As an advisor, there is nothing more cringe-worthy to me than hearing a sales team discuss how their proposal is supposed to win a piece of business. “We need to blow them away.” Agreed, but if we are relying on the proposal – have we done everything we should have done to develop the opportunity?
Are you really going to stake your business on a proposal?
It needs to be said that what follows are ideas about what to do after you have failed to properly develop the opportunity and succumbed to using a proposal to do your marketing. However, I know reality is that sometimes the opportunity gets wiggly and a proposal seems like the only way to settle things down.
Before You Send a Proposal as a Last Resort:
If the opportunity in front of you is dependent on what’s in the proposal you are about to send, and you are not CONFIDENT that you have already won the business, then STOP.
five TEN things you can do right now to reduce your risk of failure on your next big proposal:
With so many great options – why send a proposal that doesn’t guarantee the win?
Change Your Point Person
This is not going to make me popular with salespeople, but if my client is struggling with how to create the right proposal, I often recommend that the Owner pick up the phone and talk to the prospect. Be genuine and explain the situation, “My team has brought me your project request and I am not confident we have asked you enough of the right questions. Do you have a few minutes you can share to bring me up to speed so we don’t waste your time with an inadequate proposal?” Use the opportunity to learn what really matters to the buyer, get some feedback on your team, and see if there is an agreement in principle that your proposal should reflect.
Sometimes the salesperson relationship can only take things so far.
Ask questions that should have already been asked such as, “How will our proposal make your job easier?” or “What’s the best possible outcome from this process?” or “How would it affect your business if you did not pursue this project?”
Send a Pre-emptive Scope of Work
Instead of the entire proposal, send the scope of work (your interpretation of the RFP) and ask that the customer verify that it includes everything you have discussed. Once you agree on the scope, you can put your BEST price on it. In this exchange, include several clarifying questions you should have asked before. Also, give the client one more opportunity to share something they forgot. This may not work well in many procurement situations, but if you are dealing with institutional buyers then you have already abandoned all hope of building a relationship.
Send a Pre-emptive Budget
In fact, send three. “We have reviewed your request and the information you have provided and we have designed three solutions – all of which meet your objectives. The respective options are roughly $ A, $ B, and $ C. The difference is fit and finish. Who would be the best person to discuss which option we should proceed with so we can finalize the budget?”
Hold Out for a High-Quality Face to Face
If the opportunity is a long-term relationship or significant project, then show some effort by investing in the customer. “We strongly feel that a proposal is an inadequate response to this opportunity. We invite you at our expense to meet our team, review your project, and develop exactly what you need.”
Ideally, the two parties should match participants one for one.
What’s the worst that could happen? They say no. Offer to do the same thing by web conference. No again? Then you were never going to win with a proposal in the first place. Stand down.
Re-write the RFP and Send It Back
I would apply this in situations where you are obviously a courtesy bid or when the RFP is fundamentally flawed and you cannot get the buyer to engage.
“Thank-you for including us in this process. We have reviewed your project request and submitted our questions. Unfortunately, the clarifications do not fit into the RFP specifications.
“We respectfully decline to submit a budget for the project as written, but we have taken great pains and expense to recast your RFP in a way that we feel reflects your intentions, uses viable solutions, and defines attainable outcomes. We would be happy to discuss the process for refining this RFP to better reflect your needs and that we would be happy to propose on.”
Send a Video from the Team
If you are trying to sell a creative solution, send some creative questions, ideas, or samples. No need to be fancy, just grab a phone and go around the table sharing ideas. This is a great alternative if the client wouldn’t make time for a capabilities pitch. Don’t send a canned presentation, record the one you would have given this customer as if they were in the room.
If they don’t watch the video to the end, don’t send the proposal. Send a polite thank-you note instead.
Submit a Future Proposal
If the client is just not engaged, but the potential opportunity is a long-term deal – send a proposal for your third project together. Imagine that you won the original project, the client loved your work, and your credibility is at an all time high. The customer just asked – what else you got?
In that proposal, describe the benefits of the previous two years relationship: More audience engagement, better results, increased brand value, etc…
Your goal is to make them regret not hiring you before they hired you.
Create a Web Page for your Proposal
Design an interactive page that shares thumbnails, napkin drawings, sample solutions, test videos, elemental budgets (an idea with a price associated with it), and any other ideas you are kicking around. This is a visual feast, not a googledoc!
Include a comment section so the client can share ideas, thoughts, or suggestions. Update it often during the process and notify the client. Any feedback or interaction is a good sign, but look for sustained engagement before proceeding with the proposal, which you would share from this page.
Submit Your Customer Experience
It may seem presumptive, but this is another way of helping the customer see themselves doing business with you. This goes beyond filling out a credit application and introducing a Project Manager. Describe the project steps with dates, meetings, milestones, and deadlines.
Include practical steps such as change-order reviews, design reviews, stage two options, stage three options, and budget updates. Provide samples from other projects of design thumbnails or renderings, budget samples, script copy, or any non-proprietary content that will illustrate the process.
This could also be a web page or video experience.
If your customer experience isn’t well-defined or complete, then don’t take this risk. However, if you really have an awesome process this is an excellent way to introduce it.
Send a Pre-emptive Decline
“We have prepared your proposal. I think this is some of our best work and I wish I could share our ideas with you. Unfortunately your RFP process does not provide a suitable platform to present, therefore we regretfully decline to submit.
“While my team is thoroughly disappointed, we are grateful for the opportunity to develop these ideas. Recently we authored a white paper on how to get the most out of the RFP process. We humbly submit these suggestions for future projects.” – Kindest Regards, CEO
A variation on this is to decline the current project and ask for more mutual discovery before the next opportunity. It’s better than submitting a proposal that isn’t going to be considered beyond what you put on paper.
What I witness every week is salespeople and managers unwilling to ask the important questions while they try to fit all due diligence into one meeting or phone call. “I don’t want to waste the customer’s time.” I get it, but what about our time, money, and risk? You want your “team” to spill their best ideas, renderings, designs, detailed pricing, and more for a low-odds chance to “Get to the next round?”
Internal dialogue: “They are just going to share our proposal with their preferred vendor and have them use our ideas.”
You don’t need to go all in on every opportunity, but when the odds are in your favor – don’t back down.
I admit that I sometimes make owners, sales managers, and salesmen uncomfortable. My approach is fundamentally practical: I know how expensive it is for your company to write accurate proposals. I also know how afraid you and your sales team are of alienating the customer.
There are only two answers to the question, “Can I have your business?” I don’t like those odds.