Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Is Expertise Hindering Your Ability to Sell to Clients?

If you're selling engineering, architectural, or environmental services, you're obviously selling expertise. So clients naturally favor working with sellers who have some expertise of their own, who can talk knowledgeably about the relevant technical issues and solutions.

But is it possible that expertise could be a liability in sales? The evidence suggests it often is. That's because expertise is not the most important thing you're selling—it's trust. And experts commonly struggle with the interpersonal dynamics of trust building.

Charles Green is perhaps the foremost authority on the role of trust in professional services. His book Trust-Based Selling is highly recommended. He proposes four principal attributes that comprise one's trustworthiness: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation. His research finds that experts characteristically exhibit high levels of credibility and reliability, but come up short in the trust attribute that most contributes to sales success—intimacy.

What is intimacy in his trust equation? Green describes it as the "safety or security that we feel when entrusting someone with something." In other words, it largely comprises the emotional context of selling. Yes, it's important to know what you're talking about and to consistently follow through on what you promise. But buyers want to feel that you care about them. They want to feel comfortable in choosing to do business with you.

The consulting group Huthwaite, which has probably conducted more extensive research on selling than anyone, comes to a similar conclusion. They break trust into three elements: concern, competency, and candor. In one study, they asked clients what percentage of professional service sellers they would rate as adequate or better in demonstrating each of the three trust elements. 

The lowest score? You probably guessed it—demonstrating concern. Only 35% of sellers of professional services were rated at least adequate in showing they cared. That compares to 66% who demonstrated they were competent and 83% who came across as honest.

By the way, Huthwaite also surveyed buyers of large capital products, asking the same questions. You would expect capital product companies to employ more professional sellers, whereas professional service firms would rely more on practicing experts (what we often call seller-doers). Which group showed more concern? Over half (53%) of capital product sellers were rated adequate or better in this trust element.

How is it that experts fare so much poorer than professional sellers in showing they care, which is not an attribute we typically associate with salespeople? My guess is that experts are often more focused on the work than the client. They may be less inclined to really listen because, well, they're the experts. Many of them lack strong communication and interpersonal skills.

So how can you overcome the shortcomings that befall many experts when selling? Below are a few suggestions:

Cultivate the skill of empathetic listening. Green concludes that listening is critical to sharpening your intimacy skills. He notes that listening is partly a skill and partly an attitude. If you don't care what the other person has to say, you're not likely to be a good listener. I'd also add that it's important to go beyond just listening for information, but to listen for identification—seeking to understand the person and not just the associated facts. That's at the heart of empathetic listening.

Why is listening so hard for many of us? In a previous post on this topic, I suggested two main factors: ego and expertise. Ego is reflected in our tendency to spend most of our time in conversation either talking or thinking about what we're going to say next. We like being the center of attention. Being an expert means we have a lot to say and often find it hard not to share what we know. Isn't that how we provide value? Not necessarily. Remember the old axiom: People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Really listening conveys caring.

Use your expertise to formulate great questions. Being a strong listener, of course, involves asking effective questions. As a technical expert in a sales role, give particular attention to two lines of questioning: (1) asking open questions that reveal the client's perspective and needs and (2) asking alignment questions that influence the client to be receptive to what you have to say.

The first line of questioning is straightforward; you simply want to learn how the client sees things. You don't want to bias or influence the responses in any way. In the second line of questioning, however, you want to bring into alignment how the client sees things and how you see them. So your questions seek to gently influence the client's perceptions and nudge him or her toward certain conclusions (as, of course, you are doing in response to the client's answers).

As noted earlier, it's natural for you as an expert to want to share what you know. But in an age of information overload, expertise as measured only in facts and knowledge is a commodity. What people want most are insight and discernment, and those outcomes are better shared between the two parties. So rather than just telling the client what you know, try asking questions that help the client discover it for himself or herself.

