Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Less or more. Are businesses seeking opportunities in your backyard?

The recession is hurting. That much we know. There are businesses going out of work and unemployment is rising.

So some businesses are in survival mode, hoping to be around in two years time...and maybe their competition won't be.

So does this mean that when opportunities come along there is less competition or more? I think more. Some businesses are doing well. not just surviving, but thriving. What are they doing that you can't do?

Many of them are willing to change their business model, finding new ways of working and new markets. They are responding and being pro-active...and being efficient at the same time.

Instead of going into survival mode...which doesn't breed confidence in your customers, what can you do that's cheap, innovative and new. Like those new entrants that you find yourself pitching against - where can you find a new market to start submitting your proposals?

Your strategy needs to be to highlight your strengths in your existing market, as an established business, whilst selling a different message of freshness in new markets. It's not an easy balancing act, but it's why every proposal needs to establish it's win themes and be carefully customised to every individual opportunity.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Book Review: Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion

Yes! is a book with three authors, which had me a little worried, after all can three people collaborate on a small volume like this successfully?

The answer is in the title - yes! Quite simply this is a book of information gems. 50 of them, each presented with enough data about the reasoning and research behind each point to validate it completely, yet not academic enough to be boring.

Each chapter takes a single persuasive element, builds up a reference point around it, shares research to back up the reasoning and then before you know're at the next chapter. Nothing is overdone, so you don't get bored reading it. Some of the stories you may have heard before - maybe it's the one about the study on the use of hotel towels, maybe it's the example about starting prices on eBay...

My personal favourite is entitled "Why should restaurants ditch their baskets of mints?". We all know of the restaurants that have a bowl of mints by the exit - well it turns out why there are a lot of reasons why it could be better to give them out in different ways. It's a good example of how Yes! doesn't rely on old war stories from sales people, or possibly apocryphal stories with non-verifiable facts.

Yes! quotes research from behavioural scientist David Styrohmetz and some research he did to investigate what difference receiving a sweet at the end of the meal would make to the waiter's tips. There was a control group where no sweet was given.

Group one received the sweet at the end of the meal and tips went up 3.3 per cent. Group two received two sweets and the tip went up 14.1 per cent...not bad. Most people would stop there...but this book is about persuasion. So group three were all given one sweet, then as the waiter left, they turned around and gave each diner another sweet. Magic...and increase of 23 per cent.

The strength in the book is in the explanation of why? You can understand simply why increasing the gift from one sweet to two increases a tip, but both group two and group three both get two sweets. However, the difference is in the way it was presented. Firstly, it was a surprise - the waiter had turned to leave. Secondly, the waiter by appearing to choose to give an extra sweet to this particular table made it seem like he especially liked them and the table wished to reciprocate.

Yes! doesn't try to be a book on persuasion for any particular reason. It's not a book about better negotiation, better sales or how to write a proposal. It steers clear of practical application and context. Until the end that is. The last three of chapters add some useful elements. Firstly, looking at influence in the twenty-first century - for example looking at email communication. There's a short chapter on ethical influence and lastly some real world examples of the science of persuasion in action.

I mentioned that Yes! has three authors - Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin and Robert B Cialdini. They all deserve credit for making a book that's an entertaining read - it would have been so easy to be overly academic and over-long. As it is, it's easy to dip into and pick up some ideas and then come back to it later for another dip. Recommend it? Yes!

Buy Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion from Amazon now.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Proposal horror stories...and the lessons learnt

So here are two of my favourite proposal horror stories. OK, one of them involves a presentation.

1. A company decides to use a junior member of staff to put together a proposal for a division he knows nothing about. They give him one day to do it, with instructions to assemble the document purely from past proposals. At the end of the day (yes, after work), the division head will turn up, edit the proposal (with the junior proposal writer still there, of course) and then it will get submitted the following day.

Well...the executive summary taken from another proposal still had the client's name from the earlier proposal in it when it was submitted...guess who was blamed?

I think many people who have put proposals together will recognise the bad practice here - leaving the proposal to the last minute, relying on someone who has no idea what the proposal is about to put it together, not allowing adequate time for proofreading and quality review. The problem could have been avoided by planning a proposal response as soon as the proposal was known about, with the proposal sections allocated to suitably qualified individuals. The junior team member could still have been responsible for managing the process and assembling the document.

