Excerpts for Persuasive Business Proposals : Writing to Win More Customers, Clients, and Contracts


PERSUASIVE BUSINESS PROPOSALS

Writing to Win More Customers, Clients, and Contracts
By TOM SANT

AMACOM

Copyright © 2012 Tom Sant
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8144-1785-0

Contents

Preface....................................................................................vii
1: A Good Proposal Is Hard to Find ... But It's Worth Looking..............................3
2: Recognizing Reality.....................................................................11
3: Rushing to the Exits....................................................................16
4: Understanding Persuasion................................................................23
5: Winning by a NOSE: The Structure of Persuasion..........................................25
6: Seven Magic Questions: How To Develop a Client-Centered Message.........................39
7: Why the Inuit Hunt Whales and Other Secrets of Customer Behavior........................57
8: The Cicero Principle: How to Avoid Talking to Yourself in Print.........................75
9: Fluff, Guff, Geek, and Weasel: The Art of Saying What You Mean..........................93
10: Weaving Your Web: How to Pull It All Together Right from the Start.....................113
11: Letter Proposals.......................................................................127
12: The Structure and Key Elements of Formal Proposals.....................................141
13: Writing the Business Case..............................................................146
14: Recommending and Substantiating Your Solution..........................................158
15: Persuasive Answers to RFP Questions....................................................167
16: Presenting Evidence and Proving Your Points............................................175
17: Gathering and Tailoring Reusable Content...............................................181
18: Deal or No Deal?: Qualifying the Opportunity...........................................185
19: An Overview of the Proposal Development Process........................................195
20: The Pursuit of Perfection: Editing Your Proposal.......................................208
21: The Packaging Is Part of the Product...................................................224
22: Presenting Your Proposal...............................................................230
23: Tracking Your Success..................................................................242
24: Creating a Proposal Center of Excellence...............................................254
25: Special Challenges.....................................................................266
Index......................................................................................276


Chapter One

A Good Proposal Is Hard to Find ... But It's Worth Looking

I ONCE POSED WHAT I THOUGHT WAS A RHETORICAL question to a group of sales and marketing people at a large engineering firm: "What's a good proposal?" From the back of the room came an answer: "One that's done!"

He was kidding, of course. Most of us recognize that just because a proposal is finished doesn't mean it's any good. Or that it will do the job.

So ... what is a good proposal?

That seems like an easy question, but many businesspeople find it difficult to answer.

For one thing, they tend to confuse proposals with other kinds of documents or they want the proposal to do double duty. They want it to function simultaneously as a contract, a work order, or a bill of materials. Or they fail to understand the proposal's purpose. They think it's about giving the customer a ton of information. Or they lose sight of their audience and start writing to themselves. They forget that the jargon and acronyms and assumptions that they use around the office with their colleagues are incomprehensible to a prospect. Finally, some salespeople, even sales managers, treat the proposal as a checkbox item on the overall sales process diagram. Did demo? Check! Submitted proposal? Check!

Unfortunately, unless you have a clear understanding of what a good proposal is, the document you deliver may end up doing more harm than good. Although a great proposal by itself seldom wins a deal, a bad proposal can definitely lose one. Treating the proposal as a nuisance or a pro forma submission that doesn't really matter can raise doubts in the customer's mind about your commitment and competence. It can throw obstacles in your path and prolong the sales cycle.

So before we define what a proposal is, let's make sure we know what it's not:

It's not a price quote. If all you tell the decision maker is the amount to be paid for what you've offered, you've reduced what you're selling to the level of a commodity. You've said, in effect, "All products or services of this type are basically the same. We have nothing unique to offer. Choose based on cost." Unless you are always the lowest-priced vendor, that's not a strong position to take. Even if you are the lowest-priced vendor, it's still not a strong position, since four out of five large-scale deals go to a vendor other than the one offering the lowest price.

It's not a bill of materials, project plan, or scope of work. In technical and engineering environments, people sometimes take the attitude that if they just explain all the details of the proposed solution very clearly and accurately, the customer will buy. Actually, giving the customer a detailed bill of materials or project plan may have exactly the opposite effect. You've just given them a shopping list so detailed they may decide to do the job without your help. Ouch!

It's not your company history, either. Oddly enough, a sizable number of the proposals we see—more than 30 percent! —start with a company history. There seldom is a good reason to do this. Most company histories are not very interesting.

(However, I do remember one that was pretty intriguing. A regional telephone company used the same executive summary in every proposal, no matter what they were selling, and the opening line of that executive summary was a showstopper: "Founded in 1874, two full years before Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, we have a long history of service to the community." I don't know about you, but every time I saw that sentence, I immediately started wondering what they were doing for those two years. Were they sitting around in an office above the post office, waiting for Alexander to write? "Hey, guys, it works! Start selling!")

