Proposal production through teamwork

Working with “sales support” when producing a proposal.

It is common, especially where a company provides complex or custom solutions that the sales people will need to work with colleagues from different disciplines to produce a proposal.  Common scenarios include working with:

  • Technical people who use their skills to specify and configure the correct solution for the individual need.
  • Estimating specialists who can work out how much time, material and other resources may be required to deliver a particular solution.
  • Manufacturing and logistics functions that will make and deliver the solution.
  • Health and safety, HR or legal specialist.
  • External suppliers who may be required to contribute to the make-up of the complete solution.
  • The project or programme manager, who will be responsible for delivering the solution, to ensure the estimates and delivery schedules are realistic. If any part of the brief cannot be achieved it is important to let the sales person know as soon as possible giving them the opportunity to re-set the prospect’s expectations.

In many cases, especially where just a few proposals need support, this will be done informally with the sales person making the decision on a case-by-case basis; deciding who to involve and when.  In larger companies or where every proposal requires support this will normally be done in a formal manner by, for example; sales support, bid support or by a recent manifestation, the sales enablement function.

If there are circumstances where a sales person is going to require the support of colleagues, even on a few occasions, it will serve the company well to put in the effort to create a formal process for such eventualities.  Arguably, it is even more important to have formal processes established in these cases as this will help everyone to quickly step from their day job into their support role without having to re-invent the wheel.

  • The sales person is nominally the owner of the requirement and will be responsible for briefing everyone involved in supporting the production of the proposal. It is important not only to brief on the requirement but also to establish the timetable including specific milestones when things need to be delivered.
  • If there is a formal bid function, they will normally be responsible for the physical production of the proposal document but if support is less formal this responsibility will usually fall to the sales person. The key is to leave no doubt – decide all roles and responsibilities during the initial briefing including who does which sections of the writing.
  • If the document is to be written by several people it is important to ensure consistency of style and language and this is best done by someone not directly involved in the writing.
  • If there is a need to involve external suppliers, briefing them and gaining their agreement to meet your timescales is crucial.
  • The vehicle for briefing everyone involved in producing the proposal should be the proposal summary. This summary contains the sales persons’ complete understanding of; the requirement, the solution, how they plan to convince the prospect of its worth, timing, financial parameters and key differentiators the sales person wants to be able to demonstrate.
  • It is important for the bid team to work towards a date when the proposal will be completed that is a few days before the sales person is due to present it to the prospect. This allows time for final editing and physical production avoiding the need for anyone to “burn the midnight oil”.
  • If the sales person is following the process of a trial presentation to the prospect, which will lead to amendments prior to final presentation, time to achieve this edit step needs to be scheduled into the bid team’s diaries.
  • When the proposal will be delivered in the form of an interactive workshop, rather than a written document, it is even more important that the sales person has ready access to all the specialists who can help provide the facts to support the sales arguments they will present.

A lot of time and effort can go into working with a prospect getting them into a position where they want to hear about a solution to their problem.  To avoid spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar it is very important that the production and presentation of a proposal is taken seriously and that it is accepted as part of the day job by the specialists who will contribute their knowledge.

courtesy of Microsoft Clipart

Bidding to Win

What has to be in place?

Formal bidding processes can appear very challenging and are often a source of belief that the incumbent always wins but in fact although complex such bidding process are typically scrupulously fair to all concerned.

So regardless of whether you respond to formal bid requests or create your own opportunities the first thing needed to get you on the radar is a compelling proposition that addresses two common questions a prospect would ask; “why would I buy that“ and “why would I buy it from you”. Even if they don’t ask out loud these questions will be in their minds. As part of the proposition you also need to elucidate the value you deliver and consider the price you would charge.

Next you need to consider how you will identify your ideal market, how you will take your proposition to market and which routes you will use.

The final piece in the jigsaw is the sales engagement process; the stages and steps you need to follow to mirror the buying processes of prospects in your chosen market.

Ensuring these four elements; proposition, market selection, routes to market and engagement process, are contiguous and fully integrated will increase the proportion of well qualified opportunities that you are dealing with.

As a result you will increase your win rate without increasing the bidding effort and gain increased revenue whilst enjoying a better RoI on your sales and marketing investment. What’s not to like?

Compelling proposition

So, what is a compelling proposition, in fact; what is a proposition? Is it your product or service or something extra? It is something extra. The product or service only defines what you make or do, it may also define the problem the customer will solve by using your product or service. For example you could consider installing a low energy lighting system that would give; better quality light, lower energy bills and reduced maintenance costs. This is what the product does for the customer, but is it attainable for them?

Maybe, the customer cannot afford the capital outlay to buy and install the new lights so is unable to enjoy the benefits. At this point the supplier could introduce the idea of the customer acquiring the new lights by way of finance or operating lease; the supplier’s proposition is now to use a financial instrument enabling customers to enjoy the benefits of the low energy lights without the need to spend or raise capital.

If the only objection the potential customer had was affordability, then the supplier’s ability to provide various financial options makes their proposition compelling by removing the only objection to proceeding with the transaction.