Oh...and don't have the wrong client name in your proposal. Clients really don't like it.

2. It's a presentation for a medium sized government IT contract. It's down to the last two companies. Company A, a large multi-national IT and telecoms company goes first. Then Company B, a small IT specialist. Company B is told later on in the afternoon that they won. They ask for feedback. "Well..." starts the client."...your pricing was almost identical. The solution you offered was very similar. You both understood exactly what we wanted and could deliver in the timeframe." "So what swung it our way?" they asked, assuming that their exceptional client relationship skills had won the client over. The client continued "They came in and set up their computer for the presentation, they handed out expensively produced brochures with the solution detailed. And then they told us that they had left the presentation on the computer at the office". Boom! and there went six weeks work on a proposal and on such things are decisions made.

Lesson: When you go on holiday do you keep reminding yourself "tickets, passport, wallet"? Prepare for your presentations thoroughly and always check that you have everything you need.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Incentivize your bid team...and why not incentivize everyone?

Look through the job adverts - or perhaps you are even writing the job adverts?

Here are the salary highlights from two jobs posted today on an online jobs board:

1) Business Development Manager: BASIC £65K, OTE £100K+
2) Bid Manager: Salary: £45,000.00 - £45,000.00 GBP per year

Why do sales people get incentivised to perform yet bid teams often don't? OK - sales people are the ones generating leads and opportunities, but old on...that's their job. They are paid commission for closing the sale. And what do many businesses require before they are willing to sign the contract? That's right a proposal.

So if an integral part of your future business is in the hands of the bid team, do they not deserve some incentives too? How many members of a bid team have worked late, or even over the weekend to make sure that the proposal gets out of the door? And what did you get if that proposal was successful?

Sales structures within organisations have changed. There is more reliance on proposal writing as part of the capture process and just because proposal teams are not out chasing clients, that doesn't mean that they aren't integral to your success. Sales people are no longer the sole champion of winning new business.

Getting clients isn't easy - so I'm not prescribing getting rid of incentives for sales staff, but rather that incentives should be part of the proposal teams role. When it's late on the Wednesday night and the proposal team has to put in a few more hours before they go home, they will be more excited about doing a good job and creating a winning proposal - rather than just getting the damned thing out of the way - if they know they are being rewarded. And that means everyone in the bid team, not just the Bid Manager.

This should be taken further throughout the whole business. Reward and incentivise staff to do better work (not just the work they are paid to do). It might seem easy just now to pick up employees at the lowest rate and work them hard because they don't want to lose their job. But believe me, are they wanting to deliver above and beyond what is required? Will they move off as soon as a better opportunity comes along, leaving you with the costs of re-hiring?

Why not incentivise them for doing a better job? Finishing project early, with better quality? Coming up with new ideas? Suggesting new projects to the client? (How many project add-ons result from project teams with no sales involvement, yet the project team gets nothing and the sales person gets commission?).

Incentives will help you deliver a better product and happier customers in the hard times and have you better prepared for bigger successes when new opportunities emerge.

Friday, July 10, 2009

When a sales strategy really matters

I was watching Gerry's Big Decision last night a programme where Sir Gerry Robinson decides whether or not to provide angel funding for businesses that are about to hit the skids.

One of those businesses was fairly local to me  - HJ Berry Furniture maker. It's England's oldest chair maker and indeed I have some of their furniture in my house and I can vouch for the fact that it's of the highest quality and will last. The other was a pie and pasty maker in Devon. The pies looked good. If smelly-vision existed I may have ended up eating the TV.

So both businesses have good product, but aren't selling enough. One understandable in a recession (high-end furniture), the other less so (high-quality, low-price food).

There were three things in the show that amazed me.

1) Both businesses, struggling for revenue had an incredibly lax attitude to sales. Poor quality, ill-prepared sales people that seemed willing to do sales calls without any planning whatsoever. Where's the sales strategy, target customers, key account planning?

2) Berrys - oblivious to an incentivised approach to sales. The sales model isn't working...the economy has changed...the competition has changed...the way people buy has changed. Do something different, don't just expect it to fall out of the air.

3) The Managing Director's pitch to House of Fraser. I'm sure that this was a very difficult thing to do in front of TV cameras and with the pressure of Gerry Robinson being there...and it may well have been a last minute thing. Plus of course we only see the bits that they want to broadcast.

