Don’t Propose: When the best proposal strategy is not to propose

If you’re guessing, maybe it’s best to sit one out

The call comes. “Greg, do you have time to come in and look over a proposal we’re putting together.” My answer to “do you have time” is always yes, but yet I hesitate because I know we won’t be just looking over a proposal.

Proposals should be the culmination of a thorough client discovery process bumped up against your firm’s capabilities. At a high-level it’s that straightforward, but in all but the most disciplined firms, there are a number of new opportunities being proposed without key information. It’s affecting close rates and making the business development team look ineffective. Let’s dig into what’s happening.

Developing opportunity, marshaling resources, mapping the decision process

From afar, this game is easy. The sales professional finds or is offered an opportunity, which they develop through expert communication. This can be either a problem needing to be solved, or a result needing to be achieved. We’ll call it the desired outcome. To design the right solution for the outcome we come to an understanding on the resources available/required to get it. Finally, before we can get to a decision, we need to understand the decision process, on both sides of the table. This leads to a formal proposal. Easy stuff.

When I jump into a proposal review, I am taking a look at the proposal through these three lenses, applying a rigorous criteria. Take note because this is some heavy stuff, but I’ve figured it out through years and years of training and reflection. Are you ready? Here goes:

Is this a guess?

The mantra of a strong sales culture is “no guessing.” If you don’t know the answer, ask. If you think you know the answer, check again. If you think someone else in the organization may have a different answer, find it.

No guessing.

Keeping this in mind, let’s outline some of the common hazards I find in a proposal review.

  • Underdeveloped opportunities. Every business measures something and outcomes can be expressed in these measurements. When companies go looking for a solution to a problem they have an idea about how the company will measure success. The thing they want “more” or “less” of. More cash flow, less turnover, more engagement, less lag time, etc. The easiest of these measures to uncover are the lagging ones, the ones at the end of the process. I check the proposal to make sure those measures are clear and the business case for the effort is included. If it’s not, I ask for it. If it is, I ask if the measures are from the client. If they are from the client, I ask if everyone in the decision process agrees the measures are correct and important. It’s taken years of practice, but I can hear hesitancy in a business development team from a mile away. I can almost smell it.
    If there is a hesitance, we’re probably guessing. Guesses aren’t bad, but they are weak points in the proposal. In college I worked at an oil refinery in the safety department. One of my summer jobs was to take a little sonar tool to the big holding tanks and go panel by panel over the surface, measuring thickness of each panel. If the panels were deemed to be too thin, a work order went in for their replacement because no one wanted to clean up thousands of gallons of oil if the tank failed. Reviewing the opportunity in the proposal is the same exercise. Are we ok with guessing? If we are, continue. If we aren’t, go find the answer before proposing.
  • Unrealistic resources. The resource most buyers and sellers focus on is money. How much will this cost? That’s the easiest number to find because it’s usually on the last page of the proposal. It’s harder to find the other two important resources. Time and people. The money available to fund the outcome is an important piece of information but the timeframe for the outcome is arguably more important. When I ask about money, when I ask about timeframes, or when I ask about the number and mix of people involved, I usually get answers. When I press on any of them, the guesses come squirting out like toothpaste from the tube.
    The guesses aren’t always clear by themselves. The guess shows up when we try to tie it to the outcome (opportunity). Is the investment enough to get the outcome? Is the timeframe realistic to get the outcome? Is the manpower needed enough to get the outcome? This is where the proposal can be clear, but the delivery is in jeopardy. It’s not guessing about the client that’s important here, it’s the internal guessing. If it sounds like someone is taking a shortcut or hoping for some improvement, we need to know it now. I’ve had a practice manager tell me the price, the timeframe, and the manpower needed to help the client was unrealistic, but they’re willing to take a lower margin on this business because of what the team will learn. Did the rest of the partners agree? If we’re not sure, do we need clarification or are we okay with ambiguity? I’m okay with ambiguity as long as we’re doing it on purpose.
  • Hidden decision makers. The journey of the proposal after it’s delivered to the prospect is often a journey into the unknown. With some work on the front end, it doesn’t have to be. My general criteria is if someone in the prospect’s organization is making a decision about our proposal, but we don’t know the criteria they’re using, it’s bad for us. Applying the no guessing principle means we should know each step in the prospect’s decision making process, we should know the decision being made in each step, we should know the person/people making the decision, and know their criteria. Some salespeople take this to mean we should win each step, but that’s not exactly what I mean.
    I have a relationship in my life that I am disappointing on a regular basis. They get mad, I ask why they’re mad, and I learn that I came up short on a measurement. The challenge for me is I am never clear on what my expectations are. I never know the “more” or “less” they are after, and this leads to the conflict. In the business world, inside of a transaction tied down in a proposal, we can do better. We can understand the steps in the process, we can find out what decision is made in each step, and we can talk to the people making the decision to find out how they’ll decide yes or no, up or down. Is it a coinflip? Is it a checklist? What’s on the checklist? It doesn’t take long to find if we ask.

