November 1, 2010

Responding to Web-based RFPs

Sometimes you do everything right but it all comes out wrong. You write a fabulous proposal and you still lose. True, it’s not fair.

That’s our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Responding to Web-based RFPs

A proposal specialist at a major health care company recently sent me a copy of an RFI (request for information) his team has to fill out. It’s a Web-based form that’s required of all health care companies who want to bid for contracts from any of the dozens of companies who have agreed to use this thing. Called eVALUE8, which is too cutesy to be tolerated in a license plate much less a business document, it’s basically a big checklist.

The document starts out, “Members of the National Business Coalition on Health (NBCH) and Watson Wyatt (WW) eValue8 group have embraced a common set of core health plan performance expectations and have worked collaboratively to develop the 2006 NBCH/WW eValue8 Request for Information (RFI).” Just reading that opening sentence, you know we’re in trouble. The sentence is 40 words long, contains three acronyms, not counting the “eValue8” thing, and uses some pretty bizarre business clich├ęs. And how about the weird syntax? The members claim they have “embraced” a “set of core…expectations.” I’d probably buy a ticket just to watch them do that.

Anyway, lots of big companies are involved in this thing, so healthcare companies feel like they’re bullied into filling it out. It consists of page after page of tiny fields where you enter all kinds of obscure data: the percentage of your practitioners who work in a staff model or in a captivated multispecialty group, or in a captivated IPA, whatever that is. Or the number of plan members you have enrolled in a commercial HMO/POS arrangement, or in a commercial PPO, the total number of Medicare members, and so on. It goes on this way for page after page, little boxes and lots of numbers. All in all, it’s over 150 pages long!
If nothing else would do it, filling out eValue8 would make you eager to see healthcare reform in this country.

What about you? Are you getting similar RFPs and RFIs in your business? What should you do with them?

One tempting answer is to pitch them in the trash. Requiring vendors to fill out reams of data and complete spreadsheets on pricing is a lousy way to buy anything. I've always believed that this kind of granular RFI or RFP really gets in the way of making an intelligent buying decision. And there are a couple of sneaky aspects to them that make them even less palatable.

First, a checklist RFP is based on the assumption that what you and everybody else in your industry offers is a commodity. For these buyers, value has no value. They deny the relevance or importance of any value-added components, any differentiators, and any distinctions in service delivery models. They refuse to acknowledge that prior experience is a good thing. Typically, all they want is pricing data and confirmation of technical specs. With the increased power procurement groups have grabbed during the recession, we're seeing a lot more RFPs that are written this way.

Second, this kind of RFP is often written by a consultant or some other third party.
Unfortunately, it’s in the consultant’s self-interest to make the buying process as complex as possible and to minimize the meaningful differences among vendors. The consultants prefer to keep the vendors at arm’s length from the actual customer and to focus the customer’s attention mainly on the consultant’s ability to manipulate a huge amount of data. That’s why the RFPs they issue are so complex, why they give you so little room to respond, and why they focus on technical details for the most part.

So… back to our question. What do you do with this kind of RFP? Well, it really might be in your best interest to refuse to respond to them. That decision depends on a number of factors, but the volume of effort involved in responding compared to the probability of winning profitable work makes them pretty unattractive.

This is particularly true if you have received the RFP from a client with whom you’ve had no previous contact. Statistically, your chances of winning any business in that situation—you’ve never talked to them, the RFP arrives out of the blue, and it gives you no room to make a persuasive business case—is less than 1 in 20.

It’s also possible you’re being used. Maybe the company issuing the RFP already knows who they want to hire, but they have to get three other bids. Or maybe they want to beat up their current supplier on price. Any way you look at it, it’s not a very good investment of your time, is it?

But let’s suppose you have to respond to it for whatever reason. Is there any way to make your proposal stand out a bit?

