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The top 7 of 2017

As we close out a huge year, and our thoughts turn to Christmas, here is a round-up of my most popular articles from 2017.

As regular subscribers and followers will know, I help people to solve three different kinds of business development problems; how to position for new business, winning tenders and proposals, and customer retention and growth.

However, this year’s top 7 shows that 2017 has definitely been the ‘year of the proposal’.

Proposals are never, ever, going away, and it seems we are all keen to find better ways of managing them – as well as winning them.

Thank you for reading The Winning Pitch this year. If you’re looking for a Christmas gift for yourself, or a colleague, check out my bookstore. There’s even a three-book bundle to keep you busy over the holidays.

Stay safe and happy, enjoy a well-earned break, and I hope that 2018 brings you the success you dream of, and deserve.

#1 - Why is employee engagement such a big deal for proposals?

Proposals rely on people. And not just ‘proposal people’. This article provides a framework for understanding your team’s personal, structural and cultural motivation to work on proposals, and how to deal with any deficiencies.

#2 – Where should I invest my time to win a tender?

In a competitive tender, submission or proposal, the difference between winning and losing often comes down to where you spend your energy and your time.

#3 - Don’t worry, be happy

When the volume of competitive tenders is less of a trickle and more of a tsunami, the stress and pressure can get overwhelming. Here are three tips to manage your energy, and get through peak workloads with your life and sense of humour intact.

#4 – Keeping your submission in line, and on time

This practical article contains a four-week schedule that will give you the time to think, and to plan your proposal, even when you are stretched with other priorities.

#5 - Five myths that will stop you winning the work you want

I’ve been a bid consultant since 2001. Since then, I’ve heard loads of trash-talk about competitive tenders – most of them from people who have never worked on one and/or never, ever won one.

#6 - Writing to inspire confidence

Have you ever lost a bid you deserved to win? Seen a contract go to a less qualified competitor? Discovered that the client had reservations about your ability to do the job? You may have fallen victim of a lack of confidence.

#7 - The toughest thing about proposals 

Pitches and proposals are some of the most difficult work that any of us will do. This article explains why, and offers three suggestions for managing the uncertainty before the outcome.

 

Don’t just innovate – communicate!

Many companies now rely on innovation as their primary pathway to growth. But growth through innovation can only happen when your market ‘gets’ what you are doing, and when it makes commercial sense for them to buy it.

This year, KPMG interviewed thirteen hundred Chief Executive Officers, many in Australia, and discovered that 91% were confident about their company’s growth prospects over the next three years.

More than half of these CEOs (55%) said they are investing heavily in innovation –developing new products, services and ways of doing business – while 43% said they were also pursuing an ‘innovation-led business transformation model’ as a route to growth.

This is great news for business confidence and investment. But realistically, where is all this growth actually going to come from?

In my work as a business development consultant, I’ve noticed that companies tend to view innovation as the solution to two major problems; disruption and commoditisation.

Both of these problems actually originate outside the business. Disruption is driven by competitors, and commoditisation is driven by customers.

However, innovation is only part of the solution.

Based on KPMG’s analysis, most businesses will fall into two main camps – those that are investing heavily in innovation, and those that aren’t.

1.     Businesses that are investing heavily in innovation are exciting to be part of. They’ve got new products and services, and will talk about them all day long if we let them.

The problem for these kinds of businesses is getting their customers to listen, and to understand, and to buy at a rate and margin that justifies the considerable investment they are making.

2.     Businesses that aren’t investing quite so heavily in innovation tend to have the opposite problem. They have been talking about what they do in the same way for so long that their customers don’t really value it any more, and are constantly demanding cheaper and cheaper prices.

The problem for these kinds of businesses is how to get customers to stop making unfair and unsustainable price comparisons, and to appreciate the commercial value that their products and services actually deliver.

Which camp would you say your business falls into? The first or the second?

Either way, even if you don’t have an innovation problem, you most likely have a communication problem.

That’s because business development success is a case of ready, aim and fire.

Most of us spend all our time in the ‘aim and fire’ part, targeting customers, and firing off pitches and proposals.

What we don’t invest enough time in is readiness; making the connection between what we know and do, and what makes commercial sense for customers to buy.

As a result, we end up woefully unprepared to communicate and hold our ground with demanding customers, including professional buyers.

Every organisation can benefit from regularly revisiting its commercial value proposition, making sure that their customers not only ‘get’ what they do, but actually want to buy it.

How much do you want it?

Enthusiasm is the outward expression of engagement. When we are truly engaged in what we are doing – whether it’s performing a task, having a conversation, or making a pitch – we come across at our most enthusiastic, attractive and creative.

And engaged people are the people that customers want to hire.

You’ll hear a lot about employee engagement these days, and for good reason.

A study by the Hay Group showed that over a period of seven years, companies with highly engaged workers grew their revenues two and a half times more than those with low engagement levels. 

Originators of the Net Promoter Score, Bain and Company, has also found that your level of ‘customer advocacy’ (how likely customers are to recommend you to others) closely correlates with your levels of employee engagement.

Employee engagement underpins the entire experience that customers have with your organisation, and that customer experience begins with your proposal.

So what practical behaviours can you encourage to show engagement when you are writing proposals?

This topic generated a lot of debate in a recent bid and tender leadership workshop.

On the day, I was working with a dozen bid leaders in a technical professional services business, who are responsible for leading projects and winning ongoing work for their firm.

Culturally, technical professionals often think that being ‘professional’ means they need to be restrained and respectful, and wait for customers to engage with them.

So, when I said their proposal should always ask for the business, and clearly explain what it means to them and why they want it, not everyone was sold on the idea – even though one participant admitted that failing to do this had actually cost him work in the past.

Another, having observed the conversation for a while, chimed in with an interesting connection.

“It’s like on The Bachelorette!” he said.

Although he didn’t say this particularly loudly, of course, everyone heard it.