Selling tip; before making a final offer, always ensure you understand all of the prospects objections. If you don’t then the prospect will probably say; yes but – yes I like the different financial approach but I don’t like …

Most readers will have heard the term Unique Selling Point or Proposition (USP) and it is often argued that nothing is truly unique or if it is it doesn’t stay that way for long. While this may be true when it comes to product or service features the factors that contribute to the proposition provide fertile ground for the creation of uniqueness. If the finance option offered by the low energy lighting company is underwritten by the manufacturer of the lights it is likely that the finance rate will be very low enabling the supplier to offer lower financial terms than its competitors.

USPs are typically a combination of relatively small elements which taken together make the proposition compelling and this is what enables the supplier to keep the prospect interested whilst also countering competitive threat.

Pricing Policy

Arriving at a price that will be competitive and attractive to potential customers is a key part of proposition definition process but pricing policy is so important I felt it deserved a section on its own. There are three main approaches to arriving at a price; cost plus, competitor/market matching and value based pricing. Of these, value based pricing provides the most likely positive outcome for the supplier as the customer will be able to see ‘what is in it for them’.

Briefly the three approaches work like this:

  • Cost plus; it costs £10 per unit to make your product, £5 per unit to take it to market and cover business expenses and you want to make 25% profit so your selling price needs to be £20.
  • Competitor/market based pricing; you look at what others are charging for similar products or services in your market and you position your price according to where you think you fit between the cheapest and most expensive alternatives, but where it is still viable for you.
  • Value based; your price is determined by charging up to the amount the customer will gain by buying and using your product or service.

Strictly speaking you will gain most benefit from value based but you will need to review the other approaches as a sanity check. Using the cost plus example you know you need to sell at £15 to break even and if you judge your value based price to be less than £15 you will need to review what you are doing to find ways to reduce your costs or increase the value you can deliver.

Similarly, if you arrive at a price that makes you a profit and delivers value to the customer but it is higher than an apparently equivalent competitor price you will likely fail when the customer asks the “why would I buy it from you” question. You need to ensure you are comparing like for like with the competitor’s offering; if your offer includes ‘added value’ items that are not visible to the customer your offer will look expensive. You will also need to ensure the competitors’ current price is genuine rather than a special offer.

Having sense checked your selling price against cost and competition you make the value you can deliver, for the price you will charge, a key part of the presentation of your proposition.

Identifying the market

This activity flows naturally from the process of defining your proposition and why it might be compelling. If, for example, the companies that will really benefit from what you do are in a particular business sector and are above a certain size then simplistically your market is those companies that meet these criteria. Just having two parameters; business sector and size, may produce a very long list of potential customers so you will probably need to add a few more parameters to bring the long list down to a manageable size.

The parameters you use to define and identify your target market should relate directly to your proposition. Returning to the example of the low energy lights, if an important part of your USP is the financing options that you offer then companies who prefer not to use capital are more likely to be interested. While it may not be straightforward to determine a company’s financing preferences from the outside it is something that can be achieved during the first prospecting meeting.

I said it “may not be straightforward to determine a company’s financing preferences from the outside”, not straightforward but not impossible. It is often said that buyers are more empowered than ever by the ready availability of information on the web but so are suppliers. A quick scan of the company accounts of your target prospects will provide clues as to their preference when financing different types of purchase.

Selling tip; having defined the key elements of your USP ensure your sales discovery process explores these elements at the earliest possible opportunity. If those elements are not present for a particular prospect you will have to modify your sales approach or perhaps qualify the opportunity out if you think you stand little chance of winning.

Routes to market

There are now at least 10 routes to market to choose from courtesy of; networking, social media, digital marketing (out/in-bound), all of the traditional marketing mechanisms and direct and indirect sales options. While there are a few business sectors where one dominant option is the obvious one to use, for most businesses the solution will be a blend of several approaches.

The above routes are largely driven by the supplier, but other routes such as; partners, re-sellers, referrals and recommendations may be a better source of leads in some business sectors. In addition, for companies who have large corporate or public sector customers, the route to market will probably involve becoming ‘approved’ under the terms and conditions the customer applies to selecting suppliers.

To get the best RoI for the investment in sales and marketing it is crucial that the mix of marketing and sales options is optimised to match the supplier’s proposition and the needs and demands of their chosen market.

As with any investment, the assumptions that led to your chosen sales and marketing strategy need to be challenged on a regular basis to ensure what you are doing is still providing the results you need while delivering a good RoI.

Marketing tip; don’t assume that everything that is new will be good and everything old will be bad.

The sales engagement process

Whatever approach is used to generate interest and bring about that first contact with potential customers the crucial part of the process starts when someone from the supplier speaks with someone from the potential customer. This is the beginning of the sales engagement process that will build towards the creation of a customer and the identification of opportunities to bid for work with that customer.

For the sales person to enjoy maximum success, converting as many opportunities as possible, the following needs to be in place:

  • An opportunity identification or, better still, creation process using question based analysis to establish the prospect’s; position, wants, needs and budget. This analysis will provide guidance on the best way to proceed and may lead to an early decision to no bid the opportunity avoiding wasted time and effort.
  • An understanding of the decision making process and everyone who will be involved in making the decision. The sales person should ensure they engage with each decision maker understand what matters to each of them. Now, the rest of the bidding activity can be structured and tuned to satisfy the needs and interests of all those who will be involved in the final decision.
  • A bidding process that marshals all of the internal resources that will be required to produce a solution that satisfies the customer’s selection and decision making criteria. For some companies this may be done through a dedicated bidding, proposal writing or pre-sales function but in many cases managing the bid falls to the sales person for the account. However this is handled in your company it is very important that ‘bidding’ for new work is recognised by all as a critical success factor for the whole business and people need to give this activity proper focus and attention. It is not ‘another bit of admin!
  • Presenting the solution to the customer can be done in a variety of ways with proposals still being a common approach. Most proposals are written documents but they don’t have to be and we often use workshops as a mechanism to present our proposed solution to the customer. The customer is empowered to shape the final solution by engaging in discussion and questioning with the end result being a solution that the customer has helped to create.Even if the customer insists on a written proposal you should always endeavour to ‘present’ the proposal rather than just putting it in the post or attaching it to an e-mail. The purpose is to enable you to highlight the key beneficial points of your proposed solution.
  • You also need to have in place anything else that is relevant to the business sector you serve and the solutions you provide. Hence, where appropriate, you will need to provide; trials, pilots, demonstrations, site visits, satisfied customer references, etc.One word of caution; just because you and others in your business sector have always provided, for example, trials don’t assume it is still a useful engagement technique. I suggest you regularly review and challenge the processes and practices you employ in all areas of your go-to-market approach as customer needs change and the optimum way to win more business is to ensure your approach makes it easy for the customer buy not just easy for you to sell.

A final thought; two very important factors in effective sales engagement are sequence and timing. The order in which you undertake the various activities, the timing between individual steps and the overall timing of the bidding cycle will have an impact on your success rate. For example; presenting your proposed solution should be done as close as possible to the point when the customer has said they will be ready to make a decision. If the typical cycle in your business sector is six months involving four or five meetings with the customer then you should not be presenting a proposal after the first meeting.

courtesy of Microsoft Clipart

Incumbent always wins

– or do they?

This is a commonly held belief, especially in B2B sales, and in some cases there may be justification.  However, if you view each new potential opportunity from the perspective that the incumbent is going to win you will behave like a loser in waiting and, guess what; you will probably lose.  Optimists and pessimists tend to have one thing in common; they are both right most of the time – anticipating failure increases the odds that this will be the outcome.

Far from incumbents getting an easy ride, from my own observations, I think customers may actually be more flighty today but, in many cases, suppliers often fail to recognise the signs.  Both incumbent suppliers and hopeful new suppliers may be behaving in such a way that increases their chances of losing as a result of subtle signals they send to the customer.

If suppliers assume, while prospecting for new customers or bidding for new work, that the customer will favour the incumbent it conditions behaviour towards a loser’s frame of mind which in turn increases the chances of actually losing.  There is nothing more likely to lead to a lost sale than a lack of self-belief from the supplier’s sales people.  This is compounded if management fail to put their full weight behind bidding for an opportunity resulting in the effort put into the proposal lacking commitment; the prospect will spot this very easily.  If the opportunity met the qualification criteria management should back it and if it didn’t qualify out. This is a binary decision; either pull it or support it fully!

On the other hand an incumbent that takes the customer for granted is simply moving themselves closer to the exit door.  A common engagement model involves customers being moved from the new business team to the account management team once the relationship has been established and the first piece of business has been secured.  While it is good to move to managing an account with a ‘customer service’ mentality what is not good is to move from a hunter to a farmer or, worse still, a browser/gatherer mentality.  An important fact never to lose sight of is that the incumbent’s farmer will be competing with the hopeful new supplier’s hunter which may not be a fair fight.

The key questions that I address here are; why might a customer consider changing suppliers, why might a customer be reluctant to change suppliers, what can incumbents do to keep their customers and what can hopeful new suppliers do to win the customer over?  This assumes the customer still wants to buy that type of product or use that type of service so having a supplier is of strategic or tactical importance to the business.

Why might a customer consider changing supplier?

There will be a variety of reasons but they basically boil down to the customer becoming less satisfied by what the existing supplier is doing.  This can be an expression of an absolute position or it may be a relative position compared to what competitors may now be offering.  It is also the case that public bodies are driven by procedure to put work out to tender at certain time intervals and some large corporates have similar habits.

For the incumbent it is very important that the relationship management approach never slips into a casual, maintenance frame of mind.  Existing customer relationships must be managed proactively including regular formal account reviews that look at the performance of the relationship as well as the products and services being supplied.

It is the responsibility of the supplier to explore and probe to look for areas where the customer’s expectations might have changed and therefore where there are opportunities to do things differently.  Failure to do this, enabling small changes to be made along the way, will often result in the customer suddenly declaring that they are no longer satisfied; the feeling that may have been growing over time could by now be entrenched.  This is bad for the supplier as the customer will have built up the impression that the supplier did not care enough to find out how the customer was feeling.

Cases where customers like the product but no longer like the supplier are a common trigger for change.  If a disaffected customer decides to look for a new supplier the incumbent will have to work hard to keep the customer as overcoming a loss of faith or trust is a tough ask.

Why might customers be reluctant to change suppliers?

There are many reasons but they tend to fall into two main groupings:

  • Fear of change based on the disruption it might cause and the risk that things might be worse. A common and perfectly reasonable concern to have and the same feelings probably existed when the customer entered into the relationship with the incumbent. As in all sales situations a key activity for the supplier (incumbent and potential new) is to recognise the fear, uncertainty and doubt that naturally exists as a part of decision making and work to address it as a part of convincing the customer that they can be trusted.
  • Loyalty; if the customer feels the supplier has done a lot of good work in the past they may feel the incumbent deserves another chance to fix the things that are no longer working. From a customer perspective this is a sensible approach as they have also invested time and effort in the relationship so it makes sense that the first action is to try to repair rather than replace the relationship.