Well, first of all, if there are any areas of the RFP where you are allowed to enter free-form text, make sure you write as persuasively as possible. Second, write a well-structured, persuasive executive summary and use it as the covering e-mail when you submit your completed RFP on line. Maybe nobody will read it, but it’s not that much extra work and it might help. Third, if you make it past the first stage of reviews, seek a face-to-face meeting with the client and develop an absolute killer proposal presentation, one that emphasizes your understanding of the client’s needs, the value you can deliver and the differentiators that set you apart.

I hope these form-based RFPs are a passing fad, because it doesn’t seem to me they serve the interests of either the buyers or the sellers.

One bit of good news in all this is the fact that Sant Suite can automate your response to forms, even if they’re in spreadsheets or on the Web. At least that way you’re spending a lot less time on them! You can see an interactive, Web-based demo of how it works at our site,

October 25, 2010

Paper or Digital

groceries: paper or plastic? I even did research on the Web to figure out which was the right choice. Talk about confusing! I finally just gave up and now I bring my own—cloth, thank you.

But there’s another choice we face with our proposals: paper or digital? We know which is greener. But which is more effective?

That’s our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Paper or Digital

Would you prefer to submit your proposal as a printed document or as a digital file? Perhaps more important, which format do your prospects prefer?

We're at a flex point in proposal writing, I think. Traditional methods have involved writing a document, printing it out, binding it and putting it between nice looking covers, and then delivering it—usually multiple copies—to the prospect.

Many RFPs still specify that you must submit hard copies. State and local government agencies often require a paper submission.

But increasingly, RFPs call for digital submissions. At the simplest level, they may require that you submit your document via e-mail or that you upload it to a Web site. At a more complex level, they may require you to fill out Web-based forms.

I believe that at some point in the next few years, proposals will be true digital documents—more like Web sites than Word docs. They will feature embedded video clips, hyperlinks, search capabilities, and other functionality that will make them interesting and easier to use. That kind of development is inevitable, I believe. But will it be a good thing? I honestly don't know.

Each of these modes of delivery has advantages and weaknesses.

Traditional paper-based proposals have the familiar form factor that all paper-based documents have. They're easy to skim, easy to flip back and forth in and easy to score. You can write notes in the margins, you can fold down the corner when you see something interesting, and you can underline or highlight stuff that you want to remember.

On the other hand, with paper-based proposals, a lot of trees have to die. Right now I have a single copy of a proposal written to the state of New York, which required paper-based submissions. The proposal consists of three volumes. Each volume contains over 500 pages of text. Each volume is bound in an elaborate three-ring binder, and each binder is housed in a slip case cover. This proposal is so big; I had to clear an area of my desk off just to house it. Reading it is pretty much a nightmare. And how much do you think it cost—both in terms of dollars and carbon footprint—to deliver multiple copies of this thing to Albany?

Digital proposals save paper, save transportation costs, and can be delivered to the prospect almost instantaneously. There's no need to make multiple copies, because the prospect can simply forward your digital version to whomever needs to see it. You're probably creating the document digitally; using Microsoft Word, so delivering it digitally eliminates an extra step in production.

But digital documents can be difficult to work with. If the proposal has been saved as a .PDF file, which it probably should be, the reader will have extreme difficulty annotating it. Skimming digital documents can be very difficult, too. And when you deliver a document in native Word format, its appearance can change (and never for the better) if the recipient has the Normal template set to something unusual. In fact, you may have problems delivering the document if the client is using an older version of Word (accepting .doc files) and you're producing your proposal in a newer version (such as a .docx file).

The next generation of digital delivery sounds pretty exciting. The ability to embed video, to create hot links to Web sites outside the proposal, and the opportunity to use advanced search technology, hyperlinks, and a more creative interface all sound pretty cool.

But there are a whole host of issues associated with the use of technology that will have to be addressed. In the public sector, it's unlikely that such submissions will be accepted for a long, long time, because they usually require the least technically advanced mode of delivery—in part to keep the playing field level and in part because that's all they can handle. Even if you're dealing with a technically sophisticated clientele, we've all had problems from time to time getting a video to open, a photograph to display, or a page to load properly. What happens if your evaluator has similar problems? Do they simply mark your submission noncompliant and move on to the next one?

