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
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.
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
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. A 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.