February 29, 2008

Solving the Puzzle of Solutions

We’ve talked about addressing the customer’s needs and the outcomes they seek as being the first two steps in delivering a persuasive message. Now it’s time to talk about the part you probably find most interesting—your solution.

But how do you do that without sounding self-serving? How do you recommend yourself, your products, and your services without losing the client-centered tone you’ve established so far?

That’s the puzzle of solutions, and solving it is our topic this time.

The heart of your proposal is, of course, your solution. If you have first whetted the client’s appetite for it by focusing on their needs and potential outcomes, your client will be eager to hear it. However, this is the stumbling point for many proposals.

The dilemma is when the solution’s presentation lapses into technical details and jargon, focuses on details rather impacts, and then comes across as self-centered because it fails to connect back to either needs or outcomes. The client still wants to know why you’re recommending this approach or this product. What makes this the right way to go? How does it solve the key problems? Why is it the best way to deliver the results the client seeks?

To solve the solution puzzle, write from the top down. Your first sentence should focus on a general statement of what you are recommending to solve the client’s problem. The next sentence or two should explain the recommendation in functional terms. What will your solution do for the client? How will it work? Then make sure you tie this with the client’s specific needs by:

· Explaining what component(s) of your solution are intended to address each need

· What positive impact each aspect of the solution will deliver

· Cite a brief bit of proof—a reference, an award, test data, or some other form of objective validation that substantiates your claim

Here’s a sample solution statement:

The InVicta IronClad model 2100 Access Control Head End Hardware and Software will be the heart of the system for your offices in Pittsburgh. The panel will connect to the new software head end located within your facility. The system will be designed for easy access into your existing network if you decide to connect remote sites to your location. In the initial design, we have assumed that the host computer will be located in the Security Console. As part of this project, we will install access control panels, card readers, and alarm contacts for granting or denying access into the existing three doors in your office. We will additionally install Card Readers on the existing sliding gates and turnstiles. Each of the access points will have a card reader and contact for access into the facility as well as door status. The purpose of the system is to determine who is allowed into the facility at any given time and to keep accurate records of all access or alarm activity.

Blah, blah, blah… Not very persuasive, interesting, or clear, is it?

Here’s the same solution statement rewritten using the format outlined above:

To address your need for improved physical security in the office environment at your corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh, we recommend an electronic security system that limits access to authorized personnel only. The access system prevents everyone from entering your offices unless they first swipe an electronic ID badge through an automated card reader. We recommend the InVicta IronClad model 2100 Access Control system, which includes all required hardware and software. At the heart of the system, the InVicta uses a comprehensive control panel, known as the “head end” hardware, and a software package that controls all access points, reads the ID cards, checks the database, and provides constant monitoring around the clock. We recommend this system because it matches your specific needs:

· Budgetary compliance: The total price for the InVicta system is more than $20,000 below the budget you have established. Other systems using biometric data rather than card readers are much more costly without providing any more security. The InVicta’s lower price will free up funds to cover installation and training, assuring a smooth roll-out. For example, we installed an InVicta system for a large automobile dealership and the entire package, including all support services, was less than the hardware costs alone for competitive models.

· Minimal disruption to workflow: Your employees will find the ID card system easy to learn and use. As they quickly accept the system, you will benefit by sustaining your normal working patterns thus eliminating any impact on productivity. To indicate how easy this system is to learn, consider this: we installed a new access control system at a major Pittsburgh bank over a three-day weekend. When people arrived at work on Tuesday morning, management greeted them in the lobby, gave them their new ID cards, and taught them how to swipe the card reader for entry. From that day forward, the bank experienced only two access control problems out of more than 250,000 uses of the system.

· So on and so forth…

You can see which solution presentation is designed to communicate to the client’s interests and which is just a feature dump.

If you’d like help in rewriting your solutions statements, please give us a call. We’ve solved the solution puzzle for hundreds of companies around the world and we’re eager to help you put the pieces of your solutions together.

February 15, 2008

Lose Early

A recent TV show titled The Biggest Loser focused on people who lost huge amounts of weight by exercising and dieting. Only in America would this be prime time entertainment…

For proposal writers, there’s another meaning to “biggest loser.” The biggest loser is the proposal that finishes second. That’s our topic today.

When I was in Copenhagen last spring, Jens Agerskov, managing director of Dencore, made a very perceptive comment. He said, “Winning fast is great. Winning slowly is good. Losing fast is all right. But losing slowly is unacceptable. The biggest loser is always the proposal that finishes second.”

I think he’s exactly right about this. After all, if you compete for business and get knocked out right away, you’re done. You won’t put any more time or resources into the opportunity. You’ll move on to something else. But if you make it past the first round of cuts, you may need to revise your proposal into your best and final offer. Or the next stage of the competition may require you to develop an oral presentation and rehearse your team for hours in preparation for your final shot at winning.

Regardless, you’ll be putting in lots more effort and spending more of your scant bid-and-proposal budget in pursuing the deal. And if you don’t win, your loss is literally more costly than somebody who got knocked out right away.

A client in London shared a story with me recently of being invited to bid for a major piece of work. It was a multi-million pound opportunity, so they assembled a large team and worked for six weeks on the proposal. They submitted their proposal and were pleased to be invited to the next stage of the process, a formal presentation. They put together hundreds of slides and rehearsed for days to be ready. They arrived at the client’s site filled with excitement, thinking they had a real shot at winning the business and displacing a major competitor in the process. But as soon as they put their title slide up on the screen and stood up to begin their pitch, the head of the client’s decision team interrupted them, saying, “Thank you so much for coming today. We just want to make it clear that we don’t intend to actually change vendors this year. However, we are very interested in hearing what you have to say. So please, go ahead!”

Talk about sucking the air out of the room!

My client estimates that besides the six weeks of effort, they spent in excess of a hundred thousand pounds putting their proposal and presentation together. And they never had a chance!

The ugly reality is that clients will sometimes invite us to submit a proposal even though they have no intention of buying from us. Their actual motive might be beating up their current vendor on price, or learning what’s new in the industry, or simply creating the appearance of due diligence, even though they already have decided who will get the contract. One thing is certain: we never had a chance.

One way to avoid this kind of disaster is to qualify opportunities ruthlessly. Make sure you have a real opportunity to win—that the client has a budget, that the competition is fair and open, that you match up to the key criteria the decision makers will use, and a few other factors. And continue to qualify and assess as the deal moves forward.

Another way to minimize the negative impact of bidding for work you can’t really win is to use a proposal automation system. That way, you spend far less time putting out a decent proposal and/or presentation, so your loss is much less. (Of course, a better reason for using a proposal automation system, or at least the one available from Sant Corporation, is that it incorporates best practices and will increase your win ratio.)

Put the two together—effective qualification and maximum efficiency from automation—and losing slowly will be slightly less painful.