What do you prefer? Would you rather produce a paper-based document or do you prefer to submit via e-mail? Or are you excited about the prospect of creating a true Web-based submission?

In the meantime, you know that whatever the future holds in terms of delivery, our tools will simplify the process. From our early days, when we first generated proposals in Word, WordPerfect, and AmiPro, until our latest versions when we can build them from components in multiple media and deliver them the same way, we have tried to take the hard work out of formatting and make your deliverables as crisp, professional, and consistent as possible.

October 19, 2010

Keeping Score

The premise of open book management is that employees will make better decisions if they understand how those decisions affect profitability. In The Great Game of Business, Jack Stack argues that workers need to know what the measures of success are, should be expected to improve the numbers by taking action in their own area of responsibility, and should have a direct stake in success or failure.

It all makes sense, yet surprisingly enough many companies have no idea what their win rate is, have no idea how long it takes on average to close a deal, and don't know what their best source of leads is. If you're not tracking that stuff, you're playing shortstop with a blindfold on.

Metrics matter. That’s our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Keeping Score

For years we have claimed that our proposal automation tools increase effectiveness and improve efficiency. A recent survey of several hundred Sant clients shows that those claims were completely justified. On average, our clients' win rate improved by 33% and they reduced the time required to create a proposal an average of 42%.

Unfortunately, there were quite a few clients who were unable to participate in the survey. Why? Because they had never measured their win rate before, so they had nothing to compare it to. And they had never tracked how much time goes into creating a proposal, so they didn't know how much time they were saving.

If you want to improve your proposal process, if you want it to produce more wins and spend less time and money along the way, you have to track what you’re doing and measure the results. That’s a basic principle underlying all continuous improvement methodologies, and it applies to the proposal operation as much as it does to the factory floor. Likewise, unless proposal writers and managers know how they're doing, they won't see the need to get better. If nobody is tracking my batting average, why would I bother to take hitting practice?

One of the first steps an organization needs to take is to decide what it is they want to measure. Which measurements are truly meaningful? "Win ratio” is the obvious first answer that comes to mind, but we all know from the experience of the recent recession that win ratios can be very misleading. If you won 30% of the deals in 2008, when the economy was still pretty healthy, but only 26% last year, after it had really tanked, does that mean you had a terrible year? In reality, you might be having a terrific year in spite of the small drop in win ratio. It’s possible that because of the recession, everybody else is doing much worse.

Or, to give another reason why it’s risky to use win ratios as the only metric, what if you’re winning all of the small opportunities and none of the large ones? In that case, your win ratio would be high but the average revenue generated per proposal would be low. If you supplement win ratio tracking by measuring the percentage of dollars won compared to the total amount for which you bid, you might get an idea of how well you did overall.

Other factors might include the ratio of new business won from new opportunities compared to new business won from existing clients. If you have a high renewal rate but are struggling to win new business, that doesn't bode well for your market share over the long term.

Deciding what to measure is not necessarily as easy or intuitive as it might initially appear, but it is the first vital step.

The next step is to gather a baseline of data. After all, if you don’t know where you are, it’s pretty hard to figure out if you’re moving in the right direction. In organizations where the proposal effort is centralized, or where there are controls placed on proposals so that none of them are issued without being reviewed by legal, finance, or senior management, it's a fairly straightforward matter to start tracking results. But in organizations where sales people are able to submit proposals without any further review or approval, tracking the actual win ratio may require a crystal ball or a Ouija board.

The final step is to develop a process for tracking results going forward. Assuming that you have tweaked the system in some way, you will want to know if that tweak has improved your win ratio or reduced the time required to finish a proposal. But unless you have a systematic way of gathering the data, you'll never know for sure what's working and what isn't.