After the obligatory guffaws and howls of derision from his colleagues had finally died down (it was the final weeks of the show, and his wife watches it, not him, OK?) he explained why he had made that connection, and everyone could see that he had a point.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, The Bachelorette (like The Bachelor) is a TV reality dating show, where a couple of dozen contestants are lined up to win the heart of an eligible single person. In Australia, this year’s Bachelorette was TV personality Sophie Monk.

Every week, one or more contestants are eliminated, until Sophie, the Bachelorette, has just a handful of to choose from.

By this point in the show, contestants are under constant pressure from the show’s producers to reveal their feelings to her.

Turns out this probably isn’t just a ploy to make for better reality television.

Although every series is slightly different, the story arc of The Bachelor/ette follows a pretty consistent pattern. Contestants who are noncommittal or restrained about their feelings, and who don’t declare themselves by the crucial final weeks of the series, are the most likely to get eliminated.

This holds true in business too. When others are equally qualified, showing your connection to the work and how much you want it could be the key to winning too.

Do your proposals sound like you really want the work, or do they in fact do the opposite?

What are you doing to inject more energy, enthusiasm and personality into your proposals?

The league ladder of proposal engagement

It's fascinating to watch what really happens inside an organisation when there is an important bid, tender or proposal on the table.

Most now have some kind of specialist proposal team or proposal resources in-house. However, to do their job effectively, they need input from other people – such as operational leaders, commercial specialists, and technical subject matter experts – to provide insight, help build the win strategy and customer solution, and develop content.

When you really need them, where are these other people? Who is putting their hand up willingly to work on the proposal? Who isn’t, but should be? Who is being dragged along, kicking and screaming?

What pattern of behaviour is emerging for each person? 

Once you are attuned to this, you will start to see a kind of ‘league ladder’ emerge, based on the level of contribution each person is actually making to your proposal effort.

The discretionary effort they are willing to give has a direct impact on your chances of success, from highly positive to hugely detrimental:

proposal engagement value ladder_2.png

 

At the very bottom are those who are actually sabotaging your proposals: the refuseniks.

Refuseniks may have valuable knowledge, but they refuse to share it. They don't come to meetings, or respond to requests for information, and their disengagement is a burden on everyone around them. They are like a dead weight, slowly drowning your chances of success.

Also dragging your proposal effort down are those who are always resisting getting involved. There are two types of resistors:

  • Complainers, who can usually to be found saying how much work they have to do and that they don't have time to work on proposals.
  • Procrastinators, who don’t do or contribute much either, at least not until the very last minute. What procrastinators will give you is very sketchy and probably not at all what you asked for.

Then there are the contributors, although they are definitely not created equal:      

  • Cut and pasters are the lowest form of contributor. They look like they're going to contribute good material to your proposal, and they certainly say that they will, but what you receive instead is a great slab of stuff that’s been copied and pasted from somewhere else without any original input.
  • Creators are much better. They’re enthusiastic. They say they want to contribute, and they actually do. Creators are the people who are most likely to bring some of their own thinking to the proposal, and to contribute original material that is helpful.

Finally, there are the drivers – the people who are really going to help your proposal effort to succeed.

  • Collaborators are a clear step above creators. They know they need to work with others to get the best outcome, so they will voluntarily pull others in, go off and have their own team meetings, and drive the development of content that has the best of their own thinking as well as other people’s.
  • Champions are rare, but hugely valuable. These are the people who really drive the proposal, even when it isn’t necessarily their job to do so. Champions think strategically, contribute strategic content, and do everything they can to deliver success.

So, what does this league ladder look like in your organisation? If you named every member of your team or business, where would they sit?

And how many people do you have above the line, and how many below it?

Why is employee engagement such a big deal for proposals?

Proposals rely on people. And not just ‘proposal people’. They also rely on people from other parts of your business, to willingly contribute their knowledge, insights and discretionary effort.

These ‘other people’ include leaders, managers, commercial people, legal people, and technical subject matter experts.

And they are getting harder and harder to engage.

In my most recent public Master Class in Writing Winning Tenders and Proposals, I noticed a big shift in the problems and issues that proposal people were bringing into the room – particularly those with significant (5 years or more) experience.

All of them cited employee engagement as their biggest challenge.

I’d summarise this as ‘getting the input I need, from the people I need, but who don’t report to me’.

They spoke about having to fight to get attention and buy-in; how hard it was to get people to think strategically, and the challenge of getting good quality content they could use, as opposed to recycled rubbish that gets dropped into their in-box at the last minute.

It sounded like ‘other people’ had forgotten that winning business is everyone’s business, and that a small proposal team, particularly in a large organisation with hundreds or thousands of people, cannot possibly hope to do this alone.

This is a significant shift.

Not too long ago, proposal teams would have been talking about win rates, productivity, and managing deadlines as their primary concerns.

Now, it’s all about managing other people – usually people elsewhere in the business, who have other managers, and other priorities, and who need to be bribed, begged, or pleaded with to contribute their expertise to proposals.

So what has changed, and what can we do about it?

When you work inside an organisation, your level of motivation for particular types of work depends on three things:

  • Personal motivation – whether you have the skills, confidence and enthusiasm to do the work;
  • Structural motivation – whether the work is enshrined in your job description, and comes with clear guidelines and KPIs; and
  • Cultural motivation – whether the work is supported, valued, and celebrated by your colleagues and the organisation itself.

When any one of these motivations is missing, there is a problem.

Without personal motivation, you’ll have low satisfaction (and probably high stress) when doing the work.

Without structural motivation, you’ll have low expectation that the work should actually be done.

And without cultural motivation, you’ll have low support for the work, and colleagues will lack understanding about what it really contributes to the organisation.

motivational_levels.png

With the increasing professionalisation of proposals, and the rise of specialist proposal teams, fewer people now have ‘contribution to proposals’ enshrined in their job description or KPIs. This undermines structural motivation.

Proposals are a very quick way to burn out people who are trying to fit them in around their day job, with no training or confidence in their ability to write or contribute. This undermines personal motivation.

