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Proposals, tenders and sales

As lockdown lifts and we all get back to work, stalled and new projects are coming back to life.

Whatever you call it – proposal, tender, sales document, pitch RFP response – everywhere we look, people are issuing briefs, writing proposals and negotiating terms.

The opportunity to put your offer in writing usually comes after a period of business development: research, discussions and relationship building. It’s an important moment for any company. It’s the moment you get to shine in front of a potential client.

Here’s what we know about proposals, tenders and sales and our best advice for handling each.

Types of proposal

We like to be clear about language so everyone is talking about the same thing. Here’s how we talk about it, internally and with our clients.

Expression of interest.

A generic document that introduces your company and gets a conversation going. Goes by many names: information pack, about us, brochure, credentials.

Tender

Often a response to a formal procurement request, usually one that involves public money. Structured, bureaucratic, form filling – not much room for creative licence.

Proposal

A response to a brief – here’s how we can help you, why you would choose us, what we would charge and when we could deliver. This takes effort

Pitch

This is either the whole process, from expression of interest to signing a contract. Or it’s that magical moment when you present your ideas and recommendations to a prospective client.

Fee proposal

A short proposal, straight to the point, with scope of work and fees only.

For a small piece of work, this can sometimes be enough. For a large piece of work, it can be used to clarify the final negotiations. It’s always essential.

 

Deciding whether to pitch…

Receiving a brief or a request for a proposal happens all the time. Let’s be clear: you cannot respond to everything because you cannot do everything for everyone. But how do you know if this opportunity is for you?

Always get the potential client on the phone and talk to them. You need to get to know each other first. Find out:

  • How many others are pitching (that’s your % chance of winning)
  • What they usually spend on this kind of work (that’s your budget)
  • Who they are using / have used in the past and what they liked about them (or not)
  • What they really need (there’s always an emotional driver).

And then apply the 4Fs test:

 Fun             Will you enjoy doing the work, with this client?

 Future         Will the work lead to something else?

Fortune       Will it make a profit?

Fame           Will it make you look good? Create a case study / some PR that you’ll be proud of?

If the opportunity ticks three of those four boxes, and there’s a more than 50% chance you’ll win it, jump all over it. If not, walk away.

Getting these steps right will ensure that you know why you’re in the room. Is it because they want to work with you, or are you there as a benchmark?

Claire Leaman, Director at business development advisors Bee2Bee Consultants, says “there’s nothing wrong with being the outsider – it can still be a brilliant opportunity to put your sales message in front of a target client – but adjust your strategy accordingly.

And don’t forget to keep an eye on how much you spend on creating the proposal – time and ideas are not free. This is how you measure your cost of sales.

 

Know your audience

Whatever stage you’re at, you must understand your audience. Who is reading this and what are they going to do with it?

An expression of interest is likely to be passed around, waved in the air or under noses. Looking good is essential as most readers will scan it looking for other companies you’ve worked for and key words of confirmation of bias. Invest in some professional graphic design!

Also consider having your proposals, RFPs, tenders and expressions of interest copy edited. This is different to proofing as it checks for context and meaning. A copy editor will ensure your words make sense.

Helen, our Head of Content, says… “Get it proofed! And factor this time into your sales process so it’s not a rushed job. It’s a sign of professionalism, it reflects your precision and care, and it makes you look good!

A tender is likely to be sliced up and given to different people to review. The procurement manager will check that you’ve answered all the questions properly, a project manager will review your methodology, a regional director will want to see case studies and references. Check that your brand is on every page and that it’s structured with this in mind.

A proposal would usually go straight to the decision maker(s). They want to know that you’ve read and responded to the brief. And more – as the expert, you should know more than they do and have added value already. You’ve probably done half the strategy and planning work by this stage already (make sure you’re billing for it later).

 

Put your best foot forward

Whether you have a bid team to put it together for you or you’re doing it from home on a Sunday afternoon, creating a winning proposal document doesn’t just happen.

A sustained marketing focus will ensure that you have the right capability statements, case studies and presentation materials at your fingertips, all in the correct house style. You should have access to a library of relevant statements, from “why choose us” through to company policies. And a suite of graphic assets that you can adapt to this particular context – a methodology is often better communicated graphically than in prose.

Helen’s top tip: always, always have some else proofread your proposal. “A professional proof reader is a very different thing to the office grammarian. So consider outsourcing it. They deeply know their grammar. They’ll pick up things you and I haven’t ever heard of and their beady eyes will spot a typo a mile off.”

Fresh eyes will spot grammar errors, repetition, inconsistencies in your tone of voice – as well as checking that you’ve actually answered the questions.

 

Cost of sales

Bringing in new work costs money. You invest time (your team), money (graphic design, a copy writer, printing) and emotion. And that investment needs to come from somewhere.

This is where we enter the realm of data. Track the time spent and set up a project that can capture the investment you make. At a minimum, the project fees or budget should include this investment. If your win rate is below 50%, you need to double that.

Clients beware: a long, drawn-out, inefficient tendering process will cost you money.

 

Conversion

The real magic trick lies in converting a proposal into real work.

Claire recommends staying in regular touch and giving your potential client the benefit of the doubt. “A delay in making a decision to commit isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Whether it’s internal politics, cashflow issues or something outside their control, if the work is coming your way it will happen when it’s meant to.” She counsels a positive tone and reciprocity.

“It’s not all about the work they’re going to give you; it’s also about what you can do for the client, how you can help.”

Keep on adding value. Don’t become a nag. And set the relationship off as you mean to continue.

Our Operations Manager Sarah has transformed conversion and onboarding at Luma, insisting on a signed contract and a deposit invoice before anyone can start work. She takes over and brings a formal professionalism to proceedings.

“A client who never quite gets round to signing the contract and hasn’t paid the deposit by the time your next invoice goes out isn’t one you want to keep” she says.

 

Done well, your sales process leads your business, providing structure to your work and your operations, and helps you deliver brilliant work and a fantastic client experience.

What do you do before the work begins to ensure brilliance later?

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