Once you have the three basics covered—you know what to measure, you have a baseline to compare it to, and you have a systematic way of capturing the data—you’re ready to start managing based on the numbers.

At Sant, we believe in measuring results. But why wouldn't we—our results have been terrific. We're happy to share references and case studies to show you just how good they've been. And you can see an interactive, Web-based demo of our software in action on our site,

June 23, 2010

Lessons Lost

You often hear people saying that they want to capture the “lessons learned” from an important project, such as a major proposal.

My question is what do they do with those lessons after they capture them? Because they sure seem to disappear pretty quickly, given the number of proposals that repeat the same mistakes again and again.

That is our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Lessons Lost

Last fall I worked with a company that was in a pretty desperate situation. They hadn't won a single bid for over a year. They had survived on some large projects that generated cash, but those were winding down. If they didn't win a major opportunity—and soon—they would be forced to lay off hundreds of employees.

They had an opportunity to respond to an RFP for a huge engineering project, something that was perfect for them. They asked me to help, because they saw it as a must-win situation and somebody in their management group thought my methods might work.

I began by asking for certain kinds of content and insights into the engineering project and the government agency that was funding it that they hadn't gathered. When I arrived on site, I led a series of workshops to create client-centered and persuasive responses to each of the 20 major "questions" or topical areas in the RFP. And when we got to the section on personnel, I asked them to throw out their traditional resumes, which were long and boring, and write them in a completely different way.

For some contributors, the process was invigorating. They enjoyed doing things in a new way. For others, the process was more painful. But at the end of the process, they had a response to the RFP that was persuasive, value oriented, and client centered. And a few months later, they learned that they had won.

That was good news, obviously, and I took a large measure of pride in having helped them. But since then, I have learned that they have not incorporated a single thing we did into their standard processes. We found that doing things differently, following a different process, putting the emphasis on different areas of content, resulted in a win. You might even call those "lessons learned". But none of them were preserved. Instead, they have gone back to doing things the same old way—the way that had failed to win a single deal for over a year.

This is an extreme example, but one that's nevertheless common. In proposal operations, in spite of lip service to the contrary, lessons learned are quite often lessons lost. If you are a habitual reader of Dilbert, as I am, you may be cynical enough to simply accept the notion that senior managers would completely disregard lessons learned that produced hundreds of millions of dollars of success after months and months of failure. But I think the real cause of lessons learned becoming lessons lost has more to do with processes than with personalities.

Most proposal organizations, and indeed most sales operations as a whole, have no institutionalized process for capturing lessons learned. The argument might be that each proposal, like each sales opportunity, is unique. Each poses its own challenges. What works on one proposal may have little relevance to the next.

As you probably know, if you have read my comments over the years, I think that is nonsense. Although the specifics of each proposal vary, they vary within predictable ranges. By documenting what works, what contributes to greater success, what saves time or eliminates quality problems, we increase our ability to produce successful work in the future. Yes, the proposal itself will be different—perhaps very different—but the processes and tools we use will be very similar from one opportunity to the next, and focusing on improving those processes and tools is absolutely vital if we are to show steady improvement in both effectiveness and efficiency.

So why do so many proposal operations skip the process of gathering, documenting, and institutionalizing lessons learned? One reason is that they are immediately neck deep in the next bid effort. They believe they have no time to pause for reflection. As soon as today's proposal has been delivered, we must rush off to work on tomorrow's.

Another reason is that there is no budget set aside for this kind of effort. As a support organization, the proposal operation must be very careful to show that every minute of time and every dollar of budget is being directed toward winning business. Something that's one step removed, like capturing lessons learned, could be criticized as frivolous, so proposal managers avoid doing it.

A third reason is that in many organizations the proposal effort is decentralized. In a decentralized organization, it's extremely difficult to gather any kind of information on what's working, and it's even more difficult to learn what doesn't work. After all, who wants to volunteer to be the example of how not to do it?

