Debriefing sessions

Dec 11, 2017

There’s a strong case for including marketing staff post-proposal, especially if things didn’t go so well with the client.

I have long told my clients that requesting a debriefing after a selection has been made should be a standard conclusion of their firm’s “win work” proposal process – whether their team was selected for the project or not.

A debriefing session does a number of valuable things for your firm:

  • It tells you what the client liked about your proposal or presentation, so you can do more of that when pursuing other work with them or other clients.
  • It tells you what the client didn’t like, so you can do less of that or avoid doing that altogether on future pursuits for that or other clients.
  • It signals to the client that you really want to work with them and hope to make the debriefing a learning session.

But a debriefing can also be a treacherous time – especially if your firm wasn’t selected for the project – depending on who attends the session. If the principal in charge and the project manager go to the debriefing, and the client is 100 percent honest about where they thought your experience, approach, or proposed staffing section fell short, there is a 50-50 chance that one or both of your attendee(s) may become defensive, and possibly even belligerent and argumentative.

Such behavior does nothing positive for your future relationship with the client, who might be an entity with whom you really want to work if you can only figure out how to please them.

Having a member of the marketing staff attend the debriefing results in several important benefits for your firm and its representatives:

  • A marketing staff member has nothing about which to become defensive. He/she can be a calming influence, and can quash a potentially offensive response before it manifests and takes the session in the wrong direction. The marketing person can take over the discussion if he/she thinks it is taking on a more volatile characteristic than would be desired.
  • A marketing staff member knows there is more to being selected than the technical information. The firm’s reputation and processes to ensure superior client service can be as important a discriminator in the selection process as the firm’s technical experience and product.
  • Marketing staff are sensitive to the client’s response to both the content and the look of a proposal. Most of the technical folks focus on the client’s response to the proposal’s technical approach, project experience, and proposed staffing. But marketing staff will also be sensitive to the client’s response to the look of the proposal, such as:
    • Did the cover make them want to open the document?
    • Did the page layout make for an inviting read?
    • Was the page so cluttered with unnecessary graphics that the most important information was hard to find?
    • Did the use of certain kinds of graphic images (i.e. clip art) make the document look something less than professional?
    • Did the PIC or PM insist on ignoring the lessons learned from previous pursuits with this client, such as adding the client’s logo to the page layout despite the suggestion from marketing staff that the client might not like this?

In addition, when not selected, there is a comparison to be made with the selected firm. A marketing person won’t hesitate to ask the client what he/she liked or didn’t like about the winner’s proposal. The technical folks often do not think to ask this; they are only concerned with what they did that was good or bad.

Given the range of concerns to be discussed during a debriefing session, and the need to ensure that a calm discussion doesn’t deteriorate into “the last time that client ever talks to us,” one might even make the case that all debriefings should be attended only by marketing staff, with the principal and project manager given an opportunity to suggest questions, but not the opportunity to attend.

Bernie Siben, CPSM, is owner and principal consultant with The Siben Consult, LLC, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultancy located in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at 559.901.9596 or at

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