One of the most fundamental problems that has always afflicted sellers is the ever-present propensity to be a feature preacher. To talk about our product or service, but to fail to say how we intend to use our product to solve their problem.
Over the last couple decades, the sales profession has made significant strides in transitioning from the feature preacher mentality to the consultative-type approach that emphasizes using products to solve customer problems. Most professional salespeople have long abandoned the old ‘tell them everything’ approach in favor of this more enlightened and sophisticated solution-oriented ideology. Despite these advancements in our collective professional demeanor, when it comes time to write proposals in response to RFPs, the ever-present propensity to preach features returns. I addressed this issue recently in an article I was writing:
Most business to business salespeople are highly accomplished consultative sales professionals when we’re face to face, but when it comes time to write proposals in response to RFPs, we devolve into a legion of feature preachers. We give into the little voice in the back of our heads that keeps repeating: “More is better, leave nothing out!” We embrace the antithetical philosophy embodied in Tom Sant’s infamous ‘thud factor’—”after dropping all the proposals on a table, the one that makes the biggest thud wins.” In defiance to pleas for conciseness, we respond with one simple question, “Why say something in one page when we can say the same thing in eighteen?”
Of the hundreds of proposals that I review every year, most of them make this fundamental mistake. They are information laden, feature rich documentaries about our companies and our products, but they almost totally lack customer focus. They talk about our products, but they don’t say how we intend to use those products to solve our customers’ problems.
I understand why sellers make this common mistake. If you receive a document that asks thirty pages of questions about your company and your product, the natural inclination is to respond by telling them everything that has ever been written, said, or thought about us. In the words of a student in one of my recent seminars, “They ask because they want to know, so we tell them everything.” While this line of logic is not unreasonable, it’s not very effective. It’s not persuasive, either.
What customers REALLY want to know
The reality is your customers do want to know about your product, company, and people, but only insofar as how you intend to use those things to solve their problems. Why do RFPs ask how long you’ve been in business? Do they really care? Or do they want to know that you’ve been around long enough and have enough presence in the market that you will likely be around tomorrow? That you are not a fly by night business?
Why do RFPs ask how many offices you have? Do they really care? Or do they want to know that you have the geographic coverage to support their geographically diverse operations?
The problem is that most of us would respond to this last question by providing an informational answer. Most of us would write something like this: “We have 54 offices located throughout the United States.” Is this answer compliant? Absolutely. But is it effective? Not so much.
Contrast this very informative and fully compliant answer with the following alternative.
We have 54 offices located throughout the United States. Further, we mapped the locations of your offices and we compared that to a map of our own office locations. Based on this analysis, we determined that we have an office located within ten miles of 90% of your facilities, and 100% of your largest facilities. This means we have the resources, in place today, to respond quickly whenever your staff requires our services.
Certainly, this customer-focused answer is a little bit longer and requires more work than the simple informational answer, but which one is more effective? Which one will help you to win the sale?
To improve the quality of our proposals, and increase our success responding to RFPs, we must necessarily move away from proposals that are nothing but information repositories and monuments to the feature preacher mentality. We must begin writing proposals that are persuasive and customer-focused.
One final note. Author and industry expert Tom Sant has done more than anyone to apply the concepts of persuasion to the business of proposals. For anyone interested in learning how to write proposals that are persuasive and customer oriented, I recommend his book, Persuasive Business Proposals. It is published by AMACOM, and available in bookstores everywhere. (ISBN-13: 978-0-8144-1785-0).
David Seibert is a professional salesperson, proposal writer, and proposal consultant. He is also the founder and president of The Seibert Group, a proposal consulting and training organization serving businesses that sell to other businesses and to state and local governments. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.