What can incumbents do to keep customers?

There is an interesting engagement philosophy that might be worth considering called ‘partnership sourcing’.  During the early 1990s a company called Partnership Sourcing Ltd (PSL) was set up by the joint action of the DTI, CBI and a number of large corporates which if I recall correctly included BA.  The basic principle was to foster an environment that would lead to the creation of mutually beneficial trading relationships between customer and supplier.  This was a reaction to the ‘master-slave’ approach that was common at the time and especially where the supplier was a minnow compared to the customer whale.

An excellent example of a PSL type approach can be found in Just-in-Time relationships where although the customer and the supplier are separate businesses they function as one unit with a common aim.  A key PSL principle is ‘no blame’; if something goes wrong the customer and supplier sit down on the same side of the table to address the problem.  Terms such as “the customer is always right” and “it’s my way or the highway” do not exist in PSL thinking.

PSL led to the creation of BS 11000 Collaborative Business Relationships, continuing the principles of customer and supplier working together to a mutually beneficial outcome; just as important now as they were 25 years ago.  Customers and suppliers should regularly sit down together in a no blame environment to discuss the relationship openly, sharing issues and concerns.

In trust-based relationships the supplier should be invited to attend part of the customer’s periodic business review to be informed what the customer needs to achieve in the next period enabling the supplier to plan whatever changes are required to continue to meet service levels.

If the supplier can convince the customer to include their budget when putting projects out to tender, effectively saying “we need this and our business case says we can spend £x; can you deliver what we need for the budget and if not how much can you deliver?”, this avoids the supplier guessing what the budget might be, thus offering solutions to match a perceived budget rather than a business specification.

Suppliers should manage customer relationship pro-actively through positive account management.  If the only time the supplier contacts the customer is to; renew a contract, sell them something new or ask a favour such as acting as a reference, the customer may justifiably begin to feel taken for granted.  Similarly, if the only time a customer contacts the supplier is to chase an order or complain about something the feeling will progressively turn negative.

It is very important that the supplier’s account manager has the responsibility to manage the relationship above and beyond the basic task of supplying products and services.  Account review meetings should be held between the parties at regular intervals and whilst part of the agenda will focus on product or service performance the bulk should focus on the performance of the relationship. Mutual discussion of future plans permits development of joint plans thus enabling both parties to prepare.  In the spirit of partnership sourcing conversations should be frank and fair.

The account manager should also be equipped to share war stories about other customers and projects; this is commonly done by new business sales people but all too often as soon as the customer becomes established no one from the supplier bothers to update them.  I have seen many situations where a customer buys from a competitor because they didn’t know the existing supplier made such a product or provided such a service.

What can a hopeful new supplier do to replace an incumbent?

Perhaps the first thing to say is that this is a very common scenario.  Established business will have relationships with various suppliers for a wide range of things; accounting services, office cleaning, photocopiers, IT, vending machines, building security and the list goes on.  So, in a majority of cases hopeful new suppliers will be working to replace an incumbent.  The two main scenarios where this might not be the case are; with start-up or young companies and where the product or service is genuinely new.  Recent examples of new might be cloud computing five years ago and more recently big data.

So, the starting point for thinking about this is to recognise that most new business effectively involves the hopeful supplier taking business away from an incumbent.  It is also worth recognising that some or all of the following factors will be present:

  • The customer may genuinely be happy with the relationship, products and services they get from the incumbent
  • The customer may think they’re happy but they do not know what better alternatives exist
  • The customer may say they are happy as a defence mechanism against being sold to – a classic rebuttal to fend off a sales call
  • The customer may not realise they have or will have a particular issue or that it is creating a problem or they may know they have a problem but not that a solution exists

It is important for potential new suppliers to have a sales engagement process that approaches all potential prospects with an open mind.  Don’t assume anything about the current position; use a process of structured questions to explore the current situation, problems they may wish to address, problems they may not have thought of, their desire to solve the problems and willingness to pay for a solution.  This process of discovery will of course include exploration of existing suppliers enabling the hopeful supplier to differentiate between situations when an incumbent is truly embedded or when the customer will be open to considering a change.  This needs to be achieved early in the sales engagement process otherwise selling effort may be wasted.


Snakes and Ladders anyone?

It’s the festive season and a time for games; but what game will your business be playing in the New Year?

Snakes & Ladders was a family favourite at one time but I am sure it won’t be played in many homes in 2015. However, it is still seems to be a firm favourite of many businesses. snakes-and-ladders-games2-e14495011718631You know the feeling; you work hard, get warm feedback and seem to be progressing up the ladders but suddenly the decision on your proposal is delayed with no new date set; you’ve hit a square with a snake’s head, you slither down a few layers and have to start climbing back again.

Such interruptions to progress can manifest themselves in many parts of the business but we are focusing on three leading areas of the business where landing on the snake’s head not only retards your progress but can also have a domino effect:

  • Relationships with prospect or customers; seem to be developing well but at some point suffer a sudden reversal that proves difficult to recover from.
  • Proposals; seem like the final stage in a smooth bidding process but suddenly the prospect is incommunicado or stalls about making the decision.
  • Sales recruits; had great promise but fall short of your expectations once they are doing the job.

