Denise Burgess | Crain's Denver

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Denise Burgess


The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce is the largest business organization in the state of Colorado. It represents approximately 3,000 businesses across the state, and its goal is to be a job-creator.

When Burgess took over as board chair on September 6, she became the first African-American to hold the position in the chamber’s 150 years in existence. She also serves as president and CEO of Burgess Services Inc., a local construction management firm. Her father Clyde founded the company in 1974. 

The Mistake:

A deal is not done until it’s signed.

When I was younger, I had a tendency to presume I had won a contract when in fact I had merely had a good conversation with a potential client. I thought it was a done deal, but I was too reticent to get into what I saw as details.

I didn’t ask the simple question, “Are we working for you?” I was too reticent. I saw it as too aggressive. Now I see it as necessary.

When I started working for my dad, back in the mid-1990s, I would go out and do project interviews. In construction, you go out and do interviews like this, usually in response to requests for proposals or qualifications.

There’s one instance I’m thinking of down in Colorado Springs, where we had an office and were doing a lot of work at the time. I went in and had a great interview. I thought I rocked it. Everyone was laughing at my jokes, and I had a great presentation. They seemed to love it, but I didn’t do the ask. I never said, “Can I do this work for you?”

I just assumed that because they liked me, they would hire me. They hired my competitor. I was hurt, ego hurt.

When I talked to the project manager, he told me that they did like me, that they thought my presentation was great, but that my competitor came in with specific numbers, dates and schedules.

I just assumed that because they liked me, they would hire me.

The Lesson:

When you’re asking for work, don’t assume that your potential client knows what you’re thinking. What I was doing was introducing myself, not asking for work. You really have to say, “I would really like to do this work for you.”

You need to be specific. You need to make sure your client knows where you’re coming from. You also need to set the tone when you go into a meeting. It doesn’t have to be rude or mean or anything, but you do have to do it.

The difference between requests for proposals and qualifications is key too. They are different, and you have to prepare accordingly. For RFQs, you have to go in and say who you are, what projects you’ve done, who’s on your staff, and basically just present your company. For RFPs, you do all those things, but you also add in the dates you are available, the exact work you are saying you can do, and what the price is.

Then there are the general things that apply to all interactions like this. You have to relax and not overthink it. You can’t cover everything. I recommend getting to know a potential client as much as possible. Maybe a client really likes green builds; that’s something you’d want to know if you want to do business with them. You also have to answer their questions as simply and directly as possible.

Denise Burgess is on Twitter at @deniseb_burgess and the Denver Metro Chamber is at @DenChamber.

Photo courtesy of the Denver Chamber of Commerce via Sweet Green Photography.

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