Proposals also tend to be invisible, back-office, ‘sweatshop’ work that attracts little recognition and reward. Instead of being publicly thanked and praised for their efforts, or given time off to rest and recuperate, those who do contribute their discretionary effort to proposals are expected to dive straight back in to their day job to tackle a backlog of work. This undermines cultural motivation.

Unfortunately, most organisations undermine their proposal effort more than they support it.

Are you seeing these challenges in your organisation? And what have you done to overcome them?

Love to hear your thoughts.

How can leaders improve their firm’s proposals?

Recently I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by Dawn Russell, a TEC Chair, coach and leadership facilitator based in Perth, Western Australia on the topic of how leaders can improve their firm’s proposals.

We cover a lot of ground in this five-minute interview, including how to develop a multi-million dollar tender; the biggest mistakes companies are making with their proposals; and the practical steps that leaders can take to reduce the pain of their proposals process and achieve better outcomes.

Like many people with a high-flying corporate background, having spent many years with Singapore Airlines, Dawn had worked on a large-scale tender response herself.

Dawn began by mentioning that she had found the sheer size of the client’s request documentation ‘offputting’.

This led to a discussion about how proposals create a cultural problem, where leaders will put other people on the job of churning out proposals in response to tender requests, while they go off in search of work that is more engaging and more ‘fun’.

Dawn clearly agreed with this, in the context of her own experience.

“There’s no way, if I looked at that (tender) document, that I would have thought it would be fun,” she said. “I mean, it was horrible.”

After a bad initial experience, your people will often do almost anything to get out of contributing to proposals.

Take a close look at your company’s culture, and how it is supporting the behaviours you want to see around proposals. This is the first step you can take as a leader to improve your proposals, and your results.

Check out the video for more ideas on how you can improve your firm’s proposals.

The toughest thing about proposals

Pitches and proposals are some of the most difficult work that any of us will do.

There’s the stress and pressure we put ourselves under to get them done. The mind-boggling questions we get asked. The lack of information. The ridiculous time frames. The fact that we've all got day jobs while we are trying to work on proposals as well.

But these are all symptoms of a much larger problem.

The toughest thing about proposals is that they involve loss of control over the outcome.

It’s knowing that despite doing our best, working our hardest, and twisting ourselves into a pretzel, we have no control over the ultimate choice.

TED speaker Brene Brown says that ‘vulnerability is basically uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”

Even when we believe that might and right are on our side, and that a decision should be a foregone conclusion, we are reliant on someone else to seal the deal.

Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in a tough situation I am facing, along with everyone else in the LGBTIQ community in Australia, as we await a nationwide postal vote on the question of marriage equality.

From this week, registered voters will be sent a voluntary survey that asks “do you support a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry?”

This editorial in The Age, written after the High Court struck down a challenge to the legality of the survey, explains the ‘yes’ case better than I ever could.

I am simply far too close to it.

This uncomfortable reality has made me empathise even more my clients, who are often faced with a make-or-break pitch that will have a huge impact on them personally, on the structure and future of their business, on their staff, or their ability to make a difference in the world.

This is particularly true of incumbent suppliers who may have been working with a client for years or even decades, only to find that they are forced to tender for the work again. No matter how confident you are about the outcome, the process feels like applying for your own job, with all the anger, fear and anxiety that brings with it.

Even though we can’t control the outcome of an important pitch, we can do something about the uncertainty before the outcome. Giving your intuition some space

Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, says that our brains make things harder for us when we are facing uncertainty because they are wired to react to uncertainty with fear. 

Here are three of his tips for managing uncertainty, which I’ll be doing my best to put into practice over the next few weeks. I hope they are useful for you too.

1.  Quiet your limbic system

The limbic system has a knee-jerk reaction to uncertainty, which creates fear. Once you are aware that you are feeling fear, you can recognise and label any irrational thoughts that don’t represent reality. Bradberry refers to this as ‘telling your caveman limbic system to settle down and be quiet until a hungry tiger shows up’.

2.  Focus on something positive

Positive thoughts can dial down our fear and irrational thinking by simply focusing our brain’s attention on something that is completely stress-free. No matter how hard things get, we call all identify one positive thing that happened in our day, even if it seems small. This is all it takes to activate this positive effect.

3. Trust your gut

When researching my latest book, Value, I learned a lot about the enteric nervous system. There is a primal connection between our brain and our gut, which are joined by an extensive network of neurons and a highway of chemicals and hormones. Dr Deepak Chopra, a famous self-help author who also happens to be a neuroendocrinologist, has said that gut feelings are “every cell in our body making a decision”.

Our ancestors relied on their intuition, or gut instinct, for survival. Since most of us don’t face life-or-death decisions every day, we have to learn how to use this instinct to our benefit. Some practical things you can do to trust your gut when managing uncertainty include:

  • Recognising your own filters, and when you’re being influenced emotions or by another person’s opinion. For this reason, I’ve had to go off social media almost entirely during the Australian marriage equality ‘debate’. For me, the onslaught of opinion (even positive opinion) has been unhelpful and overwhelming.
  • Giving your intuition some space. Don’t pressure yourself to come up with a solution. Albert Einstein said he got his best ideas while sailing, and when Steve Jobs was faced with a tough problem, he’d head out for a walk. (The shower is also excellent for getting into ‘flow’).
  • Building trust in your own track record. Listen to your gut on small things and see how it goes. When it goes well, you’ll know you can trust it when the big stuff comes around.

What is the next frontier in proposal development?

Like all business functions, proposal development has changed a lot over the years – ever since suppliers were forced to acknowledge that the glory days of doing multi-million dollar deals on a handshake were not coming back, and that proposals, unfortunately, were never, ever going away.

In the beginning, when introducing a proposals function, most businesses concentrated on enforcing a repeatable process for proposals as a way to reduce the cost and risk. The focus here was largely on paperwork, including things like checklists, toll gates, and quality assurance procedures.

The enduring challenge for businesses is getting compliance with the process, something that remains difficult to do today.

As time moved on, businesses became more interested in proposal productivity, seeking to leverage tools and systems to make what can be a time-consuming, onerous process faster and simpler.

