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The real problem with a lot of proposals

by Andy Haynes  |  August 7/2014  |  ,

The real problem with proposals

Recently, at a business development conference, I ran into an old high school friend named John. While catching up over lunch he told me he’d spent ten years working for a large firm developing sales training programs. But then, a year ago, the company went through a down-sizing and he lost his job.

After a lot of thought John decided to turn his setback into an opportunity. His severance package bought him a year to try something he’d always dreamed of—starting his own business as a training consultant.

Trouble was, now he was nine months in and things weren’t going well.

Alarm bells

John had a few bites from former clients, but not enough to make a living. To keep the doors open he’d spent the last few months ‘chasing business.’ He’d pitched to companies in finance, construction, pharmaceuticals and IT. And he’d proposed all kinds of different sales training programs. You name it, he’d tried to sell it—but with little success.

That part of his story started alarm bells ringing.

I’d heard a similar story a few weeks earlier from Ilise Benun—a sought-after marketing consultant and creator of Marketing Mentor. The echoes between the two stories had me worried.

Behind the scenes with a bad proposal

Ilise’s story was about one of her clients, Dave, who’d come to her after struggling to get his consulting business going. As she said, “Dave was like lots of people who contact me—burnt out and pessimistic, because what they’ve tried isn’t working, and they’re not sure how to make it work.” Just like my friend John, Dave had lots of expertise and a broad range of abilities. But he needed to make money—today. That made him opportunistic—proposing whatever and whenever he could. But because he wasn’t usually working in his wheelhouse he failed to close on many proposals.

To help Dave, Ilise decided not to start with addressing how he developed his proposals. Instead, she began to work with him around what she saw as his real problem—a lack of clarity around his business concept. Clearly understanding what his business is—and what it isn’t—would help Dave focus on projects he could win—he’d waste less time, deliver greater value and make more revenue.

Just after starting to work with Ilise, Dave got a request for a proposal from a very large finance company—in an area he hadn’t worked in before.

Dave, who hadn’t yet clearly defined his business, took a crack at this proposal. When he showed it to Ilise, she saw problems. It looked too vague. The company wanted help making their out-bound communications more effective. But instead of describing specifically what he would do and how he would do it, Dave had given them a grab bag of all the marketing services he’d done with other clients—everything from creating blog content to mass market advertising to overall strategy. And none of it in any real detail.

He looked desperate and unfocussed.

He wasn’t going to get the job.

Landing business

Ilise knew that vagueness in a proposal could reflect vagueness in a person’s concept of their business. As she said, “The solution was to finish the business concept work we’d already started. You need to put the business fundamentals in place before you start doing proposals. You need to figure out who you are and who you want to pursue, then go to market.”

Specifically, if he wanted to land this client, Dave really needed to nail his unique value proposition.

Over the course of a couple of meetings they talked through what his real core competencies were—and Dave agreed that he really closed the most business and did his best work when he worked with clients to develop their overall communication strategies and then created specific plans for outbound messaging.

Those two activities became the cornerstone of his business concept.

So they went back to the proposal and reworked it, focusing on how he’d helped other clients define their communications strategy, and plan their communications for the next year. Staying in his wheelhouse kept him locked on to how he would work to accomplish the specific targets the client wanted to hit.

He came off clear and confident, and focused on the client’s needs.

Instead of over-promising and under-connecting with the client, Dave got clear—and after a couple of drafts, he got the client.

And his newfound clarity made him more focused going forward—which translated into getting more hits on other proposals. The result—his business took off.

The last word on John

As for John, he asked me for Ilise’s contact info. Over the next few weeks she helped him hammer out the details of his business concept. Instead of being a general sales training consultant, he defined himself as the expert on sales training for front line call centers. That’s where he had the most experience, and deep expertise. By positioning himself this way he could define his niche and set himself apart from his competitors. Armed with this clarity, he stopped jumping at every sales training opportunity he got wind of. Instead, he focused specifically on projects that aligned with his business concept. Now, when he did a proposal, he was able to draw on all his success with call center sales training and clearly demonstrate how his solutions could dramatically increase sales revenue for his clients. Instead of being vague and fluffy, his proposals were hard hitting and full of proof points. Any client reading one would easily see that John was their guy.

Soon John found himself closing more business and wasting less time. By the time his severance package ran out, he was earning more than he had as an employee.

About the author: Andy Haynes is a writer for FreshBooks. He is the co-author of two best-selling business books, a successful entrepreneur and business consultant.

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  • http://mattsears.com Matt Sears

    Thanks Andy, this is great. You mention you attended a business development conference and I was wondering if you can let us know which conference that was or if you can recommend any future business development conferences. Thanks!

  • Andy

    Hi Mat, thanks for the post! The HOW Creative Freelancer Conference that Ilise co-founded is a great one. I’ve also found the Entrepreneur Magazine Growth Conference and another called the Art of Sales useful…Worth checking out.

  • http://mattsears.com Matt Sears

    Great, thanks so much.

  • LiveCA

    Nailed it – deciding on ‘who to propose’ is certainly one of the biggest challenges when starting out. How do you turn down business when you also need to make a living (ie. eat)? As you point out, turning down business by focusing on the services you’re really good at will translate into a whole lot more of not only accepted, but profitable and successful proposals in the long term.


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