January 30, 2008

Focusing on Real Needs

A few messages ago, we talked about how important it is to focus on the customer’s needs or problems at the onset of a proposal. Sound easy? Let’s see.

There are times when people think they’ve focused on a customer need, but then find out that they didn’t dig deep enough or didn’t communicate with the right people. That’s our topic this time—knowing what the mistakes are and knowing how to avoid them.

The client’s business need is our starting point. It’s the first thing we should address, because it shows we paid attention and implies that any recommendations we make are based on a solid understanding of the client’s problems, issues, or opportunities.

Most proposals don’t start with the client’s needs. Instead, they make the big mistake of starting with the vendor’s corporate history. Other losing strategies are starting with content about the vendor’s products or with an executive summary of qualifications. To formulate a solid start to a proposal based on client’s needs, you must first avoid these three mistakes:

1. Defining the client’s need as being identical with your solution.

I was working with an account team at a major bank to help develop a proposal for a potential client, a chain of outdoor equipment stores. The first question I asked was, “What is the customer’s business need?”

The account manager leaned back, massaged his temples thoughtfully, and answered: “They need to be able to verify credit cards on line.”

“So what are you proposing?” I asked. “What’s your solution?”

“Oh,” he answered, “we’re going to give them the ability to verify credit cards on line.”

We could have stopped right there and exclaimed, “What a wonderful world where the need and the solution align so perfectly!” But maybe, just maybe, we needed to dig a little deeper. So, I asked him, “All right, but why do they need that ability?”

He looked at me like I was daft. “So they can sell stuff over the Web, of course.”

“Okay. But why do they want to sell their products over the Web? They already have a big chain of stores.”

“Because their two biggest competitors are doing it,” he said.

“Hmm. Interesting. But why should they copy their competitors?”

“Because they lost forty percent of their market share to them last year!” he said.

That’s when the shovel finally struck the business need treasure chest. Verifying credit cards is definitely part of a solution, but it’s not the business need in this case. Their need is to stop the bleeding and regain some of the market share they’ve lost.

This true story illustrates a very common mistake: defining the client’s need in terms of your solution. It happens all the time. The sales team at a property management firm told me with straight faces that what their client needed was to appoint a property agent. Further analysis suggested that what the client actually needed was to liquidate some real estate assets to generate cash to fund expansion into Asia.

Keep the shovel digging. Ask—Why do they need to do this? And keep asking “Why?” until you get to the real need. Digging does become easier.

2. Assuming that the RFP defines the complete business problem or need.

The request for proposal almost never states the real need of the client. Why would it? Does it seem smart, for example, to broadcast that a client’s company is having a big problem in some area of its operations? That it has an unacceptable level of attrition? That it’s short on cash? That one of its key products has quality problems? That information in the hands of a competitor could cause enormous damage?

Instead, the RFP typically defines the requirements of an acceptable solution. It’s silent on the business reasons why a company needs the solution. Answering exactly what the RFP asks without showing some insight into the underlying business problem means that your proposal will be technically compliant yet basically irrelevant.

This is one reason that responding to an RFP without having had any interaction with the client is almost always a losing strategy. You don’t know enough to structure your response so that it addresses the real need.

3. Not talking to enough of the management team at the client organization.

If you’re selling banking services and are talking only to a financial officer or an IT professional at the client organization, you may never hear the real drivers. Only by talking to the head of sales or the CEO would you see how significant the loss of market share actually is. The finance officer is probably focused on cash flow through the e-Commerce site. The IT person is focused on data handling. Neither of those issues is at the heart of the problem.

To make sure you fully and accurately understand your client’s need, negotiate for access to other senior managers in the client organization. Get their perspective on what’s important, what needs to be changed, what’s not working, and why the problem is urgent. Once you’ve done that you’ll have the insight you need to write a winning proposal. In the end, they’ll look at you and your solution differently from your competitors who may only be guessing at what the client needs.

If your real need is to improve your proposal process or to create better content, give us a call. We’ll definitely ask you Why, but only so we can help you get the solutions you need.

January 15, 2008

How Good Is Good Enough?

Time is running out. The second hand relentlessly pecks away at the minutes and hours. Our proposal will soon be due, and yet we know it needs more work. The question is: When can we stop? What’s an appropriate standard of excellence for our proposals? Do we just keep editing and proofreading until time runs out? Or is there a reasonable standard that tells when we’ve done enough?

That’s our topic this time.

In some operations, the sound of the UPS truck backing up to the loading dock—beep! beep! beep!—is the signal to start editing. But waiting until the last possible instant to correct your work guarantees you won’t have enough time to do the job right. Even if they don’t wait until the last moment, proposal writers still send out proposals that they believe aren’t quite right, simply shrugging and saying, “It’s good enough!”