Finally, lessons learned are often lost because the proposal operation and the sales organization as a whole may not have any system in place for implementing change. In an engineering or project management environment, change management is a well-defined part of the process. There are documented steps for institutionalizing a better process when you discover one. That is seldom true in sales or proposal operations.

What's to be done? The first step, I think, is to acknowledge that doing things the same way, over and over, without being open to changes that may improve results, is a recipe for stagnation and eventual failure. If you can get your organization to make that cultural shift, then here are some suggestions for capturing lessons learned and incorporating them into your standard procedures:

• Conduct regular lessons learned meetings with the sales and proposal development team. At a minimum, this should happen right after a major bid has been completed. Ask: What worked? Where were the obstacles? What workarounds or solutions did we come up with?
• For problems that come up repeatedly, create a task group to analyze the root causes. Ask: What preventative measures can be implemented? What gaps in capabilities should be closed?
• What did you do differently? Did it work? Was there anything you did that was so effective you think it should become part of your standard approach in the future? If so, document it and figure out how to make sure everybody embraces it. Training? Checklists? Tools? What's going to make this new way of working the standard way in the future?
• At least once a year, stand back from your standard processes—you're unquestioned "best practices"—and question them. What's being done simply because it's always been done? What's no longer adding value to the final deliverable? Can these steps be eliminated? Can they be changed and made more effective?
• Establish a formal process for institutionalizing change. Document the changes. Incorporate them into internal training. Modify your ProposalMaster and RFPMaster databases or the user interfaces to reinforce the changes. Begin including the use of these new methods into performance appraisals. Figure out what's going to work to convert lessons learned into accepted standard practices as quickly as possible, and then follow through.

If you would like some help in figuring out what lessons you have learned and what lessons other people learned that you can borrow, give us a call. From working with hundreds of companies in dozens of markets, we can help you jump start the process.


Profiling is not allowed in a criminal case, but it makes a lot of sense in your business case. By establishing a set of behaviors and characteristics that define your best customers, you create a pattern or profile to use in searching for new ones.

That is our topic this time.

Tom Sant


Can you describe your best customers? Would you recognize them if you bumped into them at a conference or on a sales call?

You may be rolling your eyes at this point. Of course I recognize my best customers! I'm in their offices eight to ten times a year! I'm more likely to recognize them than I am to pick out my spouse's cousin at a wedding!

Right. But what I'm referring to is whether or not you've created a profile of your best customers. One that identifies the nature of their business, their business model, their financial situation, key recent events, significant pending changes, their current infrastructure, and any other characteristic that helps define them.

When I developed the first version of ProposalMaster almost 20 years ago, I did it based on the observation that most of my clients had a limited number of vertical markets to which they sold their products and services. Within those markets, there were half a dozen or a dozen reasons that clients needed their products and services. There were certain options and features that were of particular interest to certain kinds of buyers. By defining the typical buyers and what motivated them, we were able to create a taxonomy of the content sales people needed to deliver persuasive proposals to the buyers they encountered most frequently.

That same thinking can be the basis of creating a comprehensive sales toolkit. Everything from cold calling scripts to negotiation strategies can be thought through in terms of the typical patterns of behavior that you and your colleagues run into. And profiling your best customers can make it easier for you to find them and connect with them. In fact, profiling your best customers should help you figure out the most effective sales process.

Here are some questions that may help you start profiling for profit:
• Do our customers' needs vary by vertical market?
• Do their needs vary by the buyer's role?
• Do needs vary based on other factors, such as:
o Size of the customer's organization?
o Geography?
o Primary source of funding?
o Their use of certain legacy systems?

• Are there certain "trigger events" or "red flags" that are strong predictors of when a customer is most likely to need our help, such as:
o Explosive growth?
o Expansion into a new market?
o Release of new products or services?
o New CEO, VP of Engineering, VP of Sales, or other senior leadership?
o Recent or pending acquisition or merger?
o Obviously broken processes (for example, high rates of product returns, poor quality, late financial filings)?
o Employee morale issues as indicated by high levels of sick time, absenteeism, accidents, workers' comp claims?
o Market share erosion?
o Loss of patent protection?
o Declining productivity?
o Declining revenues?