How? Start by planning your sales questions in advance. Consider what advice you'd like to give, then determine what questions you can ask to help lead the client to the same conclusions—or least move in that direction. Of course, you can't always anticipate what issues may come up in a sales call that warrant sharing your expertise. So practice the art of framing advice initially with questions such as, "What if...?" or "Have you considered...?" Don't be afraid to pause momentarily before speaking, giving yourself time to consider how you might ask rather than tell.

See the big picture. Experts, especially in our business, are often analytical thinkers. Analysis involves breaking down complex problems into their constituent parts, ferreting out underlying causes and defining targeted solutions. That's a valuable skill in a technical profession, but it has its limits. Usually the problems you tackle are part of an integrated whole, involving dimensions that have little to do with your area of expertise. 

You add value to what you do by being able to connect it to the big picture. This is especially important when it comes to seeing the problem from the client's perspective. This comes more naturally for some than for others. So the recommendation is to collaborate with colleagues who are stronger at synthesis (putting things together) than analysis (taking things apart). This includes working with such individuals in planning your sales calls, developing your capture plan, or partnering on sales calls.

Beware of always being right. Another common axiom in the sales profession is, "The customer is always right." Of course, that's not factually true. The point is that what the customer thinks is what is true from his or her perspective. This often frustrates expert sellers, to the point that they may push for their point of view rather than persuade. That perceived inflexibility is a key reason why buyers often complain about professional service sellers not listening or showing concern.

There's also the distinct possibility that you're wrong. What may be the ideal solution from a technical point of view may not meet other criteria—such as cost or convenience—that matter more to the client. We don't sell products in our profession; we sell customized solutions and outcomes. That means you need to ply your expertise not just to come up with the right answer, but the answer that's right for the client.

Yes, expertise is critically important in our profession. But on its own, it's often viewed as a commodity. The real value of your expertise is when you can use it in such a way to better serve the client. And that requires skills outside your expertise—relationship skills, communication skills, collaborative skills. Master these if you want to be a true expert.


Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The First Goal of Proposal Writing: Be Different!

Over the course of my 30+ years as a proposal manager and consultant, I've reviewed thousands of A/E and environmental firm proposals. Know what stands out? The fact that it's extremely rare to find a proposal that does (stand out, that is). It's almost as if the goal was to fit in rather than to stand out.

How can this be? Aren't we trying to differentiate ourselves? Ultimately, the client's selection team has to find a difference, a reason to pick one firm over the others. Yet in proposal after proposal after proposal, I see a remarkable sameness in style, tone, and content.

It would be one thing if firms were trying to pattern themselves after the difference makers, those few firms that can produce truly distinctive proposals. But more often what I observe is a grudging mediocrity of poor writing, weak strategy, and me-too claims of superiority. We can do better, and it's not as hard as you might think.

We've yet to experience the full impact of this pandemic's economic damage. Firms in our business are generally doing well, but getting new work is bound to become a greater priority in the months ahead. Now's a good time to start figuring out how to win more than your share of dwindling opportunities. Here are some of my proven strategies for creating proposals that stand out from the competition:

First, let me review some key differentiators mentioned in my last post:

  • Make your proposal distinctly client-centered. This, in my experience, is your best differentiation strategy. Put their interests, priorities, concerns, and aspirations front and center. The RFP usually won't encourage you to do this. Do it anyway!
  • Focus on outcomes and strategy. Don't just write about your solution and your approach. Feature the results. This is an unfortunate omission in most proposals—any mention of what the project is supposed to achieve, or what defines success.
  • Describe how you're going to deliver a great client experience. The experience of working together on the project is a substantial part of the value the client receives. Why don't firms in our business talk about this more? So you can distinguish your firm in this regard!
  • Make your proposal skimmable and easy to navigate. The selection committee will be skimming and skipping about, so what not make it easy on them? They'll appreciate it, and you'll benefit from having communicated your message more clearly.
  • Include an executive summary. This is another thing RFPs rarely ask for, but clients usually read it if one is included. And a well-written executive summary can give you the edge you need to win the job.

Get out in front of the RFP in jointly defining project success with the client. Yeah, yeah, you've no doubt heard this one before. But the majority of firms still try to sneak into the competition only after the RFP has been released. Not a good idea! In my last post, I outlined why the RFP is not a reliable source of insight into what the client really wants.

