But that wasn’t the first thing the EVP of Marketing asked me. Before that she’d said…
Tell me what you think about this presentation Bob.
I had just started a consulting project a few hours earlier, when the animated EVP asked me to look at a presentation she was going to be giving later in the week. So, I took a look at her first slide which was filled with self-absorbing, company-centric, all about me information. Then, I looked at her second slide. Her third slide. Her fourth slide. All the way up to her 34th slide which were just more of the same. I immediately had a flashback to a similar and equally awkward situation I found myself in my distant past.
Not surprisingly, the presentation slides were a precursor to a proposal which I also had an opportunity to review sometime later. That’s when the, “This proposal is pretty good, right Bob?” question got asked.
For the life of me, I have a difficult time understanding why people just don’t realize, that a client or prospect doesn’t really care about your first 15 slides in a presentation, or your first 10 pages in a proposal that talk about how great you are.
OK, get ready. Here it comes…your client or prospect only cares about what’s important to them, not you. They could care less about how and when your company was founded, how many awards you’ve accumulated, or what color socks your CEO wears in meetings.
Sure, all that stuff is important to establish your credentials and credibility. (Well, maybe not so much the color of the CEO’s socks.) But, there is other, more customer-centric and subtle ways to convey that information. And if you can weave them into a story that relates to a problem the client or prospect has, it can be a strong way to enhance your credibility.
But Bob, it’s not always possible to do those things.
Of course it’s not. And in some businesses, it’s not only inappropriate; you can be penalized or even excluded from the vetting process, for not adhering to protocol. Templated Requests for Information and Proposal formats also usually don’t leave much room for self-expression, storytelling or deviation.
But, in my experience, the majority of B2B clients and prospects are flexible about what you’re proposing, and you can pretty much bet they’d appreciate being educated, informed and yes, even entertained to some extent, with a well-thought-out and easy-to-read proposal. Especially if what you’re telling them helps to solve a problem that’s keeping them up at night. Think about it. How many times have you had to read through page, after page of extremely detailed, pretentious, me-too, aren’t we wonderful, here’s what we will do for you, pseudo-knowledge droppings types of proposals?
To that point, as illustrated by my illustrator, cartoonist friend Bot Roda…
Proposals are like presentations. They need to be engaging.
But, unlike a presentation, you won’t be there to tell your story. To make eye contact. To see how your audience (the reader) is reacting to the delivery of your words and your proposal.
So it becomes even more important to make the proposal memorable, in a good way. Assuming, of course, you can actually address the problems your reader is facing and provide quantifiable value while doing it.
So, here are a few tips.
- Think of your proposal as a magazine or online article. Make it readable and informative, with attention-getting “teaser” headings and subheadings to entice the reader. Make it something your audience not only believes, but something they want to read and, importantly, share with their colleagues.
- Use an “opener.” Think of an appropriate way to attract and keep the reader’s attention. Then deliver it in a way that will let them know you understand their problem, while also implying you know how to help them to achieve their objectives and address whatever issues they may be facing. I place the opener immediately after the cover page and use it to set the tone for what follows. For example, I’ve used the following opener on more than one occasion to call attention to a company’s disorganization issues. “Pilot to passengers. I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is we’re hopelessly lost. The good news is we’re making great time.” Yes, it is humorous, but it acts to diffuse a serious situation, while simultaneously drawing attention to it. Before deciding to use this particular opener, I had to have an understanding of the environment, the people involved, their personalities, company culture, competitive landscape and the problems they were facing.
- Thank you note. I like to put a brief, personal note right after the “opener” to reinforce the message of the opener and how the proposal will address the prospect’s issues. I also use it to express my appreciation for the opportunity to submit a proposal and I sign it (either an original signature or an inserted JPEG signature). Does my signing it make a difference? To me it does for two reasons. First, it means it was the last thing I did after having reviewed the entire document to make certain all the points were addressed. Second, by my signing it, it makes it personal and reflects my commitment to the prospect or client. I’m sure there is research somewhere regarding the best color ink to use when signing a document for memorability. I use blue.
- Put the good stuff upfront. Look, nobody has time (or really wants) to read through 47 pages of detailed information about how you’re going to solve their problems. And while that’s definitely important, you need to condense how it’s all going to work in an Executive Summary. Simplifying complex issues is no easy task. But, it’s definitely beneficial for the reader (and you too) when you can do it and do it well.
