March 30, 2008

Entering Your Evidence

Evidence is crucial in a courtroom—it’s the basis on which the judge or jury makes a decision.

It’s just as important in your sales process and your proposal. The kinds of evidence you use and the way you present it can make a huge difference in whether the verdict goes in your favor or against you.

That’s our topic this time.

We’ve been talking about persuasive structure in our recent messages. We said that effective persuasion follows the NOSE pattern: Needs, Outcomes, Solutions, and Evidence. We start by restating the client’s needs because that gets their attention and reduces their anxiety. We then outline the potential outcomes the client will achieve by solving their problems or meeting their needs, because that creates the motivation to go forward. Third, we recommend a solution, but we do it in a way that’s client-centered rather than product-centered.

I hope that so far you’ve been gulping down the KoolAid and are in full agreement. Anyway, all remains is the final step, presenting our evidence.

What are you trying to prove with your evidence? Basically, you are trying to show that you can and will keep your promises. You are trying to show that you can deliver the solution you have proposed on time and on budget. You are trying to convince the decision maker that this is your area of expertise. You might even be trying to establish that your firm is financially stable, properly managed, and well prepared.

Providing evidence is usually the part of the persuasive job that most proposals handle pretty well. But there are two ways we can do the job better. First, we can be thoughtful in selecting our evidence, choosing items that are most likely to appeal to the specific decision maker and to be relevant to the opportunity. And second, we can present our evidence in the most effective way possible.

In future messages we’ll deal with the second issue, covering the best ways to write typical kinds of evidence, such as team member bios, case studies, company histories, and so forth. In this message I want to discuss briefly what kind of evidence to use.

The first rule is that just because you have a particular bit of evidence doesn’t mean you should throw it into a proposal. Just because you have a map of North America showing all 78 of your company’s office locations, don’t use it unless it’s relevant. If you’re trying to sell to a company that also has numerous locations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and they closely match your locations, then it’s relevant and helpful. If you’re selling to a prospect who only has one location, forget it.

The second rule about choosing evidence is to consider the source. There are three kinds of evidence—things you say about yourself, things your clients say about you, and things independent third parties say—and each has a different level of credibility.

Among the things you can say about yourself, you might include information about product features, about the members of your team, about your project management methodology, or about your quality control philosophy. Those things are relatively noncontroversial, and a prospective client could check for accuracy if he or she really wanted to. These forms of evidence help establish your competence. They answer a key question in the decision maker’s mind, namely, “Can these people really do what they claim?”

Another form of evidence you can offer about yourself—a type of evidence that helps minimize the client’s sense of risk or enhances their perception of the value of your offering—focuses on measurable performance indicators and special financial terms. For example, you might provide evidence relating to unique contractual terms that you are offering. Or you might outline a “gain sharing” or “risk sharing” program based on specific performance guarantees or service level agreements.

The second source of evidence is your previous clients. What they’re willing to say about you is often more convincing than what you say about yourself for the obvious reason that they presumably have nothing to gain from it. You can provide evidence to a new prospect from a prior client by including references in your proposal. Just make sure you check with the reference to make certain they’re still happy with you. Sometimes yesterday’s glowing reference becomes tomorrow’s flaming law suit and we didn’t even know it. You might also include testimonials, including images of letters of praise from previous clients. But one of the most convincing forms of evidence you can offer is the case study. As long as your case study is from a client similar in nature to your prospect, who had a similar problem, who had that problem alleviated by a solution similar to the one you’re proposing, and who achieved measurable positive results from your work—then you’re in great shape. However, if your case study just rehashes the history of some project in chronological fashion, forget it. That’s boring.

Finally, third-party evidence comes in the form of awards, rankings, recognition, articles, analyst reports, and so on. Although that form of evidence used to be the most convincing of all, the fact that so many analyst firms are willing to sell their “approval” to the highest bidder has made them somewhat suspect in recent years. All the same, if you were named the “best place to work” or an “industry innovator” or “Five Star Quality Award Winner” or some such thing, take advantage of it when you can. That’s still good stuff.

Sant Corporation has all kinds of evidence to back up our claims that we can save you time and increase your win ratio through our proposal automation systems and services. And we’d love to share that evidence with you! Give us a call and let us prove it.

March 15, 2008


Smiley faces don’t belong in your business e-mails. Neither do acronyms that create confusion. They look unprofessional and way too casual. That’s our topic this time.

“Emoticons” is the term applied to the various combinations of punctuation used to express emotion and to the actual icons of little faces displaying various states of happiness or distress. For example, : - ) indicates happiness, while : - O is supposed to suggest surprise.

Using these things is perfectly all right if you’re sending an e-mail to a good friend, to a child, or to a message board where you anonymously post your feelings about your favorite sports team or somebody’s chocolate cheesecake recipe. For instance, if you want to show that the quarterback’s performance in last week’s game made you sick, stick in the green, queasy-looking face. It’s kind of cute.

But don’t put emoticons in your business e-mails, please. They’re inappropriate.

The same goes for cryptic abbreviations and acronyms. Recently a colleague of mine in the U.K. sent me an e-mail in which he wrote:

The client would like you to pencil in last the two weeks of September, if possible, to run another program for them. I will meet next week to discuss their plans, which are firming up. Can you as a first step, let me know WRT September?

I let him know which dates in September were open, but I had to ask him what “WRT” means. I felt a little stupid, but I couldn’t figure it out. He wrote back:

WRT: With Respect To!

Okay. Now I felt really dumb. But at least I knew what the acronym meant.

What if I hadn’t been a good friend and colleague, but rather a customer. Would I have asked for a definition? Probably not.