What happens if there are a lot of guesses?

In the meeting I’ve been called to, there are a lot of guesses. The opportunity came in as a referral, but it’s late in the prospect’s decision process. The client has all but made a decision to go with a competitor, but we know they aren’t going to get the outcome they’re after with this solution. It gets technical, but the competitor’s solution is perfect for a different problem, our solution is better for this specific outcome. It’s a race against time and we’re taking a lot of shortcuts to meet the committee’s proposal deadline.

We make a list of all the guesses, note how we can find the answers, note where we don’t have time to find the answers, and take a look at the punch-list. It’s a lot of work and there’s no guarantee we can get enough information to make sure the proposal is successful. This firm knows better than most that when a sale is made the hard work is still to come. Implementing solutions is even more involved than the selling process. As the group reviews the work ahead, one asks me what I’m thinking.

I tell them they won’t like my answer, but I think they should pass on the opportunity. From what I’ve heard, there will be another opportunity in less than a year. The prospect is a big company, there are opportunities in other divisions, and if they take a long-term approach they’ll find a better fit because all of these guesses can be handled without a pressing time frame. I suggest they make a public withdrawal and notify as many players in the decision process as possible, giving the reason as timing. “The other group is too far down the road, too many decisions have been made, and we’re happy to re-engage in the future, designing the perfect solution to their problem. We can’t do that without guessing right now. And we’re not willing to guess.”

They hate my answer, as predicted. The reasons are good, but have nothing to do with my main concern about guessing. The marquee name, the state of revenue, the lack of notable wins in the last few quarters, and their ability to make fixes as the project progresses are given to me. I take note but it doesn’t change my mind because it’s a short term fix for some of their problems and, most importantly, there’s no guarantee they win! As Fran Lebowitz says in a story about being in a lottery office where a ticket winner arrives for a payout but it won’t come for two weeks. The man says, “What am I supposed to do? I need that money to pay rent?” The clerk replies, “Well, I suggest you do whatever you were going to do if you hadn’t won the lottery.” That is what I think is happening here. It feels like the opportunity out of the blue is a fix, but it’s not getting to their underlying problem. I remind them the reason I’m there is because their win rate is dropping and guessing is a big component.

That said, I get it. I’ve been here before. I’ll be here again. Over time I’ve learned not to propose is the best approach. Two things happen when you respectfully decline to propose in the name of being unable to design the perfect solution.

  1. You mourn the lost opportunity and vow to never let it happen again. Being the organization who designs and builds the perfect solution is more rewarding both psychologically and financially. It pays to walk away.
  2. You win a new opportunity. When you are willing to walk, where other firms dive right in and propose with imperfect information, you set your firm apart. It’s this approach that leads to your firm being selected to work on another opportunity. And sometimes, re-configure the current opportunity.

I am banking on #2 in this case. We all know the solution is wrong. One of the buyers (the one who called and is breathlessly saying, “We had no idea your solution existed! You have to fix this!”) knows the solution they are picking is wrong. They are building momentum and not proposing for a good reason may just interrupt it.

What happened?

The proposal is going forward. The partners considered my advice, weighed it against the opportunity, and got to work on the punch-list. They eliminated or minimized as many guesses as possible and submitted a proposal. As I tell all of my clients, I will tell you what I think but what you do is up to you.

It’s a good proposal. They eliminated a large number of guesses, uncovered some key decision criteria, and they have a champion insider pushing for them. I think they can win. I hope they win!

I want you to take this thought away. Proposals are the culmination of a thorough client discovery process bumped up against your firm’s capabilities. Your success depends on new opportunities being proposed with no guessing. The closer you get to this ideal, the better your close rates, the bigger your projects, and the more you’ll love your business development team.