arlen solochek

Ask the Owner: Arlen Solochek of MCCCD Discusses the Consultant Selection Process

Posted by Kimberly Mickelson on September 12, 2011
Construction, Design / 1 Comment

Recently, members of SMPS Arizona asked Arlen Solochek of Maricopa County Community College District to respond to a number of questions about the District’s consultant selection process.

  1. Can you provide some examples of how firms have differentiated themselves in proposals?  In interviews?
  2. What do you recommend for an out of town A/E firm who has proven educational experience in their home state and is interested in doing work for MCCCD?
  3. How does an A/E firm get an opportunity to do work with MCCD when the selection criteria favors those A/E firms whom have done work for MCCD in the past?  

In reality, there is a common underlying question in all three: how does your firm get selected to design our project? While there is some difference in the process between private and public sector owners, the issue is the same: how do you convince the person/people making the selection to entrust your firm with the design of a facility that:
- may cost millions of dollars
- in which the business’ success and economic survival will depend
- that is a one of a kind project
- that must work (nearly) perfectly the first time

What your firm must do in both the on-paper response to a Request for Qualifications/Proposal (RFQ/RFP) (you marketers) and then in an interview (professional staff) is raise our level of confidence and reduce our level of uncertainty and anxiety about the decision we are about to make. In public sector work, we are strictly limited by statute on how design professionals are selected: it is purely a qualifications based selection, through an open RFP process.

Can you provide some examples of how firms have differentiated themselves in proposals?  In interviews?
Maricopa is very lucky to be a client of choice by the design industry. Top firms always respond to the RFQ’s with their best qualified and experienced staff proposed for the project. The first answer to the question is, if you are not bringing your A+ team to the proposal and the interview, your firm is not going to be competitive. Taken in the context of “lowering our anxiety/raising our confidence”, the most successful differentiation is offering similar projects (the more similar the better) and proposing individuals (and more important, the individuals who worked on those projects) who match up well with our proposed project AND being able to communicate this well. The RFQ must be able to highlight this match in a concise, easy to read and understandable manner.  We never should be reading through an RFQ and be asking ourselves, “why is this item/material/project/individual here?”

We often ask for a project approach or understanding discussion. This is a great opportunity for a firm with less project type experience to pick up points. What stands out here are the firms that bring something new or insightful to the discussion, applying experience and lessons learned to the discussion. What also stands out- in a bad way- is a standard regurgitation of process, generalizations, or references to projects that don’t seem to apply to our work.  We want individuals and firms who have learned from their own mistakes on someone else’s project and will bring that experience to our project.

Once on the shortlist, the assumption is that all firms are technically qualified to provide the requested services. Our unique style of interviews- 10% prepared material and 90% pop quiz- in intended to force the design team to think on their feet, demonstrate their experience and understanding, and be able to communicate well with our users. We understand that this format is difficult and stressful for the individuals, and those that handle the spontaneous nature of the discussion will do best.

Strong showings in interviews come from personal connections and good communications between the team members and selection panel. Provide an introductory handshake and hello.  Establish eye contact.  Talk with them not at them. Get up from your chair and approach the panel a bit as you talk- but don’t get into their personal space. Smile. A little humor helps. Try to create (on the spot!) concise answers using concrete examples from their experience from similar projects or situations. Having someone in a “master of ceremonies” role for the firm, organizing who may respond, making brief introductions and summarizing information, etc. keeps a nice flow and feel to the interview- as long as they don’t take over the interview and the answers.

We’ve often seen specialists or sub-consultant attend the interview. This is fine, and may even be beneficial, if there’s a good reason to have them there and they contribute something meaningful to the discussion. Individuals brought into the interview who are there as “here’s our consulting team” window dressing probably is more detrimental than helpful. A terrific response from an important consultant can nail down an award.

Good integration of visual materials into the interview is helpful.  This could be from some sort of team member identification (name tags, hand out with pictures, etc.), materials used in the introductory statements, other materials used during the interview to demonstrate important points, etc. We’re asked if Powerpoint, boards or tracing paper with markers is required or more successful.  The answer is to use whatever works for you, the issues that you want to discuss and what you are comfortable with.  All have been used in winning interviews. Make any points that you want during the interview for information that is provided in leave-behind literature.  Once the interview is over, the information package generally isn’t looked at again.
Last, as my mom always said, “make memories”. We see a lot of firms and a lot of individuals during our long interview days.  While we score each firm immediately following their interview, it’s really amazing how some image, some phrase or some impression from an interview comes back later in the final selection discussion.  It may be planned or may be spontaneous, but it leaves that lasting memory in our minds.

What do you recommend for an out of town A/E firm who has proven educational experience in their home state and is interested in doing work for MCCCD? 

