In an economic downturn, many agencies jump at the opportunity to submit a proposal to a potential client. It’s a chance to book some new business, and besides, who can resist the adrenaline rush that usually goes along with the prospect of an impending new client win?
Proposals, however, can be huge time wasters. The problem is that some clients who are not serious buyers will ask for a written proposal, while others may prematurely ask for a proposal before the proper steps have been worked through and the right relationships established. Furthermore, your willingness to write a proposal too quickly will actually position you as a ‘supplier’ rather than a strategic, in-demand consultant who is discerning about the work you will take on. You need to cover all the right areas during the business development process to ensure a successful sale and a fruitful relationship.
Here are 8 prerequisites for submitting a proposal to a new or existing client:
1. You are certain this is the right client and issue for you and your agency. ??Is this the right sort of client—in terms of size, complexity, location, or potential to create a conflict of interest with other clients—given your strategy? Is the client with whom you will work an effective, respected individual in his or her organisation? Do you need this new sector experience to break into new territories?
2. You have a thorough understanding of the issues you are being asked to solve and a sense of the business goals or needs which are influencing them. This could happen in one conversation, but more likely will only unfold over two or three discussions. ?
3. You and the client have agreed on the specific objectives of the work—on the outcomes that are sought. ?
4. You understand the client’s buying process. Usually, you will have to ask about this. It is completely appropriate to ask questions such as:?? “Can you talk me through your decision-making process?”?? or “Who will approve the budget for this work?”?? or “Who makes the final decision about selecting an agency to work with?”?? or “Can you share with me your decision-making timetable?”?? or “May I ask what other agencies you are talking to?”?
5. You have spoken to or met with the budget holder. This person can make the decision to appoint you. This could be a brand manager or the CEO. Often, the first person that calls you is not the budget holder. He or she is a user-buyer (someone who is screening agencies, who can say “No” but not “Yes”) or a client executive who would work with you on the engagement but cannot make the decision to hire someone. ??The worst mistakes made during the sales process are often around the identity and role of the budget holder. Sometimes, people think they know who the budget holder is when they actually do not, and on other occasions they just don’t focus in on this critical buying influence, and end up wasting huge amounts of time writing a proposal that never gets a true hearing. ?
6. You understand what is most important to the client—in other words, what particular value they are seeking. ?? For example: Is speed critical? How important is cost? Do they want a bespoke solution? What about quality—do they need a strong project management team? Is this a one-off project or is the client looking for a longer-term relationship? Which aspect of your proposed approach does the client most value??
7. You have discussed the essential elements of your proposal with the client. Before you submit a written proposal, you must, as author Alan Weiss puts it, achieve “conceptual agreement” about what’s going to be in it. You might say, “Before I send you this proposal, I’d like to meet with you to talk through our basic approach with you. That way I can get your reactions and input before finalising it.”?
8. You have an agreement to discuss the proposal with the client after you submit it. “I’m sending the proposal over later today. If it fits into your diary, I’d like to set up a meeting later this week so we can discuss it. “??You don’t want to spend a lot of time writing a proposal, and then send it into a black hole. Schedule a phone call or face-to-face meeting to put the client on the hook to read the proposal and share his or her reactions with you.
I’m sure we can all still remember waiting, as the weeks rolled by, to hear from a prospective client about a proposal we had given them, only to be told that the boss of that person’s boss—whom we’ve never met—had vetoed it.
Just because business is scarce doesn’t mean you should jump at every opportunity to write a proposal. On the contrary, you should focus on those opportunities that make the most sense for you and then double-down on them. This means investing to understand your client’s business and key issues, treating them as if they are already a client, and adding significant value during the selling process.