December 15, 2006

Seven Magic Questions

Asking the right questions is more important in sales than having the best answers.

Don't think so? Well, consider this: if you're going to sell a solution, you need to know what your customer thinks the problem is. Otherwise you'll never be taken seriously as a problem solver. And there's just no way to find out what the customer thinks unless you ask.

In fact, there are seven important questions that can help you get the most out of each opportunity. Ask them…and then listen to the answers! You'll be amazed how your customer relationships improve and how your win ratio goes up.

Seven Magic Questions
How to Improve Your Win Ratio by Selling Value Instead of Price

There are lots of consultative sales methods around. You may have been trained in one, or read a book about one, that you particularly like.

Each has its unique strengths and techniques. But they all have at least one thing in common. They try to get sales people to focus on what matters to the customer. You build sales momentum by demonstrating that you are delivering an important solution to an important problem. That is the essence of all these consultative methodologies.

To be able to create a client-centered solution - and to be able to write a client-centered proposal - there are seven questions you must be able to answer.

Oddly enough, lots of people try to write proposals without knowing the answers to even half of these questions. That makes it impossible to create a message that sounds "right" to the buyer.
Here are the seven questions. Make sure your sales people uncover the answers, make sure every proposal and sales presentation is based on them, and you'll win a lot more business.

1. What is the client's problem?
Look beyond the obvious. Your contact in the customer organization may describe the problem in terms that are specific to his or her interests. An IT manager sees the lack of on-line access to customer account information as a data integrity problem. To the vice president of sales, it's a revenue problem, because it's keeping the sales force from separating good clients from the not-so-good.

2. Why is it a problem?
Who is affected by this problem? How are they affected? Try to trace the links as high up the organizational ladder as possible to get a sense of how big the pain is. This will also indicate who else may need to be part of the decision team.

3. What objectives does the client have in mind for a successful solution?
How will the client measure success? In terms of business or financial performance? In terms of improvements in the technology infrastructure? Or in terms of customer loyalty or employee morale? Each of these areas - business results, technical outcomes, and social relationships - is potentially important. Which leads us to the next question:

4. Which of those objectives is most important?
They may all be important, but which one matters the most? This tells you two things: First, it tells you the order in which to put your presentation of key outcomes. You want to put the customer's most important outcome first. That way, the customer will think that you think the way they think. Second, knowing which objective is most important tells you where to look to develop your value proposition. You want to base your ROI or other presentation of value on what matters the most to the customer.

5. What are the ways we can solve the client's problem?
Usually there's more than one way to solve a particular problem. If you're having trouble with how long it's taking your sales force to write sales proposals, for example, I could recommend software to automate the process, training to improve their skills, or a combination.

6. What are the probable outcomes from each potential solution?
Any of the potential solutions might take care of the problem. The important issue is what kind of outcome the customer will get. Will it match up to their expectations for a positive result? Will it meet their criteria?

7. Which solution is best?
Based on the answers to the previous six questions, we should be able to answer the final question. It should be fairly obvious which solution meets the needs and delivers the results the customer desires most.
Trying to write a proposal or make a sales presentation without knowing the answers to these questions is like competing in an archery contest blindfolded. You might hit the bullseye occasionally. But you're just as likely to shoot yourself in the foot.

You can find out more at our site, You're also welcome to call us at 888-448-7268 (USA) or +44 (0) 870 734 7778 (UK).

November 13, 2006

Do Nice Guys Finish Last?

Do you remember Leo Durocher? He was inducted into the baseball hall of fame in 1994. He was a shortstop and second baseman for the Yankees, Reds, Cardinals, and Dodgers, and was the manager of the Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, among other teams.

But he's probably best remembered for one cynical comment: "Nice guys finish last."

Do they? Can a sales person or a company win while behaving ethically, or does winning require sleazy behavior? That's our topic this time.

Do Nice Guys Finish Last?

Here are five easy questions. Answer them for yourself. Nobody's reading your mind:
  1. If you were very confident that the customer would never find out you had lied, would you do it?
  2. Have you ever told a customer that your product has features or functions that it really doesn't have to close a deal?
  3. If you knew those features or functions were in development and would probably be available in a couple of months, would you tell the customer that they were already in the product?
  4. Have you ever told a lie or made a misleading statement about your competitors or your competitors' product so that the customer wouldn't look at them?
  5. Have you ever told a lie to a customer in order to win business?

