of them, I mean almost all of them have like a nice Q&A process in front.
PF Look, I mean it is—it’s just a way that business is done but yeah, it’s a little bit broken. The other ones that are amazing are the ones where they’ve clearly chosen the partner and the stack that they’re going to build with but then they have to get three or four more.
RZ They have to cuz they’ve been asked to go do it. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PF Yeah. Those are brutal. Sometimes you’ll get that signal really clearly, they’ll be like—
RZ Yeah we can sniff that out and we pass it on it. “Yeah, we’re not gonna participate in this.”
PF It’s really awkward though because they’ve now made the promise that they’re getting three or four [yup] but then they—[chuckles] then they spill the beans. You’ll get on that phone call and they’ll be like, “What is the pro—What’s your, like, procore and blah blah blah strategy? What’s your this and that?” And you’ll be like, “Well, we don’t do that.” And they’re like, “What about integrating shopping carts?”
RZ They wanna put exes in, right? Instead of checks.
PF Yeah that’s right. And then we go like, “I think we’re actually the wrong partner for you,” and you can feel them kinda freak out a little bit cuz they promised three or four.
RZ Yup! They still want you to do it.
PF But it’s like, “I’m not gonna go somewhere and like—Yeah, I’m not getting on a plane so you can feel better about yourself.”
PF So I don’t know, Rich, I mean I’m here doing my sales and I’m getting more RFPs. I just made—for the first time I sat down and I wrote a [sic] one page doc called, “What do we need to know when we respond to RFPs.” You know? Like—
RZ Let me ask you this: do you like it when you get an RFP?
PF Some are quite well prepared.
PF Some are not. Most look like ransom notes put together from different stakeholders in the organization and it’s—they’re trying to satisfy everyone and they’re basically outsourcing their inability to have cult—to create cultural change to the agency and crossing their fingers.
PF That is—I would say that’s—And I mean I don’t—That’s not an insult to them. That’s like 99%. Or because that’s why you go out.
PF And then the government ones are [vocalizes relief] whoof! You know? Just like—
RZ Oh, that’s a—that’s a world.
PF Well they’re also just like, “Here’s two pages of the process you must follow for, you know, payroll and inventory, and please provide these statistics about your organization and so on.”
RZ I don’t like them. I [stammers]—maybe because—
PF It’s the opposite of how you like to sell and close business.
RZ I wanna see you.
RZ We have an unwritten rule which is: if I can meet you in person, I’d like to meet you in person.
PF Oh! As a salesperson, you have to.
RZ And if not then the phone call or the video call. And then from there, my goal is to have more conversations with you. The more [right] conversations I can have with you, the more I’m building a relationship with you which, for me, is not only gonna increase the likelihood of getting the project . . . but is also gonna increase the likelihood that I’m gonna actually cultivate an empathetic partner on the other side that’s actually gonna defend my people, and defend what we’re doing.
PF This is what’s wild, right? Is that people think of sales at this level as very like, “I’m gonna wear a suit and play golf.” It’s literally without the empathetic connection between both parties, and them going like, “I understand that you are in business to make money and that you would like to charge me 500 times what I’m about to offer you.”
RZ I’m not sure that rule doesn’t apply in almost any company.
PF It does but most companies desperately try to avoid it because you can’t hire for empathy.
RZ No, you can’t. But! When you are trying to get department C in the campus across the street to cooperate with your initiative . . . One of the best things you can do is go and hang out at department C.
PF Oh yeah!
RZ Go and get to know them. Go and understand why they are motivated by what they’re motivated by. And connect. I’m not sure if I’m saying something here that can land as underhanded or manipulative.
PF This is what I’m saying—
RZ It’s not, it’s not.
PF The people who buy services at a certain scale are very—usually pretty experienced at buying services. Not their first time.
PF And, they’re not going to do it unless they are comfortable working with you every day.
PF I mean some of our clients like we can’t buy drinks because they’re such big orgs or government orgs—it’s not like we—we can’t schmooze them.
PF Like they literally—like they will get fired. It’s unethical to schmooze them.
RZ Yeah, yeah, and we’ve been told that explicitly in some instances.
PF Right like—and so it’s not like we have this amazing toolkit and we can go down there and be like, “Hey, how about, you know, Knicks tickets?” It’s—you have to—they have to want to see you. And they’re making the decision based on that.
RZ Is this that different than campaigning? Because what you’re trying to do when you campaign is not sit there and lecture them about you, you’re actually there to listen. Right?
PF No, that’s right.
RZ And that is—
PF You’re gonna tell ‘em your story and then they’re gonna say, “That’s fine.”
