To reliably bring in business, particularly from new clients, you must begin the sales process long before you write the proposal. When you know a prospect very well you can tailor your response to their RFP in a way that few competitors can and even fewer bother to do. Writing a customized response takes just as long as picking through past proposals to find previously written pieces that sort of apply, so it makes sense to customize each RFP response to its specific audience. But this process only works if you get to know the client before the RFP drops.
Intuitively we know that people prefer to buy from people they know, especially people who “really get them”. Yet very few firms teach their staff the most effective and efficient ways to build these relationships. The following four topics provide an overview of how you can implement a Pre-Proposal Sales Process to help win new business for your firm.
Introduction – Getting to Know the Client
Going for lunch or networking allow you to progress the sale, but only if you have a plan for what to do when you get in front of those prospects. So, once you have a potential client in mind, what do you need to do to have the best chance of converting a sale?
Ask Standard Questions
Develop a list of ten pieces of information you will always gather about a company when you are getting to know them. Examples might be: Who are the decision makers? What is their purchasing process? What markets do they serve? What is a typical project size? How often do they use the kinds of services you provide? If you have these questions top of mind and practice your information gathering regularly, they become second nature when you meet a new contact.
Your trade is in ideas, so to stand out among your competition you need to demonstrate that you have some. Demonstrating your expertise through examples of work you have completed shows you know your stuff. Even better is to propose alternate perspectives to the challenges potential clients are facing, to let them know you are a creative thinker.
Timing is everything when you’re selling, so staying in front of a prospect should be an automated drip process. Whether you are a member of a group they frequently attend or you send out a regular email newsletter, make sure you have a consistent, easily maintained method of staying top of mind with the people you meet.
Next Steps: Opportunity Analysis
As a result of staying in touch and impressing a potential client with your ability, that client may alert you to an opportunity before the RFP drops. Since you recorded their answers to the standard information you gathered when you first met, you have a good idea of what they will need and how they will choose their vendor. It is time to dig in to this specific opportunity.
Any information you can glean about the broad scope of the project pre-RFP will help you prepare a great proposal. By asking questions in advance and identifying factors the prospect may not have considered, you may actually be able to influence the scope of work itself. You can also gather verbal information that may not be included in the RFP.
Hypothesize about what the Decision Maker wants to accomplish in their career, not just in this project. For example, sometimes they want to demonstrate to their boss that they are the smartest or the most capable person to bring the project in on time. In this case, your proposed project management process can include regular detailed project updates with information they can present as their own.
If, however, they are so busy with other work that they just want to contract a trustworthy supplier so they can pay little attention to the project and feel confident it is being completed, the last thing they want is to be mired in the details. In this case, you can propose a less involved approach. Either way, the confidence you derive from the relationship established in the Introduction, plus your knowledge of their personal drivers, will allow you to stand out from the competition.
Develop the Proposal Team
Identify the people at your company who can best aid in writing the proposal, and hold a kickoff meeting to discuss the opportunity. Note that these may not be the same people who would actually do the work – for example, the person who proofs and edits the final submission is ideally not an engineer, but an editing professional, armed with their knowledge and a proposal scorecard to provide in-depth feedback on the clarity and responsiveness of the information. Many of your competitors will fail in their bid because they do not leave enough time or give enough warning to the people who could have made it a great submission. Do not fall prey to such an easily remedied mistake; leave time for planning.
Assume that all of your competitors will claim to have the best quality service and a track record of delivering on time and on budget. What will differentiate your offering from theirs? Ideally, the information you gathered in the Introduction, combined with the client’s Personal Drivers, will play heavily into this differentiation.
Is it Possible to Learn to Sell?
Some people are born with the innate ability to sell, it is true. But they are following a process – even if they don’t realize it. You will benefit from practicing these sales tactics today to build the appropriate levels of experience and confidence to grow the business. The faster you learn that your trade is in ideas and you must convince others that yours are the best, the sooner you will develop into the leader of tomorrow.