September 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 Kool Aid and are in full agreement. Anyway, all that 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.

The 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.

September 15, 2008

Getting Out of the (Information) Dump

Even proposals that start with a great executive summary often lapse into the information dump mode when it comes to presenting the solution. How can we get out of the informative pattern so that our proposals are more effective in delivering a persuasive message?

The heart of the proposal is, of course, your solution. Your clients will be eager to hear your solution, if you have whetted their appetite by first discussing their needs and the probable outcomes of meeting those needs. But you can’t just lapse into the technical “info dump” style of writing that characterizes most solution write-ups.

Take a look at some old proposals, particularly the sections where you describe products or services. Do you see long lists of bullet points, the so-called “features” of your solution? If so, the solutions are informative, not persuasive, and most of your readers are probably skipping these parts.

To present your solution in a more customer-friendly, persuasive way, start by presenting your recommendations in two to three strong, focused paragraphs. You want to start by presenting the solution in general terms, focusing on business fit rather than details of execution. Emphasize why this solution is right for the client. Mention a couple of strong differentiators that set your solution apart and make your recommendations the right ones.

To focus on what matters in your solution, write from the customer’s point of view and move from general to specific:

Recommend the solution in a single sentence. Focus on functional impact, not operational or technical issues. In other words, in the first sentence, tell the customer what your solution will do for them. By the way, if you have a branded product or service, do not use the product name at this point. Product names are jargon and no one knows them outside your company (unless your product is as well known as the iPod or the ThinkPad). Tell the customer what they are getting and why it’s the right approach.

Explain the recommendation in another sentence. In the next couple of sentences, focus on at least one detail that relates to your intellectual capital, unique methodology, relevant expertise, or depth of experience. Focus on how you will do the work and what the results will be.

Differentiate your recommendation. Provide two sentences that state relevant differentiators that set your company apart from others who provide this kind of solution. Indicate why these differentiators add value for the client.

Present the features of your solution in the context of the customer’s needs or problems. Remember that customers do not automatically recognize that the solution you are proposing will give them the results they want. Particularly in a highly complex or technical environment, you must link the outcomes of what you are proposing to the elements of your solution. Imagine the client asking after each mention of a feature, “So what? Why should I care?” This means you should not mention a feature without linking it to the customer’s issues and to the benefits that feature will provide. (The benefits should also be linked to the customer’s issues, needs, or goals, of course.) Remember: a feature is a component of the solution, but a benefit is an impact on the client’s operations that the client will find desirable.

In fact, the details of your solution will be much more persuasive if you don’t focus on features at all. Instead, start by mentioning one of the customer’s key needs. Then mention the feature(s) of your solution that address that need. Point out the benefit the feature offers, and conclude with a brief proof statement showing how this feature of your product or service worked in another account (a mini case study).

Then start with another key need, link that to one or more features, show the benefit, and conclude with proof.

This pattern will make it easy for your customer to see instantly that what you are offering truly is a solution, because it’s presented in the context of the customer’s problems or needs.

After you’ve shown how the customer’s needs are being addressed, you can move into a more traditional description, going through the important details of your product or service in some logical order. Now if the customer starts to skim, we don’t mind because we’ve already made our point persuasively.

You can store persuasive descriptions of your products and services in the content library that comes with ProposalMaster and RFPMaster. That way you can pick and choose the right details to present at the right time and keep yourself from falling into the information dump.