Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Building Your Proposal Storyline

The best proposals tell a story. There's something about stories that make them a powerful device for persuasion. Stories engage our imagination, connect with our experiences, and evoke our emotions. Thus they are far more effective in persuading people than facts and marketing claims.

So how do you tell a story with a proposal? On the surface, it may seem that the RFP doesn't give you much room to construct a central narrative. But in most cases, the basic story elements are present. In my previous post on storytelling, I referenced a Fast Company article by consultant Kaihan Krippendorf who outlines the classic "story spine:"
  • Reality introduced—We see the idyllic life of the Hobbits living in the picturesque Shire.
  • Conflict arrives—The mystical ring is uncovered, putting the Hobbits in danger; so four intrepid souls leave on a journey to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom.
  • Struggle ensues—On this journey, the four Hobbits and their newfound associates face many grave dangers and seemingly insurmountable challenges.
  • Conflict is resolved—They ultimately are successful in completing their mission, destroying the ring and defeating the evil forces of Sauron.
  • New reality exists—Peace is restored to Middle-earth, and the lives of the story's heroes are forever changed (for the better, of course).
You could, of course, fit almost any story narrative into the same five-point structure. But a proposal? Yes, it's certainly possible as long as there is a project involved (it's much more difficult for an indefinite delivery contract submittal). Think about it: With a little imagination, almost any project fits within the basic story spine (although the RFP usually picks up the story at point two):
  • There is a problem or shortcoming to be solved (conflict)
  • There are several negative consequences and challenges involved (struggle)
  • A solution is developed (resolution)
  • Life is better with the project completed (new reality)
Now let me apply the story spine to a specific proposal I worked on to better illustrate how you might use this strategy:

I was asked by an engineering firm to help with their proposal for the design of a large rural wastewater collection system. The state had imposed a deadline on the County to take failing septic systems out of service and deliver the sewage to one or more area wastewater treatment plants. The project would require several miles of sewer line and pump stations.

As I usually do, I encouraged the team to develop a compelling proposal storyline. This narrative would help weave together all the sections required by the RFP into a cohesive whole. Here is the basic story spine we came up with:

Conflict: There is a regulatory deadline to vacate all septic systems within certain neighborhoods and deliver the sewage to one or more existing treatment facilities.

Struggle: With a conventional planning and design approach, it would be very difficult to meet the aggressive schedule. The County has also failed to reach agreements with area local governments that have treatment facilities that might be used. Because the design will have to accommodate future growth, there is concern that low initial flows in the oversized pipes will create odor and maintenance issues. Pipes of a certain size will also trigger the need for an environmental assessment, adding substantial costs to the project.

Resolution: We propose an expedited, collaborative planning and design process that will also facilitate reaching agreements with surrounding local governments. The design team has devised some creative design features to avoid the odor and maintenance problems. We also will be able to keep the pipe size below the threshold where an environmental assessment would be necessary.

New reality: Our proposal describes in detail how our firm will satisfactorily meet the deadline. And our design innovations will reduce the proposed construction cost by about $1.2 million.

Outlining your story spine is the critical first step in building your proposal storyline. But you still have to write your story into a nonlinear proposal structure that's not all that conducive to storytelling. How do you make it work? Here are some principles to keep in mind:

Stories involve actors, actions, and interactions. Most proposals, however, downplay these story elements. Many exclusively use third-person references to the entities—not the people—involved. There is often a corresponding prevalence of passive voice, removing actors from the action. 

So one of the easiest ways to build story into your proposals is to plainly describe people doing things and interacting with each other. Don't write about your project approach in a way that suggests a technical manual. Instead write the story of how the project will unfold, describing how the principal actors will make it happen.

Stories are personal. They engage us imaginatively and emotionally, in large part by revealing the thoughts and feelings of the people involved. How is that appropriate in a proposal? Well, you can share your thought process. In fact, clients welcome it. Too often we dispense our recommendations without explaining how we came to those answers. Inviting clients into your thought process not only helps you connect with them on a personal basis, it gives greater credibility to your solutions.

You also want to judiciously include feeling words in your proposal narrative. "You shared your concerns about..." "The facilities manager is understandably frustrated..." "The user group was excited about the latest changes..." "We've really enjoyed the previous projects we've done together with your agency..." There are undoubtedly emotions associated with the project. Why would you exclude them from your proposal? Remember, emotions drive persuasion.