There is one common factor that applies to all of these; you think you know how you are positioned but unbeknown to you the other party has a different idea. There is a closer link between the root cause of this issue and Snakes and Ladders than you might think.

It is easy to feel out of control and blameless when playing Snakes and Ladders as progress through the game is dependent on the way the dice fall which is of course random. All too often the approach to developing customer relationships, pursuing opportunities and recruiting sales people is conducted like a game of chance. Imagine how easy things would be if you could determine the score that would come from each throw of the dice; fortunately such certainty is achievable, not with Snakes and Ladders, but in the aforementioned areas of business performance.

Customer relationships

The key to creating solid customer relationships that will endure and strengthen over time is to base them on what the customer needs from the relationship rather than what you need. Of course if what the customer needs fails to deliver something that is acceptable to you then the relationship will not last and should therefore not be started. You need to ensure that your engagement process enables you to spot these situations early enough that you don’t waste a lot of time before deciding to abandon the pursuit.

Getting customer relationship building right is relatively simple but it does bring with it the potential for conflict and this is something that many people avoid. In my experience, rather than avoiding conflict, appreciating the potential for it to arise and managing it successfully will always deliver a better result and it is a crucial commercial skill to employ when building relationships.

If your objective is to avoid conflict this also means you will be avoiding asking important questions. For example; in the process of building a relationship with a potential new customer you will need to discuss and agree the commercial terms for any business that you might do together so you will need to ask questions. But all too often suppliers do not ask the questions early enough to effectively handle potential objections for fear that it will create a disagreement that might damage their chances. Surely it is better to get this topic out of the way early, before it becomes the primary deciding factor, than do a lot of work before discovering business that you might do will be unprofitable or will involve unacceptable commercial terms?

A few tips on relationship building:

  • At an early stage ask the punchy questions. Here are few examples to get you thinking. Do we meet your criteria to become a supplier? How likely are you to ask us to tender for business? Is there anything about our company, our proposition, or the people you have met that might put you off working with us?
  • Ensure you fully understand the decision making process and landscape; who gets involved in decisions and what process do they have that you will be expected to align with? Once you understand the full list of those involved in decision making ensure you meet all of them. This will equip you with multiple lines of communication that will help you if the primary point of access becomes difficult to contact at some point.
  • Don’t confuse relationship building with pursuing specific pieces of work. If you start to pursue a piece of work before you have a complete relationship your chances of being successful are diminished. Many companies have a sales approach whereby sales people do not spend time with a prospect until there is an opportunity to bid for and while this may seem like an efficient use of time it is not an effective way to maximise your success rate for winning new work.

Following these steps will help to ensure the dice falls more favourably and you are better prepared to avoid the squares with snakes’ heads.

Proposals getting stuck

We have discussed this issue in other articles so I will just provide a refresher on the key points of the approach we recommend.

  • Picking up from the previous topic; don’t bid for work until you have a sufficiently established relationship to understand the dynamics of the customer’s decision making process and what will motivate them to decide. Understanding your customer and what matters in their business will help you to craft winning proposals.
  • The right time to present a proposal is when the customer is ready to evaluate what you have to say in the light of a decision they are trying to make – not when your sales process says it is time. All too often I see sales people who have a first meeting with a new prospect and they close the meeting by saying “would you like a proposal?” – few prospects will say No either because they are too polite or because they would like some free research and insight.
  • A quotation is not a proposal. A proposal is “A plan or suggestion, especially a formal or written one, put forward for consideration.” The whole point about a proposal is that it should provide a vision of what the future will look like if the prospect goes ahead with what you are proposing. With a quotation the only thing the prospect can consider is the price you are quoting in which case they are likely to haggle.
  • Before presenting a proposal ensure you have an agreement with the prospect for all the steps and stages from proposal presentation through to final decision. If they cannot tell you what is going to happen it probably means they don’t have a real intention of making a decision at all. Don’t be shy to politely decline to bid – they will respect you for this, it will probably strengthen the relationship and you are more likely to be told when there is a real opportunity to bid for.

Again, the above steps will help determine the score you get on the dice.

Sales recruits falling below expectation

I regularly hear complaints that recruiting good sales people is very difficult these days. As we undertake recruitment projects for customers I can confirm that it is tough but it is still doable. Early in 2015 we undertook an assignment to recruit 12 account managers and completed the project in just under six-weeks – so it can be done.

One of the main difficulties arises because the investment in training and development in sales and selling skills has been progressively cut since the mid 1990’s. So; finding well trained and qualified sales people is difficult and as a result a lot of recruitment decisions are made on the basis of taking the best of the bunch rather than just the people who meet the standard you are seeking. In effect, the seeds of disappointment have been sown even before the person joins you.

If you want sales people to be successful you need to create a fully integrated contiguous process that consists of ALL of the following steps:

  • Create a job definition that truly matches your expectations for the role – don’t try looking for a ‘Superman’.
  • Create an advert or other candidate sourcing techniques to match the nature of the job.
  • Ensure your evaluation and selection process is rigorous and independent of any influences other than the desire to recruit people that fully match the job profile. If you use external agencies to source candidates use different people to help in the final selection.
  • Once you decide you are recruiting someone prepare thoroughly for their arrival. You need to consider on-boarding but also a comprehensive induction into your company.
  • During the selection process you will have identified their strengths and weaknesses; ensure their manager is fully briefed on the particular support they will need and an appropriate training programme is scheduled early in their tenure.
  • Ensure that all tools and collateral they need to do the job are ready for their arrival, but more particularly ensure that they understand the nuances of what you provide that makes you different from competitors.
  • To be truly successful sales people need to operate within a regime of proactive sales leadership where the most important facet is regular one-on-one coaching by the line manager and periodic training/refreshers.

