Thursday, February 26, 2009

Proposals: How David Slays Goliath

The most amazing proposal win I've been associated with came during my time as corporate proposal manager for a national environmental company. We started at a terrible disadvantage with the client determining that our qualifications didn't even merit receiving the RFP! But since it was an existing client, we were able to pull some strings to get a chance to compete. Then applying some of the strategies I talked about in my previous post, we came from nowhere to be selected from an impressive field.

The opportunity was a multiyear, $30 million operations and maintenance contract for 40 groundwater remediation systems across the country. The RFP had been sent to the who's who among O&M companies. By contrast, we didn't even have a distinct O&M practice, although we had performed these services at several sites as part of our remediation business. Setting up a separate business unit, which we proposed to do in our proposal, would be necessary to offer competitive overhead and billing rates.

This was the backdrop as the proposal team gathered on a Sunday afternoon to outline our strategy. We couldn't win this, we concluded, unless our proposal was radically different from the other firms. Following are some things we did to climb out of the hole we started in:

With long odds we took more chances. Simply following the RFP wouldn't be good enough. We needed to change the game. So we varied from the scope presented in the RFP. We suggested that the best strategy was moving these sites to regulatory closure as quickly as possible. They didn't need just an O&M company, we proposed; they needed a firm that could help them reduce their liabilities and cut their costs while maintaining these sites in the interim. That bold departure from the RFP catapulted our firm from the back of the pack to the leading position.

We leveraged our client knowledge to show how we could build an effective working relationship. While surveys indicate that clients place high value on "the experience" of working with service providers, few firms ever address this crucial aspect in their proposals. We did. Since we knew their preferences, their peculiarities, their systems, their experiences with us and other firms, we were able to describe how our working relationship would minimize their time and trouble. The other firms apparently said little about the relationship with the client.

We delivered the most concise, clear, and compelling proposal. The client told us they were immediately intrigued when they opened the box containing copies of our proposal. It was bound in half-inch binders; everyone else's arrived in one- to two-inch binders (after all, it was a $30 million proposal). They opened our proposal to find 30 amply illustrated, skimmable, hard-hitting pages that described a starkly different approach to these sites than what they had asked for. The other firms mostly filled their proposals with information about their qualifications (which, by the way, were way better than ours!). But we edged them out by focusing on the client.

We planted doubt about our competition. Our initial proposal accomplished what we hoped; it changed the game. The next round, which included both site-specific and cost proposals, pitted us against one other finalist. They were short-listed in large part because their parent company was another consultant. Our scope redefinition had eliminated the pure O&M firms. With our competition now clear, we planted several not-so-subtle-but-discreet questions about the other firm in our second proposal. For example, we noted that we had an integrated consulting/operations team without the inherent conflict of interest our competitor would seem to have (while their consulting firm would be pressing for closure, their O&M subsidiary would be motivated to prolong operations). As we proceeded to final interviews, the client sent us the questions that each finalist needed to be prepared to answer. Interestingly, most of the other firm's questions came right out of our proposal!

Normally I don't advocate writing proposals against such long odds. But there were a number of reasons why we believed this was worth a shot. In this poor economy, your firm might find itself similarly in competition for work where you are at a clear disadvantage. Certainly this is no time to play it safe. Hopefully this story will inspire you to consider what bold steps your firm might take to tilt the playing field to your advantage. The strategies will vary, but the basic principles remain the same: Focus on the client and present your message in clear, compelling fashion.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Proposals: Two Chances to Shine

The objective, don't forget, is to be different. That's stating the obvious, of course. But in reviewing hundreds of proposals over the years, I've noted a remarkable sameness about them. It's as if fitting in was the goal rather than standing out.

If you consider the latter a priority, let me suggest two things you can do to distinguish your proposal from almost everyone else's: (1) make your proposal prominently client focused and (2) make it skimmable. There are obviously many facets of writing a successful proposal, but if you do these two well, your proposal will grab the client's attention.

Client Focus

The client, not your firm, should be the centerpiece of your proposal. That means that you lead with an assessment of the client's needs and issues followed by your proposed solution, execution plan, and expected outcomes. Your qualifications then serve primarily to validate your ability to deliver what you have proposed. The client's foremost question is almost always, "What can you do for me?" rather than, "Are you more qualified than the others?"

I realize that RFPs often request a qualifications-laden submittal. But beware of slavish devotion to the letter of the RFP. I've yet to see one that adequately explained the client's needs, concerns, priorities, and goals. I know from talking to clients over the years that the true selection criteria are typically obscured in the solicitation. They ask for qualifications because that seems an objective basis for evaluating firms--after all, that's what our industry has campaigned for, right? The problem is that qualifications rarely distinguish your firm from the rest, and often you're at a disadvantage if qualifications alone are used to select.