I've enjoyed good success as a proposal specialist, but I'd be the first to tell you that the most important steps toward writing a winning proposal are those you take in advance of the RFP. In particular, it's the relationship building and consulting collaboration (not selling!) that stack the odds in your favor before most firms are even aware of the opportunity.

Be fully compliant with the RFP, but don't limit your response to only what it asks for. Passive answering to the RFP is commonplace. That's when firms treat the RFP much like they would a questionnaire; they simply provide the information the RFP requested. That's a loser's tactic. I advise what I call assertive compliance where you do what the RFP asks but go beyond it where necessary to tell the story you believe needs to be told.

This would include, for example, inserting an executive summary when none was requested. Or adding a project narrative (story) when the RFP only specified a "scope of work." Or detailing the expected results of the project when the RFP was silent about desired outcomes. Assertive compliance, of course, is easier when you've been talking to the client beforehand. But even when you're not well positioned, you want to be bold enough to give it your best shot.

Frame your proposal planning with these two questions: "What does success look like?" and "How will we deliver that?" The first question focuses on outcomes, the second on strategy. If your proposal can simply answer those two questions well in the context of your project narrative and executive summary, you'll have a leg up on most of the competition.

Take it a step further with the question: "What are the needs driving this project?" Needs shape what outcomes are desired. To better align your understanding of needs with the client's, I recommend breaking needs down into three categories—strategic, technical, people. This helps combat the tendency of technical professionals to see the project only as a technical problem in need of a technical solution.

This doesn't mean you explicitly include the above questions or three levels of needs in your proposal. These concepts are first and foremost tools to help you develop your proposal strategy. But I'm convinced that I built my 75% win rate in large part on being among the very few to discuss these perspectives in our proposals—the expected business results from the project, how people's lives would be benefited, how our project approach would make things easier for the client, etc.

Make your value proposition clear. In every buying decision, there is what I call the "value transaction." This involves an explicit or implied offer by the seller to provide something of distinct value to the buyer (the value proposition), and an assessment on the buyer's part of the perceived value of that offer. Whatever the formal "selection criteria," the buying decision will ultimately be made based on how well the seller's and buyer's definitions of value align.

Here's the odd thing: Most RFPs for our services don't ask for an express value proposition, and most of our proposals don't offer one. Instead, there is usually the premise that the selection will be made based on the qualifications of the seller. But qualifications aren't value; they are merely evidence that we can deliver the value we promise (if indeed there is such a promise made).

I think it's a big mistake to ignore your value proposition and focus instead on qualifications because that's what the RFP intimated. Most firms struggle to demonstrate distinct qualifications—which ironically is why our industry has fought so hard for qualifications-based selection. Lacking any real differentiation among offerers, the default selection basis is price—which QBS has been established to prevent.

Of course, present your qualifications as convincingly as possible. But don't look there for the difference, in most cases. Instead, develop a powerful value proposition—whether requested or not—which is how you're going to deliver a successful project that achieves the results the client needs. Your value proposition is essentially that success story.

Don't just offer a scope of work; tell the story. Passive answering to the RFP typically results in information-laden proposals. The problem is that information alone doesn't make for a very compelling proposal. Telling a story does. And the story that will get the client's attention is how you're going to deliver a successful project.

Sounds simple. But the tendency is to take the most client-centered part of the proposal and reduce it to little more than a list of work tasks (often in belabored paragraph form). Don't forget that a proposal is supposed to be persuasive; it shouldn't read like a technical manual! Persuasion necessarily engages the heart, which is the particular strength of storytelling. Make the project story at its core a human endeavor, not just a technical scope of work.

As for a basic story outline, here's a what I recommend: Problem → Consequences → Solution → Results. Typically, this will be divided into two sections: (1) Project Understanding, which addresses the problem definition, goals, and challenges, and (2) Project Approach, which describes how the project will be executed. And be sure to include people and their interactions in your story!