- Include the price. Don’t make your reader flip through the proposal looking for the cost. Give it to them in #4 above and definitely do it while keeping #6 in mind.
- Quantify the value. This is the most important part of #5. Quantify the cost in terms of the value benefit your proposal will be delivering. Anything can be quantified, whether its carbon footprint reduction, improved productivity, reduction of particulate matter, the instances of rapid eye movement in dream states in dogs…anything. Whatever it is, just make sure you present it in terms relevant to their problem. Will what you’re proposing help reduce costs? Then give them the projected value of those costs savings over time and compare it to what they’re doing now. Or compare it to competitive offerings. Or, show them the cost savings on a piece-by-piece or a per person basis. Whatever best demonstrates the true value based on their objectives. Ideally, you could create algorithms for your value offering and convert it into an Excel document, so your prospects can enter their specific information to see various calculated outcomes for things such as ROI, Lifetime Value or Lost Opportunity Costs. I created an “Evaluator” that provides a roadmap so prospects can see how well they perform in four key business development areas most businesses have in common. You can email me at Bob@streetsmartbizdev.com and I’ll send it to you, along with an overview on how it works.
- Use visuals. It can be a quote, graph, cartoon, link to a video, or a text box (like the one here). Anything that will reinforce your value message throughout the important sections of the proposal at a glance as the reader skims it.
- Speaking of quotes. Consider including one from the project manager or team members who will be overseeing the project or program. It can be about their expertise on the subject and experience and how they, and your company, helped other clients facing the same or similar issues. It’ll not only provide an introduction to the person/team, it will also provide a human connection and reinforce credibility. We humans are visual beasts, so if appropriate, include a picture or video of the person, or the team to put a face with the name.
- Other stuff. If your proposal will have a fair amount of pages, include a Table of Contents. And if you do include one, make the line items interesting, not just a boring listing about the section and a page number. For instance, if you’re identifying the pages which describe the implementation of the program or project, try something like this..“This is where it all comes together”…………………….pages 8 through 15. You can also do the same thing for #8 above. “Meet the team who will make it happen”……………. pages 16 through 17
- Links to reference material. Provide links to relevant articles to reinforce your recommendations. Kinda like I’m doing here with some good articles and tips on proposals by people like Dan Steiner in his article, and of course, Ian Altman’s reality check article.
- Addendum. If you’re required (or compelled) to include all your services, company history, and things like case studies, White Papers, related research, detailed employee profiles and other relevant materials, the addendum is a good place for them.
- Proofread the damn thing. Frequently, people will use a proposal template where they can just fill-in-the-blanks to save time. Time saving? Yes. Smart? Yes again. But, it could be disastrous. I’ve read proposals which had the previous prospect’s or client’s name in the document. Nothing says, “I’m too busy to really look at what I’m sending you,” more than a boilerplate document which has not been proofread. Take the time to make sure it’s done. Ideally, by someone other than you because you’re too familiar with it and will overlook things. (Using a professional proofreader is best so long as your “style” is understood and not compromised.) If your proposal is not proofread thoroughly and the reader finds typos and errors like the one I described earlier, you can count on one thing. Not getting invited to submit another proposal any time soon…if ever.
- But it doesn’t stop there. There’s always the delicate situation of following up. Ideally, you will be notified you’re been awarded the project. However, waiting can be nerve-wracking. So, when and how you follow-up is key. You want to make sure the prospect knows you’re anxious to get started. But don’t want to annoy them in the process. According to Noah J. Goldstein, Robert B. Cialdini and Steven J. Martin, authors of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be More Persuasive, “Sending a funny, inoffensive cartoon during negotiations can generate higher levels of trust and generate 15 percent higher profits”. There’s also neuroscience behind the reasons as to why it works. Does it work in every situation? Nope. What you do really all depends on the relationship you’ve developed. You just need to do what makes you and your client feel comfortable.
- And when you do get the business. If you don’t continue to keep in touch by providing your client with monthly updates, with progress reports linked to the quantified value you said you’d be providing, then you’re leaving money on the table. Monthly summaries will keep you on your toes and provide the foundation for regular client review meetings. It’s also a good time to begin thinking about asking for referrals. Marla Tabaka has some good information about referrals in this article.