Make sure to use second person in your proposals. Several studies have concluded that the word you is the most persuasive word in the English language. That makes sense, because it's personal.

Stories have dramatic tension and release. If you want to provide more valuable solutions, help clients understand how big and complex their problems are. Most proposals I review spend too little time describing the problem, the consequences, and the challenges. They jump right into the project approach without adequately addressing the needs driving the project, or the challenges that could interfere with its success. 

Perhaps you want to avoid any semblance to the salespeople we've all encountered who play up the problems to try to make a sale. But done correctly, there's real value in explicitly connecting your solutions to the problems you're solving. From a story perspective, it creates the dramatic tension that practically begs for release (i.e., your solution). Downplay the problem and you risk diminishing the perceived value of your solution. Isn't the story's hero measured by the magnitude of the obstacles he has to overcome?

Don't forget to link both problem and solution to human impacts. It's not really cost or performance that elevated the problem; it's how it impacted the client and their constituency. Thus the solution delivers human benefits as well as technical or financial ones. Fail to make that connection and you rob your proposal story of its real impact (not to mention the heart of the story, which is always ultimately about people).

Building a storyline into your proposal is a powerful way to differentiate it from your competitors. I'm convinced that weaving a story into the proposals I've worked on has played a large role in achieving a 75% win rate over the last 20 years. Try it and see if you don't get better results. After all, doesn't everyone like a good story?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Planning an Effective Presentation

As a business leader, making effective presentations is a requisite skill. Winning new clients often requires making a persuasive presentation. You may find yourself making a presentation to the public to gain their support for your project. You make internal presentations to train, inform, or influence employees. Perhaps you speak at conferences and workshops to build your reputation as a thought leader in your industry.

Given the importance attached to the presentations we make, I marvel at the haphazard way many of them are put together. The process often starts with creating PowerPoint slides without a clear vision of what it is we're trying to communicate. Our presentations often lack any evident structure, reflecting the stream-of-consciousness manner in which they were prepared.

We can do better. Let me suggest a basic process for planning presentations that get the results you need:

Define. The first step is to establish what you want your presentation to accomplish. In other words, what specific impact do you want it to have on your audience? How do you want them to respond? Don't settle for a simplistic, generic objective like: "We want them to award us the contract." Sure, that's the outcome you'd like. But what is your presentation's role in making that happen? What do you need to convince them of? What do you need to clarify? In what way do you need to change their thinking?

Of course, to answer these questions, you'd need to know something about your audience. That's where presentations often go astray first—failing to understand what the audience wants, needs, or is interested in. So planning an effective presentation starts with learning all you can about the people you're presenting to.

Design. With your purpose identified, now you want to determine what key messages need to be clearly communicated to achieve that purpose. Typically, I would suggest no more than 3-5 key messages. These are specific points you want your audience to understand and remember. They deserve special attention in the context of your presentation. In fact, your presentation should be built around these few key messages.

One of the best ways to distill the essence of your presentation and identify your key messages is to do what I call the "Two-Minute Drill." This involves imagining you only had two minutes to do your presentation and planning it accordingly. What results will likely reveal the main points you need to build your actual presentation around.

There are many ways you can structure your presentation, but I typically advise using the outline illustrated in the adjoining figure:
  • Call to Attention—Open your presentation by giving your audience a compelling reason to really tune in to what you have to say.
  • Key Messages—These constitute the high points in your presentation, the few things that are important to take away from what you have to say.
  • Supporting Points—What you need to say to illustrate and validate your key messages.
  • Call to Action—A strong close that is designed to influence your audience to respond in a certain way.
Develop. Now that you have the structure of your presentation, it's time to build out it's content. As noted earlier, many start the presentation planning here, creating slides or pulling slides together from prior presentations. Collecting content before your outline is completed is okay as long as it's exploratory, like doing research for a term paper. But beware of locking into content choices before you've gone through the process of defining your purpose, key messages, and presentation structure.

I encourage you to design your Call to Action first, since it's last in your presentation and more likely to be remembered (assuming it's memorable!). The result of your Two-Minute Drill is a good place to start. Plan on two minutes for your Call to Action. Write it down and memorize it so you can deliver it convincingly.