The first suggestion is a quick scan of the local industry to assure that the out of town firm that feels they can be competitive with local firms likely to respond to our RFP. Our evaluation criteria is geared to select the most qualified firm and if that firm is out of town, that firm will be selected. There is a small point deduction for primary firm personnel located out of town, including local firms who propose out of town staff. The small point deduction for staff/firm location would be more than offset by proposing better qualified individuals.
Next, the out of town firm needs to decide whether they want to propose and manage the project on their own from their location, or associate with a local firm. If an association is proposed, it’s important for the RFP to indicate the relationship between the firms, demonstrate that the local firm has some significant role on the project and that there is clear definition of roles and names from each firm.  Local firms should be more than just a pass through billing or email. We don’t require that firms have a long track record of previous work together.
If the out of town proposes on their own, take some time and space in the RFP to discuss how the firm intends to manage from a distance, who will be in town for face to face work, when and how often, how communication will work, etc.  There is a burden to show us that the additional expense and difficulty of working with of town personnel will be handled without additional burden. If the out of firm feels that they are competitive- and probably should be as good as or a bit better than local firms- we invite them to reply to the RFP.

How does an A/E firm get an opportunity to do work with the District when the selection criteria favors those A/E firms whom have done work for District in the past?

We understand that this is an easy perception, but there is no “favoring” of firms within our process. A-E Selection Record 2004 BOND

Since 2004, the District has started, completed or has in process 58 major projects.

  • 36 projects were openly competed through RFQ’s, including two design-build selections (20 selections for smaller projects, generally $2 million or less in construction value, were made through annual services contracts or agreements with other public agencies)
  • Over 600 RFQ responses have been received on these 36 projects
    • 57 different firms have been short listed for interviews
    • 1 design firm already been selected by our project partner at the time we entered the agreement. This occurred on two different projects.
    • 3 design firms were selected as part of a design-build selection
  • 20 different firms have been selected through the openly competed RFQ’s
    • 13 firms received a single project award
    • 7 firms have been selected for more than one project; of the 78 firms, 3 of the firms have been selected more than twice

This question boils down to whether the process favors these seven – or three- firms, and specifically, SmithGroup, selected for seven projects at three different campuses. Let’s re-ask the question:  Has SmithGroup been selected seven times because the process favors them or because they are a very capable, well qualified firm that matches up very well with many of our projects?

In each the seven projects, a completely new, different and independent selection committee came to same decision: SmithGroup was the best qualified firm for the project.

Here’s look at the actual ranking points and criteria used for a recent RFP that resulted in a selection of SmithGroup:






Past experience in the design of similar projects





Qualifications of proposed personnel/consultants team





Availability of personnel/ office work load (size of staff)





Method of Approach





Experience of design team using  CMAR project delivery



0 to 5


Other factors:
(a)     Recent PRIME contracts with District



-3 to 0

(b)     Firm size matching project (additional points for small firms on smaller projects)



0 or +3





- 5 to + 5


MBE/WBE status of prime consultant and proposed subconsultants (NO LONGER CONSIDERED)



0 to +7


Firm, primary individuals or consultants located outside Phoenix metro area



-5 to 0


total 195 points possible

Of the 195 possible points,130 points are based upon matching up experience, qualifications or a discussion on approach/understanding of the project (where any firm can compete equally). The only criteria that is related to prior work is a deductive factor, an attempt to slightly level the selection process specifically to address the issue brought up by the question. We agree that it’s not a lot of offsetting points, but we must make sure that the preponderance of the selection meets the statutory qualifications based selection requirement.We honestly are sensitive to the issue and complaint. Would the profession prefer (if we could…) that we tell the best qualified firm, “sorry, you are the best firm for our project but we need to select someone else because you’ve done prior work for us?” Would your firm like this? Should the Yankees be eliminated from the World Series because they’ve played in too many recently?We’ve also heard and appreciate the argument that a medium or small firm doesn’t have the resources to prepare and compete with the larger firms.  We also add a few points for smaller firms competing on small projects. Again, we ultimately are tied to qualifications selection.  If SMPS, AIA and the legislature provide an avenue for public owners to selection by other than the best qualified firm, based upon whatever criteria that is agreed upon, we would be interested to try the process.So, was SmithGroup selected multiple times because our process favors firms who already have been selected for prior project OR because they are well qualified, interview well and match up exceptionally well to many of our projects?————————Last, we want to assure the professional services community that we always are open to feedback on what we do, good or bad.  If it’s good, we will try to do even better.  If it’s bad, we will try to do better. We don’t take criticism personally, discussion won’t reflect back to any selection process.  We try to keep all of our procurement open to the community.  Once a selection is confirmed by the Board, all selection files are open and available for anyone’s review. Interviews also generally are open to the public. We invite to you contact us directly with any questions or concerns that you have and assure the confidentiality of any discussion.

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