March 25, 2009

Automating for the Right Reasons

The old joke about proposal automation was that if you didn’t do it right, you achieved the dubious reward of producing bad proposals much faster.

But what if you did it right? And for the right reasons?

That is our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Automating for the Right Reasons

Years ago I made a sales call on a public utility in Pennsylvania, one that was wrestling with the newly competitive, deregulated marketplace. I was there to present our proposal automation system. I had set up my computer and projector in a second floor conference room and was chatting with the division head who was our host when I heard a group of people stomping up the stairwell outside our door. One voice rose above the rest, a strident female voice, vehemently insisting, “I don’t care who else is using it, it won’t work here!”

In marched a small knot of people. At the head was the woman who had just bellowed her defiant prediction. She scowled, radiating all the warmth of a middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears. The division head cleared his throat and looked a little embarrassed. “Allow me to introduce you to the manager of our proposal operations,” he said.

I’d love to tell you a story about how I turned this situation around, but the truth is—No, it didn’t get better. Nothing she heard and nothing she saw mattered. She had already made up her mind. Oh, she had her reasons: “It won’t work because our business is different.” “Because our clients don’t want a fancy proposal.” “Because our industry requires that we do things the way we’ve always done them.” “Because…” “Because…” Just because, that’s why! What a fearful, closed-minded attitude!

Some people are just digital Luddites who try to save their jobs by defeating innovation. Generally, though, that kind of behavior is less common than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Instead, in today’s society people are more likely to be cynical about technology. And why not? They’ve seen millions poured down a porcelain chute called CRM and gotten very little back. Why would proposal automation be any different?

The problem with CRM has been that traditionally it’s been too abstract and amorphous a tool to be applied in a concrete way to specific problems. That’s not the case with proposal automation. Proposal automation, unlike other technical innovations that have been ballyhooed by the business and technology press, actually works. In fact, proposal automation is a paradigm example of a technology that produces improvements in both efficiency and effectiveness. And in today’s economic climate, every business needs to be more efficient and effective.

Efficiency is all about driving waste out of the sales and proposal process. Typical problems include finding the right content, assembling a draft quickly, coordinating the activities of a team of contributors, and getting the whole operation to follow a reliable methodology. Efficiency issues are not trivial. For a medium-sized company they can add up to hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars of effort spent in non-value adding activities. And I’m willing to bet that no sales manager in the world wants his or her sales people sitting in front of a computer, hunting and pecking, cutting and pasting, wrestling with the word processor. So automating the writing of proposals eliminates a major area of waste.

Other sources of inefficiency include:

1. Loose to non-existent control over the information going into proposals: One of our clients found they had 11 different databases containing product information and pricing, seven of which weren’t even being maintained any more! Unfortunately, sales people still went to them to cut and paste information for proposals—thereby offering products and services that couldn’t be delivered. Yikes.

2. Corporate Alzheimer’s: Somewhere somebody has the answer to the questions in this RFP. But nobody can remember where it is or who has it. So we’ll just reinvent the whole thing one more time, okay? No, not okay. It’s a waste.

3. The “ask Betty” syndrome: This form of inefficiency is common in smaller and mid-sized companies. One person, call her “Betty”, knows where everything is located—all the answers to all the RFPs ever answered in the past, all the case studies, all the team bios, everything… God forbid that Betty should ever get the flu, take a vacation, or retire.

4. Too many steps: In manufacturing environments, waste comes from handling a product without adding value to it. The same thing happens in proposal environments. By automating one of our clients, we moved them from 28 different steps involved in producing a finished proposal down to 13. That eliminates a lot of wasted effort.

Effectiveness? What about effectiveness, you ask? Well, the ultimate test of proposal effectiveness is whether it wins or not. Saving time is nice, but winning business is crucial. The greatest value of using proposal automation technology comes from improving win rates by implementing a consistent, structured process. By using a simple automation tool you give everybody the ability to put the right content into the right order so it delivers the right message—every time. In fact, that’s a key reason why our clients have experienced an average 29% improvement in win rate. They’re also able to create sales documents 36% faster.

