Friday, March 24, 2017

Personal Preferences Shouldn't Dictate Proposal Standards

As an erstwhile proposal specialist, I prefer the sewer line running down the middle of the street instead of along the side in the grass. I like a brick facade on bridges. And I really love a tall, sunny atrium with trees planted in it.

But in all my years in this business, I don't recall my engineering and architectural colleagues ever allowing my preferences to influence even a single design decision. Why should they? I lack expertise in those areas. Yet I routinely find technical professionals dictating to their marketing colleagues what proposal standards should be because it's what they like or how they've always done it.

Marketers unite; it's time to take control of your realm. There are established design principles in publishing just as there are in engineering and architecture. There's an abundance of research into how design affects reading speed, comprehension, retention, and persuasion. In a profession that so values expertise, shouldn't we be applying more of it to how we do proposals?

Now let's be clear, success with proposals depends in large part on building client relationships, gaining critical insights before the RFP is released, and creating compelling content. But don't overlook the important role of design—how you present your insights, expertise, and qualifications in a proposal.

This is an underappreciated discipline in our business. Technical professionals tend to think it's simply a matter of aesthetics. I don't know how many times I was asked to "pretty up" a proposal or other document. Frankly, many so-called proposal specialists in our business lack strong expertise in this area. They settle for making the proposal look good without giving enough attention to how it functions.

Here are some things to consider relative to your firm's proposal standards:

Good design facilitates communication. This is particularly true for audiences who don't read the whole document or publication. That includes most client selection committees. Design helps navigate the reader to the content of most interest, it highlights the most important messages, it makes key points more memorable, it makes the proposal more user friendly and efficient. The vast majority of proposals I've seen, by contrast, require too much effort to review and fail to distinguish key points.

Your proposal should look like a professionally-published document. If marketers designed buildings, the results would inevitably look amateurish, especially to a design professional. That's undoubtedly how most of our proposals would look to a publishing professional. But, you protest, that's not who is reviewing our proposals! True, but clients are exposed to professionally produced publications every day. Think they don't notice the difference? Given the emphasis we place on an image of "professionalism" in our business, why not apply the same standard to our proposals (not to mention our technical work products, like reports, that clients pay good money for)?

Proposal specialists should be masters of their craft. So who's going to lead the advance of professional-looking, function-driven, user-friendly proposals in our business? That role naturally falls on those whose job it is to produce them. Unfortunately, too many of our proposal specialists wield too little influence to bring about meaningful changes. I understand the organizational dynamics that contribute to this problem, but let's acknowledge that a big reason for this is that many proposal specialists haven't demonstrated that they're the real experts in this area.

I spent years building my skills as a proposal writer. I talked with clients, reviewed hundreds of competitors' proposals, read related books and articles, and dug into the details of effective document design. I used research and published design standards to convince my bosses to allow some changes. Then as my win rate increased, my credibility grew to enable me to encourage further changes. Eventually, I was winning three-fourths of the major proposal efforts I led as the corporate proposal manager, and had pretty much complete creative control. That comes with demonstrated expertise.

Borrow from the best. There are plenty of examples of good design out there. You can adapt those design principles to your proposals without ever having to read a study about font styles or characters per column width (although I would urge all proposal specialists to do the research). In particular, look for the design ideas that you see repeatedly in professional publications. That usually means it works. Look how USA Today transformed the design of other newspapers, in part because it was based on and confirmed by extensive reader research.

Imitation is a good way to be different. If your proposal looks like a professionally-produced document, it will stand out. Sounds like a winning idea, so why the pushback when such changes are proposed? Seems many technical professionals are more comfortable doing what they've always done, even if the results aren't all that impressive. Some assume that clients expect to see proposals in a predictable, time-tested format. And some simply have their preferences. Perhaps that helps explain why there's so little differentiation in our business.

Of course, good design without good content still equals a weak proposal. But good content presented in an ineffective manner can fail to gain the client's notice. An important strategy in winning more proposals is putting the two together—great content and great design. Is your firm ready to raise the bar? Let expertise, not personal preferences, lead the way.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Does Free Advice Devalue Your Services?

According to sales researcher Neil Rackham, the way the very best rainmakers conduct sales calls is practically indistinguishable from how they interact with clients while under contract. The overriding constant in both scenarios? It's all about helping the client. Hence my best advice on selling: Don't! Serve the buyer instead.

This philosophy is well supported by experience and research: Serving prospective clients is the best way to win their business. And for professionals, that service-centered approach to selling inevitably involves sharing information and advice.