Next move to your Call to Attention. Have something really interesting—even provocative—to open your presentation with. Your audience wants to know "What's in it for me?" So it's important to connect with their interests or needs at the outset. Give them good reason to pay attention to your presentation while their attention level is normally at its highest.

Your key messages are anchor points in your presentation. They should provide the high marks in the contours of your talk. You want to avoid the common "flat presentation" where all content is seemingly treated as equally important (or worst yet, equally unimportant to your audience).

In organizing your content, list supporting points for each key message. Order these by importance. I suggest assigning your supporting points to one of three categories: (1) what you must say, (2) what you should say, and (3) what you might say. Usually, you will have more things to say than time to say them, so organizing content from most to less important can be helpful in deciding what to retain. Be judicious about keeping anything that falls under "what you might say."

Deliver. Your planning and preparation should put you in position to deliver an effective presentation. Most presenters I've observed in our business spend too little time getting ready. It shows. There are a few natural speakers out there who can wing it and be pretty effective, but most of us require a good amount of upfront work to be competent at it.

In terms of delivery, there are a few objectives that I think deserve your attention:
  • You should strive to come across as authentic and confident as possible. When I coach presenters, I want to see comfort before polish. I don't want to encourage people to essentially recite a script, trying to get all the words right. I want them to look natural and comfortable. That's more persuasive than perfection.
  • You want to engage your audience interpersonally. That means relating to and involving them, speaking with them instead of at them. Plan what questions you will ask to encourage audience participation in your topic. Take an informal poll: "How many of you..." Above all, you want to convey that you care about your audience.
  • You want to show your passion for your subject. How many dry presentations have you sat through where the speaker didn't look particularly excited about the topic—and neither did the audience? I've sat through my share. Passion is contagious, and persuasive. That's one reason you need to get comfortable with your presentation, because it's hard to convey passion when you're uptight.
  • You want to practice until it feels natural. How much practice will depend on the individual and the situation. Of course, how you feel is less important than how it looks like you feel to the audience. If it's an important presentation, get some feedback from a colleague or friend. Even better: Videotape yourself; that's probably the harshest critic you'll face.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How Many of Your Clients Are Promoters?

Getting referrals is your best marketing strategy. That's the conclusion of two major studies of professional service marketing by RainToday and Hinge, respectively. I suggested some strategies for increasing referrals in this previous post. But how many of your clients are ready to recommend you? You should find out.

Why? Because it can be a very useful metric and it's relatively easy to track. Many of the world's leading companies are tracking recommendation rates—a measure called Net Promoter Score—including Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, GE, eBay, Costco, and Samsung. NPS was introduced in 2003 by Fred Reichheld of Bain & Company and soon attracted a large and prominent following. It was the culmination of Reichheld's research into which metrics best correlated with customer loyalty and revenue growth.

NPS is centered on a simple question: "How likely is it that you would recommend our firm to a friend or colleague?" Customers answer with a score based on a 10-point scale, with 10 meaning "very likely" and 0 indicating "very unlikely." Reichheld defined three categories of respondents depending on their scores:
  • Promoters (scores 9-10). Loyal enthusiasts who will continue to use your services and recommend you to others.
  • Passives (scores 7-8). Satisfied but unenthusiastic clients who are open to switching to competitors.
  • Detractors (scores 0-6). Unhappy clients who not only won't recommend you, but are likely to speak negatively about your firm to others.
Your Net Promoter Score is calculated by subtracting the percentage of detractors from the percentage of promoters. Passives are not counted except in the total sample size. Thus if you surveyed 100 clients and 62 gave you a score of 9 or 10, and 18 gave you a score of 6 or less, then your NPS would be +44. And, yes, you can have a negative NPS, and many companies do.

Now, if you're a bit skeptical of the measure, you're not alone. Many experts in the field of customer research have been critical of NPS. For example, one of the strengths of NPS is its simplicity, but that simplicity can mask very different results. If 20% of your clients are promoters and you have no detractors, that's quite a different scenario than having 60% promoters and 40% detractors—although the NPS would be the same in both cases.

Does the demarcation of the three categories give too much weight to "detractors"? It would seem to, especially when you consider that many people are reluctant to give anyone or anything a perfect score of 10. On an 11-point scale, it would seem that a score of 7 or 8 would carry more weight. Plus condensing an 11-point scale down to essentially a 3-point scale would seem to demand a larger sample size to get representative results.

