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.

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