The focus was on implementing systems, automation and assembly tools to manage the complexity of proposal content. This is where most businesses are today.

The enduring challenge here – as with any investment in tools and systems – is to achieve full utilisation of them, and to actually capture the promised productivity gains.

Which brings us to a tipping point, and a glimpse at where we are headed next.

As we tick off these stages, and as proposals become more and more professionalised, there is a risk that the people in your business with the knowledge to actually win proposals are becoming less and less engaged with their development.

Join me and Jonathan Keighley from Qorus at 8.00pm (AEST) on Thursday 8 September for this special webinar on Proposal Collaboration, where we will unpack the mindset, tools, and techniques you need to break down internal silos, get your team working together, and build the engagement that will help you win more bids and proposals.

Look forward to seeing you there.

Five myths that will stop you winning the work you want

When I wrote my first book The Shredder Test in 2007, I wanted to help people who found themselves in the position of having to write proposals to win work.

In the decade since, many things have changed. The proposals we’re writing are far less likely to be small, one-page quote letters, and much more likely to be huge, time-consuming tender responses.

Today, if you want to win work of any size and scale with business or with government, you’ll be doing it through some kind of competitive submission. Australia’s Federal government alone spends more than $60 billion a year buying goods and services through competitive tenders.

A lot of things have been said about competitive tendering – most of them not very complimentary, and some of them just plain wrong.

Maybe you’ve heard a few of these hoary old chestnuts?

1.     “Only relationships will win you business.” Relationships will always be important in sales, but the way relationships are transacted has completely changed. These days, the relationship is built on the other side of winning the business through a competitive tender – not beforehand.

2.     “Tenders are a waste of time.” Heard mostly from old sales hacks who are terrified by the thought of competitive tenders and have never, ever won one. If you want business on any size and scale, you’ll need to bid via a competitive tender. Don’t let anyone hoodwink you into believing otherwise.

3.     “If you didn't write the tender you’ll never win it.” Pure fantasy. Buyers haven’t let prospective suppliers dictate their tender specifications for a long time – one reason why the scope of work is often so incomplete and difficult to understand.

4.     “Just pump out as many tenders as you can – eventually you’ll win one.” Another attempt to dismiss the importance of submissions, and their role in winning you work. Putting junior people on the job and cranking out a pile of tenders is a good way to drain your bank account. Not, however, a great way to win business.

5.     “Only the cheapest supplier will ever win a tender.” True, if you’re in a market that is highly commoditised and where the product is easy to understand. Absolutely false, if you’re in a complex services market, delivering anything that comes with a high degree of visibility and risk for the buyer.

The way we win business might have changed forever, but our thinking often hasn’t.

Too many of us are undermining our new business effort by following out-dated sales advice that belongs in the last century - when market conditions were completely different.

Winning business through competitive tenders requires a very different skill-set to selling face-to-face, and nowhere is this skillset more important than in professional services firms, who rely on fee earners to generate income.

A 2010 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study of 116,600 employees across 20 professional services firms found that the level of employee engagement is a direct reflection of the bond, or attachment, between employee and employer.

This in turn determines an employee’s willingness to give discretionary effort, which is the kind of effort your proposals almost certainly rely on.

However, when your people view proposals as one of their most brain-draining, mind-numbing chores, you simply aren’t getting the level of effort and engagement you need to win the business you really want.

My new white paper Why Proposal Engagement Is The New Frontier For Professional Services Firms addresses this issue and offers a solution.

Contact me at robyn@robynhaydon.com if you’d like a copy.

Do your people loathe proposals?

Next week I’ll be heading up to Sydney to speak to a group of professionals as part of Consult Australia’s FutureNet program for emerging leaders in the built environment and construction industry.

For the most part, these are young people who are just at the beginning of their career.

My wish for them is that when they eventually look back on their long and successful career in the industry, they will know for certain that they have won - and done - the work they really deserved to do.

Over the course of nearly two decades, I have worked with professional services teams in a wide range of industries, including engineering, environmental and heritage management, project management, market research, management consulting, marketing services, and real estate services.

What professionals in any industry have in common is the desire to actually do the work they set out to do; the kind of engaging, satisfying work that will make all their study, their sacrifices, and their sweat and tears worthwhile.

Unfortunately, the need to first win this work through a bid or competitive tender tends to become a block and a barrier that gets in the way.

As a result, professionals often loathe proposals, or at the very least, have become jaded, frustrated or exhausted by them.

This usually comes down to some combination of these five things:

  1. They lack the time or skills to develop a strategy they know can win the work.
  2. They are bogged down by useless procedures that tick some internal box but add no actual value to the proposal.
  3. Any pre-written proposal content they can get hold of, which should make their life better, does the opposite, because it is patchy, poorly written or completely out of date.
  4. Although they are expected to write proposals to win work, they have never had any training or development to show them how.
  5. They have no reliable, ongoing source of mentoring or support.

Nowhere is employee engagement more important than in professional services firms, who rely on fee earners to generate income.

And as a professional services leader, it’s your responsibility to know when these issues are impacting on your team, and your ability to win the work you want.

A 2010 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study of 116,600 employees across 20 professional services firms made the distinction between drivers of staff retention, which tend to be individual issues like pay and rewards, career development, leadership, stress balance and workload, and drivers of engagement, which are primarily cultural; the firm’s image and reputation, and whether or not it is ‘living its values’.

The study also noted that the level of employee engagement reflects the bond, or attachment, between employee and employer, which determines an employee’s willingness to give discretionary effort – the kind of effort your proposals almost certainly rely on.

Since I first started delivering the Pimp My Proposals program, one of the most gratifying – and consistent – results has been way it re-boots the engagement of teams who previously saw proposals as a brain-draining, mind-numbing chore.

One participant, who had come into a workshop particularly fed-up and disinterested in proposals, had completely changed his tune by the end of the day. Here’s what he had to say:

“I learned that we can challenge the norms we’ve been working to, and evolve and improve our proposals to win business. We need to change!”