Regardless of experience or track record a newly recruited sales person is raw material to your organisation and the responsibility for turning them into a fully effective employee rests with you, the employer. This may sound like hard work but it is much less effort than will be expended struggling with under-performance, or staff churn and the need to regularly re-recruit. Doing all of the above goes a long way to helping you to dictate the score on the dice.

In summary

If you want to load the dice in your favour and avoid the snakes’ heads you need to create the right foundations as outlined above. If you get all of this right you can begin to play with a reasonable expectation of winning as you will progressively be able to accurately forecast the outcome.

Key to Success, image courtesy of Microsoft.

Progressive Bid Management

Bid Management is a widely used term for any role within the sales cycle that is not clearly identified e.g. sales, technical, production, financial, legal. Within companies it can be interpreted differently across different divisions or countries. But isn’t the role exactly what is says – a person that manages bids? It is a poorly understood role and yet critical to the success of an opportunity.

Sally Buttery

Sally Buttery, award winning bid manager

Bids are risky and ultra-competitive with no second prize. They are critical to winning new work, as well as keeping existing contracts, and are the life-blood of any competitive organisation. Bids are detailed, complex and often large documents detailing how the sales organisation would meet a customer’s requirements. They cover a wide range of issues, from health and safety to customer care and staff issues, and are weighted for quality as well as price.

For the larger complex deals a bid manager is the essential member of the team as the facilitator and driver for timelines, governance and quality against an agreed internal budget. Many companies use project managers for this role but unless bidding is all they do this can lead to disaster. A project manager will approach a bid as another project. The difference between a project and a bid is there is a defined end or delivery point at proposal submission for a bid. There is no contingency or tolerance in a bid and without comprehensive bid planning and the bid manager’s personnel skills then all too frequently team effort will be ‘back-ended’ and the team will work through the night to complete the proposal before the customer’s deadline. A project manager will plan from the start of the engagement, whereas a bid manager has to plan backwards from the submission date. Interpersonal skills are key for the bid manager to influence team members to achieve their individual contributions within a defined and often tight deadline.

I was once asked by a senior sales account manager what my role was. Having explained the extent of the skill set and capability required of a bid manager he said to me “what do I do then?” In this instance the account manager was dealing with highly complex and large opportunities and I was staggered that he found time to manage a dispersed team towards producing a proposal as well as find time to define new opportunities AND maintain his customer relationships.

So when should a bid manager be engaged? As already mentioned, a fully experienced bid manager can be engaged from the initial opportunity identification. At this discovery stage the bid manager acts as a “Capture Manager” ensuring all relevant information is stored, researching the prospect, the competition, relevant solutions and reference-ability.  Frequently the bid manager acts as the sounding board for the sales account manager and interfaces with marketing, commercial, legal and other supporting functions.

This information is critical to a thorough qualification of the opportunity – a stage all too frequently skipped but essential for ultimate success. From this position a bid manager can support the development of the proposition with a full understanding of the requirement, solution, USPs, commercial principles, competitive strategy, win themes, customer ‘Hot Buttons’ etc.

The bid manager is responsible for the ‘look’ of the proposal – not just completing it but ensuring it is professional and suitable for the target customer market. The physical appearance can be influential for the customer and, although it doesn’t necessarily need to be professionally produced it does need to be fit for purpose. I have always considered that a good looking proposal will not necessarily win the business but a bad one can lose it! It is useful to have members of your bid team that are experienced in proposal production – formatting, graphics, print/bind/delivery or electronic upload, burning CDs or memory sticks etc.

Following the proposal submission, the bid manager should monitor the changes that take place during the negotiation period. This important activity ensures that the signed contract reflects the customer’s requirement following negotiated changes and that there are no misunderstandings during the delivery phase.

The role and responsibilities of bid manager jobs vary between organisations but in essence a bid manager manages the risks to the business during the sales or acquisition stage of a customer engagement. So what does good look like?

A senior bid manager can manage a customer engagement from the initial opportunity identification right the way through to handover to delivery. At this level the individual should have:


  • Team identification, management and motivation
  • Process, governance and compliance management
  • Bid planning, prioritisation and scheduling
  • Bid cost management and resource utilisation
  • Qualification
  • Risk identification and management
  • Commercial awareness
  • Communication – verbal and written
  • Facilitation
  • Reporting and presentation
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Research and data collation
  • Sales and business development awareness


  • Leadership
  • Assertive
  • Innovative
  • Drives for results and customer focused
  • Team and relationship development
  • Adaptable

At a more junior level a bid manager will have a subset of the skills and competencies detailed above and would be expected to display the ability to manage the team to develop a quality proposal.

On a more personal note a bid manager should be nimble, tactful, efficient, self-motivated, cope with pressure, conciliatory, articulate, confident speaker, presentable….. shall I go on as it sounds too perfect to be true? It no doubt is and therefore as long as the bid manager demonstrates sufficient capability in all aspects then they are to be treasured.

