Monday, February 16, 2009

Keys to effective business proposals: #4

Answer the questions that were asked

This habit is absolutely crucial when responding to a formal RFP, but is good advice for unsolicited proposals that are the result of a sales person’s conversation with the prospect as well. When responding to an RFP in particular, though, be sure that your proposal:
  1. Responds directly to every question being asked, and every concern being raised; and
  2. Is formatted exactly as requested.
Failure to comply with these two rules is probably the number two reason why proposals get rejected early in the evaluation process.

So: even if you think your prospect is asking the wrong questions, and even if the RFP response format makes a hash of your attempt to put together a response that builds a case, start by putting together a proposal that conforms to the RFP exactly. Better yet, include a table (called a “compliance matrix”) that lists every requested item and where you’ve responded to it. Comply and make the reviewer's job easy.

Then get creative.

If their entire premise is mistaken, submit an alternate response that responds to the “right” questions, and show how this alternative provides even more benefit to the prospect’s company while still addressing their stated problems and concerns. Naturally, be polite and courteous.

If their required format doesn’t allow you to logically present your abilities, then build your business case in the executive summary and/or cover letter instead of the main body. In the response itself, add transition paragraphs that tie things together in the way you want them tied together.

Winning proposals are prospect-centric, and show this by doing things the prospect’s way. At least at first.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Keys to effective business proposals: #3

Offer a customized solution

No matter how off-the-shelf your product or service may be, write every paragraph of the proposal as if your product or service was developed specifically for the prospect’s current problem/opportunity.

Practicing this habit means resisting the tendency to (a) realize that your standard offering will meet the client’s needs and then some, and then (b) going down your product brochure describing every terrific feature of your product or service in turn. Your prospect will realize that you are throwing the kitchen sink (however stunning) at them, and return the favor by throwing your proposal into the same stack as the ones that break Key #1 (Show you are listening).

To customize your solution, develop the habit of starting with the prospect’s detailed list of requirements. Then, as you go down their list, describe which feature of your product or service meets that requirement or solves that problem (and how). When you get to the end of their list, stop. End of story.

What about all the wonderful features of your product or service that were left over? You can include them as well, but before you do, I recommend that you:
  1. Be sure that they address an unstated but reasonably- inferable prospect concern or problem (“Note: If you are experiencing ….., then our system….”) as opposed to a “nice to have”;
  2. Are clear in presenting them as an added but valuable benefit of selecting your solution, not a substitute for some requirement you couldn’t meet; and
  3. Describe them in a section visually separate from the main body of proposal text, like a sidebar or text box.
No matter what your product or services looks like from your side of the fence, describe it the way you want your prospect to see it. And what they want is the “baby bear” solution – not too much, not too little. Just right.

Winning proposals are prospect-centric, and show this by offering customized solutions to prospect problems.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Keys to effective business proposals: #2

Address the big picture

Effective proposals go beyond your solution to the prospect’s immediate problem and demonstrate that your solution also benefits the prospect in a strategic context. You show this by explicitly identifying what broader opportunities the prospect will enjoy by solving the problem at hand. This discussion belongs in both the cover letter and the executive summary.

For example, if the prospect's stated objective is to reduce costs in their product delivery system, show them that your solution will not only reduce delivery costs, but the resulting efficiencies will also work to improve customer loyalty, add to their competitive advantage, and keep them current with industry best practices. These may be obvious inferences, but state them anyway so that they know that you know. And if you can, back your strategic assertions with your own or third-party experience.

Knowledge of your prospect's big-picture context can come from the prospect company itself, from your own experience in the field, from research that you conduct, or preferably from all three:

1. From the prospect. If you have a RFP, the better-written ones will supply some of the strategic context explicitly, or somewhat indirectly by describing long- and short-term goals. If you have any questions, have a strategically minded representative from your team ask the prospect’s project team about the overall context.

2. From your own experience. No matter how comprehensive the prospect’s information is, brainstorm with your internal experts in the prospect’s field. If you can come up with opportunities they haven’t even thought of, you’ll position yourself as a valuable partner rather than just a vendor.

3. From research. Even if the first two steps are successful, I recommend conducting a little outside research into the prospect company and its industry. You might get valuable insights into the current competitive situation, emerging market trends, and, if nothing else, improve your ability to talk their talk.

Winning proposals are prospect-centric, and show this by focusing intelligently on their opportunities as well as their problems.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Keys to effective business proposals: #1

Show you are listening

The number one reason given by reviewers for rejecting proposals early in the review process is that they don’t directly respond to the RFP (if there was one), or don’t specifically address a pressing problem their company needs to resolve.

Effective proposals start by reflecting the prospect’s concerns and problems back to them in convincing detail. This assures them that your proposal is actually relevant to their company, and not just another marketing piece. Proposals that are, by contrast, simply compilations of product descriptions and features without specifically tying them to the prospect’s desired outcomes generally don’t make it out of the first round.

For example, suppose you have a marketing materials software system that allows purchasers to manage all their marketing materials and campaigns through a nifty web portal. You can submit a proposal containing splendidly detailed specifications for your truly wonderful system, and chances are the prospect will say “so what” and toss it. Suppose instead you start off your proposal describing your prospect company’s current marketing programs and the specific headaches your prospect is (probably) having managing them, and then, headache-by-headache, show how your system can relieve those headaches. Now you’re talking the prospect’s language, and she or he will read on.

Hint: if the word “boilerplate” appears anywhere in your proposal procedures, you are probably experiencing more than your fair share of early exits from the evaluation process for this reason. Worst offender? The boilerplate cover letter.

Winning proposals are prospect-centric, and start by showing that you are listening to them.