April 30, 2008

What Do You Need?

If you have been reading these messages for awhile, you know that I advocate starting your persuasive messages—including sales presentations, executive summaries, and cover letters—with a brief restatement of the customer’s needs.

In spite of my badgering, though, some people still choose to start with their company’s history, with a presentation of their solution, or some other generic content. I think that creates a bad first impression. They are saying to the prospective client, in essence, “You may have thought this proposal was about you and your business, but that’s where you would be wrong. It’s about us, our company and our products.”

It occurred to me recently that one reason people start with self-centered content might be that it’s easier to come by. If we don’t know what the customer’s needs are, or if we don’t know how to present those needs, we might resort to generic stuff about ourselves out of desperation. So that’s our topic this time—defining the customer’s needs.

The customer’s needs are the reasons they are considering making a major investment in your solution—the products and/or services you are proposing. Their needs are the business drivers that make the deal possible in the first place. If they have no need, there will be no deal.

Now, it’s true that by starting with a brief restatement of their needs, we’re not telling them anything they don’t already know. So why bother? We start with the customer’s needs because what they don’t know is whether we’ve been paying attention. Did we listen and have we crafted a proposal that actually addresses their business needs? The first question buyers ask themselves is this: Am I getting what I really need, or am I getting what they want me to buy? Starting with a focus on their business situation is an effective way to answer that question correctly.

In your executive summary, don't waste time telling the client how thankful you are for the opportunity to submit a proposal. That usually ends up sounding like you’re groveling anyway. Instead, focus on the specific problems, capability gaps, or other issues that are hurting the client's productivity, profitability, or ability to achieve key objectives. The more specific you are about the client’s needs, the more believable your recommendations will be.

There are four mistakes that proposal writers regularly make in discussing the client’s needs. These pitfalls undercut the persuasiveness of your message, so avoid them:

1. Defining the customer’s need as being identical with your solution. This happens all the time because some people have a hard time getting outside their own head and thinking like the customer.

I was once working on a major proposal with a national bank so I asked the sales team, “What is the customer’s key need.” After some thought the account manager said, “I guess I’d say that they need the ability to verify credit cards on line.”

“Hmmm. Really?” I said. “So what’s your solution for them?”

“Well, we’re going to provide them with the ability to verify credit cards on line.”

“Sounds like a perfect fit!” I said. “But I’m curious—why do they need to verify credit cards on line?”

The account manager rolled his eyes, a little impatient at my obvious lack of insight, but he finally explained, “So they can sell stuff over the Web.”

“Oh, of course. And why do they want to do that?”

“Because their two biggest competitors have e-commerce sites and are selling products over the Web.”

“Okay,” I said. “But why do they want to copy what their competitors are doing?”

“Because they’ve lost over 20 percent of their market share over the past year!”

Ding! Ding! Now that sounds like a need statement, doesn’t it?

Sometimes it pays to act like a four year old. Keep asking why until you get to the root cause that is the basis of the opportunity.

2. Failing to push your analysis far enough. Try to trace the “chain of pain” as far into the organization as you can. Ask to interview other key managers. Look beyond the obvious to see what results are being affected or impeded at the client organization. By taking a larger view, you can see the breadth of the problem and can then present it in your proposal as having organizational implications. That will increase the sense of urgency associated with solving it, and will also make it easier for you to establish a compelling value proposition.

3. Assuming that the RFP defines the business problem or need. The RFP typically defines the requirements of an acceptable solution, not the business reasons a solution is needed. In an RFP, companies and government agencies are highly reluctant to specify actual problems. That’s information that could aid their competitors or that could spook investors. It almost never appears in the RFP.

4. Not talking to enough of the management team in the client’s organization. HR and Operations are likely to have very different points of view on what the company’s problems are than Finance or Sales. Go beyond a single contact or a single department to get a well-rounded view of the issues or problems the company faces.

The good news is that as you learn what your customers’ needs are, Sant Suite allows you to capture and store them. That way you can quickly pull them into a presentation or proposal when you work with a client whose needs are similar. You save time without sacrificing persuasiveness.

April 15, 2008

Three Qualifying Questions

I’m convinced that poor qualification leads to more wasted effort in sales than almost any other problem. For your own sanity and efficiency, you need to screen out the non-starters among your leads as quickly as you can to avoid wasting time. That means qualifying prospects early and effectively. And that’s our topic this time.

Before you do any qualifying, do your homework. Know your client. Review their web site, read their annual reports and 10-K, read their product brochures and company history before you talk to them. Your goal is to prepare yourself so that you can talk with the prospect in an intelligent way about his or her business. In fact, you should have three specific questions prepared in advance, based on what you’ve learned from your research. For example, if you were selling to an office products company, you might say:

“I see you are focusing on selling large business shredders this year. Is that your primary sales focus?”

“Do you typically compete against the large-scale document storage companies or are they going after a different market?”

“Has the growth of digital documents affected the volume of paper that needs to be shredded?”

Is there a real need?

Qualifying questions should uncover whether or not the prospect has a real need, problem, issue, or opportunity that you can address. If there’s no problem, there’s virtually no likelihood that they’ll buy. Good business people don’t spend money unless they are eliminating an undesirable situation or capitalizing on an important opportunity. Here are some questions that could help you figure out if there’s a real need:

· Who in the prospect’s organization is experiencing a problem that could be solved by using your product or service? Is this problem significant to them? Besides the people who are directly dealing with the problem, who will gain from eliminating that problem or meeting that need? In what ways?

· What are the consequences if they don’t solve the problem, close the gap in capabilities, or meet the need?

· How are they handling this issue or problem now? (To build rapport and credibility, you can share a success story of a client who had similar concerns and overcame them through the use of your product or service.)

· What is their biggest complaint or concern about the product or service they are using now?

Is there a significant payoff?

If there’s a real problem to be solved, the next question should determine whether or not there’s a compelling outcome, impact or other measure of gain associated with solving the problem. For example, you might ask:

· How do they calculate return on investment? How do they recognize and publicize a good decision? Who determines what a good investment is?

· What does management want to gain from improving a process or from buying your product?

· Ask for the operating numbers or statistics. How many? How often? At what cost? In which locations? Numerical results? Statistical findings? You’re looking for information indicating what kind of baseline they have now (so you can prove that your solution has improved the situation) and what their key performance indicators are (so that you know where to focus your value proposition).

Is there a good fit?

Finally, ask questions to determine whether or not your solutions are a good fit—in terms of technical features, specifications, business practices, locations, or other factors—for what this prospect seeks. Some questions to help you figure out the issue of fit include:

· How do they make decisions? What are their steps? Approvals? Timeframe?

· What criteria do they use in making decisions? How are those criteria ranked?

· What are the technical specifications that a solution must meet? What are the operational, logistical, or other factors that will determine whether a solution represents a good technical or business fit?

If you ask probing questions at the outset to determine if there’s a real need, a potentially compelling payoff, and a good fit, you’ll avoid wasting your time pursuing deals that aren’t real or that you don’t have any chance of winning.

Once you’ve qualified those deals, you can generate terrific proposals and presentations that address all the key decision factors with ProposalMaster and PresentationBuilder from Sant.