What about you? Are you certain your recipient knows what LOL means? What about IMHO? Or YMMV?

If you do a lot of instant messaging or hang out on MySpace, you’re probably rolling your eyes at me. These acronyms are the lingua franca of the on-line world, a staple of the vocabulary of the IM crowd. But I have to confess that for quite awhile I thought LOL meant “lots of luck.” As a result, I often couldn’t quite grasp what the writer meant by using that term. Often it appeared to be ironic. Imagine my surprise to learn it actually means “laugh out loud”.

(If you’re as clueless as I am about these acronyms, you can find a helpful list of definitions for Internet acronyms on Wikipedia at .)

For help in writing clearly and persuasively, contact us. We have a staff of trained persuasive writers who can cut through the toughest assignments quickly and professionally. And when we’re done, the only emoticons you’ll want to use are the ones expressing happiness and outstanding customer satisfaction. (I think that’s the smiley face with the bracket, but I’m not sure.)

March 7, 2008

Capturing the Lessons Learned

Nobody can afford to waste experience. It cost way too much to acquire it.

How do you capture lessons learned from your proposal writing experience? And how do you convert those lessons into improvements that affect everyone?

That’s our topic this time.

There are a number of activities you can engage in after you have submitted the proposal. Some of these are on-going steps in the sales process. Others are intended to help you learn what works and what doesn’t to improve your next proposal. Both kinds of activities should be a regular part of your post-submission regimen.

In the private sector, and even in some government bids, contacting the decision maker after your have submitted your proposal is a good idea. Maintaining open communication after submission may help win the deal, since it can be an opportunity to begin closing the deal and negotiating terms. (In some government bidding processes, you are expressly for bidden to contact the Contracting Officer, and doing so will result in your disqualification from the bid process, so make sure you understand what’s allowed.)

It can also be a great opportunity to learn what worked and what didn’t. Often, after we have finished a major proposal, we’re so sick of the thing, we don’t want to look at it, much less talk about it with the customer or with our colleagues. That’s understandable, but if we don’t make the effort to do some basic analysis, we’ll never learn to do a better job. We’ll tend to repeat the same processes and produce the same documents over and over.

Talk to the Customer

The decision has been made. You won. You lost. The award was split between you and a competitor. Regardless of the outcome, there are still things you can do to learn and possibly to influence the future. Some of these activities include debriefings, win/loss analyses, and research to prepare you for the next opportunity.

Debriefings. If you were competing to win business from the federal government and have been notified that you did not win, you have the right to receive a debriefing after the decision has been announced. This is a legal right which you can exercise under Federal Acquisition Regulation Part 15.506. Among state and local governments the rules vary, but often you can request a debriefing in those situations, too. And if you have been competing in the private sector, there’s nothing to prohibit you from asking the prospective client to provide you with some insight into their process and how well your proposal stacked up. (Of course, there’s nothing to prohibit them from telling you to go pound sand, either. In the private sector, they don’t have to tell you anything.)

If you do arrange for a debriefing, use it as an opportunity to learn as much as you can about how the agency handles acquisitions, what their key decision criteria are, whether or not they followed their own guidelines, and anything else that may help you in the next opportunity. Don’t go into a debriefing with the notion that you are going to turn around the decision that was already made. That’s not going to happen.

Instead, focus on process. How were the proposals evaluated? How were scores assigned? If you think that the evaluators failed to understand or ignored important aspects of your proposal, try to think like a courtroom attorney. Ask a few innocent and nonthreatening questions that establish the assumptions, then start asking the tough ones. If you hear that some of your references were weak, ask which ones and what specifically they said that seemed lukewarm. You should also focus on specific content about your proposal and how it was reviewed. If you go in with a few prepared questions that address the actual content of your proposal, you’re more likely to learn something you can use in the future to improve your works.

Win/Loss Analyses. Even if a particular client won’t give you a formal debriefing, you can still learn a lot about how your proposals are doing. Start conducting regular win/loss analyses the same way that businesses conduct customer satisfaction surveys. That is, select a specific percentage of all the opportunities you propose and seek feedback. Conduct the analysis whether you win or lose. You can do it in the form of a questionnaire, a telephone interview, even a site visit if that’s convenient. Be sure to make it clear that you are not trying to re-open the decision process, but are interested in getting feedback to improve future proposals. Keep the analysis short, factual, and focused on the actual document—format, pricing, length, clarity, use of differentiators, and so on. If you have the resources, you might even consider hiring an outside firm to conduct these analyses for you. That makes the process more objective and also less threatening to your clients.

Research. Win or lose, maintain contact with the client organization and listen for opportunities that may lie ahead. Contact them regularly, sharing with them new ideas and developments, articles that you think will be of interest to them, and so forth. An on-going campaign of regular communication can help establish strong recognition for you and your company and may help open channels of information that will be invaluable on the next bid.

Talk to your Colleagues

At the conclusion of each proposal project, after a suitable period of rest and healing for the proposal team, conduct an internal review for about an hour. The main goal is to review the process and the deliverable to find out how you can do a better job next time. What lessons did you learn from this experience? How can those lessons improve your performance or simplify the task in the future? The proposal manager can lead the discussion, but if the proposal manager is part of the problem or if there is conflict about which lessons need to be learned, you might want to bring in an outside facilitator.

To engage in continuous improvement, you need to make a conscious, consistent effort to gather information about how effectively each proposal succeeds in achieving its purpose. Keeping track of the “lessons learned” from each project, and then using them to modify content in your database, steps in your process, or components in your training, will help all team members deliver more value, communicate more persuasively, and enhance your contributions to your company.