But how good is “good enough”? When is your proposal “good enough” to go to the client? What does a proposal that’s “good enough” look like?

We can define six levels of “correctness” or quality for our proposals:

  1. No spelling, grammar or punctuation errors, and no typos.
  2. No obvious errors of fact, content or logic that the reader will notice immediately.
  3. Well structured, using a persuasive pattern of development, and divided into meaningful chunks so the reader can understand and use the proposal easily.
  4. Clear and concise writing, no unnecessary jargon, and nothing that could be misinterpreted.
  5. Effectively aimed at the decision maker’s level of expertise, personality, and values.
  6. Creative, informed, and intelligent, written in a crisp and interesting style, and delivered in a format that makes it easy for multiple evaluators to read it.

So—how good is good enough? Lots of sales or proposal professionals are happy if their proposals reach level 2. If it sneaks by on the first reading, it’s good enough for them.

From a customer’s point of view, however, where the reader is making a buying decision, nothing less than level 5 will do. So how much should you edit? Enough to get to that level of excellence.

“Excellence” is the key word, by the way. Our goal in writing proposals should never be perfection. That’s not realistic. Even the most stringent quality control processes used in manufacturing high-reliability products don’t set perfection as the goal. Instead, as sales people and proposal writers, we should strive to deliver proposals to our clients that are truly excellent. We want them to read our proposal and say, “Wow! That was really interesting! That was well done!”

So, how much editing should you do? As much as you can. I know that’s a bit vague, but I’m sorry to tell you that there’s no magic formula, such as “five minutes per page” or “15% of the total time allocated to document development.” If it’s of any interest to you, at Sant Corporation we typically allocate about as much time for editing as we do for creating the initial draft. We think a one-to-one correlation is about right. For someone who has never written a proposal, the editing time might easily exceed the writing time.

The important point is to plan editing into your overall proposal project. Designate a specific amount of time for it, and resist any attempts to poach on editing time for other activities. Making our proposals perfect isn’t realistic. But making them extremely good is an obligation we ignore at our peril.

January 7, 2008

Selling Fast in a Slow Economy

The economy has slowed down. There's no question about that.

But you need to keep selling, right? So what's the secret?

I think we can learn an important lesson from one of the pioneers of human psychology, Abraham Maslow. That's our topic this time.

When the economy slows down, selling becomes more difficult. People feel vulnerable and they become reluctant to spend money or allocate resources to anything new. From a psychological standpoint, they are moving down Maslow's hierarchy of needs toward the basics-the survival issues.

Maslow believed that when any two needs were demanding satisfaction at the same time, it will be the more "prepotent" (to use Maslow's jargon), the more biologically urgent, that will take priority. Needs that are less prepotent are pushed into the background, delayed, or ignored. A person who is dying of hunger forgets about food when he or she is deprived of oxygen, for example.

So what does this mean regarding our customers? It means that because they feel threatened in a declining economy, they will tend to hoard what they have. They will pull back from completing mere "transactions." They will be reluctant to exchange the organizational equivalent of oxygen-money-for any product or service that doesn't meet their basic needs. As a result, when you try to sell a product or service for a particular price, the customer may perceive doing business with you as purely transactional. And they want to minimize the number of transactions they complete in order to hold on to scarce resources.

There is some good news, though. In a down economy, decision makers are eager to find solutions. They want to do those things that will help them cope with changing circumstances, that will meet their basic business needs for revenue and stability.

Selling solutions is consultative, not transactional. Selling solutions requires:

  • a broad business perspective
  • alignment with the customer's objectives
  • an ability to demonstrate value that matters to the customer

If you ask most sales people, they will tell you that they are writing proposals and delivering presentations that are solution oriented. But in reality they are not. The customer perceives their offers as transactional and pulls back from making a decision to buy.

Why do many solution-oriented proposals and presentations fail to communicate themselves that way to the customer? They fail because they are NOT client centered, value based, or decision oriented.

Often, sales people resort to "clone and go" proposals. They think that it is enough to provide a boilerplate, "checkbox" proposal, one that focuses mainly on their products or their company. But to be seen as a solution-oriented proposal, the document must focus on the customer's needs-the most "prepotent" ones, to use Maslow's term-and link whatever is being recommended to meeting those needs.

Similarly, many proposals do not contain any value proposition. They present a price, but they don't contain any calculation of return on investment, of reductions in operating costs, in reduced cost of ownership, or any other measure that will is linked to survival and coping in a tough economy.

Finally, many proposals are not organized to help the customer make a decision. They tend to be information dumps, and they fail to differentiate the offer from alternatives and fail to provide grounds for moving forward with the decision.

To sell faster in a slow economy, we need to make sure we focus on what matters to the customer, spell out the concrete benefit they obtain from doing what we recommend, and present our recommendations using a structural pattern that leads logically to a decision.