At the end of your day, it’s not the proposal itself that really matters – it’s the opportunity that lies waiting for you on the other side.

Don’t let the proposal become the block and the barrier that sits between you, and the work that you and your team really deserve to do.

We buy when people listen

Listening builds relationships, and relationships build customers. In a sales conversation, the most important person is not the supplier – it’s the customer. Hiring you is their opportunity to talk about themselves.

This is something that providers of personal services, such as hairdressers, personal trainers, and manicurists, know only too well.

In a 2016 UK study by Ipsos Mori, hairdressers ranked high on the list of most trusted professionals, right alongside doctors, judges and teachers.

Hairdressers are often entrusted with their clients’ problems – everything from split ends and dye jobs gone wrong to broken marriages. In fact, the intimate nature of the client-hairdresser relationship is so widely recognised that there are even government-funded training programs to help hairdressers identify and support their clients who may be suffering from domestic abuse.

We do like to talk about ourselves, and given the right encouragement, can do it for hours, because it simply makes us feel good.

A neuroscience study by Harvard University in 2012 found that self-disclosure (talking about ourselves) actually fires the same brain circuits that are triggered by food and money, even when it is something as seemingly insignificant as telling others that you like Dr. Seuss books.

A 1990s study of human conversational behaviour, reported in The Scientific American, found that we spend, on average, 60% of a conversation talking about ourselves. A more recent study by Stanford University found that this figure jumps to 80% when communicating via social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

However, there’s a cost to all this one-way chatter.

Researchers found that even when money was on the line, participants in an experiment were willing to accept a 17 per cent loss of potential earnings if it meant they were given the opportunity to talk about themselves.

In proposals and presentations, I’ve seen this show up in the way that people seem compelled to start their pitch by talking about their credentials and track record. I don’t think it is due to narcissism, arrogance, or even a high level of confidence - but mostly due to an underlying fear and anxiety.

Leadership coach Oscar Trimboli, who writes on the topic of deep listening, says “Every human wants to be listened to – yet what they crave is to be heard.”

It takes practice to give someone else the space to be heard, especially when that someone is the customer, and they aren’t even in the room yet.

When you next bring your team together to work on a presentation or a proposal, consider how you can hold some space for the customer to be heard.

This might mean engaging an external facilitator to ask customer-led questions; designating someone in your team to act as a proxy for the customer; or leaving a symbolic seat for them at your table.

Listening is a valuable skill that is in short supply. The more we listen, the better we hear, and the deeper and more profitable connections we are able make with others.

Five ways to build your business development culture

In the last couple of years, I’ve given more than 20 presentations on business development as a speaker for The Executive Connection (TEC), a membership organisation for CEOs and senior leaders with 21,000 members in 16 countries around the world.

From Brisbane to bayside Melbourne, from Perth to Parramatta, I’ve had the privilege to work with several hundred very clever and switched-on people through TEC’s monthly member meetings.

The businesses these leaders represent vary enormously, from small technology start-ups to medium-sized professional services firms to huge multinational corporations.

Yet they all have one thing in common; every business relies on customers to survive.

When I ask the CEOs in my sessions to identify their most important contract or customer, this usually comes pretty easily.

What’s less easy for them to put their finger on is what’s getting in the way of winning more customers, or of keeping the ones they already have.

It comes down to what’s hiding in plain sight inside their business – the culture and habits that have built up around the way that business development is managed.

In my experience, the most successful businesses are those where everyone in the business understands the role that they play in business development.

This includes the front-line staff who deliver the work and interact with customers every day; the managers who support those people in their role; and the senior leaders who free up staff to pursue value creation projects and to pilot new programs.

Here are five ways break the business development habits that no longer serve you, and to build a more successful business development culture in your organisation.

1.    

Make sure that everyone’s job description contains at least one thing that requires them to contribute towards your company’s business development effort.

When it comes to business development, there are three things you need your people to deliver. Firstly, professionalism, meaning customers can be confident that your company knows what it’s doing. Secondly, a pipeline, meaning your team is opportunistically positioning themselves to help customers with new work when it arises. And finally, preferred supplier, meaning your business is strategically positioned for the big contracts you really want to win. The primary owner of the professionalism category is your operations team. When it comes to the sales pipeline, it’s your line managers, who are in contact with customers at a more strategic level. And when you need to be seen as the “preferred supplier”, that responsibility rests squarely with you and your executive team.

2.    

Invest in training and development that builds business development skills, confidence and knowledge across the organisation.

People at every level need to be able to do at least three things: to identify the value they create for customers, to write persuasively on their area of knowledge for bids and tenders, and to contribute their best thinking to retaining existing business.

Senior staff also need strategic pursuit and proposal leadership skills.

3.    

Reward people for contributing their knowledge and time to important bids.

Proposals have become a “five to nine” job for most people. Recognising their valuable contribution towards important bids will go a long way towards preserving their goodwill for future pursuits and bid projects that ask them to go above and beyond the requirements of their day job.

4.    

Encourage strategic, cross-functional teams to work on value creation projects.

This means giving them the time and space away from the rigours of their “day job” to do so.

5.    

Convene customer-specific teams to develop customer re-engagement strategies.

According to Bain & Company, a 5% increase in customer retention yields profit increases of 25% to 95%.  Businesses are often very good at developing innovation, best practice and continual improvement ideas that benefit themselves. Turning this process around to focus on your best customers will be a game-changer for your retention rates – and your margin growth.

 

Are you swimming in the sea of same?

When comparing the marketing and credentials material of organisations operating in some services industries, you could be forgiven for concluding that they were actually the same business, just trading under different names.

Consider the following (fictionalised, but very common) examples in the industries of engineering, human services, and IT services.

Engineering

“We are an award-winning national engineering firm with a commitment to delivering high-quality projects. We maintain a unique employee culture that empowers our teams to deliver highly personalised, commercially viable and robust engineering solutions. With experts who sit on many of the industry’s leading regulatory bodies, we are at the forefront of industry developments in engineering. We invest in the development of our staff, and our high-performance teams deliver exceptional client service that goes the extra mile for our customers.”