But, going to a major pitch on your own and just talking about the product as if you'd only read the brochure 5 minutes before. Talk about the customers of House of Fraser and why they want to buy the furniture. Be prepared about the questions on seat coverings...take a pack of swatch samples down. Highlight the USP - the oldest chair maker in the country with stylish chairs that last...and why not guarantee it. Anticipate the question.

And would you ever go alone to a major pitch? No, neither would I.

All in all it's examples like these that demonstrate that sales skills aren't very good across a range of businesses...or at least there is a reluctance to learn and practice. All major pitches should be rehearsed. You may spend four weeks on a proposal, but only an hour "putting some slides together". If you are at the presentation stage, take it a little seriously.

If you have the product, get the sales effort right and it will sell. If the sales element of your business isn't right, there are very few products out there that are good enough to compensate for it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

How to write a business proposal when you are an individual

A recent article looked at how to approach writing a business proposal as a small business and the techniques that you can use to manage proposal development that are similar to those used by larger businesses that have a dedicated proposal development team or strategic proposal centre.

But what if you are an individual consultant pitching for new business, or perhaps a start-up that has a handful of people working for it, all trying to do everything they can to make the business a success? In these situations the people involved have to use a range of skills that probably aren't what they are in business for. And sales, marketing and especially proposal writing is a skill that many people will need for all their business life, yet they will always consider it a chore that takes them away from their "real" job.

Yet without a good sales strategy, without a good proposal there may be no real job.

One of the benefits about being an individual is that you can keep proposals short. There is usually no requirement to submit corporate accounts and policies - you can concentrate on the client requirement. And it's often the case that you have a relationship with that client, so you will know and understand the requirement well.

What you want to get across in your proposal is a demonstrable benefit to the client, your credibility and suitability for the job and pricing - including a simple return on investment calculation. It's based on my simple formula for persuasion:

Benefits + Credibility + Value (ROI) = Persuasion

Keeping your proposals straightforward using testimonials from your other clients, making it clear not only what you will do, but what positive impact it will have and why it is money well spent will get you business. And as long as you have the ability to demonstrate these things, then it shouldn't take long to put them together.

Sometimes though you may still want to get professional help, but can't afford daily rates of a consultant. That's why Learn to Write Proposals offers a service that lowers the upfront cost of proposal development substantially and then rewards us if the proposal is successful - that is when you have more business and have the cash available. It's a risk reward for us - we believe in our proposals so we are prepared to back this up by asking for a small upfront fee and take a win bonus only if the proposal is successful.

Everyone wins - we get clients that we previously wouldn't work with, you get a better proposal and the client gets an improved presentation of the solution and benefits.

It's how an individual, start-up or micro-business can benefit from professional proposal development techniques and writing just like any other business.

If you would like more information, then please get in touch with us here.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

When two pages can be better than forty when you write a business proposal

When you are writing a business proposal it can be in response to a "Request for Proposal" (or "Invitation to Tender") - that is, a re-active proposal - one that is reacting to an event from the buyer. Or you can write a pro-active proposal - one that you present to a buyer without waiting for them to ask several potential suppliers for competitive proposals.

A pro-active proposal may be used to help define a business case for a particular project - the client may not have realised the benefits of changing to your particular brand of widgets, for example. But what is the best format for a pro-active proposal? Of course it depends on the complexity and nature of your products, but in many ways the pro-active proposal is there to serve one of two purposes.

1) To provide the client with a written follow-up to sales activity
2) To gain attention of a client prior to sales activity

Undoubtedly if you have had existing sales calls and the client wishes to move ahead, then you need to write a proposal that provides complete details of the product or service you offer and all the accompanying terms and descriptions of your offer - a full proposal.

But if you are sending a proposal into a business that you have no agreement with, is that going to work? No. For two main reasons.

Firstly: it's too big a document for anyone to be interested in reading. Sure, it may be interesting but it's going in the bin.
Secondly: it isn't customised to the client's situation and requirements. So how can you provide the details when you don't know them?

What can work though, is a well presented letter proposal, used as a marketing tool. Rather than sending the glossy brochure out, that's also likely to end up in the circular file next to the desk, send a personalised letter.

