Send Me a Proposal! Proposals Are Often the Downfall of the Sales Cycle
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By: Kimberly Kayler, CPSM
Back in the good old days, a firm hand shake or a number scribbled on a napkin would often suffice as the proposal stage. Today, however, beyond building relationships, it is essentially that you assemble a document that conveys your expertise, experience and professionalism in a mix that is a custom fit for this particular project. In fact, a recent survey of owners indicates that the proposal process is often when an effective sales process falls apart. However, with some changes in process, organization and attention to the final product, you too can increase your chance for success.
As an industry, we often spend months generating leads, but fail to invest much effort during the homestretch process — from prospect to contract. Owners often cite that too much boilerplate information stitched together in an obviously rushed manner, or worse yet, documents that talk all about you and not about the prospect, are reasons that the sales process falls apart. Does the number of times you use the words “we” or “us” outnumber the times you mention your prospect? The key to success, however, can be summarized as writing simply and customizing and personalizing the proposal – with careful attention to ensure that all questions are answered.
Go or No Go
The first step in responding to a proposal is not assembling information, rather, deciding whether or not you should respond at all. It is crucial that you evaluate each opportunity in terms of your ability to provide a needed service for the client, provide challenging and rewarding work for your staff, and the opportunity to make money. Other factors to consider include whether or not the proposed project meets any specific marketing plan goals for profitability, whether or not the project falls in any existing project niches or if there are expanded service opportunities, or even if the project aids geographic expansion or has outstanding public relations value. Other key areas to review include how much time you devoted to pre-selling, experience with the client, contract issues, similar project experience, availability of your team members, experience with other likely team members, as well as the anticipated fee. Also be sure to have an understanding about how proposals are being reviewed, the primary election criteria, the makeup of the selection committee and the anticipated schedule.
Oftentimes, although all logic points to you declining a proposal, the project offers the promise of future work, repeat business, or has some other intrinsic value that makes the process worthwhile. In such cases, should you decide it is worthy to submit despite the results of the Go/No Go review, be sure to balance your response effort with the anticipated outcome and keep the expectations top of mind. However, remember that today’s marketing gurus advocate that proposal development should never exceed three percent of the potential win.
The next step is carefully reading the RFP. Chances are, the prospect wrote it a certain way for a reason, so follow the directions verbatim. If no RFP is available, call for additional requirements. Whenever possible, develop a matrix or outline before you start assembling your response. This step will allow you to determine what you need, what you have, and where to go for additional information. Also, from the onset of proposal development, be sure to discuss and plan the cover letter. Too often, the cover letter is assembled at the last minute and it ends up reading more like a transmittal, not a powerful statement. Opt instead for a one page letter that clearly summarizes your expertise and boldly asks for the project.
The next step is the questions. But, before even answering them, list them word for word as they appear in the request for proposals. Although this may seem silly, most owners prefer to have the questions listed next to the information.
Owners stated that inconsistency can make proposals seem disjointed at best and, oftentimes, simply unprofessional. For example, if you include years of experience on one resume, be sure to include the same information on the others. In addition to consistency, simplicity is key. Too often we are so worried about explaining or making our case that we include extraneous details, yet fail to really answer the questions listed. When responding to questions directly, answer without hype. And, by all means, do not refer the reader to another section in your proposal to find an answer. The use of bullets in lieu of paragraphs is a winning tactic. Also be sure to stay away from superlatives.
Further, don’t underestimate the importance of grammar and spelling. Many proposals are reviewed by administrative personnel with a strong background in the English language. Or, the proposal goes to the purchasing department before it goes to the contact you have nurtured during months of sales calls. In this case, even if you have a relationship with someone on the committee, you may be disqualified by someone you have never met because you didn’t follow directions.
What they See
Prospective clients facing the prospect of wading through stacks of proposals usually welcome efforts designed to make their lives easier. The most readable proposals have text running four inches or less across the page with graphics in the side margins or within the text. However, the graphics must add meaning and be understandable. Also be wary of creating an odd size proposal that is hard to copy or distribute. Use tabs to separate sections of the proposal and include the question or heading in bold or italics before your response so the reader does not have to refer back to another document.
From Print to Payoff
With the proper Go/No Go process, research on the prospect and their needs, as well as planning, your proposal should contact real-world examples of similar experience presented in an efficient and interesting way. But, to be sure you send a clear message, it is essential that your proposal proves that you care about what you do. What you produce sends the message that you will apply the same enthusiasm and expertise to meet their needs. To ensure your message is clear, be sure you have captured that the business is important to your firm by showcasing respect for the project, their time and intelligence, a passion for solving their challenge, and most important, that you are a critical thinker. If you want to be picked for reasons other than price, show the owner that, if your proposal is any indication, you care about what you do and you will care about the work you do for them.
Before the proposal goes out the door, be sure you can answer the following questions:
1. Did we show the prospect that their business is important to our firm?
2. Did we show respect for their time?
3. Did we respect their intelligence?
4. Did we show that we are critical thinkers who can figure out what’s most important?
5. Did we show our passion for solving their problem or challenge? Should we respond? Not every opportunity is a right one. Review each proposal opportunity in terms of the following factors:
· Does the project meet specific marketing plan goals for profitability?
· Does the project fall in existing project niches?
· Are there expanded service opportunities?
· Does the project aid geographic expansion?
· Does the project have outstanding public relations value?
· Does the project offer opportunity for repeat business?
· Have we devoted time to pre-selling?
· Do we have experience with this client?
· Is the client financial position adequate?
· Is the contract form known to us at this time?
· Is the contract language reasonable?
· Has a risk analysis been conducted?
· Do we have similar project experience?
· Is a project manager available? Are the necessary personnel resources available to produce quality work?
· If a known “low-ball” competitor will be in the market, do we have a clear non-price advantage?
· Experience with other likely team members?
· Is the “real” and anticipated fee fair?
· Is price the primary selection criteria?
· Will we be able to be competitive?
· Is there opportunity for additional fees?
Kimberly Kayler, CPSM, President of Constructive Communication, Inc. Kimberly can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. With a journalism degree and a decade of high-level experience serving engineering, architecture and construction firms as a corporate marketing executive, as well as experience working for a full-service advertising/marketing communications agency, Kayler started Constructive Communication in 2001 to serve the needs of technical and professional service firms. She is the author of more than 750 published articles on a variety of design, concrete, construction, and other technical subjects.