The point of these questions is obvious. Sometimes when we're trying to close business, we may be tempted to stretch, shrink, hide, or otherwise handle the truth like a piece of Silly Putty.

It happens. We're all human.

The more interesting question is how you feel about it. What kind of dialogue do you have with yourself to justify acting that way?

When you recall instances where you misled or misinformed a customer (assuming that ever happened!), do you wince a little bit? Or are you actually kind of proud of your ability to get away with it?

Sometimes, in an attempt to quiet a disturbed conscience, people will tell themselves that business is "war," a form of "survival of the fittest," a competitive domain that is "red in tooth and claw." They resort to a variety of metaphors to justify savage or inhuman behavior.

Is it true? Is sales a form of combat? Is business a form of predatory behavior?

Hardly. Business is a form of social interaction. Comparing it to war demeans the experience of anyone who has actually experienced war. Sales is no more inherently a form of combat than shopping. Yeah, it requires a competitive instinct, but not dishonorable behavior.

So why do people lie and cheat? From what I've seen, when people are desperate, when they doubt their own skills, or when they believe their products and services are inferior to their competition's offerings, they have two choices: improve their situation or resort to lies and deception. For some people, lying and cheating looks easier than fixing the problem.

And sometimes it works. The reality is that people who lie and cheat sometimes do win.

But it doesn't work indefinitely. Eventually, what goes around comes around. After all, how many lies does it take before customers begin to catch on? Before the buzz begins to build?

And even Leo Durocher, who supposedly said "Nice guys finish last," really didn't think decent, ethical behavior and winning were incompatible. After all, it was Leo who faced down members of the Brooklyn Dodgers when they rebelled against playing with Jackie Robinson.

The challenge is to find a balance among our competitive instincts (our drive to win), our ethical standards (our sense of honesty, mainly), and our company's short-term interests (closing the deals). And, of course, the ultimate challenge is to find a way to conduct ourselves so that we don't wince with shame when we look in the mirror.

You'll find the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth at our website, You're also welcome to call us at 888-478-7628 (USA) or +44 (0) 1329 227535 (UK).

October 18, 2006

Sales Productivity: Where Do Sales People Spend Their Time?

Sales productivity is one of the hot topics of recent years. Unfortunately, there's generally been more heat than illumination.

But George Smith used the principles of total quality management to analyze sales processes. He found out where the "average" sales person is spending time and how to eliminate some of the waste. We've summarized his findings in the accompanying message. How do you think his numbers compare to your sales team?

Sales Productivity: Where Do Sales People Spend Their Time?

How do sales people spend their time? How many hours do they work and how much of that effort is productive?

In Sales Productivity Measurement, published by ASQC Quality Press, George A. Smith, Jr. summarizes research from a variety of sources. He found that the average sales person works 47 hours a week, but the majority of that time was spent on non-selling activities. In fact, Smith suggests that 50% might be a conservative estimate of non-selling time.

A typical distribution of effort looks like this:
These numbers suggest that only 40% of a typical sales person's time is spent in direct customer contact.

New technology may eliminate some of the need for traveling. Using Internet-based presentation systems, sales people can make presentations in real time, talking with one or many prospects over the telephone while everybody has the same information displayed interactively on their computers.
But for many sales people, travel will always be necessary. It's going to be difficult to sell a big ticket solution without some face-to-face contact. Instead, the big gain will come from eliminating or slashing the amount of time spent on labor-intensive activities, particularly the creation of proposals and presentations.

In fact, I think in a few years it will seem as silly to do proposals and presentations the old-fashioned way, cutting and pasting and writing by hand, as it would be to go back to typewriters.

To learn more ways to improve sales force productivity through automation, visit us at

September 23, 2006

Measuring What Matters

Years ago I coached youth soccer, and in the early days I often had the team scrimmage against other teams. In those scrimmages we didn't bother to keep score.

One day one of the players asked me, "Are we winning, coach?" I had to tell him that we weren't even keeping score, which led him to ask a pretty profound question: "How can we tell how we're doing if we don't know the score?"

Out of the mouths of babies, eh? Well, that's our topic this time: How to measure results in a proposal operation.

Measuring What Matters

In the previous message, we discussed some of the factors to consider in building a "proposal center of excellence." One crucially important factor that we didn't discuss was metrics.