Human services:

“We are a community organisation with a proud history of supporting marginalised and disadvantaged people, including children, young people, families, Indigenous Australians, people with disabilities, people from culturally diverse backgrounds, and older Australians. We deliver end-to-end services in urban, rural and remote communities that deliver on our vision of safe and strong families living in socially inclusive communities. We are working to create opportunities that break the cycle of poverty, improve people’s quality of life, and give a voice to those who are most vulnerable.” 

IT services:

“We are an enterprise IT solutions business that works with our customers to create efficiencies across their people, processes and technologies. We believe in the power of information technology to drive business growth and innovation, and our team delivers unmatched depth and breadth of expertise with global reach. We will help you to leverage your existing IT investments by assessing your current systems for peak performance, delivering data hosting and business continuity solutions, and providing hardware maintenance.”

Do any of these descriptions sound like your business? Do they look familiar in terms of the way you’re accustomed to talking about yourself? And could they equally describe most of your competitors?

Industries develop a kind of “common language” that helps professionals in the industry communicate with one another.

This is useful to a point, until it becomes a common marketing language as well.

The more that customers experience this common marketing language, the less difference they see between you and your competitors – and the more likely they are to commoditise you, and insist you compete on price alone.

The cost of cheap

Cheap prices have consequences. Beyond a certain point, suppliers simply can’t absorb any more cuts to their margin unless they make a corresponding decrease in quality.

So when the price goes down, something always has to be sacrificed – it’s when this decrease in quality starts to affect customers that suppliers really have a bargaining chip for change.

In fact, cheap can get nasty.

American retail store Wal-Mart learned this lesson the hard way when it was the focus of a 2005 documentary film titled Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.

The film documents Wal-Mart’s alleged pursuit of profits over people, including its anti-union practices; decimation of local business; refusal to install cameras that would deter the high levels of violent crime in its parking lots; poor environmental protection practices; and paying factory workers in Bangladesh and China making Wal-Mart goods as little as 18 cents an hour.

In addition, Wal-Mart’s store workers were allegedly paid so little they could not afford health insurance, so management suggested that workers apply for government subsidized health cover (Medicaid) instead. No doubt this strategy was poorly received by government, which could end up paying the price for Wal-Mart’s cost-cutting business practices.

For Wal-Mart, the price for being cheap was the hit to their reputation. They ended up employing a “war room” full of public relations people to respond to the barrage of criticism generated by the film.

So, what can we learn from this?

It is in nobody’s interests to find out too late that they have been penny wise, but pound foolish.

Customers regularly sacrifice quality in the pursuit of cheap prices. But the impact of that decision is often poorly understood, and it comes back to bite them later.

What specific things change in your product or service when you have to reduce your quality to meet your customer’s demand for lower prices?

What do these changes mean for the customer?

What do they mean for their customers, for their staff, for their reputation?

What is the true cost of “cheap”?

Making the connection between cheap prices, and what they really cost in the long term, helps customers understand the true commercial value of what you do – and helps you to avoid unsustainable margin erosion.

 

Are you being drained by an energy vampire?

With the end of the financial year only two weeks away, the world of sales has reached peak pressure. There are targets to meet, deals to push across the line, and a raft of competitive tenders to finalise before the looming deadline.

All of this makes for stressed and exhausted people who are hard on themselves, and on each other.

Recently I wrote about how to manage your own energy, when you know it’s you that is the problem.

But what if it’s that other type of hell…..other people?

We all have one: that person we dread spending time with, who seems to suck the life out of us.

Your energy vampire could be a client, your boss, a co-worker, a friend or a family member.

Energy vampires have several things in common. They're constantly complaining, everything's a drama, and they talk incessantly about themselves.

You'll know an energy vampire, because you feel drained after being with them.

And when they lurk where you work, things can get very hard indeed.

Dr Judith Orloff, author of Positive Energy, identifies five types of energy vampires:

1. The Sob Sister – The most common type of energy stealer. Every time you talk to this person, they’re whining. Sob sisters love a captive audience, and are more interested in complaining than solutions.

2.  The Drama Queen – Male or female, the Drama Queen has a knack for exaggerating small incidents into off-the-chart dramas.

3.  The Constant Talker – They’ve mastered the art of circular breathing, and could talk under wet cement. The Constant Talker has no interested in other people’s feelings or opinions, so good luck getting a word in.

4.  The Blamer – This is the kind of person who has a sneaky way of making you feel guilty for not getting things absolutely perfect.

5.  Go For The Jugular Fiend – They’re spiteful and vindictive, and cut you down with no consideration for your feelings. Somehow they make this seem like a virtue, because they’re “just being honest”. (Which, as we know, is the most destructive excuse for giving “feedback”).

Do you recognise someone you know in this list?

At this time of the year, and especially if your own tolerance and patience is starting to wear thin, you’ll find energy vampires even more taxing than usual.

If you really can’t avoid your energy vampire, protect your energy as best you can. Keep your interactions short, set boundaries, and don’t let them draw you into drama.

And remember that their issues are more about them than they are about you.

Writing to inspire confidence

Have you ever lost a piece of business you really deserved to win? Seen a contract go to a less qualified competitor? Felt less than confident about a proposal, only to find out later that the client had reservations about your ability to do the job?

You may have been a victim of a lack of confidence, not lack of ability.

Psychology Today published a research study where psychologists asked groups of men and women to perform a series of mental rotation tests and then quizzed them on their level of confidence taking the tests.

At first, the researchers found a big difference between the results of men and women (men consistently scored better). However, when the participant’s level of confidence was taken into account, the gender differences evaporated.

The researchers decided to test the robustness of the “confidence” finding by asking participants to complete the tests under two different scenarios – the control group (A) was allowed to skip a test if they felt they lacked confidence in their answers, and the test group (B) was not allowed to skip any tests.

While they did find gender differences in the group A, there were no such differences in group B.

The differences in results were due to confidence, and not ability.

When I review proposals, bids and tender responses for people who aren’t winning as much business as they deserve to, any lack of confidence is easy to spot.