Article kindly provided by guest author Sally Buttery of Unify.

Image provided to Microsoft Clip Art by A Bit Better Corporation

The role of the Sales Account Manager in bidding

In Sally’s excellent article on bid management she makes it clear what the bid manager has to achieve to ensure the proposal containing the bid that goes to the prospect maximises the chances of winning the work.

It is not uncommon to find sales people who see a bid management function as the “sales prevention” department. The feeling is that “these people” just delay things, increase the quotation and the timescale of the project and generally make it harder to win the work. However, rather than being the enemy of the sales person they are a crucial component of a winning team.

So are feelings that the bid management function is the “sales prevention” department justified?

Regrettably such feelings almost always stem from poor selling rather than poor bid management. If, to improve their chances of winning the work, the sales person has given assurances and made commitments to the prospect which cannot be delivered, then the bid team will indeed present problems for that sales person. The bid team is responsible for producing bids with the optimum chance of winning the work but they also have the responsibility for producing bids that are an honest representation of the solution the prospect needs including how long it will take to complete and how much it will really cost.

So what can the sales person do to make bid management a valuable selling aid?

The first thing to do is to recognise that with or without a bid management function, misleading a prospect (and hobbling your delivery teams) is never going to be a successful selling technique. It might win a particular piece of work, although less likely these days as decision makers are better informed, but it certainly won’t create a customer for life if they find the solution is not what they need and/or that it takes longer and costs more than the proposal suggested. This is bad; both for future business potential and the supplier’s reputation.

So let’s think positively about bid management and use it as the selling asset that it is.  The main things for the sales person to do are:

  1. Ideally when joining the company the sales person will have gone through a thorough induction which will have included some sessions with bid management and delivery. I would also recommend that each new recruit spends some time in the bid management department observing what actually happens. If this has not happened then sales people should seek out the bid manager and organise a session for themselves.
  2. As a result of the above, the sales person will understand what the bid manager needs to complete their part of the selling process and will be able to conduct their selling activities to create a seamless handover with bid management. In her article Sally said “At the discovery stage the bid manager acts as a “Capture Manager” ensuring all relevant information is stored …” If the sales person understands what constitutes “relevant information” they can structure their prospecting activities to collect or make easily available that relevant information.
  3. Sally also said “Frequently the bid manager acts as the sounding board for the sales account manager and interfaces with marketing, commercial, legal and other supporting functions.” The sensible sales person will understand how useful the bid manager can be as that sounding board. By discussing the opportunity with the bid manager, involving a delivery representative too, before the formal bidding stage has been reached, the sales people can equip themselves to shape and steer the prospect towards a winning frame of mind. For example; if the discussions reveal some things that may be difficult to deliver and others that would be beneficial but that have not been specified by the prospect the sales person is better equipped to set the expectations of the prospect in terms of what the eventual solution might look like.
  4. Two very powerful selling tools that are very close to our hearts at Performative are Qualification and Quantification. The former is used to drive the process of developing an initial contact through the stages of; suspect, prospect and eventually to customer. The latter is the process of assessing an individual opportunity in terms of its probability as a successful bid. Taken together these two tools help the sales person ask structured questions which gather the crucial information required to develop a winning bid. It is clear that the bid manager can make a major contribution to the sales persons’ decisions on what questions to ask and when so as to elicit the required information.
  5. The final point is to recognise that the bid manager will have access to different people in the prospects’ organisation e.g. technical staff and purchasing/procurement staff. These people will be a part of the prospect’s decision making unit and will have varying degrees of influence over the decision. As a result, the bid manager must be seen as an extension of the sales persons’ front line selling activity not just a back-room administration function. This is a case for team selling where the sales account manager and the bid manager should become an inseparable double act.
Image provided to Microsoft Clip Art by A Bit Better Corporation

A winning combination!
Image courtesy of Microsoft Corp

In summary, treat the bid management function as your ally; it will enhance the strength of your selling efforts if you work together. If a bid review does expose that the prospect’s budget is too low or the timescales impossible, the sales person will gain the opportunity to go back before the bid is submitted and discuss the true position with the prospect. This may result in losing some deals but you would most likely have lost them anyway once the bid was submitted. It is probable that some will appreciate the honesty and diligence and give the work to the supplier who provides the right solution even though they are not necessarily the cheapest or fastest.

Is the traditional narrative (typed) proposal relevant to today’s prospects? If not; how can we get our offer across?

proposalAs with most other aspects of business life, technology provides many options to those who need to make an “offer” to a prospective customer. Typically an offer has been contained in a proposal document and is a statement of; the supplier’s understanding of the problem, what the supplier is offering to do, how long it will take, how much it will cost and probably some form of performance commitment.

For many decades word based documents have provided a great way to present proposals but now with so many technology based options there are alternatives. Of course text-based documents have progressed enormously from the days of manual typewriters through word processors and now computers. It is now possible to incorporate engaging presentational features such as pictures, diagrams, charts, etc. One of our customers, who sells LED lighting solutions to industrial customers, incorporates simulated 3D diagrams showing a before and after picture of the warehouse or factory. Very impressive it looks too.

It is common that if the “document” is sent it will be done electronically rather than physically although many people still print out such documents before reading.

If the document is in electronic form it is possible to embed URLs, video clips and other “active” content which may help to illustrate the proposed solution benefits.