But criticism aside, there's still good reason for you to consider using NPS for your firm. According to the aforementioned Hinge study, 62% of professional service buyers turn to friends and colleagues to initially identify potential service providers. Only 3% depend on the service providers introducing themselves! Referrals (and the associated perception of the service provider's reputation) also play a prominent role in which firm buyers ultimately select.

Given the significance of referrals in winning new work, why would you not want to know how many of your clients are promoters? Or why wouldn't you want to track that over time to see whether that number is increasing or decreasing? Bain has found that NPS is a strong predictor of repeat business rates, revenue growth, and profitability—despite its apparent shortcomings. The Temkin Group has also found similar correlations in their research of 19 industries.

Unfortunately, I haven't found any evidence of NPS benchmarks in professional services, much less the A/E industry. So for the time being, you'll have to benchmark against your own firm. As an internal metric, you don't necessarily have to follow standard calculation. You may prefer to use the median of scores for the how-likely-to-recommend question. But as you probably know, I'm a strong advocate for measuring client satisfaction, and some form of NPS should be part of that ongoing practice.

By the way, I just finished a client survey for one of my clients, a top-performing midsized A/E firm. They had a Net Promoter Score of 69. Can your firm beat that? You'll have to measure to find out.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Clients May Not Know What They're Missing

How did Apple know that people wanted an iPad when they introduced it in 2010? I was among the many initial skeptics: "Why would people buy a miniature, underpowered laptop without a keyboard?" I wondered. Thankfully Steve Jobs and his team had much better intuition as to what would appeal to the buying public. The iPad and similar tablets have now surpassed personal computers in sales.

Four decades earlier, Ford missed an opportunity to introduce the minivan in part because their market research didn't indicate any demand for it. Chrysler, desperate for a catalyst to turn around their flagging business, took a chance on the hunch that there would indeed be a market for a "garageable van." Obviously, their intuition proved correct (although Chrysler has long since lost its status as an innovator).

These two stories illustrate the central point of this post: Market research or customer feedback isn't always accurate because sometimes customers don't know what they're missing. There are times when you should trust your gut in determining what your clients might want.

Let's apply this premise to the task of providing great client service. I'm a strong advocate for getting feedback from clients—before, during, and after the project—on how well you're meeting needs and expectations. Most A/E firms aren't doing this, which doesn't make sense to me. But I've also seen evidence that, contrary to the popular axiom, the customer isn't always right.

Years ago, I was leading the service improvement initiative for a national environmental firm when we decided to pursue an ambitious goal—to become the "service leader" in our core markets. The first order of business was to better define the target: Who were the current service leaders? What were they doing that set them apart? What mattered most to clients in terms of receiving exceptional service? We hired PSMJ to survey existing and prospective clients to find out.

What we learned was both revealing and perplexing. There were no firms that emerged as service leaders. Instead, clients identified individuals as the difference makers. When asked what aspects of service were most important, clients most often mentioned expertise and quality. The problem was we had other data, including in-house client surveys, that indicated that neither expertise nor quality was an effective differentiator (and I continue to believe that to this day).

If expertise and quality aren't what matters most, why did clients answer as they did? I believe it's because those were the most evident benefits that the environmental firms they worked with delivered. Remember, it was individuals, not firms, that were identified as service leaders. But we asked what firms were doing that clients valued most. I interpreted the results to indicate that clients had not yet experienced the level of structured, company-wide service that we believed we could provide them.

So going with our gut, we designed a unique service delivery process that was instrumental in our winning major new contracts and significantly raising our service scores. In the years since when I've spoken at conferences, I've asked audience members representing hundreds of firms if they had a similar process. No one has yet raised a hand. So if you were looking to clients to help you design such a process or substantially increase your service level, they would have to use their imagination in most cases.

Perhaps this helps explain why only 4% of clients listed good service as an important selection factor in Hinge's report How Buyers Buy, based on a survey of over 400 A/E/C firm clients. Firms generally don't give client service a significant mention in their proposals, and if they do, they describe it in intangible terms that can't be validated.

So why hasn't your firm institutionalized a service delivery process and culture? Why isn't creating distinct client experiences an operational priority? Because your clients aren't asking for it? They may not know what they're missing. And what is your firm missing out on by not satisfying that unspoken need? I don't think you need to be Steve Jobs to see a window of opportunity.