The specific questions you ask to profile your best customers—and more importantly, your best prospects—will be different from these, of course. But figuring out what they are and then finding the answers to them is an important step forward in creating an empirical basis for your sales process, the tools your sales people use, and the content in your proposal and presentation libraries.

It will probably come as little surprise to you to know that we can help you with that process. We conduct Structure & Strategy sessions for our clients that uncover the right answers to the right questions, which is one of the reasons that companies that implement our proposal software see a near 30 percent increase in win rates on average. Give us a call if you'd like some help profiling for profit in your business.

April 19, 2010

Overcoming the Fear of Value

Why is that so many proposals contain no value proposition at all? What are those proposal writers afraid of?

That is our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Overcoming the Fear of Value

Are you afraid of value? There's plenty of evidence that suggests most proposal writers are. For one thing, very few proposals even contain a value proposition. And for another, when I bring up the importance of putting a value proposition in your proposals, the audience pushes back—hard!

I call this reaction "value paranoia." The result is weak value propositions that do little or nothing to move a deal forward. Here's an example of a so-called value proposition born of value paranoia:

"We offer a full range of enterprise-strength, integrated technology solutions."

Pretty exciting, huh? Makes you want to grab your checkbook, right? Or how about this one:

"We are a true one-stop shop for all your financial services needs."

I'll bet that makes you want to shout YES!, doesn't it? And here's another one—one that was actually used as the value proposition for an opportunity worth over $500 million:

"We are committed to the success of the enterprise."

Good grief! These are horrible. There's just no other word to describe them. For one thing, every one of them starts with "We," even though common sense would suggest that an effective value proposition should be focused on the buyer and what they care about. And for another, they contain no promise of positive results that can be tracked or quantified. Finally, none of them are backed up by even a shred of proof. These three supposed value propositions—all of which appeared in real proposals, by the way—are little more than marketing fluff.

When I press clients to create a more compelling value propositions—"ABC Company can reduce total energy costs by 75 to 80 percent by implementing our solar energy panels"—they sometimes squirm in their seats.

"What if the client actually follows up and holds us to our promises?" they ask. "Where will we find the baseline data against which to measure our impact? How will we ever get this past our in-house lawyers?"

These are all good questions. But they are questions that can be answered by modifying your sales and implementation processes and presenting your value proposition in clear, careful language. They are not reasons to refrain from offering a meaningful value proposition.

1. What if the client actually measures our results?
It'd be great if they did, assuming your products and services are as good as you claim. Why not make that part of your implementation strategy? Tell them that you'll work with them to set up the processes necessary to track results. Getting that data should make it a lot easier for you to win the rebid or the next phase of work.

2. Where will we find the baseline data against which to measure our impact?
Ideally, you will get it from the client, but we all know that many of our clients aren't measuring current performance so they have no way to know what kind of impact our products and services have had on their operations. If the client can't provide the baseline data, how about industry associations? They often publish data that represents industry averages. Or how about getting your own baseline data by going in to a new client immediately after you have won a deal and measuring the key parameters at the outset and then measuring them again after six months? If you do this half a dozen times, you'll have your own baseline data that you can use as a starting point with customers. You'll know the average cost of processing a check in the Accounts Payable systems from half a dozen organizations that are similar to your new client. You'll know how long it takes to process a data record in a legacy system compared to what it takes once your system is in place. And so on.

3. How will we ever get this past our lawyers?
Lawyers believe that their job is to keep the company out of trouble. And they know that the primary sources of trouble are (1) clients and (2) employees. If they can just eliminate both sources, they will have done their job perfectly. Unfortunately, in the real world there must be a balance between the "excess of caution" that lawyers love to live by and the slight risk of doing business that is required to actually close a deal. By using weasel words appropriately—"this may result in…," "you could see an increase of up to 20 percent…", "based on current assumptions, we project savings of…"—you can protect the company from making promises that could come back to haunt you and yet you can still offer a meaningful value proposition.