The real selection criterion is: Who is best prepared to serve the needs of the client? Obviously the firm that has already built a relationship and who understands the client's issues has the advantage. The strength of your relationship and understanding should be the foremost factor in determining whether you should submit a proposal, not your qualifications. I have often overcome significant disadvantages from a qualifications standpoint by writing the best client-focused proposal. Here are some ideas how to do that:
  • Always put the client-centered content first. Never, ever start your proposal by talking about your firm. It's fairly common for firms to make the "Firm Overview" the first section of their submittal. Don't! But, you protest, the RFP specifically states that Section 1 should address the firm's qualifications. To counter that occasional instruction, I always include an Executive Summary that briefly and convincingly presents the client-centered core themes of my proposal.

  • Don't automatically default to the order in which the RFP lists proposal contents or selection criteria. I know this sounds like heresy to some, but I've had consistent success swimming against the tide of proposal dogma. Unless the RFP explicitly tells me to write the proposal in a certain order, I will go with the structure that best delivers the message I believe the client really wants to hear. Of course, if I've been talking to the client in advance, I know what that message is.

  • Make sure you address the all-important "why" behind what the client is requesting in the RFP. I'm amazed how often firms simply ignore this, even when they have ready access to the client. I want to know the client's motives. Answering the why helps me understand what questions I really need to answer or what problems the client really wants me to address.

  • Share your thought process. Just as you should know the "why" behind the client's RFP, the client wants to understand why you picked the solution and approach you did. Or why you didn't pick another viable option. Clients want to know what you're thinking, even if you're not ready to give a definitive answer or recommendation. This helps position your firm as more than just a design practitioner or service provider, which are increasingly becoming commodities, but as a valued advisor and strategist.

  • Use personal language. If you're seeking to connect with the client through your proposal, you want to avoid the usual stuffy, impersonal tone. Did you know that the word "you" is the most persuasive word in the English language according to several studies? By all means, use it in your proposal. Client-centered content is critical, but don't neglect delivering it in personal terms: "Here is what we will do for you..."

With few exceptions, our proposals are prepared as if we expect clients to read them word for word. They don't, of course. They skim, they skip, they hunt for specific information. Force them to read to find what they're looking for and they may well miss it even if it's there. Skimmability is the key differentiator that no one talks about. That's not to minimize the importance of good content. But you have to make that good content readily accessible, or it could be for naught.

As I noted in my previous post, proposal design in our industry has taken a quantum leap in the last 20 years. At least in terms of appearance. But we haven't advanced the ball nearly as far in terms of functionality. You see, great design isn't just about aesthetics; it's about facilitating the communication process. I'll take a proposal that's an easy read any day over one that just looks stylish. So will the client. Here are some suggestions for making your proposals more skimmable:
  • Present your content at two levels: Skim and read. Think of the modern newspaper. You can spend a few minutes skimming it to get the gist of the news, or spend two hours or more reading the articles in depth. That's how your proposals should be designed. For design ideas, study the publications you find particularly user friendly. USA Today and Consumer Reports are two of my favorites.
  • Highlight all your key messages at the skim level. Put them in bold headings, supported by figures, bullets, simple tables, pictures and captions—using the same design principles that allow you to skim the news in your newspaper. If you want to be really innovative, use headlines rather than the usual topical headers that are typically used in proposals.

  • Use the old journalistic convention of the inverted pyramid. This involves putting your most important information first. I already mentioned ordering the sections of the proposal from most to least important (client- to firm-centered). Within sections or subsections, summarize the essence of that portion of the document in the first paragraph, with subsequent paragraphs ordered from most to least important content.

  • Use custom tabbed dividers to help the client navigate your proposal. Seek to understand how the client handles your proposal during the review. Many don't work their way from front to back. Based on what you learn about the client's review process, create custom tabs that make it easy to find what they're looking for. One Navy reviewer told me that they usually spent less than 30 seconds on the initial screening of submittals. Think about that; if they didn't find what they were looking for you could be out of the running in less than a minute!

  • Make ample use of graphic elements. A general guide that I've used is at least one graphic element (figure, simple table, picture) per page. Obviously, you want to portray your core messages graphically as much as possible. This is a very efficient way to communicate key points.

  • Don't dilute your message with too much text. The vast majority of proposals I've seen suffer from excessive verbosity. That only increases the chances that your core messages will be overlooked. Say what needs to be said to make your point, and nothing more.
Try these strategies out on your next proposal. They're simple in concept, but not necessarily simple to implement. You'll have to work at it, but the results justify the extra effort. Remember, you want to stand out! In my next post, I'll share a real-life example of how putting these ideas into action resulted in a huge win.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Tired Yet of Mediocre Proposals?