RZ It’s the—you know that mug—that classic diner mug that you’re holding up—cuz—for the photoshoot? But yeah there’s a photoshoot and you’re at the local diner in the middle of Iowa or Kansas but at the same time, you are there and those people, they actually want you to hear them. They don’t wanna hear you talk [yeah]. They can hear you talk all day long, you’re all over the internet, you’re all over everything. They actually want you to hear them and you are gonna hear some things that really, frankly, their local municipality should be [chuckles] dealing with.
PF Yeah, yeah, that is correct.
RZ But you’re campaigning for President.
PF No, that’s right.
RZ People want to be heard.
PF You’re like, “We are gonna fix trash removal here in Boise.”
RZ People want to be heard. The first of any kickoff to any project I would pack the first two to three hours of pelting them with questions and listening to them.
RZ And that, frankly, for me, in my mind, and I’m more improvisational would actually lay out the rest of the agenda. The rest of the agenda will be shaped by what they need and what they’re feeling and what they want. And I think any good political operator, in any company, thinks that way.
PF Yeah, that’s right.
RZ That’s how they advance, in fact, and I don’t think that’s bad because you can still do good things and help those people down the road.
PF Well, and sometimes, you know, look: we’re not a company that does a lot of sales after the engagement starts.
RZ That’s right. That’s right.
PF We truly are. And as part of that is just our scale and part of that is just the culture and the ethics of the place. Once you’re in there and you’re building the work, the work’s gonna speak for itself, and we’re not gonna keep asking you—we don’t do change orders. We don’t do like—Like we build stuff. And—
RZ That’s right.
PF That has to speak for it.
RZ And we believe that that leads to more work.
PF That’s right. You have to still do some politics around that. You have to show people the thing you built.
PF And say, “Look: we made decisions to build this,” and people are like, “Well that’s not politics, that’s just a presentation.” But it is. It’s politics.
RZ I think the most powerful political weapon you have is the thing you built.
PF That is your stump speech.
RZ That is your stump speech. That you can’t—it’s hard to debate it and hard to punch holes in it, especially if you’re actually recruiting advocats for it as it’s out in the wild.
PF I mean product politics, the way you win the election is you stand up and demo.
RZ Stand up and demo. I wanna close this with a story, Paul.
PF I love stories. Let’s go.
RZ We had a client—it was actually going well from our view but the CEO called me up and he said, “Can I talk to you?” I’m not gonna disclose who the client is. [Paul vocalizes relief with a high pitched ‘ooof’] And he said, “Look: I’m a little worried about this project. I need you to tell me what’s going right, what’s going wrong.” Right? “And I’m hearing different people and frankly different people are throwing others under the bus,” including us, others were throwing us under the bus which has happened to us, by the way.
PF Oh yeah. Well this is just—when you’re in a political and a charged environment where things aren’t going so great.
PF Vendors are one of the things you can blame.
RZ Oh, of course. Of course. So I gave my spiel and I told him, “Look: you know, we’re gonna launch this, we’re feeling good about it. If we do these things, please get these other things out of our way.” Right? And then he said to me, “Rich, I gotta be honest with you: I’ve talked to the four different stakeholders who are all pointing at each other and they all just told me the same thing.”
PF What did they say?
RZ “They all just said: I’ve got it right. And the other guy’s screwing up!”
PF Oh yeah, “I have my solution here. I don’t know why you would ever do it their way.”
RZ Exactly. And then I looked back—I responded to that CEO and I said, “In six weeks, we have to launch.”
RZ “I’m on the hook. I can’t hide for another five months.”
RZ “I’ve got six weeks to go. And do I’m talking to you now, telling you that if you let me do these things and you get these other things out of my way, I’m either gonna look good in six weeks or look like a complete idiot, right? [Yeah] So I don’t wanna convince you, in fact.” You’ve got six weeks to go. This guy thinks in months and years, right? He’s a CEO.
PF Well, honestly, you know, he doesn’t just think in months and years, he thinks entirely—a CEO, I know this from personal experience, can’t do anything. [Rich laughs wheezily] Like they can’t—they can’t go in there and fix the problem.
RZ They have to trust, right?
PF They have to delegate and trust. You have no choice.
RZ Of course, of course.
PF So all he’s thinking about is, “I have four people. I pay their salaries and they are supposed to give me the best input possible. My role is tiebreaker. And I don’t have framework for deciding the tie.”
RZ No, and you try to sniff out risk here and there. It’s like, “Hmm, I haven’t heard from team—”
PF But they’re all really skilled, they’re all just like, “Mm nmm, no. No.”
RZ I’m a more paranoid leader than you are but that’s why this works.
PF Yeah, no, of course.
RZ I guess what I’m trying to say is there is this—
PF Well, no you came in and you dropped—you were just like six weeks and it’s either. Then you have a Boolean, it’s true or false.
RZ Exactly, exactly, and he actually—there was quiet on the other end.