Value propositions are the means by which we motivate the decision maker to move forward. A strong, specific value proposition that offers quantifiable improvements in a core area of performance is the key to shortening your sales cycle and winning more business. Don't let value paranoia cripple yours.

We can calculate a compelling value proposition from automating your proposal operations. Give us a call and we'll put some pretty impressive numbers in front of you—and no marketing fluff!

March 9, 2010

Why Great Proposals Lose

Sometimes you do everything right but it all comes out wrong. You write a fabulous proposal and you still lose. Here’s why it happens.

That is our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Why Great Proposals Lose

Shouldn't quality be rewarded? Shouldn't an outstanding effort be crowned with success?

Well, maybe in Hollywood, where happy endings are required, but in real life it doesn't always happen that way. Sometimes you produce a great proposal and it still loses. It's beautifully written. It has terrific graphics. The win theme is creative and strong. And what happens? Nothing. It doesn't even get down-selected to the final two or three. What's up with that?

What's up is that your seemingly great proposal might be doomed by a fatal flaw. And just as is true of those Shakespearian heroes and their fatal flaws, the consequences for your proposal are tragic. Here are some of the most common flaws that can doom your magnificent effort:

• Weak qualification of the opportunity. The proposal was well written, true, but there was never a deal there in the first place.

One of my clients in London received an RFP from a global technology firm. Overjoyed by the size and scope of the opportunity, my client assembled a top team who worked for six weeks to respond to the complex and difficult bid document. They even spent £100,000 with an outside graphics firm to create fantastic illustrations and slides. But when they arrived at the prospect's headquarters to present their proposal, they were told, "We're so delighted you chose to respond, considering that we don't actually intend to change our supplier this time around."

Ask yourself three questions: Is the client serious? Can we be competitive? Can we win? If you can't answer these questions honestly, throw up a big yellow flag. Otherwise, you may be in for a case of proposal heartbreak.

• Not understanding the business drivers. You can be 100% compliant to the RFP and 100% a loser if you don’t understand the client's real needs. The RFP almost never discusses the business problems that lie behind an opportunity. So your proposal, which does a great job of responding to the technical requirements, may be missing the point completely.

Suppose a bank discovers they have a serious problem with the security of their accounts, particularly in regard to on-line banking functions. They issue an RFP, seeking help. Do you think they will indicate exactly what the problem is, how serious it is, how many customers are at risk? No, no, and no. RFPs can quickly become public documents, so any revelations about leaky security could damage the bank's reputation, create panic among customers, and possibly send the share price plummeting.

• Failing to leverage lessons learned. Have you had previous engagements with a client? Have you received a debriefing after submitting a previous proposal? If so, you may have valuable insights that will enable you to personalize the message. Unfortunately, the so-called lessons learned often go into long-term storage and are never looked at again. It's surprising how many companies invest millions of dollars in CRM systems, but don't use them to store information or insights into decision makers, corporate culture, or other factors that could strengthen the next proposal effort.

• Pitching to people who aren't there anymore. If we have a long-standing relationship with a client or a government agency, we might find ourselves unconsciously slipping into a traditional pattern. We know what they want. We know how they like us to organize our bid. We share experiences and assumptions, so we don't bother to spell that stuff out. "They know that," we say. "We don't need to mention it." What we may fail to notice is that those people have moved on. Some of them retired. Some were replaced. Maybe a few of them transferred to new positions. And as a result our usual way of proposing may not work anymore. I recently worked on a huge proposal to a government agency, one that was deemed a "must win", and kept getting "advice" from the old timers about the way that agency liked things done. What they weren't acknowledging was that six months earlier the entire command structure in t hat agency had been replaced and the culture was totally different. Happily, we ended up pitching to the people who were there, and I got word a couple of weeks ago that the proposal won.

