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? Not every proposal is a make or break moment, but I might be wrong about that. If you are trying to grow or increase your margins, then arguably every opportunity matters. 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 the reality is that sometimes the opportunity gets wiggly and a proposal seems like the only way to settle things down.
A proposal should be your last resort for securing an agreement.
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. Here are five things you can do right now to reduce your risk of failure (choose the best one for each situation or come up with your own and share them with the rest of us):
1. 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 spare 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?”
2. 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.
3. 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?”
4. 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. 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.
5. 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.”
Ask yourself, how would the foremost expert in our field respond?
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?
I admit that I sometimes make owners, sales managers, and salesmen uncomfortable. Many people believe that any submitted proposal is part of building up momentum for the next time. I agree, but not on the trajectory of your efforts. 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 “Can I have your business?” I don’t like those odds.