The writers’ doubts and fears have soaked into every page, leaving a stain that is hard to ignore.

Re-read your proposals from the customer’s perspective. Do they answer questions, or create them? Do they inspire confidence or in fact, do the opposite?

What you believe is true really matters, because this belief will translate onto the page. So the first sale is always to yourself.

Don’t worry, be happy

Are you working hard right now? Has it been a while since you’ve seen daylight, other than from the inside of your office? Starting to feel exhausted, snappy and off your game?

Last week, a friend posted this meme with the hashtag #FunnyCauseItsTrue.

At this time of the year, when we are on the final push towards the end of peak competitive tendering season, things can start to get very hard and energy can be in short supply.

The stressful nature of the work – coordinating multiple people, articulating complex strategies and juggling multiple deadlines – combined with the uncertainty of the outcome, can make your stress levels very high indeed.

If this is what’s going on for you right now, don’t let stress become the norm.

Chronic stress is bad for both your mind and body, causing problems like anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system, as well as contributing to the development of major illnesses such as heart disease. 

If you've been slogging away on bids and tenders for months, there is some light at the end of the tunnel; you've just got to find the energy for that final push.

Here are some tips to manage your energy, and get through the next few weeks with your life and your sense of humour intact.

1.    Treat your work as a series of short sprints, and not a marathon. Sprinters rest and recuperate after a sprint; make sure you do that too. Plan something nice for yourself. Take short breaks. Go for a walk, get a massage. Switch your phone off and watch a movie. Swap the coffee for green juice every once in a while. Keep your life up. No-one's going to thank you if you don't get to the bank, forget to pay your bills or get to your kid’s parent-teacher conference.

In times of peak workload it's important to balance out other things in your life, so that you don't have a crisis on your hands at the other end.

In one Canadian study, reported by the American Psychological Association, researchers examined the association between “positive affect” — feelings like happiness, joy, contentment and enthusiasm — and the development of coronary heart disease over a decade. They found that for every one-point increase in positive affect on a five-point scale, the rate of heart disease dropped by 22 percent.

2.    Know your body chemistry. Author of Adrenalin Junkies and Serotonin Seekers, Matt Church, explains that there are two “natural highs” – one quick (adrenalin) and one slow (serotonin). While adrenalin switches you on for short periods, serotonin keeps you feeling calm and centred for longer.

Your chemical balance profile will change over time - you may be under huge stress during the first half of the year and incredibly focused in the second half. By checking your profile regularly you'll get early warning of any imbalances so you can take the steps necessary to bring order back.

Church says every feeling you have is driven by a chemical; if you can find the chemical, you can fix the feeling. Download his Chemistry Profiler questionnaire to learn more about your body chemistry, and check out his e-books for helpful strategies.

3.    Work with your body clock, and not against it. In The Power of When: Learn The Best Time to Do Everything, Dr Michael Breus outlines four different “chronotypes” — Dolphin, Lion, Bear and Wolf — and explains why knowing yours will help you work with your body clock, and not against it.

The Power of When is one of the most useful books I’ve read this year.

After reading it over the (Australian) summer holidays, I made some changes to my schedule that have helped me to be more productive without getting up at the crack of dawn (great for Lions, terrible for Wolves and Bears).

The detailed master clocks and plans for each chronotype have also helped me to improve harmony at home; I’m a typical Bear, my partner is a light-sleeping Dolphin.

To better understand your biological programming and discover your chronotype, take the quiz.

Stress happens, it’s how you respond that makes the difference between a short-term blip and a long-term problem.

Love to hear the stress-busting strategies that have worked for you.

(And here’s a gratuitous Ryan Gosling meme just because good things come in threes).

The Final Countdown

It’s the middle of May, right at the height of competitive tendering season.

If you’re up to your armpits in multiple competitive submissions right now, you are probably running between three priorities; proposals that are still in start-up phase; proposals that are mid-stream; and proposals that are due tonight, or at least by 2pm Friday.

This week’s blog is all about what’s going on in the third camp.

Whenever the clock is ticking down to a tender deadline, with only seconds left to go, I hear Europe’s anthemic 1980 head-banger “The Final Countdown” in my head. (Those dudes sure did have fine heads of hair).

Even if you have only a tiny little bit of time left to go, there are three main things you can do polish your proposal and to help it to punch above its weight with evaluators:

  1. Write an Executive Summary (here's how to write a great one),
  2. Add benefit-based headings to visuals and text sections, and
  3. Edit to reduce your word count, and their cognitive load.     

Today we’re going to look at the second, and most overlooked, of these polishing techniques – adding benefit-based headings to your visuals and to break up sections of text.

Headings are a great opportunity to talk about the benefits of your offer, which can become lost in lengthy text. 

Most people completely miss this opportunity, instead titling each section something boring like ‘Our Team’ or ‘Our Approach’.

Don’t bury your best information where evaluators may not actually see it; use the headings to explain the customer benefit you are writing about. 

This is a great way to pull in ‘skim’ readers who may not read every word of the text, and is also the single quickest and easiest thing you can do to improve the persuasiveness of a proposal – even if you have very limited time left to complete it.

To illustrate this, let’s take a look at these two examples.

In a manufacturing tender, respondents were asked to summarise their short term goals.

Which works better as a heading to this section – Heading 1 or Heading 2?

Heading 1:      XYZ Printing’s short-term goals are to achieve greater production efficiency, improved financial returns, and faster delivery for our customers.

(The response goes on to explain each of these goals sequentially).

Heading 2:      XYZ’s investment plan will allow us to deliver ABC’s orders 25% faster than we could before.

XYZ’s short-term goals are to achieve greater production efficiency, improved financial returns, and faster delivery for our customers. 

To achieve these goals, we are investing $50 million in upgrading the packing and finishing lines in all our manufacturing plants over the next two years.

(The response goes on to explain how this will happen and the benefits to the customer).

Whenever I have used this example in my Master Class program, most people eventually agree on Heading 2 – even those who initially opt for Heading 1.

