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.

The ABC of Selling

ABC – Always Be Closing? No, not that nonsense.

While there is merit in the concept of exploring what will be required to successfully close the deal throughout the sales engagement process, as opposed to waiting until the final meeting after you have submitted your bid, most prospects will spot the classic ABC technique and be inured to it. So, rather than enhancing your chances of winning, Always Be Closing may well have the opposite effect.abc

So, what do I mean by the ABC of selling? Assume nothing, Believe nothing, Challenge everything. This is a simple framework that helps to structure sales engagements that if followed will increase your chances of winning more business, reduce the time wasted on deals you cannot win or that will never happen and earn the respect of genuine prospects who are looking for a professional company to become their next supplier.

Assume nothing

Well actually making assumptions is fine and it is a valuable part of a professional sales engagement process. What is wrong is acting on assumptions before you have tested them with your prospective customer.

For example, you may have concluded from publicly available information that your prospect is on a drive to reduce costs and as a result you plan your first meeting around explaining just how cost effective your solutions are. You can see how dangerous this could be if the prospect does actually have a cost reduction initiative underway but in the area of their business where your solution might fit they drive is for a safer more reliable solution. Perhaps they are just coming to the end of a three year contract with a supplier that came in on a low price ticket but has failed to deliver on time and to agreed quality standards on many occasions.

So, before you go headlong into your “we provide very cost effective solutions” ask questions to establish what the prospect wants and needs and what things will motivate them to decide in favour of one supplier over another. Ask questions, listen carefully, interpret and modify your planned approach accordingly.

Believe nothing

Strictly I am not saying prospects and customers lie, although some do! Really what I am saying is that you should believe nothing without first ensuring you fully understand what you have been told.

For example, the prospect tells you they are looking for a safe and reliable solution in some area of their business. That seems quite straightforward but could it have different meanings or nuances? Again this is about the effective use of questions to explore and delve into and behind what you think you are hearing. The words safe and reliable are not absolute terms so you need to explore the requirement in terms of how safe and how reliable. If, for example, you have an IT solution that will provide guaranteed up time of 99.99% 7*24 you may think telling the prospect this will impress them and indeed it might. However, if what they are looking for is 99% between 08:00 and 18:00 Monday to Friday they are likely to conclude that your solution may be more expensive than they need to pay, yet they probably won’t tell you so.

So, listen to what you are told and ask questions to ensure you fully understand what the prospect really wants and more importantly needs before you offer or suggest anything.

Challenge everything

Consider a scenario where the prospect tells you they need an IT support service that provides up time of 99.99% 7*24. You could take this at face value – they said it so they must mean it is a reasonable position to take. However, let’s say you know a bit about their business and you know they work five and half days; 08:00 to 18:00 Monday to Friday plus 08:00 to 12:00 on Saturday so why would they want full 7*24 support? There may be a good reason but you won’t know until you ask “could I just clarify; I thought your working hours are … so why would you want the expense of full 7*24 cover?” The answer might be something that supports why they want it or it might be “Good point, I suppose we don’t need that level of cover.

If they are currently paying for full 7*24 cover or your competitors are quoting for it and you can offer something that will cost them less while delivering exactly what they need you will have made progress towards becoming their new supplier of IT support services.

Some people fear the idea of challenging in case it seems rude or impertinent to the prospect or customer. Getting this right is all about being courteous and using the right sort of words; “I hope you don’t mind me asking”, or “perhaps I am wrong but I thought your working hours are …

In summary

Make assumptions but test each one to destruction. Listen to everything you are told but don’t believe it without checking and double checking you are all meaning the same thing. Challenge everything that you do not understand or agree with; be polite but do it.

The ABC formula provides a useful framework for structuring and conducting sales prospecting calls and meetings. This is not a onetime thing and you should repeat the process every time new information appears and with each new person you meet in the prospect’s or customer’s organisation.

This article was first published on LinkedIn Pulse by Phil Shipperlee