There are probably a few other reasons why otherwise great proposals lose. But I suppose you could argue that if a proposal was hampered by one of the fatal flaws I've listed above, it probably wasn't all that great in the first place.
If you're looking to eliminate hidden fatal flaws and produce truly great proposals, give us a call. We have the software, the training and the processes to help increase your win rate. And how great would that be?

January 6, 2010

Why Saying YES is Always More Dangerous Than NO

Why Saying YES is Always More Dangerous Than NO

You don’t have to be the parent of a teenager to realize that saying YES is always potentially more dangerous than saying NO. (Although if you are the parent of a teenager, you can probably come up with plenty of examples to illustrate the point.)

The same thing is true in business. And if we’re going to sell our products or services, we have to make saying YES a little less risky.

That is our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Why Saying YES is Always More Dangerous Than NO

It's a truism of consultative sales methodologies that there are numerous decision influencers in an opportunity who have the power to say NO to a deal, but only one person who has the authority to say YES. The person who can say YES is sometimes called the "economic buyer" (in Strategic Selling terminology) or the "center of power" or simply the "boss.” Whatever you call that person, he or she carries a heavy burden: they have the authority to commit the organization to change.

Change is risky. After all, we know how to do what we're already doing. Maybe we don't do it very well and maybe it's not producing the results we want, but at least we feel comfortable in following the process and getting things done the way we've always done them. It's not surprising, then, is it, that we might see you and your enthusiastic recommendations for change as being more than a little threatening?

In our sales process and particularly in our proposals, we can make saying YES a little less dangerous for our clients. Here are seven ideas:

• Chunk the recommendation down into bite-size pieces. If our solution involves complex products and services, significant resource commitments, extended development cycles, or a large price tag, we're probably making our decision maker feel uneasy about saying YES. Why don't we divide that big solution into several smaller ones? Maybe we can start with a simple planning or assessment project that provides a clear Go/No Go gate at the end to protect the client from becoming embroiled in a large-scale disaster.

• Avoid over-engineering the solution. Simple is always safer than complex. Easy is always less risky than difficult. Try to avoid the temptation of adding in extra elements when you are configuring your recommendation.

• Link your solution to the customer's needs. One of the best ways to overcome the tendency to say No is to make it clear that your solution addresses their key needs. We've discussed this before, but as a quick reminder, I urge you to start your presentation of the solution with a quick summary of two or three key needs that the client wants to address. For each need, show how a specific feature of your solution addresses it, what the benefit to them will be, and a quick proof statement (a reference, for example) indicating that it's likely to work. Now they see that they are in fact buying a solution. Unfortunately, most proposals contain canned descriptions of products and services that are not linked to anything. They're just information dumps and they provoke a profound desire to say NO.

• Include service level agreements or real guarantees in the contract. The client is more likely to feel protected if we've been willing to offer them a way of measuring our performance and if we're putting some of our revenue at risk.

• Avoid self-serving behavior. The flip side of putting guarantees into your offer is taking out anything that might be construed as self-serving. For example, if you require buyers to purchase an expensive support package as part of the deal, even though you have assured them that your solution is dependable and low maintenance, they are justified in thinking you're just trying to jack up your own commission. If you recommend a product that doesn't quite address their needs and they later find out you were being spiffed on that product, they're likely to question the objectivity of your recommendation.

• Provide a convincing value proposition. People will take risks when the potential payoff is big enough. Unfortunately, most proposals fail to include a value proposition. And when they do include one, it often consists of marketing fluff rather than measurable results that will have a positive impact in a key area of organizational performance.

• Tie your recommendation to an inescapable compelling event. If the client has a fixed date in the future by which something has to be done, and your solution will help them get there, make the connection obvious.

One bonus tip worth considering: create a persuasive and fully compliant proposal. We can help you with that one, because Sant Suite is designed to take away the hard parts of writing a winning proposal. That's why so many of our clients say YES to our solution!