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.

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