Sunday, June 7, 2009

Selling the Relationship All the Way to the End

Ideally, you've been building a relationship with the client well before the Request for Proposal is released. Even so, now you face a test. The client's procurement process isn't all that relationship friendly. Indeed, quite the contrary. It strives to be objective, impersonal, and impartial. It seeks to level the playing field. And you won't find strength of relationship among the selection criteria.

Of course, we know the process is hardly so dispassionate. As long as people are making the decision, personal factors will always come into play. That's why relationship usually trumps the formal criteria, although the client will rarely admit it. Nonetheless, the procurement process can erode some of your relationship advantage, if you have developed one.

Think about it: Proposals and presentations typically don't show us at our best. Most technical professionals are only passable writers and presenters. The comfort level, the informal human connection we forged with the client earlier is now temporarily subjugated to a rather artificial posturing. Real communication is compromised in favor of a formal exchange of pre-rehearsed facts and claims often devoid of the humanness that fosters relationship building.

Several years ago, I had something of a revelation about this. I was sitting around the table with my colleagues brainstorming our strategy for an upcoming proposal. Wow, I thought, these guys really understand this project. I can't imagine that anyone else is better qualified. If the client were in the room right now, we'd win this job hands down. But when they tried to translate their insights and enthusiasm into writing, something was missing. Happened every time. Same thing in shortlist presentations. Have you noticed that trend in your firm?

So I set about trying to figure out how to preserve the relationship advantage in the procurement process. How could I capture the essence of what I witnessed in those brainstorming sessions? Or in the meetings with the client before the RFP came out? Following are some strategies that have served me well over the years:


Keep the focus on the client. One of the greatest dangers in the procurement process is the temptation to shift the focus from the client to your firm. After all, doesn't the RFP ask for it? Don't fall into that trap. Of course, you need to be fully responsive to the client's request for qualifications information. But direct most of the attention in your proposal to the client's needs, goals, and priorities.

Address the working relationship. The client's perception of comfort and how well they'll be served by your firm is a huge selection factor, whether it's mentioned in the RFP or not. So capitalize on that fact by doing something most of your competitors won't: Talk about how you're going to ensure a good working relationship and serve the client well. Hopefully, you uncovered the client's service expectations during the sales process. But even if you haven't, don't ignore this important point of differentiation.

Use personal language written in a conversational tone. Most technical professionals write in a different language than they speak. It's stuffy, wordy, often unclear. It's absent personal pronouns such as "you" and "we." To avoid defaulting to what I call "technicalese," I advise visualizing your audience when writing. Imagine you're communicating directly to that person (or persons, hopefully) with whom you've been building a relationship because, well--you are!

Refer to earlier discussions with the client. For some reason, many proposals make no reference to previous conversations with the client. That's a mistake. These conversations give you distinct insight into what the client is thinking. They provide a solid foundation for a compelling proposal. Build on them. Plus mentioning your previous discussions with the client reinforces the relationship that you have been nurturing.

Share your thought process. Another strange omission that I've seen in many proposals is a reluctance to share ideas. I've even seen my colleagues withhold suggestions that they've previously made to clients in conversation. Why? The usual answer I get is something like, "Well, I need more information before I put it in writing." Sharing insights, ideas, and possible alternatives in your proposal doesn't commit you to anything. And I've learned from clients that they value your thinking as they're trying to identify the best solution (which includes picking the right firm).

Shortlist Interview

Incorporate dialogue into your presentation. Most technical professionals struggle to come across as authentic when asked to make a formal presentation. It's even more a problem, in my experience, in a smaller room with few people in the audience. It's unnatural. So why not talk with them instead of at them? I started merging conversation into shortlist presentations almost 20 years ago, and the strategy has been quite successful. Here's how: First, ask for permission to take this approach (the teams I've coached have only been denied once in all those years). Then preface key transitions in your presentation with a question or two of the client.

This invites more interaction, puts everyone more at ease, and helps keep your presentation on target. Of course, the downside is that you need to be willing to adjust your presentation to respond to audience input. But that's the nature of conversation, which is far more relationship friendly than one-way presentations.

Put your interview team in roles to succeed. Don't feel a compulsion to have everyone on your team make a presentation. Multiple speakers in a short presentation is awkward anyway, and some people are just plain awkward doing it. So ask them questions instead. Try to recreate some of the creative energy you witnessed in that earlier brainstorming session: "Jim, when we were talking about this earlier, you thought we could substantially improve air flow with an innovative design. Could you share those ideas with the group?"

Again, talk about the working relationship. This is even more effective when you can discuss this topic in person. I have been involved in major procurements where the client noted that our firm was the only one to talk about how we were going to serve them better. We outlined it in a specific service delivery process. One client, a major airline, said, "This is precisely the reason those other firms aren't working for us anymore. Why isn't anyone else talking about this?" How about your firm?

Tell the client how much you want to work with them. A study funded by SMPS a few years ago found that clients tended to favor the firm that seemed most interested in working with them in the interview. They noted how most firms tended to focus on the technical aspects of the project or their qualifications and failed to connect at a personal level. Very few, they said, simply asked for the job. Don't be afraid to express how much the project would mean to your firm, or to state how much you value the opportunity to work with the client. It can make a difference.

There are other strategies, of course, for continuing to build the relationship during the procurement process. I encourage you to share some that have worked for you. The main point is: Don't let the formal process throw you off the relationship focus. Regardless what the RFP or interview instructions may say, it's still the primary point of differentiation in most situations.

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