You need to regularly take the pulse of your proposal operation by measuring both performance and proficiency. In measuring performance, you want to make sure the work you are doing and the results that work is producing are in alignment with the company's goals. In measuring proficiency, you need to define what tasks proposal writers perform and which of those tasks have the greatest impact on producing successful projects. Then you can measure whether or not the people involved have the right skills at the right level of proficiency.

Why bother measuring all of this stuff? Well, if you want to improve your proposal process, and if you want it to produce more wins and require less time and money, you have to be able to track what you're doing and measure the results. That's a basic principle of continuous improvement methodologies, and it applies to the proposal operation as much as it does to the factory floor.

To improve your proposal process in a systematic way, you must first decide what it is you want to measure. Which measurements are truly meaningful? The obvious answer would be "the win ratio," but that can actually be a misleading statistic. What if you won 30% of the deals last year, during a boom period, but the economy has tanked and you're now winning 28%. In reality, you might be having a terrific year in spite of the small drop in win ratio. It's possible that everybody else is doing much worse.

Or, to give another reason why it's risky to use win ratios as the only metric - what if you're winning all of the small opportunities and none of the large ones? In that case, your win ratio might be high but your revenues generated per proposal would be low. If you supplement win ratio tracking by measuring the percentage of dollars won as compared to the total amount for which you bid, you might get an idea of how well you did overall. But does it take into account such factors as changes in the economy? Does it distinguish between follow-on bids and new bids? You get the point. Deciding what to measure is not necessarily as easy or intuitive as it might first appear, but it is the first step.

The second step in effectively measuring results is to develop a baseline of data based on the "old" way of handling the task. I can't tell you how often we work with clients to improve their proposals and automate their process, only to find that they have no way of measuring the improvements because they weren't tracking their performance previously. If you don't know where you are, it's pretty hard to figure out if you're moving in the right direction.

The third element in measuring results is to implement a system that will collect the appropriate measures from the "new" process. This may be a matter of self-reporting on the outcome of each sales opportunity, but it could require a more structured effort, such as conducting a win/loss analyses or tracking hours of effort.
Once you have the three basics covered-you know what to measure, you have a baseline to compare it to, and you have a systematic way of capturing the data-you're ready to start. In general, I recommend that companies take a three-dimensional view of their performance, the three dimensions being financial, technical, and social.

Financial results include win ratio, and capture rate (the amount you're winning compared to the total amount available). They can also include production costs per proposal or per finished page or per dollar of business won.

Technical results are measures of work efficiency. How long does it take to answer the average RFP question? How many hands must a proposal pass through before it's approved and released? How quickly and easily can proposal content be captured, archived, reviewed, and retrieved?

Social measures focus on customer satisfaction. Regardless of whether we won the contract, what was the customer's reaction to our proposal? Did it leave a positive impression? Was it a document that differentiated us in a positive way? Win/Loss interviews can uncover some helpful insights into our current performance from the one critic who matters the most: the buyer.

At Sant, we believe in measuring results. On average, companies who implemented Sant Suite achieved an increase in win rate of 25% and a productivity improvement of 37%! You can also view an informative demo on our website at You're also welcome to call us at 888-448-7268 (USA) or +44 (0) 870 734 7778 (UK).

Creating a Proposal Center of Excellence

Centralizing the creation of complex proposals can be an excellent way to improve productivity and business results. After all, we don't hire salespeople because of their writing skills. It makes sense to put people in charge of writing that actually know how to do it.

But there's more to creating a proposal center-particularly one that embodies the principles of excellence-than just hiring a few writers. Our topic this time is just what else is required.

Creating a Proposal Center of Excellence

The term "center of excellence" is one that has become widely popular in the past few years. Its meaning is clear-a site which embodies the very best in people, skills, methods, and tools. Typically when an organization undertakes an enterprise-wide program to develop "centers of excellence," the goal is to institutionalize "best practices" in the form of consistent analytical methodologies, improved approaches to maximize value and the use of internal resources, and consistent design methodologies and implementation approaches.

Applying that concept to a proposal operation, to create a center of excellence we must identify the characteristics of the people we need in the operation, train them so they possess the right skills, and define the best practices and tools that will enable them to create outstanding proposals, as measured by revenue generation, win ratios, productivity, and customer satisfaction. (The metrics are important because a proposal center operation is not an end in itself. It's only justified to the extent it helps achieve the broader goals of business capture established by its parent organization. I'll discuss which metrics matter next time.)

