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PROPOSALS…HUNH! YEAH! What are they good for?

(ACTUALLY? Not a whole lot.)

I work with a lot of service firm owners and there’s one thing they all hate, and that’s writing proposals. They love meeting with prospects, identifying the problems the prospects are having, and talking about how they can help. But then they get back to their office and the work of actually writing the proposal is a grind. And it’s easy to see why when you look at the proposals themselves; they are (truly) works of ART! My clients will craft unique descriptions of the problem, then outline (step-by-painful-step) how their unique process™ will produce the solution their prospect is looking for. Then they add to that team bios, case studies, and all kinds of credibility materials, before finally adding the one thing the client cares about: the price.

Visit Edwin Starr — War to hear the song!

This process often takes a couple of hours and, in my experience, it’s a major detriment to landing new business. Let me say that again: I think that proposals are a detriment to new business. Think about it; when we are in the room with the prospect uncovering their challenges and opportunities we are excited — and the prospect is excited too! There is someone here who can solve these problems for me. Help is on the way!. In that moment there’s a strong momentum to move forward. And what do we do with that moment? We say, So, can I send you a proposal on that? I’ll tell you what our prospects are thinking. They’re thinking: That’s it? My business is on the line and you are going to send me a proposal? Ending on that note can be a major let down for the prospect, as well as add a major task to the agency owner’s plate.

The truth is (as Blair Enns says) YOU are the proposal! Your prospects that become customers are buying you, not your unique methodology™, or your beautiful proposal. Only you can deliver the value they are looking for.

And it gets worse; you get back to your office and NOW you have to write a proposal! You’re excited about this prospect, you want to help them, but: there’s a line of folks outside your door who need your help, your phone is ringing, and there’s 35 emails in your inbox. By the time all of that settles down it’s 6:30. Are you “ready” to write your proposal? Where did all that excitement go? Now it’s just one more chore standing in the way of you getting home.

My clients argue with me. They say there are a few situations where proposals are absolutely necessary.

When the hiring decision is made by a committee (and you can’t be there)

There are situations where there’s a major piece of work that you want to get, but you are not allowed to be in the room when the decision is being made. In that situation it’s important to have something that represents your best efforts to win this job. In that case we should put together a robust proposal, right? Okay, let’s consider it.

I’m assuming your objective is to stand out from the other “bids” that the committee is reviewing, right? So then, why would you send in a piece of paper (or worse yet, 20 pieces of paper) that look just like what all your competitors are sending in? I can hear it now, NO Brad, my proposals are DIFFERENT… I hate to break it to you but — if your proposals are words on a page, then I’m sorry, they aren’t “different”. Have you ever watched a prospect read a proposal? (Hint: They don’t.) Your proposal looks just like everyone else’s.

Now I’m going to break it down for you: if you can’t get in the room, winning the proposal is a lottery (UNLESS the people in the room know you). So you have to put yourself in the room! Send a video, an animation, a cardboard cut-out with a recording of your voice. Send something personal that’s actually different from what everyone else is sending. If doing so is “against the rules” then forget it. Tell the prospect that engagements that start off like this usually don’t go well (they don’t); that your offering isn’t a commodity that can be compared on a piece of paper (it isn’t); and that unless you can get to know the people you will be working with, you can’t evaluate the risk for you in the engagement (which is true).

The deal is mine, they just need to get 3 bids to make it “official”

If your prospect need 3 bids to make it official, then the deal isn’t yours. This is another attempt to make you into a commodity; as if there were 3 firms that could all solve this problem the same way, with the same expertise.

In your face-to-face conversation with the decision makers (you are talking to decision makers, right?) you need to get their agreement that your experience and capabilities make you unique and that the process you are proposing meets their need. You need an agreement on price (if I submit a proposal to you at $X, that price represents a value to you, right?), and the length of your proposal (since we’ve already agreed a simple one-page proposal will work for you, right?). Get these agreements and you’ll likely have a 50% shot at winning the deal. (Note: a 50% chance is not the same as “the deal is mine”.)

I just need a number from you so we can secure the budget

This is the best justification for a proposal. Your prospect is telling you they just need a number — perfect for the one page proposal! No need for something fancy. Be sure to ask the qualifying questions above, and then go for it.

In all other situations (assuming that you are sitting down face-to-face with the decision makers) the one page proposal is perfect. It puts the focus on you, and provides just enough information on the page for them to sign and say yes! See how easy this is?