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Passion, People and Principles

If they won’t talk to you

post # 10 — January 31, 2006 — a Client Relations post

Andreas Steinert asks:

In your new article “Marketing is a Conversation” you say “You can’t really write a proposal until you find out which version of success a client wants with this project”. Working in Germany as a PR consultant for more than 20 years I fully agree to this. But in the past five years or so I feel it is getting more and more difficult to get close enough to potential clients to hear their personal views on their objectives and their ideas of success.

An increasing number of companies tend to follow an ideal of “objective” and “not personally influenced” decision-making processes. So we have to cope with poor briefings, short presentation (not discussion) sessions and remarks that alternative proposals are not allowed at all (especially with public tenders.) More and more decisions are made without personal dialogue and information only obtained by exchanging papers. Is this also happening in the US market?

What has worked is the “long” way: getting to know potential clients in a situation not directly related to jobs or projects or having a personal contact to a potential. And then after months or years being invited to present oneself.

What has failed is the “normal” way: coming in face-to-face contact with potential clients with a credentials presentation, a first short proposal related to the briefing and than talking briefly about the whole stuff.

The problem with this is that the chances to win get increasingly reduced to situations where you’ve got a personal relation before and beside the official business request.

You no longer can count on being a well-known professional service company.

As consultants, we seem to have only a choice of the “Here’s our firm’s approach (and proposal)” gamble that you warn us against in the article, or the “No proposal without discussion” gamble that might seem arrogant and evasive. Do you see a third way?

What you describe is happening every part of the world in every profession.

My thinking is that if a client or prospect is going to follow a purely paper-based process, then either the decision is already made and they are just going through the pretence of considering others (because their regulations require it), or else it’s going to be a price-based decision.

It’s certainly not going to be decided on trust, and it’s unlikely to be based on a sensible, thorough comparison of 5 100-page formal statements of qualifications and proposals from 5 different firms. Have you ever tried to compare 5 100-page documents? It can’t be done! You know what’s going to happen: they are going to reduce all 500 pages to a single page of 5 columns, comparing the key dimensions of all 5 proposals only by what can fit on that one page, and presented to the key decision-maker. He or she will never even see your proposal. They are going to decide it on price.

So, if they are going to do that, give them what they want. Come up with a price (one that will make you a decent profit) and invest an absolutely minimal amount of time writing the proposal. (There’s no point investing time on things that aren’t going to make a difference.)

I’d also probably say in the proposal something like “To minimize the cost to you of doing this project we have made the following assumptions about what you are looking for. If our assumptions are incorrect, please let us know, and we will resubmit our proposal. If what you wish the project to achieve changes from these assumptions after it has begun, we will need to negotiated a change in our estimates or fees.” (If they can be formal, so can you! Two can play at that game.)

If they accept it, fine. If the work goes to someone who bid lower, then you’re OK, because who would want to win work on which you can’t make a decent profit? I assume you are not a charity, and do have a family to support.

There is another way, the one that I prefer. If someone asks you to write a proposal, think carefully about whether the potential work is exciting enough and the client is interesting enough. If these tests are met, then say something like: “I recognize that I need to work to earn and deserve your business. I must also give you the opportunity to judge my worth and whether or not we have the right chemistry to work together.”

“So, let me make the following offer. Name the time and the place, and I’ll happily donate a day of my services for free, with no obligation. We can spend that day exchanging views, exploring topics of interest to you. I’ll share my knowledge and experience with you, answering any question you have. At the end of that day you can decide whether or not you still want me to participate in a competitive proposal and I can decide if I wish to pursue the opportunity with you.”

If the client or prospect accepts, then you have hit a home run. You will win the business with one day’s investment, which is a lot less than you would have done spend on preparing and presenting the proposal.

And if they don’t accept your offer, well you can always go back to plan B described above: invest minimal time and send them a number.

1 Comment

Shawn Callahan said:

We used this approach with a new client and last week we started working on a knowledge strategy for them. Yes, we had to compete for the work but after winning we were told that we were the only company who demonstrated we knew their business and our proposal was way ahead of the rest. On top of that we weren’t the cheapest.

posted on May 6, 2006