You may not know the customer's need, but you should be able to find out the decision makers name. And your letter can get straight to the point of highlighting the benefits you can offer. Not just the generic benefits of your solution (again, you don't know their situation, so think carefully about the client benefits?) but the benefits of having you come in and having a discussion.

A sales letter can be a powerful tool, and more people are likely to read a personalised letter than read a glossy brochure. Make it short and powerful - it's a sales tool, so why not include some proposal power words? Have a clear call to action at the end (what they can do) and also a statement about what you will do (when you will call to follow up).

A sales letter won't work every time, but in certain situations they can be a very powerful tool that is easy to create, cheap to send out and gets results.

Find out more about writing sales letters here, and if you would like help in writing your sales letter, get in touch.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

How to kill yourself before you have begun

A new can give you huge marketing leverage...under $125.

OK - we've all seen advertisements like this online or in our inbox. And sometimes we've bought that software or service. There are some tools I've bought that I find pretty useful, others that well, let's say didn't live up to my expectations.

But to get you to buy the product you need a compelling sales message, one that instils confidence and trust in the client. So would you trust the software code based on this manufacturers message on their website? And do you believe them based upon what they write?

This could possibly be a good product, but how many people are going to risk it and find out based upon something so simple to get right as spelling and grammar. A few typos I think we all forgive, but this makes me wonder whether to laugh or cry. I mean "cum on, call me" makes me think that a different product is being offered entirely.

No bull,, no crap--(sic) I think this is the worst marketing message I have ever seen.

This is an extreme case of spelling getting in the way of the message. Don't ever let it get in the way of yours. Most of these errors would be picked up by spell check and the rest should be caught by a quick proofread. It's a reminder to us all to allow time to check the simple things.

Is quality review built in to your sales and proposal development process? Or is it something that gets done if you have time?

Do you plan time for a dedicated proof-reader when you have completed your proposals?

Do you have a style guide for them to follow?

Have you ever had a spelling error highlighted by a client? At best it's embarrassing. At worst it's lost you business.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Seth Godin about books...and Learn to Write Proposals on proposals

Seth Godin, one of those people (whose blog you should read even if it's not about your field of work specifically had a post about book covers today. You can read it here, or I've included it below.

As I often do, I thought about parallels with
proposals. A proposal cover doesn't have the same power as a book cover - it may have visual or graphic impact, but more often than not it's goal is to look professional and to provide identity to the contents inside and the brand values  of the organisation that is submitting it.

But if the blurb of a book cover is what provides the catch, the hook, the interest that gets us to spend our hard earned money to see what the rest of the book says maybe that's what the executive summary in a proposal should do. A good executive summary should generate enough interest in the reader to make them want to read the rest of your proposal.

But the ways your executive summary achieve this are very different.
  • Solving problems - you demonstrate a clear understanding of the need and how to resolve it
  • Credibility - you can show authority and make the client trust you
  • Value - the benefits you bring to the client are worth more to the client than the costs you propose
  • Proven - you have done it before
  • Visual - graphics help get things noticed and increase understanding and interest. What can you graphically represent to notch up the interest level.
There are surely others...what can you do in your executive summaries to make the reader want to read the rest of the proposal? Because some people deciding whether to give you the business may not judge you on your proposals cover...but they will judge you on your executive summary.

Is the purpose of the cover to sell books, to accurately describe what's in the book, or to tee up the reader so the book has maximum impact?

The third. It's the third because if the book has maximum impact, then word of mouth is created, and word of mouth is what sells your product, not the cover. Tactically, the cover sells the back cover, the back cover sells the flap and by then you've sold the book. If those steps end up selling a book that the purchaser doesn't like, game over. So you have to be consistent all the way through and end up creating a conversation after the purchase. Books are better at creating conversations than most products (when was the last time you talked about a pool cue), but there's lots of opportunity here, no matter what you make.

Some ways that a book cover can accomplish its mission:

  • Iconic (because iconic items tend to signal 'important')
  • Noticeable across the room (you see that lots of other people own it, thus making it likely that you'll want to know why)
  • Sophisticated (because this helps reinforce that the ideas inside are worthy of your time)
  • Original (why bother reading a book you already know)
  • Clever
  • Funny
  • Generic (reminding you of a genre or another book you liked, not generic as in boring)

I don't know about you, but I judge books by their cover every day.

P.S. "Books are better at creating conversations than most products"...most products maybe, though not mobile phones...especially if it starts with an i...