Earlier this month I spent some time with a team of senior Sales Executives and their Sales Managers.  The purpose of the session was this:  they had been losing big ‘new business’ pitches, so we decided to review the business development process from brief to pitch.  To put it into perspective, these guys are all working on business that can generate revenues of up to $1 million from a single client.  So, we are talking about intelligent, well-presented, senior men and women who are all pretty capable.

As the discussion progressed, our attention turned to their proposal presentations.  Their documented presentations look great and I told them so.  In fact, we compared their “pitch” documents to some of their competitors and concluded that there wasn’t much between them.  So we agreed that they probably weren’t losing an opportunity because of that part of the process.

Furthermore, given the capability in the market, I told them that it probably wasn’t a lack of ‘technical competence’ on the part of the team either.  As stated above these are all pretty capable people.  Besides, in today’s crowded marketplace, if you are getting invited to pitch, technical competence and capability is probably a given.

So, we are clear on two things.  It’s not technical competence, and it is not the proposal documents.  Given the brand strength of this particular company, we concluded that it is not a company or brand issue either.
I then asked the following question:

“Tell me about a typical new business process, from when you are first invited to pitch until you present your proposal”.

For the first time there was uncertainty in the room and the answers were less consistent.  And here we started to discover where they were going wrong.

Ever since I went to my first ever sales training event at Xerox all those years ago, I have been taught that a written proposal is only ever designed to do one of two things:

  1. To open a door that you can’t get through; OR
  2. To confirm a discussion that you have already had.

In the former case, your document will tend to be quite general, because you don’t understand a client’s needs yet, but you do know that they have a need for what you are selling.  In the latter situation, you will have already been through a series of discussions and written communications as you seek to understand what the client is trying to achieve, and how your particular offer may help them to do so.  As a result your submission is more informed, more specific and likely to be more accurately targeted.

It became clear that our team were falling somewhere in between.  Critically, they were failing to do the work up front in order to ensure that they understood the client, and the client understood them.  Unfortunately, this team of smart people had fallen into the pattern of underestimating the importance of the relationship with the client.

So let’s think about the types of discussions and processes you might go through.  Whether you are selling building products or computers, financial services or stationery, this process can apply to you.  Note, I have tried to keep the commentary reasonably generic so as it can be applied to most sales situations, and I am assuming that the process is starting immediately after you are invited to pitch.

  1. You call the client and ask for a meeting.  “Thank you for the opportunity to provide you with a proposal for XYZ.  I would like to arrange a time to meet with you and your team and go through your specifications and make sure we are clear on how our solution is going to help you”.
  2. You have the meeting.  This is your time to build, re-build or confirm the relationship you have with the key decision maker.  Some of the questions you need the client to answer during this meeting include:
    1. ‘What are the key things you are trying to achieve as a result of this appointment?’
    2. ‘What are the difficulties and issues that you believe will arise as a result of the process we are about to go through?’
    3. ‘What are your expectations in terms of the outcome?’
    4. ‘What does a successful appointment look like?’
    5. ‘What are the benefits to your organisation that occur as a result of this process being successful?’
    6. ‘Who, other than yourself, will be involved in making the decision?’  AND ‘is it possible to meet with the other decision makers as well?’
    7. ‘Once you have received the proposal you have requested, what is the decision process from there on?’  For example, ‘will you be making your decision solely from the written proposals, or will you be moving to a shortlist and asking for face-to-face presentations’?

You see, all the information you are gathering here is helping you to build the type of presentation that will resonate with your target client.  You are getting yourself into a position that will enable your written words to speak in the language of the client, and thus addressing their problems as they see them!

Of course, this meeting is also your opportunity to share your market information and to present yourself as an expert.

  1. Having completed the meeting, and taken pages of notes in the process, you are now in a position to assess the needs and expectations of the client, as well as any issues related to the project that have been identified.  Go through your notes, highlight the pieces that are relevant and draft your responses.
  2. Before finalising your proposal document, there is another step to take.  You call the customer, either for another face-to-face meeting, or by telephone.  The purpose of this step is to confirm your understanding of their needs and expectations, and to start to get them working with you as you develop the solution.  This is where you get to say things like:
    1. ‘Now, when we met you said that you were concerned about ..…  Have I got that right?’
    2. ‘If we are able to solve that issue, would that satisfy you to the point that you would be able to appoint us to the project?’
    3. ‘In that case, our thoughts on this are that we would do …..  Do you think that approach would deliver the outcome you are looking for?’
    4. If YES – ‘That’s great, we will make sure we document that clearly in our presentation.’
    5. If NO – ‘OK, I understand.  How do you think we could improve that approach?’  (Seek more information and repeat the process.)

What you are doing here is making them part of the solution.You are testing your thoughts with them in advance of having to commit anything to writing.You are also taking out the surprises by speaking about them up front.And of course, you have created another conversation to put in your relationship bank in advance of presenting your proposal.

  1. It is now time to finalise your proposal.  Remember, it is now a document that is confirming the conversations you have had, rather than “a shot in the dark”.  You are informed and you know what the client is expecting, and you are now delivering to that.
  2. If you are required to send in your written proposal, make sure you send a brief email note, or leave a voice message advising the key person:
    1. that the presentation has been sent in on time;
    2. the details are consistent with your conversations;
    3. if they have any questions as they go through the information, they should feel free to give you a call.
  3. Providing the client has given you an indication of timing of the process, the next act is to give them a call a couple of days later to discuss the proposal.  Some questions may go like this:
    1. ‘Did you get a chance to review our proposal?’
    2. ‘Was it what you expected?’
    3. ‘Are there any areas where you were left uncertain about our approach?’
    4. ‘Are you comfortable that our proposal will meet your expectations?’

Remember, by now your client has read the other proposals that have been delivered by your competitors.  This conversation will give you a chance to respond to anything that has come up that you didn’t see as a result of your “pre-proposal discussions”.  It also allows you to overcome any issues that the customer has highlighted from your presentation in advance of them making the decision.

The most important fact about the process above is that it gets you building upon your relationship with the client throughout the pitch process.  People are much less likely to say “no” to people they know and like.  The visits, calls and communications through a process such as this go into your relationship bank, and you get to draw on that account in the future.

Let’s go back to my team of hot-shot salespeople.  This is the stuff that they weren’t doing.  They had become comfortable, working in their niche for a long time and “doing ok”.  But as the market became more competitive their approach of simply responding to a “request for proposal” was no longer sufficient for them to stand out from the crowd.  Their relationships with the client were not good enough.

I’ll let you know how they get on.

Happy selling.  Have a great week.

© Bruce Cotterill