Friday, August 30, 2019

A Simplified Go or No Decision Guide

The goal isn't to submit more proposals, it's to win more of them. In my experience, focusing on writing fewer, better proposals is a winning strategy. But many A/E firms struggle with proposal discipline—they just can't seem to pass on an RFP where they're qualified to do the job. To combat this problem, most firms at least try to employ a go/no go decision process, typically embodied in some kind of form or matrix.

The problem is that compliance with this process is often spotty. Some managers simply bypass the process because they feel they can make the right decision without it. Others don't see the opportunity cost of working on a losing proposal because, well, the marketing group does most of the heavy lifting. Still others find the go/no go process too tedious, trivial, and time consuming. 

In response to this resistance, I devised a simplified, three-step decision process years ago, which several of my clients have found helpful. Recently, I created the following visual guide to support this process. You can download a PDF version of it here.
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 A few important points in getting the most out of this tool:

It's intended to be used collaboratively. I suggest 2-3 people be involved with any go/no go decision of consequence. Two key commitments ideally drive your decision: (1) we're not going to waste our time working on proposals that are probable losers and (2) if we're going to do the proposal, we're going to do it right.

The three main questions should serve as filters. In other words, a no answer to any of the three questions should end the decision process. Haven't been talking with the client? No go. Not confident you can win the job? No go. Got a yes on the first two questions, but don't think you have the time, commitments, or insights you need to prepare a strong proposal? No go.

The scale associated with each question acknowledges that your answer often won't be a simple yes or no. For example, you talked with the client (yes!), but it wasn't with a key decision maker or it's been 10 months since your last conversation (uh-oh). That should mean a lower confidence level, say 15-20% (or essentially a no answer). On the other hand, if you've had several conversations involving multiple decision makers, you might have a confidence level of 80-90%—a solid yes answer.

But don't let the scoring drive your decision. I've moved away from the popular notion that a score should determine whether your decision is go or no. A numeric score may seem more objective, but in my experience when a number drives the decision, people tend to manipulate the number to arrive at the decision they want. I prefer an honest estimation of confidence level relating to each question without setting a minimum threshold. Use the resultant scores to inform rather than dictate your decision.

As with any "simplified" process, there's the likelihood that some valuable detail or nuance is excluded. You can readily bring these points into the conversation. The guide directs you to three key questions, but there may be any number of mitigating factors influencing your answers to those questions. Just don't overload it with more complication than is absolutely necessary (which is one way we commonly try to manipulate outcomes).

If you're not totally satisfied with your go/no go process, I hope you'll give mine a test drive. Then let me know what you think!

Friday, August 23, 2019

In Selling, Persistence Pays Off

There are myriad reasons why technical professionals falter at selling. Many are uncomfortable with the role. Others yield to utilization pressures. Some lack the requisite competencies. But perhaps the most prevalent reason for lack of sales success is simply failing to give adequate effort. This is likely an even greater problem with workloads currently stretched to capacity.

Studies suggest that most sales are made after most sellers have given up pursuing the buyer. One study by BPM Forum found that over 80% of sales leads are never followed up on, are dropped, or are otherwise mishandled. In professional services, where sales cycles can extend for several months to years, it's not surprising that busy seller-doers often fail to follow a lead through to fruition.

Oh, they may well get involved again once the RFP hits the streets—thus fooling themselves into thinking they followed the lead to the end. But, in fact, they missed a key opportunity to engage decision makers over the course of the sales process to position their firms for success.

All this points to an important reality: Persistence pays off in sales. That may be stating the obvious, but we can certainly benefit from being reminded again. Better still, perhaps we need to take some specific steps to help us outwork and outlast the competition:

Have a plan for each key sales opportunity. The discipline to execute effective sales tactics starts with planning. Outline how you intend to contact different buying influences, build critical relationships, fill information gaps, and position your firm as the go-to resource. This plan must be periodically updated as new information is uncovered and the situation evolves. Of course, having a plan is one thing, but carrying it out is what really matters. Make sure your plan translates into specific actions in a delineated time line.

Schedule all important sales activities, not just sales calls. There's a tendency to add only meetings with buyers to one's work calendar. But in our business, there are often many tasks to be performed between sales calls. Don't just add these to your to-list; put them on your calendar. This is a valuable time management tip for any important-but-not-urgent task, but sales activities seem particularly prone to getting pushed aside by more urgent tasks.

Budget sales time. The best way to resolve the inherent tension between selling and being billable is to specifically budget time for sales. Then treat it like a project commitment. Track "sales utilization"—how much of the allocated budget is being spent as intended. Match expended hours with completed activities, just as a project manager would.

Be selective as to which opportunities you pursue. To do sales right takes time, and you only have so much of it. You won't beat the competition by simply chasing more sales leads, but by outworking them on the ones you target.

Stay in regular contact, both directly and indirectly. Client research by BTI Consulting found that clients notice when professional service sellers are sporadic in their contacts. They perceive it as a lack of commitment. So you want to sustain the conversation with the client. But don't waste the client's time simply to make an appearance (a common occurrence). Always bring value to every sales call. To avoid overstaying your welcome, supplement sales calls with periodic emails that forward helpful information to the client.

Advance the ball with each step of the sales process. While regular contact is important, each meeting or phone call with the client should represent a deliberate step towards closing the sale. Don't fall into the trap of simply "touching base" with the client on occasion. Instead, consider how to take the relationship a step further each time. This is where the aforementioned plan really comes into play—not just a task list, but an evolving game plan for each encounter with the client.

Have your "sales team" meet regularly to encourage follow-through. In many firms, taking on sales responsibilities is largely solo duty. That can make the inevitable delays and disappointments all the more dispiriting. That's one reason I favor organizing the sales team and having them regularly interact to discuss progress, share commitments, offer support, and hold each other accountable. That will help you sustain the sales effort over long periods.

Stay engaged even when contract award is not imminent. As noted earlier, most sales leads in our business are long term. That can work to your advantage because most of your competitors are likely to either (1) mishandle or neglect the lead over the long haul or (2) arrive on the scene only as the RFP is approaching (or has already been released). If you stay involved with the client, providing support and nurturing the relationship over many months, you will have effectively screened out most of the competition.

Skeptical? One of my clients, a large international engineering firm, found that while their normal proposal win rate was about 40%, it jumped to 70-75% when they developed and executed a "capture plan" that spelled out most of the steps I describe above. Makes you wonder why they couldn't convince more of their client managers to take this approach. So...what's your firm's excuse?