Do you want to win at proposals?
Imagine this scene:
You meet a prospective client at a conference. She tells you that the reason she’s there is that she’s struggling to meet new quality targets demanded by her customers. You ask a few questions to get at the heart of the problem. As she’s answering, she realizes that your questions are leading her to a potential solution. You’re on the same page and you summarize the solution and the value you could bring to getting it in place quickly. She’s got a broad smile now. Her eyes brighten. She shakes her head up and down acknowledging that what she’s hearing is great stuff.
The next thing she says is, “Send me a proposal.” You exchange business cards, and then you go your separate ways.
You skip the next lecture at the conference, open your laptop, and bang away at a quick email highlighting exactly what you’ve suggested.
Then you send her a proposal/email and nothing happens.
So, you call her back after a week because you haven’t heard anything. You leave a message. Still, she doesn’t call you back.
Well firstly, did you qualify the opportunity?
Was it the correct solution?
Was she the decision maker?
How did you frame the message and investment (i.e., the price or fees)?
Do you know how her company contracts with vendors?
Were there other competitors with a better proposal and value?
I could go on…
Most medium to large corporations require some formalized process for responding to proposals. When that happens, there is a whole suite of protocols you must follow.
Many factors go into why we must follow a prospective client’s process, but the primary one is the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act of 2002.
SOX requires public corporations (at least those listed in the U.S.) to follow new standards for corporate accountability and increased penalties for corporate wrongdoing
“Thanks! Enron and Andersen!”
SOX intends to protect investors by improving the accuracy and reliability of corporate disclosures and increase transparency in corporate practices.
Because of the weight and influence of SOX, most private companies follow these guidelines, too.
The Purchasing Department (also called “vendor management” or “supply chain”) leads the request for proposal (RFP). In our situation above, maybe there are protocols you should have followed. However, you were immediately disqualified because you didn’t follow directions (and you didn’t ask for them).
Obviously, the best situation is when you don’t have to write a proposal at all. That is, you’ve wowed the buyers with expertise and insight so much so that the business team can’t wait for you to help.
And that’s probably where you thought you were. Unfortunately, those situations don’t happen frequently.
So, let’s do a little sales intelligence work to determine: What’s going on? What is the real problem? And should you bid for this job?
Going for a SPIN
Hopefully, you were invited to bid by Vendor Management or the business buyer. If so, you should receive some details about the problem, the requested solution, and any requirements to follow. If not, then it’s critical to ask as many questions as you can (or decline to bid).
Frequently time constraints to get a contract awarded and a solution underway may cause the client to have limited patience in allowing you to keep asking questions. So, be considerate of their timeline, be smart, pointed, and relevant. Within the formal process, Vendor Management will typically host a “Question and Answer” meeting to help you form your proposal. For highly complex projects, there may be more than one of these meetings.
Usually, you must submit questions in advance.
The Vendor Management team will then collate your questions with other consultants and present them to the “buying team.”
The buying team will then be present at a meeting to answer these assembled questions live or will submit written responses back. Note, not all questions asked will be answered – especially if they believe that the answers are in the documentation already provided.
To keep questions smart, pointed and relevant, we recommend the Situation-Problem-Implication-Needs (SPIN) technique.
We’re big fans of SPIN and have our own teaching methods on it. The source for these techniques come from Neil Rackham’s book: Spin Selling (1988). See the illustration below.
Typically, SPIN is highly effective during live sales calls, but you can use this technique during the RFP Q&A, too.
To help you with this approach, the enclosed worksheet here provides guidelines to assist you in framing your questions. It also contains some example questions and tips to consider.
Examine the request for proposal documentation very thoroughly.
Map the information to the S-P-I-N categories.
Your goal is to map the situation, problem, and implication points. However, there may be gaps and that’s where asking pointed questions back to Vendor Management come in.
Asking “Needs” questions is more difficult as you tend to ask those based on the previous answers to the S-P-I questions, but it’s not impossible.
Ideally, during the live Q&A meeting, you’ll be given an opportunity to ask such questions. However, some buying team members may not want to answer because they tend to lead to solutions in a public forum.
The point is to analyze as much of the RFP information you can get in order to formulate a proposal response or to decide if you should bid.
Asking Five “Whys?”
Although Vendor Management will limit your engagement with the buying team, there is no substitute for live interaction with the buyers.
When, and if, you get that opportunity, this alternative approach works well. You can use it within SPIN, too.
Like SPIN, the purpose of the “Five Whys?” is to get a better understanding of the situation – dig deeper into the problem, understand the decision-making process, understand the decision makers, determine how long before a decision is made, and get a feel for their budget.
Asking “why?” five times can sometimes get at the cause of a problem, lead you to a solution and possibly a winning proposal. For example:
- Why are insurance companies rejecting our claims (imagine that we’re a medical practice group)? “Because we didn’t complete the claim form in time.”
- Why didn’t we fill out the form in time? “Because our coders didn’t have the necessary information to document the claim properly.”
- Why don’t we have the proper documentation? “Because our medical records systems do not sync up with our practice management system.”
- Why don’t they sync up? “Because they’re from two different vendors and these systems, don’t work together unless we program for it.”
- Why didn’t we program for it? “Because we don’t have the expertise, nor money to pay programmers to do that work.”
So, if I could give you a programmer who will connect these systems at a fee less than the amount of money you’re losing in three months, would that be something you’d consider?
See how powerful this technique is?
You may have to practice to be able to ask the right questions. We can help you with that practice.
The point is when you have a live meeting, keep asking questions until you – and the buying team – understand the cause of their problem and you can formulate a proposed solution. You can use SPIN or the “Five Whys?” approach, or both.
Would you like to know more about SPIN? Would you like to practice the “Five Whys?” before testing them out on your prospective clients? If so, contact us here and we can help.