Several years ago I was contacted by a top-level executive at a major manufacturer of industrial systems. He said, "Some of our engineers attended a course you gave on proposal writing and said you have some unusual ideas. Would you like to come in and talk?"

His company produced proposals worth millions and millions of dollars every quarter, competing to win business from corporations worldwide in markets such as aerospace, automotive, and heavy equipment manufacturing, among others. It was justifiably famous as a technology leader, but its win ratio had been declining rapidly. By the time the company contacted me, it was winning fewer than one in ten of the deals it went after. Some members of management complained that they were the victims of cheap, knockoff products produced in countries where labor costs were significantly lower. Others, however, thought they needed to sell the total value of the company's products and services more effectively. Part of that job would be done by their proposals. And that was where I was supposed to help.

My concern was that the company seemed to have real difficulty in bringing about meaningful change. In spite of the red ink splashing over the company's books, senior management continued to cling tightly to traditional ways of doing business. That's not unusual, of course, and I don't want to minimize how difficult it is to change standard practice. "We've always done it this way" is often offered up as the ultimate argument as to why changes are not necessary. But in the business world, as in the natural world, the inability to adapt to cope with an evolving environment is a Darwinian recipe for extinction.

After talking with my contact, the vice president of sales and marketing, I agreed to lead a two-week task force on proposals. Specifically, I was to help them define a new process that would cut the time it took to produce a proposal from weeks down to days. Second, I was to help them figure out a way to make their proposals more persuasive so their anemic win ratio would go up.

The following week I entered a conference room to meet for the first time with a half-dozen handpicked engineers, project managers, account managers, and other professionals. The vice president of engineering, the executive who owned the proposal process, introduced me by saying, "This is Tom Sant, who's going to show us where to put the fancy words and pretty pictures."

Hmmm, I thought. I think I see where part of the problem comes from.

"Actually, I'm not very interested in fancy words or pretty pictures," I said. "I'm interested in showing customers that what you're offering is what they ought to buy. So let's get started by agreeing on some basic terminology. First of all, from your perspective, how would you define a proposal?"

That seemed like a harmless enough question at the time. But to my surprise we spent a long time wrestling with it. What became increasingly clear was that these people—all of whom had written numerous proposals—couldn't define one.

Eventually, we agreed that a proposal is a sales document. If it doesn't lead to an agreement to do work together, the proposal has failed. The proposal's job is to move the sales process toward closure.

That's it. It's not complicated.

A good proposal helps you win. It helps your company make money by convincing people to choose you to provide the products and services they need. The proposal positions what you have as a solution to a business problem, and helps you justify your price, even if it's slightly higher than your competitor, by showing that you will provide superior value.

To do the proposal-writing job well, you need to make sure that your proposal is persuasive, accurate, and complete. Unfortunately, lots of proposal writers invert the order of those qualities, producing proposals that are bloated with detail and scarcely persuasive at all.

The Value of Your Proposals to Your Clients

Most of us have had the experience of presenting to a client and hearing the decision maker say, "Wow, that sounds great! It looks like it's exactly what we need."

(At this point our hearts start soaring.)

"Why don't you put together a proposal for us and we'll take a look?"

(That sound you hear is our dashed hopes crashing to the floor.)

Why do customers ask for a proposal when the recommendations we have made in person so obviously make sense? Because the proposal has value for them. A proposal helps the decision maker:

* Compare vendors, offers, or prices in order to make an informed decision

* Clarify complex information

* Make the buying process more "objective"

* Slow down the sales process

* Solicit creative ideas, become educated, or get free consulting

Buying products or services can be tough, especially when the decision maker must deal with an array of options, lots of conflicting claims, and little practical knowledge of the area under consideration. "Getting it in writing" is the traditional way to deal with this problem.

Comparing vendors, offers, or prices. Are you the only vendor this prospect is talking to? It's also possible you are being asked for a proposal so that your recommendations, pricing, and evidence can be compared to a competitor's.

Clarifying complex information. Do you sell something so complex that it would take you more than ten minutes to explain it to your mother? If so, it's possible some of your prospects don't understand it, either. A proposal gives the nontechnical customer a chance to read, analyze, ponder, get help, and eventually understand.

Adding objectivity to the buying process. It seems odd, but some people don't want to buy from people they like. They're afraid that if they really like the salesperson, they will somehow make a bad decision based on rapport or friendship.

As a result, these individuals often issue detailed RFPs (an RFP is a request for a proposal) and establish elaborate scoring tables. They weight various parts of the proposal, and then assign points to each of your answers. To add a further element of "objectivity," they may divide the price you are quoting by the number of points you receive to determine which vendor has the best dollar/point ratio. It can get pretty complicated.

