By Andrew Sobel and Olivier Jacob
You've probably been in this situation before. A potential client calls you, interviews you for 20 or 30 minutes on the phone, then asks you to submit a proposal. Feeling that they are too inexperienced to hire you, you try to set up a meeting with their boss. You are told, "He asked me to take care of it. I work closely with him and can share his views with you. You don't need to talk to him. In your gut, you know that's a long shot. But it's tempting, who knows, maybe it will lead to something.
More likely, this will not be the case.
Every year, millions of hours are spent in advance writing proposals that have little chance of being accepted. Part of the problem is that clients ask for proposals all the time, often after a single, brief phone conversation. We've all heard this before, "Just give me a proposal with all your cost information."
Often, the person making the request can't really say "yes" - they are a feasibility buyer. Sometimes the customer is just looking for information. Sometimes they're just trying to find out more about the problem before deciding what the company should do. Sometimes they just want to do a price check to avoid getting screwed.
Resist the temptation. Here's why: proposals don't win new customers. What is a conversation (or series of conversations) in which the client begins to trust you and believe that you can add substantial value and help them solve a problem or seize an important opportunity. In reality, the proposal simply documents an understanding of how you will work together.
There are eight prerequisites that must be met (eight steps that must be covered) before you invest time in writing and submitting a proposal. If most or all of these are not met, your chances of winning the sale will be significantly reduced. I have expressed these prerequisites in the negative, as a series of reasons why you should not submit a proposal.
8 reasons not to write a proposal
1. This is not the right client for you.
Is this an appropriate client, given your strategy?
For example, is it big enough, in the right sector, in the right geographic area, etc.? Can you solve their problem? Is the executive you will be working with an effective and respected person in his or her organization? Will this client enhance or damage your reputation?
2. There is no clearly defined problem, i.e., a problem or opportunity that the client wishes to address.
You need to have a thorough and mutual understanding of the issue(s) you are being asked to address. This can happen in one conversation, but it is more likely that you will need two or even three discussions. If you think you know what the problem is after a 20-minute conversation, chances are you are leaving a lot on the table by underestimating the real problem. The customer also needs to have a sense of urgency around the problem, otherwise they may do nothing and save their money.
3. The client's objectives are not defined.
First, you need to understand the client's overall objectives. Second, you and the client must agree on the specific objectives of the project or program, i.e., the desired outcomes.
4. You and the client have not agreed on the payoff from solving the problem, the value and impact your work will bring.
It is essential to learn what is most important to the customer. In other words, what particular value are they looking for?
For example: How quickly should we act? How important is cost? How important is quality? You need to have explored the quantitative and qualitative impact that the client envisions. If the value is not clear, your costs will always be too high!
5. You don't understand the customer's buying process.
Do you know how your prospect is going to make a decision, who will be involved, what the selection criteria are, and what their time frame is? Usually, you need to ask about this. It is entirely appropriate to ask questions such as:
- "Can you describe to me your decision-making process and timeline?"
- "What are the key stakeholders that need to be considered before we can move forward?"
- "Who will make the final decision about selecting a company to work with?"
6. You have not met or had a relationship with the economic buyer or "executive sponsor".
You must have spoken or met with the person who is the overall executive sponsor of the initiative and who will make the final decision to hire you or someone else. Often the first person to call you is not the economic buyer but rather a feasibility buyer. He or she is the one who selects the service providers, being able to say "No" but not "Yes." If you haven't met the executive sponsor, you're going in blind because, among other things, you don't know what their specific goals and expectations are.
7. You do not agree with the broad outlines of the proposal.
You should have discussed the essential elements of your proposal with the client and reached a "conceptual agreement" about it before submitting it. You might say, "Before I send you this proposal, I'd like to meet with you to explain our basic approach. That way I can get your feedback and comments before we finalize it." If you don't have this high-level agreement, you risk submitting a proposal that doesn't fit and/or will be chosen by the client.
8. You have not scheduled a follow-up discussion to review the proposal and the client's reaction to it.
You must have an agreement to discuss the proposal with the client after you submit it. You don't want to spend a lot of time writing a proposal, only to send it off without knowing what will happen to it. Schedule a phone call or face-to-face meeting so the client can read the proposal and give you feedback directly.
These are all reasons NOT to write and submit a proposal. If these key elements are not in place, you are likely to waste your time.
About the authors
Andrew Sobel is the leading authority on the strategies and skills needed to develop clients for life. He is the world's most published author on the subject, having written eight best-selling books on customer relationships, including the international bestsellers Customers for Life and Power Matters. More than 100 leading firms, such as PwC, Citibank, UBS, Booz Allen Hamilton, Cognizant, Deloitte and many others have used his book Clients for Life to develop trusted advisor skills and increase their clients' revenues.
Olivier Jacob has decades of expertise as a coach, trainer, and conference facilitator on the topics of management and sales. Author of the book "Make your business grow" and passionate about personal effectiveness, strategy, sales, commitment and new technologies, he created Inéa Conseil in 2008 to help companies sell more and better, and managers better mobilize their employees.