Monday, April 30, 2012

Submit a Proposal to Introduce Your Firm?

I've long advocated that you shouldn't submit a proposal if you haven't been talking to the client beforehand. There are exceptions, of course. If the your firm is uniquely qualified, if you have worked for the client previously, if the selection will be based mostly on price (and you're able to compete on that basis)--these are among the reasons you might want to ignore my advice.

But the most common reason I hear for submitting a proposal cold where there's little to no chance of winning is to "make an introduction." Do you think that's valid strategy? If so, I'd like to try to convince you otherwise.

Consider this scenario: A new neighbor recently moved next door. When you see him in his front yard, you decide it's a convenient time to introduce yourself. Unfortunately, your appearance makes it obvious that you just got out of bed, standing there in your bathrobe and boxer shorts. Convenient perhaps, but not a great way to make a good first impression!

Likewise, an RFP may seem a convenient time to introduce your firm to the client. But is that your best chance to make a positive first impression? Probably not. There are several factors working against you, including:
  • First and foremost, if you haven't been talking to the client, it's highly unlikely you can put together a strong proposal. You won't have had the opportunity to develop real insight into the client's concerns and priorities (don't expect to get this from the RFP and preproposal conference alone!). Most likely, your proposal will be heavy on self-promotion and weak on client focus.
  • Adding another proposal to the stack (and from an unfamiliar firm) is not the best way to get the client's undivided attention. Naturally, the known firms will attract more interest, especially the ones who have been talking with the client about the project previously. Clients often make a quick review of the proposals received to determine which really deserve their attention. Do you think your introductory submittal will make the cut?
  • Clients know what opportunism looks like. It's displayed by firms who show no interest in the client until the RFP comes out. Consider this: Some of your competitors have been cultivating this opportunity for some time. Now you show up at harvest time expecting the client to take notice? Better have something unique to offer.
  • Even if your proposal should somehow draw the client's attention, that's a pricey way to make an introduction. Do you really think you can accomplish more through that $3,000 proposal effort than through an hour-long sales call? There's also the opportunity cost involved in preparing a proposal. Every hour spent on that long-shot submittal could have been better invested in...well, things like actually meeting with prospective clients.
In most cases, submitting a proposal without previously engaging the client is an attempt to shortcut the normal sales process. That process enables you to reach some critical milestones in positioning your firm for success, such as:
  • Confirming mutual interest in working together
  • Building trust and rapport with the client
  • Uncovering the client's real needs and objectives (unlikely to appear in the RFP)
  • Helping the client determine the best solution
  • Positioning your firm as a go-to source of help
  • Mutually defining expectations for a successful proposal
On rare occasions that cold proposal may actually win the job. But that shouldn't encourage you to keep trying. Instead, redirect those precious hours to more productive business development tasks, including moving more time upstream in the sales process. This is the model for sustained BD success.

When it comes to making introductions, convenient doesn't mean opportune. 

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