Oddly, a lot of what's taken as gospel regarding how to run a proposal center is based on experiences from 40 years ago. The processes and methods that were developed by large aerospace and engineering firms for handling mega-proposals to the U.S. government became accepted, by default in most cases, as the right way to do it. So you hear a lot about "war rooms" and "storyboarding" and other stuff that, in my always humble opinion, is pretty much irrelevant today.
So what does it take to set up a proposal center of excellence?

A clear mission definition. Everyone who works in the proposal center, who contributes content to it, who calls upon it for support, or who manages it must share a common view of the purpose of that center: to increase win ratios while holding the line on proposal costs.

One way to help make sure that the proposal center has the right mission and that everyone sees it in the right light is to position it within the sales and marketing organization. Sales is bottom-line driven and sales management is used to taking an objective view of performance. Having a proposal center report through engineering, technical documentation, customer support, or some other area of the company is much less likely to provide the proper point of view. In fact, some years ago one of the big five consulting firms in Washington D.C. stunned their employees by abolishing the proposal operation entirely. Because of the way that center was set up and the reporting relationships in place for it, the center had become too much of a "copy shop," focused on getting documents out on time but not taking responsibility for whether or not those documents won. The result: a few hard-headed partners decided they didn't want to pay those kinds of salaries when they could outsource document production a lot cheaper. Ouch!

The right people. Who should work in a proposal center? Good writers, of course. At least one outstanding graphics person. But people who have sharp, general sense of business issues. People who are willing to dig and do some research to understand an opportunity better. People who are competitive by nature and who take pride in the wins.

The right training. There are lots of things a good proposal writer needs to know, but the two most important deal with (1) managing the process, and (2) producing a winning deliverable. Managing the process of getting a proposal done is similar in many ways to other complex projects, but there are some unique aspects that a proposal manager or writer needs to know, such as how to hold a kick-off meeting, how to extract information from the field sales team, how to generate consensus among all contributors regarding themes and positioning for the proposal, and so on. Producing a winning deliverable is a matter of knowing how to communicate persuasively. A lot of that is a matter of structure-saying the right things in the right order-but some of it is a matter of style-saying the right things in the right way. Both can be taught, and this kind of training should be required of all members of the proposal team.

The right methods. Writing every proposal from scratch is impossible, and it's not even desirable. Cutting and pasting proposals together from a single source file doesn't work, either. The right methods involve storing reusable components that can be selected based on a definition of the opportunity and the client, then assembled into a coherent draft document. In addition, in most proposal centers, it's absolutely vital that multiple writers work simultaneously on different parts of a large deal. Otherwise, they may never finish in time. As a result, the right methods include team collaboration, too.

The right resources and facilities. In today's wired world, it's no longer necessary to have everyone working in the same office. People can collaborate over virtual links, using Web conferencing, Web-based tools for proposal generation and management, and so on. But everyone needs high-speed, high-bandwidth access, rock-and-roll computers, and the kind of productivity boosting software that helps them operate at peak efficiency.

One characteristic of the very best proposal operations is that they use Sant Suite to automate labor-intensive aspects of the proposal writing process. Our new TeamWorks product makes it easier than ever to collaborate with others in producing a finished, winning document. You can view an informative demo on our website at You're also welcome to call us at 888-448-7268 (USA) or +44 (0) 1329 227535 (UK).

September 5, 2006

Tom's Top 10 Tips for Better Proposals

Writing a good sales proposal is a challenging task. But here are ten practical tips that will make the job easier.
The good news is that you can translate these tips immediately into action. Writing your proposals will be easier and the results will be better.

What does it take to write a better proposal?
A combination of common sense and good advice.

Here are 10 tips based on my experiences writing proposals for the past 20 years. Lets see...that's one tip for every two years? Hmmm...guess I was a slow learner. All the same, they should give you a jump start on doing a great job with each of your proposals.

1. Never title your proposal "Proposal". That doesn't say anything the client can't figure out themselves. But, oddly enough, that's what most proposals are titled. (It's a little like writing a book a titling it "Book", isn't it?) Instead, try writing a substantive title that states a benefit to the client: "Increasing Network Reliability and Convenience Through Automated Fax Capabilities."

2. Focus on your clients business needs or mission objectives first. Most people start with their company history or an overview of their capabilities, strengths, or advantages. That's important stuff, but it doesn't belong up front. What does? The things the customer cares about. Put the customers needs right up front in the Executive Summary, mirroring what you have heard from them before you offer a solution. That shows you have listened and considered their interests and are not offering a canned approach. It's a great technique to build trust and lower anxiety.