PF Oh that’s like a laser beam cutting right down the middle of the wall, right? Just like oh.
RZ You’re laying your hands out and you’re saying, “You’re gonna know, man. Like I’m gonna look pretty foolish.” Because all the other stakeholders were essentially saying, “Don’t do that.” They didn’t have a plan.
PF “Oh don’t you dare. They don’t use Agile the right way. They don’t do this, they don’t do that.”
RZ They had no sort of moment where it was gonna prove out. All they could do was naysay, right? And just say, “Look: this is risky. You really gotta watch this and that.” And all I’m saying is, “I gotta actually give you the box. And you’re gonna open the box in six weeks.”
PF This is a very hard thing to learn in your career. This took me a long time. Which is that you’ve got a plan, you’ve got a project, you’re underway, everyone is saying, “Great job. Here you go.”
PF And simultaneously, five or six forces are trying to blow up what you’re doing because they think it’s the wrong path and their path is better. And the people well above you are hearing about this while you’re trundling along writing your code, managing your product [mm hmm], and then one day, you know, like, you’re a week late shipping. And you’re like, “Of course I’m a week late shipping. You guys changed the scope and there’s all these things that happened. I did a great job.” And they’re like, “I told you.”
RZ Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
PF Right? And that is the hardest thing. That’s why your managers are always so nervous.
RZ Absolutely. And one of our jobs is to get ahead of that, right? Look: I think what this is about is courtship.
PF Mm hmm.
RZ An RFP is a swipe right.
PF Oh it is, it’s Tinder for zillion dollar vendor relationships.
RZ It’s courtship, right? And what you’re doing early on is communication and conversing and building trust and [mm hmm] actually empathizing and saying, “Tell me about you.” That first date? You can not unload for an hour and a half.
RZ And not hear about the other person. As things move along, the goods have to show up. Right? Eventually you have to—
PF You know, the only thing that—So the RFP, I increasingly feel is like proforma, “We’re gonna make sure this thing aligns with our business and hits all the boxes in the matrix.” The only thing that matters is case studies.
RZ I think that’s—what have you done? What have you done in the past?
PF Yeah, can you do the appropriate dance?
PF So that we can be friends. And then show me you’ve solved this before. And then the relationship can get—then we can have a relationship.
PF Basically RFPs are people who’ve been burned so bad before, they’re gonna just kinda take some time out.
RZ Mm hmm.
PF And you know maybe like send some nice emails but they’re not gonna download that dating app.
RZ No, no. I hope this has been fruitful even beyond the agency world because this is about relationships.
PF There’s people out there writing RFPs.
RZ There’s people out there writing RFPs and there’s people out there engaging in that way, even though it’s not a formal process, right? We’re all kind of working together. These entities sometimes are departments in big companies and sometimes—
PF Look, I have to go give a talk to hundreds of government people about RFPs in March.
RZ Why would you go do that?
PF Cuz I’m—but this is like Gotham Comedy Club for me. I’m workshopping my RFP material.
RZ Oooh! This is pretty funny.
PF Yeah, yeah. Yeah, we’re getting there [Rich chuckles]. I think I gotta qualify the different kinds of RFPs. I mean when I get to this talk, it’s gotta pop a little bit.
RZ Yeah, no, I hear you.
PF Alright, friends.
RZ Hey, listen: guess where you can send [music fades in] an RFP, Paul?
PF Oh, I love a good RFP.
RZ We love RFPs! [Laughs]
PF Oh my goodness.
RZ We are Postlight.
PF Google ‘RFP builder Postlight’, you’ll see our RFP builder.
RZ Yes! You can build your own RFP [laughs]—
PF It’s version alpha.
RZ Yes, we’re Postlight. We’re a digital products studio based in New York City. Design, engineering, strategic product thinking, and we’ve got some amazing clients, some really cool case studies coming soon that we’re excited to share with everyone.
PF That’s right. Put us on your list. Send us your RFP.
RZ Put us on your list. Send us [laughing] your RFP.
PF [Stammers] All the things I just said—
PF—I wanna see it.
PF You know the other thing that happens? And we’re ready to help here?
PF Get in touch when you’re about to write that RFP. Agenc—we love to help.
RZ We love to help you write the RFP.
PF Cuz it gets us in the room early.
RZ Yup, that’s absolutely true. Absolutely true.
PF And then you send it out, you still get the responses but it’s given us a minute extra to think. So, you know. Alright, friends, firstname.lastname@example.org. And Design Directors.
RZ Please come to us.
PF It’s the time of your career!
PF Try an agency, good work life balance. Go home at a reasonable time. Work with great people and great clients.
RZ Have a lovely week.
PF Bye! [Music ramps up, plays alone for three seconds, fades out to end.]