Back before Christmas I got caught up in the spirit of the season and sent a catchy postcard to about 15 area firms offering to do a free lunchtime seminar on proposal strategies. I even offered to review one of their proposals in advance so that I could make specific recommendations as part of the session. Would you believe that not one firm took me up on the offer? I would.

I've helped A/E firms with a wide range of issues, but one that I seldom get involved in is proposals. That seems odd since I'm arguably more credentialed in proposal writing (and interview prep) than anything else. I spent years as a corporate proposal manager for a couple of national firms and compiled a win rate of 75%. But I don't think the disinterest is about me. It's a widespread lack of urgency about the need to improve in this area.

There seems to be two primary reasons for this. One is low expectations. Many firms seem to think they're doing about as well as they can. The industry median win rate is reportedly about 40%. Yet I've had firm principals argue that the 20-30% they're winning is "more realistic." If I or someone else has had better success, well, that was in another market or--whatever.

The other reason I often hear goes something like, "We're already doing a pretty good job with our proposals." This despite the 20-30% win rate? Obviously, the two excuses go hand in hand. If the current results are as good as we can reasonably expect, then we must be doing good enough. Circular reasoning, is it not?

A big factor in this overly optimistic assessment is that most principals seem to think their proposals look good. To be sure, the eye appeal of the average proposal has improved dramatically since I first started working on proposals in the 1980s. That's largely because firms have hired marketing professionals who know something about graphic design (not to mention basic grammar). But good looks are overrated. The more important qualities of an effective proposal are (1) strong content that is (2) presented efficiently. In these areas, I've not seen that much improvement over the last 20 years.

Perhaps the economy is eroding away some of the misplaced confidence. Just in the last two weeks, a couple of firms have asked me for help with their proposals. But my point in writing this is not to vent frustration about my lack of proposal consulting opportunities. I do well enough (do I now convict myself?) without working on proposals, which frankly aren't all that fun to work on anyway. My greater concern is that firms are missing out on an important opportunity.

If the standard for proposals in this industry is generally mediocre (and I think it is), then the opportunity exists to do better than your competitors. According to data collected by ZweigWhite, the top firms in overall financial performance average 50-60% win rates. Most proposal consultants boast win rates of 80% or more. Do you see an opportunity?

When RFPs are fewer and wins more crucial, can you afford to remain satisfied with the status quo? Doing better proposals is relatively low-hanging fruit compared to the other business development challenges you face. Doing fewer losing proposals is even lower-hanging fruit. The latter is probably your easiest option for reducing business development costs. Where to start? Well, in my next blog post I'll discuss two traits of effective proposals that are quite rare in our industry.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Don't Have the Personality to Sell?

One of the more persistent myths in our industry is the notion that most technical professionals lack the personality to be effective in sales. No doubt you've heard the joke about the difference between an introverted and extroverted engineer. The introvert looks at his shoes; the extrovert looks at the other person's shoes. The exaggeration is supposed to make you chuckle. But it also serves to reinforce the stereotype that most engineers are inherently socially challenged, thus unfit for the sales role. That's simply not true.

It's a fact that our profession draws more than its share of introverts. Over half of engineers and architects are reportedly introverts, while only one-fourth of the general population is. But being an introvert doesn't disqualify one from being an effective salesperson. Consultant Ford Harding surveyed over 100 rainmakers in professional services (including A/E firms) to discover what it was that made them successful. One thing he didn't find was any correlation between sales success and personality type. He found both extroverts and introverts among the very best sellers.

Other studies of salespeople have reached the same conclusion. The popular idea that successful sellers need to have outgoing, gregarious personalities is a myth. Introverts can be just as successful; in fact, perhaps even more so in our industry. Consider that most of our clients also come from technical backgrounds, with a supposedly similar disposition towards introversion. If there is a connection between personality and sales success, it is this: Introverted salespeople will generally be more effective with introverted customers.

Many A/E firms make the mistake of hiring rainmakers that fit the sales stereotype. Years ago, my employer wanted to hire a seller for our California offices. Although I was the corporate business development manager, I was the last to interview the top candidate. He spent an hour bragging on himself, asked very few questions, and then interrupted me when I tried to answer. I was more than unimpressed; I was irritated. Nevertheless, my colleagues on the management team thought that this was just the kind of aggressive, outgoing personality they lacked and we needed. I got out-voted. The guy lasted six months before he was fired.

Here's a test: Imagine you are the client. What kind of impression would you have? Positive or perturbed? Chances are most of your clients will be affected the same way, especially if they come from a technical background. Don't fall for the myth of the sales stereotype. The person who can best connect with the client may well be--you. If you or your colleagues are reluctant sellers, the problem isn't personality, but desire.