As with all aspects of selling, the most important consideration is what the prospective customer might want to receive rather that what the supplier wants to produce.  If your prospect really does want a word based proposal then you still need to be able to produce such.

One very important thing to bear in mind; the proposal is not the place to present selling arguments for the first time or to make new offers. Regardless of the means of presentation, the proposal should be a confirmation of what has already been offered and accepted, at least in principle, by the prospect.

As indicated previously we are dead against just “sending” proposals as we think they should be presented. However, there are industries that still insist that proposals are in the form of documents and that they are sent rather than being presented. In some cases the process is very formal perhaps being structured according to the format of the prospect’s tender document which makes it difficult for any supplier to personalise the content or the way it is presented. Most companies that sell into such industries have bid departments who are used to working with the formality of strict tender processes.

proposal1Presenting a word based document can be challenging so using technology facilitated approaches can have greater benefit. To illustrate the point, here are some sample uses of technologies.

Slide show: A proposal should provide a logical sequential selling story but there is nothing to stop the prospect flicking through a document as they wish. So at the most basic level a PowerPoint slide show is a good tool to facilitate the controlled presentation of a proposal. There are other similar tools that can be used for this purpose and one we have reviewed recently is Prezi. We may comment further on Prezi in a future article on selling tools.

Webinar: If you cannot physically get in front of your prospect, on-line environments such as GoToMeeting or other webinar technologies enable live interactive presentations. This also helps when co-ordinating a presentation to people from multiple locations.

Video: Now that you can present on-line you could try video clips to illustrate key points. If a prospect was interested, for example, in your factory which is in Australia you can help to bring it alive through a video.

Screen capture: Two real examples of incorporating live or captured images to reinforce the message:


  • When presenting on the effective use of LinkedIn James Potter (The Linked In Man) will of course use LinkedIn as its own sales aid.
  • Guy Levine was one of the first to recognise the commercial value of the web and during presentations he would bring up the websites of volunteers from the audience and provide constructive feedback based on his observations.

Mobile computing tools: such as tablets provide another useful medium for live interactive presentation.

  • One of our customers, selling Solar PV solutions to householders, had the entire presentation on a tablet which the sales person used to conduct the complete sales cycle whilst with the householder.
  • Another customer of ours uses a tablet app to enable the sales person to create a comparison between their prices and those already being paid by the prospect. Changes can be made in real time to arrive at the solution the prospect wants to buy. Which then leads to the ideal closing question “If we can do that will you buy it?”
It's not about your features but making the proposal a feature in itself

It’s not about your features but making the proposal a feature in itself


In summary, typed proposals still have a place but with the many technology-enabled options available to us it is worth consider other approaches.

If you can create a better customer experience whilst also maintaining control of the selling cycle everyone wins.

Is your pre-sales support fully integrated with the selling and marketing functions?

Ideas on getting them hitched to the same carriage, pulling in the same direction.

Pre-sales support is a wide term but generally it is applied to activities directly connected with helping a sales person to scope a solution, arrive at a selling price and generally to construct the bid once an opportunity has been recognised and the prospect has agreed to receive a proposal from you. The disciplines involved in pre-sales support could include; marketing, HR, technical, R&D, quality, methods & processes and delivery.  Many companies have people dedicated to bid support and these staff will plan, manage and execute the bidding process bringing in skills from other departments as and when required.


silly billies?

The sales people should view pre-sales support as their friends and allies however, I was talking to a sales person recently who said “having sold it to the prospect I then have to sell twice as hard to get the company to accept what the prospect wants to buy”.  It is not unusual for sales people see pre-sales support as the “abdominal no-men”; nothing more than a delay which results in a large increase in the bid price which means they may not get the deal and their associated commission.

The solution to these potential issues is joyously simple:

  • Ensure the sales people understand and appreciate the role of pre-sales support. Sales must understand that if a bid review leads to an increase in estimates and therefore selling price this to the benefit of both your company and the customer’s business – they will be getting the complete solution they are expecting and you will be making a profit!
  • Your value proposition must include a full description of your sales engagement process and the sales people must present this in terms of the benefits the prospect will gain by dealing with your company. Sales people often shy away from this fearing it will turn the prospect away when really the opposite is true provided the presentation is done in a structured and business like manner.
  • Your pre-sales people need to understand your world of selling, to dispel the stereotypical views about sales people and better understand their role as the most important part of the go-to-market process.
  • Sales and pre-sales people must understand and be trained in the complete selling process. Pre-sales need to understand what the sales person has to do to get to a point of bidding and sales need to understand what pre-sales can do to strengthen the bid and increase the chances of winning a strategic or profitable piece of business for the company.
  • If your selling model utilises delivery staff as sales people they will inevitably be involved in pre-sales work and the subsequent delivery. It is clear that this mix of roles and responsibilities has the potential to create a sense of inner conflict, depending on the decisions and compromises involved in formulating the proposed solution. However, that increased understanding may equally lead to a more successful project. It is important that proper management oversight is applied to balance the calls on their time and avoid inner conflicts impacting on the wider aim of winning good profitable business that delights your customer.
one team, shared goal

one team, shared goal

In summary, make sales and pre-sales one team with a common set of motivations.  They all need to be hitched to the same carriage pulling in the same direction.  Always involve pre-sales in sales meetings and ensure the agenda includes topics relevant to both parts of the wider selling team.