3. Avoid lengthy corporate histories. Nobody really cares. And no matter what, don't start your proposal with your company history, your mission statement, or your corporate vision. If you include any of that stuff, put it at the back of the proposal, not up front.

4. Keep your proposal as short as possible. Think thin to win. It's tempting to throw in anything and everything that might be of interest, but the decision maker can't find your key points. Also, a short proposal will usually be read first, which means all others will be judged in comparison to it. That's an advantage if you've done a good job.

5. Eliminate jargon. Make your proposal simple and easy. Avoid using your own jargon unless you are absolutely certain everyone involved in the decision process will understand it. Ask yourself: even if your contact at client organization understands all of your jargon, who else will read the proposal? Will they understand it? In fact, the only jargon you should use throughout the proposal is theirs.

6. Highlight your key points. Executives don't read, they skim. Make your document "skimmable." Use bullets, headings and subheadings, bold face type, color, bullet points, borders, and anything else that will make your key points jump off the page.

7. Prioritize your differentiators or competitive advantages. Think about what you have to offer and select a few of them, prioritize in terms of what matters the most to the customer.

8. Ghost the competition. If you know which competitors are also in deal, raise issues in your proposal that strike at their weak points. Don't disparage them or mention them by name. But if you know they have a lousy safety record, make a big deal about the importance of safety and how great your record is.

9. Quantify your benefits and payback. Quantified benefits are more convincing than generalities. Calculate the total cost of ownership, the return on investment, the potential value of improved productivity. Show the benefits graphically, in a comparison chart. If you can base the customer's positive outcomes on the things that differentiate you, you'll really have a powerful value proposition.

10. Ask for the business. Ask for it in the cover letter, ask for it in the Executive summary, and ask for it when you present the proposal. Being passive doesn't work. You have to ask.

August 24, 2006

Filtering Out the Fluff

Years ago we had a programmer working at our company who would listen to our sales presentations or our marketing materials and exclaim, "That sounds like fluff to me!" In fact, he said it so often, that became his nickname: Fluff.

Even though he was a bit hypersensitive to marketing and sales material, he was making a valuable point. Marketing fluff destroys credibility and undercuts trust. We need to filter it out.

In an earlier message, I made fun of four kinds of writing that don't work-Geek, Weasel, Fluff, and Bogart. A few of you wrote to ask how to get rid of the marketing fluff. I'll admit it's not easy. But it's worth the effort.

I recently visited a new client, so one of the things I did to get ready was to visit their Web site. It was not a good experience. The site was well designed, it had nice graphics, and it was easy to navigate.

So what was the problem? The words. Everything they wrote about their services consisted of dull, worn-out clich├ęs-"leading edge," "state of the art," "innovative," even that bloated loser "synergistic." Yuck! Their messages were vague and not the least bit persuasive.

"Marketing fluff" consist of grandiose claims, unsubstantiated by any evidence, that don't actually say anything. Here's an example:
Our firm is uniquely qualified to deliver world-class results. We offer best-of-breed products and customer-focused service to produce seamless solutions. Our commitment to partnering with our customers produces innovative yet user-friendly applications that produce bottom-line results.
Sound impressive? No, not really. In fact, this paragraph is likely to start the client's built-in B.S. detector clanging like a fire alarm.

Why doesn't it work? What makes this writing sound weak and phony?

The problem comes from making big claims unsupported by even a sliver of proof. World-class results? Says who? Best-of-breed products? By what standards? Seamless? So what does that mean, anyway?

The answer is to substantiate your claims with details. Suppose the sentences were written as follows:

Our firm has successfully installed advanced imaging systems in more than 500 financial institutions in North America, more than any other firm in the industry. We offer the latest technology, including digital scanning, and back our systems with a one-year, unconditional guarantee and a service department that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As a result, by choosing us you achieve three important outcomes: First, you are in full compliance with all Federal and state regulations. Second, you eliminate more than 70% of the paper routinely generated in the course of business. And third, your total cost of operations goes down due to reduced information storage costs. On average, our customers saved more than $275,000 annually over the past three years.
Now you'd be a bit more impressed, right? It's all in the details.

When you hire Sant writers, we bring our own patented fluff filters to clean up the language you're using in proposals and sales presentations. You can find out more at our site, You're also welcome to call us at 888-448-7268 (USA) or +44 (0) 870 734 7778 (UK).