In my last post I explored why so many technical professionals are uncomfortable with the sales role. I believe it's largely because of all the baggage associated with the sales profession. To overcome those negative impressions of selling, I suggest shifting the focus from selling to serving. Now if you're uncomfortable serving the client, you're in the wrong profession. Ironically, most reluctant sellers I've known are already in client service roles (e.g., project managers). Show me a technical professional who simply lacks the skills to reach out to a prospective client, and I'll bet he's not very good with clients after the sale either. It's pretty much the same skill set.

So if personality isn't the key ingredient for sales success, what traits are important? Following are the ones I think are essential:
  • Care about people. This is foremost in my mind. We're in business to serve others, so having genuine interest and concern for clients would seem a required trait. That's what motivates us to sell.

  • Good listener. We tend to place way too much emphasis on salespeople being good talkers. The fact is, big talkers turn clients off; good listeners gain their trust.

  • Determined. With sales cycles commonly stretching from 18 months to 3 years, selling is not for those needing instant gratification. Unless, of course, you find reward in helping clients during the sales process.

  • Disciplined. Effective rainmakers have a system, and they don't resign their sales responsibilities to leftover time. They make developing new relationships and business a constant priority.

  • Strong problem solver. The essence of effective selling in this business is advising and problem solving. I fear that many design professionals have neglected their consulting skills, and it shows in the sales stage. The best consultants combine abilities in both analysis and synthesis.

  • Adaptable. When it comes to selling, one size doesn't fit all. The effective rainmaker is able to adapt her approach to the client's personality, preferences, and priorities. This requires a sensitivity to the feedback--both verbal and nonverbal--one gets from the client.

For those technical professionals who recognize the need to be more active in selling in this weak economy, don't use the personality excuse. What's probably really missing is the want to. With that in place, the how to comes much easier--and more success will follow.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Why That Dog Don't Hunt

If the current economy won't motivate senior professionals to get out and sell more, what will it take? Not different circumstances, but a different mindset. I've been trying to nudge principals and PMs into taking a more active sales role for years. In most cases, they're fully on board in terms of the need-to. What they lack is the want-to.

There's no mystery why this is. When I do sales training, I usually start by asking for general impressions of salespeople. The responses are overwhelmingly negative. Probably unfair, to tell the truth. But the perceptions persist, and most technical professionals want no part of it. That's not why they went to school, some will complain.

Here's the odd part. When I ask what it is about salespeople that turns them off, I typically hear the following: They talk too much. They don't listen. They don't really care about me. They're focused on their own needs, not mine. Now take one of those same technical professionals on a sales call and what do you normally see? Too much talking, too little listening, too much focus on the seller.

We may not like it, but isn't that what selling's all about? Not necessarily. There's a better way. I had to discover it years ago when I finally admitted I hated selling. Funny thing was, I was a business development manager. That was my job. I was reasonably successful, but it wasn't all that satisfying. There were too many times that I felt I was wasting the client's time.

I had received considerable sales training and read a lot on the subject. I knew my craft well. But in sales, doing things right is no substitute for thinking rightly. Why? Because our motives and attitudes color the transaction, for both parties. Buyers resent the perceived self-centered motives of most sellers. Sellers default to the caricature of the stereotypical salesperson because they're acting rather than interacting.

So I recognized the need to overhaul my thinking about selling. Same for most technical professionals who are asked to sell. The secret is to stop selling and start serving. Sounds simple, but it's not. It involves a heart transplant, where you begin to care more about the client's needs than your own. It's not easy, but it sure is satisfying. Now your want-to has caught up with the need-to.

How can you promote such a change in your firm? Keep in mind that most A/E firms are probably not equipped to make such a nuanced transition. So if yours can pull it off, you'll be in rare company. Isn't that what differentiation is all about?

Change the focus. You have to stop focusing on your needs (i.e., budgets, metrics) and shift the emphasis to clients' needs. In this tough economy, are you following their market trends or yours? Which do you talk about in your sales meetings? Which motivates you to call on clients? I'm not suggesting that you ignore managing your business, but that you keep why you're in business (to serve clients) at the forefront.

Change the terminology. Have you ever considered how much of our sales terms relate to conquest? It's about winning, competitors, pursuits, capture plans, and overcoming objections. Do these sound like service-oriented words? Don't dismiss the power of the words you use. They convey more than meaning; they shape perceptions and influence attitudes. If you want people to think differently about selling (i.e., serving), you need to speak of it differently.

Change the approach. Sales training typically starts (and ends) here. Most of today's sales literature and training programs stress a client orientation. But it's not simply about tactics. Pretending to care is easily distinguished from actually caring. But if you can begin to successfully change motives, you'll want to learn compatible techniques for working with clients. Changing both attitudes and aptitudes is required to truly succeed at what I call service-centered selling.