You are also likely to see this approach when a company hires a consultant to prepare the request for proposal and evaluate all the submissions. Consultants often use point systems to score and eliminate candidates. These complicated scoring systems reassure the client that the consultant's recommendations are made without prejudice. (They also suggest how wise the client was to hire an expert to handle such a difficult process.)

Slowing down the sales process. Sales is a little bit like dating. The very word "proposal" applies to the final stages of both activities. In the early stages of both, the process can take on a momentum of its own. We get excited, we become enchanted with new possibilities, and we rush forward.

Asking for a written proposal slows down the sales process. The buyer figures that it will take several days, maybe even a couple of weeks, for the salesperson to put together a proposal, which gives the buyer time to think about this decision calmly, to weigh the options, to determine whether this opportunity will look as good the morning after as it does right now.

Soliciting creative ideas, becoming educated, or getting free consulting. One way busy decision makers can establish the base of information they need is to ask for proposals. By asking a potential vendor for a proposal, they find out what's available. They learn whether this vendor is somebody they want to work with. A quality proposal suggests that the vendor is likely to do a quality job.

What about companies who issue RFPs or who request proposals with no intention of buying anything? They may be looking for free consulting, and to the extent you answer all of their questions, you may be giving away the solution or providing a template that the company can use to solicit bids from your competitors. Or the company may solicit bids in an effort to "beat up" the existing vendor or in hopes that someone will submit a crazy, lowball price that it can use to extract concessions from the incumbent. Does this happen? Yes. Is it ethical? No. This doesn't happen frequently, but it happens often enough that you should be careful. Sometimes people really don't know any better. They may not realize that the proposal you submit is a valuable piece of intellectual property. On the other hand, some of the people who pull these stunts will do anything they can get away with. (In Chapter 12, we'll discuss how you can protect your proprietary interests.)

The important point is that you should always do some prudent qualifying before committing yourself to the time and effort of writing a quality proposal. There is no use submitting your offer to someone who has no budget, no authority, or no real interest in working with you. And there is even less point in submitting to someone who may take your material and share it with your competitors.

The Value of Your Proposals to You

Look at your proposals broadly as part of your overall sales and marketing activities, rather than narrowly as the formal means of responding to a specific request. Seen that way, a proposal can help you build your business in ways that extend far beyond winning the immediate opportunity to which you are responding.

The proposal as a sales tool. The proposal's most important job is to help you sell something, such as specific applications, products, projects, or services. (In the nonprofit realm, it should help you obtain funding in support of your mission and objectives.) To go a little further, though, a high-quality, carefully constructed proposal can help you:

* Sell on value instead of price

Use your proposal to move the decision maker's focus away from price and toward such measures of value as lower total cost of ownership, higher reliability, superior customer support, documented technical superiority, or some other message that separates you from your competitors.

* Compete successfully without having personal contact with every member of the decision team

In larger opportunities you are likely to find that a team makes the buying decision. You may never have the opportunity to meet every member of the team in person. A good proposal can speak to each member of the team on your behalf, helping make your case.

* Demonstrate your competence and professionalism

It's probably not fair and it's definitely not logical, but almost everybody does it: we judge a vendor's ability to deliver goods or services from the quality of the proposal they submit. Our conscious, rational mind tells us that spelling and grammar have nothing to do with the ability to provide help desk support for our PC users, yet we find those misspellings and grammar mistakes raising doubt and uncertainty in our mind.

* Offer a bundled solution

The customer may ask you for a proposal for basic bookkeeping services. In your proposal, though, you can add a brief description of your tax preparation services, too, as part of a total solution. That may differentiate you from other bookkeepers who submit a proposal, or it may just make the customer aware that you also do taxes. Both of those are good things.

* Sell the "smarter" buyer

Smart buyers want to gain as much as possible while spending as little as possible. If you don't show them how much they gain by choosing your recommendations, they will inevitably focus on the other half of the equation: spending very little. A good proposal always contains a compelling value proposition to show the smarter buyer why you are the right choice.

* Sell a complex, technical product to nontechnical buyers

Speaking the buyer's language is an important part of winning that person's trust. A flexible proposal process can help you communicate effectively even if the customer lacks in-depth knowledge of what you're offering.

The proposal as a marketing tool. Try this exercise. Take a clean sheet of paper and list all of the characteristics, traits, or attributes that are typically associated with your company. List them all, positive and negative. Be honest, but be fair. (I find that people are often extremely hard on themselves and their companies, demanding a level of perfection that their own customers don't expect. Try to get out of your head and see things the way a customer or prospect probably does.)

(Continues...)



Excerpted from PERSUASIVE BUSINESS PROPOSALS by TOM SANT Copyright © 2012 by Tom Sant. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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