But the notion of giving away expertise for free causes consternation for many in the A/E industry. If you're sharing your expertise for nothing, the reasoning goes, that's bound to devalue your services. Perhaps that fear helps explain why our industry has been slow to embrace consultative selling and content marketing—the two prevalent business development trends in professional services.

Does providing free advice and resources through your sales conversations and marketing, in fact, devalue your services? I think it does quite the opposite. Here are the reasons I would offer:

The internet has forever changed how clients buy. In the old days of selling, rainmakers were the primary conduit of information about service providers and their services. Now the internet serves much of that function. According to one study, 78% of executive buyers use the internet to search for information about professional service providers. Eighty-five percent say that what they find online influences their buying decisions. Another study of B2B buyers found that about 60% of the buying decision process is now performed online before they start talking with salespeople.

That means that buyers today are less tolerant of traditional sales pitches and posturing than in the past. In many cases, they've already taken the initiative to learn about you; now they want to learn from you specifically regarding their needs and priorities.

Showing beats telling hands down. The above findings make it clear that having a good website is important. Indeed, three in four buyers say the quality of a firm's website influences their decision. But don't overestimate the value of the self-promotional content that fills the typical A/E firm website and other marketing vehicles. Buyers prefer helpful content over sales copy, and expert advice over self-advocacy.

Consultant David Maister told the story of when he needed legal help with a probate matter. He was referred by friends to three law firms with expertise in that area. The first two firms he talked to expounded on their qualifications. An attorney with the third firm said little about his firm, but focused questions on Maister's needs and understanding of the issue. He offered to send Maister a checklist that would guide him through the process—what steps are needed, who to contact, and when he would need legal help.

Which firm do you think he hired? Not necessarily the most qualified, but the most helpful. Are buyers of your services any different?

Helping buyers builds trust. This is a huge issue in professional services because our services are more personal, strategic, and potentially risky than most. Thus building trust is your most important task in advancing the sales process. Yet selling is among the most distrusted professions. Why? The perception of self interest on the part of the seller.

When you sell instead of serve, you help confirm the suspicion that you're primarily looking out for your own interests. On the other hand, focusing on the buyer, helping solve problems, and providing helpful information and advice demonstrates concern for the buyer—the most important trust-building dimension for professional service sellers.

Trust clearly adds value to what you do. When you enable the prospect to sample your services by sharing your expertise, you remove some of the uncertainty from the buying decision. You get the chance to show your value instead of just talking about it.

Sharing expertise helps build your reputation. survey of A/E/C service buyers by Hinge found that the most important selection factor was the firm's reputation. So how do you build a reputation that factors into the buying decision? Other than referrals or previous experience with the client, the obvious way is through your marketing. So tell me: What better builds your reputation, touting your credentials or sharing your insights?

When I worked with RETEC, people were often surprised to find that we were a much smaller firm than they had imagined. They judged us in large part through the lens of our marketing activities—numerous journal and magazine articles, conference presentations, white papers, regulatory alerts, active participation in industry trade groups, and—at one time—the best environmental resource site on the internet. Our market focus also helped; as we concentrated our marketing efforts on just four core markets.

Certainly our accomplishments (e.g., being pioneers in bioremediation and risk-based solutions) constituted the substance of our reputation. But people learned about it through the various marketing vehicles we used to spread the message. And we spread the message mostly by sharing our notable expertise with our audience. We mastered the practice of content marketing long before I ever heard the term.

Serving buyers is the best way to close the Value Gap. Ask A/E service buyers what they value most between receiving great expertise (technical value) and a great experience (service value), and the answer will surprise most technical professionals. It's 50-50. That's the finding of a survey by Kennedy and Greenberg in their book Clientship. But when technical professionals were asked in another survey what distinguishes their firm from the competition, about 80% said it was their expertise. 

The difference between those two perspectives is what I call the Value Gap, and it's substantial. In fact, I believe that closing that gap is probably the best differentiation strategy you can choose. That means, of course, providing exceptional client experiences after the sale. But it also means serving the client before sale by providing helpful advice and information—both in person and through your marketing.

We can all point to a few situations where this strategy backfired. You helped the client identify the best solution during the sales process and they hired someone else to implement it. But I can point to many more examples where giving some free advice made all the difference in winning the job—and helping build our reputation. I'll take those odds in doing the right thing for the client, which means being helpful. What about you? I'd love to hear your perspectives on this topic.