Our sales activity is one of the key pillars of strategy for any small business it’s important not just to think about what we want to communicate. We also have to consider the perception that we want to create with our potential client. 

Over the years, many times I’ve been asked to make a proposal, sometimes in answer to a formal “RFP” (request for proposal), or as a conclusion to an initial sales discussion. Businesses are only ever asked to complete an RFP when they competing with others, and usually, if they are then shortlisted, a more formal tender for the work may follow. Even if these formalities (and the overhead in preparatory time) aren’t requested in your markets, or industry, doesn’t change that some form of a proposal is always competing in your potential client’s mind for the decision to go ahead. Every proposal competes with inaction, not buying your service or your product, and many by comparison with other competitors. You may not even be aware of the prospect, yet you still have a proposal with them, either made by word of mouth, or communicated in a newsletter, website, or on social media.

I’ve also worked many times with clients to support those more formal tender applications. On some occasions, I’ve been asked to run a tendering process for clients too. I realised through this work that the product or service isn’t the differentiator, it’s just a hygiene factor. If the clients believe in the need for the type of product or service you are offering then in most cases that part of the selection process has already taken place. Yet, so many focus on convincing the client of the need for it, rather than addressing other the consequences of that choice. There is a tendency to focus on the wrong decision point. Whilst it is also true that price and terms and conditions can have some bearing, and they certainly must be part of the offer, will they be the sole deciding factor? That too isn’t borne out by experience. When I’ve run these competitions the key thing that is sought is a ‘feeling’ – a feeling that it will be the right choice, the consequences will meet expectations. More than that is the need to feel that the people are the right people, that there will be a good working environment, and that the relationships will be positive and enduring. That feeling, the perceptions of what the future will be like, really matter. How do we create those perceptions? It’s our actions and our behaviour that matters most. 

Whenever I’ve been involved in a tender or RFP process, there always seem to be many questions to answer. Some detail of the requirements will be specified, but the questions will range more widely than that. The same is true with informal sales conversations isn’t it? The customer explores our offering, and shares his needs and desires. Are they just exploring the product? Or are they testing “chemistry” and our ability to deliver to a specification? 

Many years ago when I was a university student I was involved with the Union Committee, part of our work then was to look after the bands that were coming to play at the university. The concerts were a highlight of student life and we saw many fantastic acts, but most had contracts with odd conditions in them. “A bowl of smarties but no blue ones” was one request. We put out the smarties but didn’t remove the blue ones. The band arrived. “Ah, so now we know that you can’t read!” said one of them, and we all thought he was being something of a prima donna. He sent his roadie team to check every aspect of the stage, the lighting, the mics, the position of the sound deck and more. All of which was also specified in the contract. Those things really mattered for the band, and if we can’t read about smarties, or can’t be bothered, then what else had we missed. That day taught me the importance of reading a specification and not making assumptions about what was important, and what wasn’t. It was a great concert. They ate all the Smarties, including the blue ones.  

When I’ve run tenders. I’m always explicit about the time that people should arrive, and I tell them not to arrive earlier. Then I explain how long they will have for their presentation, who will attend, the agenda we expect them to follow and the equipment that will be available to them. 

How often do people really pay attention to “minor” details like that? It’s surprisingly rare. Do they give them the right level of importance compared to, for example, explaining a company history, that may be interesting (to them, mostly) but is fundamentally irrelevant in most cases? Again usually not. 

Specifying a particular time avoids the embarrassment of meeting others in the lobby. Come early to find out who you are up against, then you probably won’t get the business.  Some assume certain equipment will be available. What is available is in the brief, if I don’t mention cables, it’s because they won’t be there. Why would anyone want to work with a company that cannot meet what the business wants?

We tell our children to read the brief, it’s good advice, but sometimes the brief isn’t written. Then you can always explore the brief in conversation with a prospect, write down what you understand it to be and send it to them for confirmation. If you have to validate something, do it professionally. 

Turn up on time, stick to and deliver the brief and where possible exceed expectations with your content, style, humour, humanity and honesty. Trust me, if you simply do what the specification says at the time it’s says to do it you will have already exceeded expectations. 

Because actions, always speak louder than words.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

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2 Comments

  1. Lesley Morrissey

    The challenge with reading briefs (and tenders) is that they are often long, formal, pompous – and boring! It’s easy to start skimming and miss things. It’s the reason that most of us don’t read all the T&Cs before ticking that box, if we did we’d get nothing done – or sign up for very little.

    When will practical, simple T&Cs, briefs, tenders, etc take over from the over-legalised versions?

    Reply
    • William Buist

      Long and boring is how so many seek to hide things. I bristle at that! Software licences are so ridiculous that nobody does read them and the end result of that is that, at least in the UK, any of the terms which were unfair or unbalanced would be deemed unenforceable. So why have them?

      We do need a different outlook, one that is collaborative, not combative, supportive, not suspicious, trusting, not tiring.

      Reply

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