If you’d like some help in making sure proposal automation improves both your efficiency and your effectiveness, give us a call. Our roots are in best practices and proven methodology. We know what it takes to write a winning proposal. And we know how to automate the process successfully. Trust me. And ignore that woman bellowing on the staircase. It will work here! See a demo of Sant Suite at

March 5, 2009

Pictures Really Are Worth A Thousands Words

One of my favorite graphics is printed on shiny paper, folds up small enough to fit in my pocket, and is given away free. It’s the London subway map. It’s a brilliant graphic because it gives you a clear, information-rich view of an unbelievably complex system. Imagine trying to write a handbook describing the London underground for tourists and travelers and you’ll see what a hopeless task it would be.

That is our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Pictures Really Are Worth A Thousands Words

In the 1920s, Fred Barnard, an advertising executive, tried to convince his customers that adding pictures to the placards in streetcars would make their ads more effective. As evidence, he cited a Chinese proverb: “A picture is worth ten thousand words.” Thus a cliché entered the English language—although the ratio of words to picture was mysteriously reduced by a factor of 10 along the way.

What the Chinese characters that Barnard showed actually state is something a bit different. They literally say, “A picture’s meaning can express ten thousand words.” That’s a different claim, one that emphasizes the interdependence of words and graphics. Properly chosen, words and graphics can combine to create a powerful message that transcends either medium alone.

For years I’ve cited a study done by the University of Minnesota that showed adding a graphic to a piece of text increases the perceived persuasiveness of the text by 47%. I’ve urged people to include graphics in their proposals, particularly in the presentation of their value proposition. There’s nothing you want to be more persuasive than your value proposition, so that’s the place to show the bar chart, the trend curve, or the pie chart to illustrate the positive impact your solutions will have.

The value of good graphics has long been understood in other fields. Attorneys spend huge amounts to create video simulations and graphic displays to influence juries. In one notorious instance, John Gotti’s defense attorney stood before the jury with a simple table showing the names of all seven witnesses who had testified against the mob boss. All seven had become government informants, receiving immunity in exchange for their testimony. In the table, Gotti’s attorney listed all the crimes they had committed, including multiple counts of murder, kidnapping, extortion, bribery, and more. In total they had 69 different convictions. The graphic’s meaning was clear. The witnesses were sleazebags, felons and thugs; their testimony was worthless. Interestingly, this chart was the only piece of evidence the jury asked to review during their deliberations. Gotti was acquitted.

This vivid and disturbing example of the persuasive power of a good graphic comes from Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. This is one of the four books he has written on the art and power of effective visual display. (The other three are The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Beautiful Evidence.) Tufte has become almost a cult figure for his insightful and provocative opinions about the potential for excellent graphics—charts, illustrations, and so on—to convey content quickly, persuasively and powerfully.

Tufte can be cranky in his opinions. He has attacked PowerPoint as evil, argues that most of the illustrations in the New York Times and USA Today are filled with “chartjunk,” and rails that most graphics assume the reader is stupid. On the other hand, he has demonstrated the impact that poor design can have, including a convincing analysis that poorly designed charts misled NASA engineers into believing the 1986 launch of the space shuttle Columbia was safe.

As a thorough-going left brainer, I struggle to think visually the way Tufte does. But I do understand his key points and I no longer feel satisfied using the typical garish charts generated from a spreadsheet or the cheesy clip art that comes with our slide-generating software. Some of the things I’ve learned from Tufte that can help us as persuasive communicators:

1. Graphics should be interesting in their own right.

2. Graphics should be content rich, dense with information, and should include multiple dimensions and variables.

3. Graphics should force us to make “wise visual comparisons” and should show causality.

4. Words, numbers and images should be integrated on the page, never broken up by lodging all the graphics at the end of the document or on a different page from where they are discussed.

Another important point that Tufte constantly reiterates is that your presentation—both the words and the graphics—succeeds or fails based on the accuracy, quality, and relevance of your content. This fundamental truth takes us back to the wisdom of the Chinese proverb: it’s the harmony of word and image that creates the most powerful impression.

With Sant Suite you can integrate graphics with your words easily and quickly. We even provide a built-in means for demonstrating your value proposition visually. Check out the interactive, Web-based demos on our site, With the right graphics, you may be able to save 10,000 words, and won’t that come in handy when you have a tight page limit?