That’s because Heading 2 explains how our short-term goals will benefit the customer – and not just what we are going to do to benefit ourselves.

More purpose, less process

There’s always a nervous wait after you submit an important proposal. Will the customer ‘get it’? Will they like it? Have you made any horrible mistakes?
 
No matter how many boxes you tick, or how much the customer likes you, they’re still going to have to justify buying from you to someone else.
 
So one of the most important things you can do in your proposal is to help the customer to on-sell you to the people they will also need to convince.
 
Therefore, the key messages of your proposal must be so clear that anyone can explain them – even someone who doesn’t understand what you do, doesn’t have time to read the proposal in detail, and is distracted with other things at the time they read it. (Sounds like most customers to me).
 
In many organisations, there are a lot of complex processes that sit around the review of large bids and competitive tenders. These are important to achieve compliance and maximise evaluation score, and they can't be done at the last minute.
 
But what happens when you get to the end? How can you make sure that your proposal is the one that stands out and makes it to the top of the pile?
 
The best way to make sure your messages are coming through strongly enough is to get someone to give you feedback before you need to ship your proposal.
 
However, getting useful feedback isn’t easy, and the process is filled with potential land mines because we often have relationships with the people we are seeking feedback from.
 
For example, if you ask your partner, "Does my bum look big in this?" the correct answer is, of course, "No." It's the only answer that has the least chance of providing offence and of damaging the relationship, even if it isn’t entirely true.
 
Georgia Murch, author of Fixing Feedback, says there are four types of feedback, and not all of them are helpful:

  1. Praise is a personal, favourable judgment; it’s general and vague, and doesn’t encourage discussion. Praise is focused on the person, and based on opinions and feelings. Examples are “You did a great job!”, “Well done on that proposal”, or “Thanks so much for doing that”.
  2. Positive constructive feedback is information specific, issue focused and based on observation. It explains why you did a good job, why the proposal was good or why you are grateful for someone doing something. You now know what you can do next time to replicate this behaviour.  
  3. Negative constructive feedback is also objective, specific and non-judgmental, but this time it’s about what needs to improve. To be constructive, it’s not accusing, and focuses on outcomes - what you need to do better, or less of, and what you need to work on.
  4. Criticism is a personal, unfavourable judgment based on feelings and opinions. It has no examples, no specifics and is rude and unhelpful. 

Murch says criticism is often laced with the phrase “I'm just being honest” as an excuse to verbally assassinate someone. “No one likes you. Just being honest”.  "This proposal is terrible. Just being honest".

How to get constructive pre-submission feedback on your proposal

The ultimate judge of a proposal is the customer. But you can do a test run of their likely reaction first, by getting pre-submission feedback from an ‘unreasonable friend’.

An unreasonable friend is someone who wants to see you succeed, and is prepared to give you constructive feedback – both positive and negative. (As Oscar Wilde said, “True friends stab you in the front”).

It’s best if your unreasonable friend has never seen the proposal before.

Give it to them, with instructions to read it as if they were the customer. Reassure them that you’re simply after their reaction; you’re not asking for editing or proofreading, or for detailed written feedback.

Once they have read it, ask them a single question:

“Can you give me three reasons why you would choose us, based on reading this proposal?"

If they can, that’s great. Your job is done.

If they can’t, ask them to name the three things they most recall from reading the proposal.

You’ll discover where your proposal is too heavy on the technical details, at the expense of the key commercial messages you really want the buyer to remember – and you’ll know exactly where you need to improve.

 

How should you design and layout your proposals?

To win a proposal, you need a great offer. But how you present your offer is also important, because presentation has a big impact on how well your offer is received.

We get seven seconds to make a first impression and one-third of consumer purchasing decisions are based on packaging.

55% of the information we take in during a presentation is visual, and only 7% is text. A study by the Wharton Research Centre also showed that using visual slides in a presentation has a dramatic effect on message retention after 3 days – with 50% message retention for visual slides and only 10% for bullet points.

Proposals are, by definition, fairly complex documents. The key to presenting them well is to keep them simple, which helps the buyer to navigate the proposal and find the information they need.

Great proposal presentation begins with the tools you use to create your proposal layout.

Not all proposal tools are created equal. So let’s take a look at some commonly available tools you might use to create your proposal format; what they are, why they work, and when and how to use them.

Desktop publishing software, such as Adobe InDesign

The gold standard for proposal design and layout is to have a typesetter or professional graphic designer do it for you. If you've seen a beautifully designed proposal that is presented in multiple columns with icons and infographics, pull quotes, beautiful fonts, and high-end photographs, chances are it was designed by a professional using InDesign or similar.

Why it works:

Designers know how to get people to pay attention to the words on a page, and professionally designed proposals use all the tricks of magazine layout to do exactly that.

When to use it:

 In some industries, professional proposal design and layout is the norm. If you're in high-end professional services, construction, architecture, engineering and project management, or you are pitching for multi-million dollar contracts, this is the standard you should be looking towards and that you will probably be competing against.

If you're a smaller firm or you don't have in-house design resources, consider getting a professional designer to work on covers and page layouts for you. You may not have the time or the budget to get your proposals professionally designed every time, but this will definitely improve the overall presentation.

PowerPoint proposals

PowerPoint is built for presentations, but I'm increasingly seeing PowerPoint proposals used for proposals.        

Why it works:

PowerPoint works well for proposals because it’s designed for visuals, and not for text. There's not a lot of room on a PowerPoint slide, so it’s impossible to cram in too much writing, forcing you to stick to the point. You can do more with colour, you can do more with design and layout, and it's impossible for your proposal to get too long if you use this format.

When to use it:

PowerPoint proposals are ideal when you’re going to make your pitch in person first, and need to leave a PDF of the proposal as a reminder of what you discussed. They also work well in industries where you have a lot of visual evidence to illustrate your claims.

PowerPoint works best when you are directing the buying discussion, and you are free to design and layout the proposal in any way you want. It’s less useful for tender responses, where you need to stick to the buyer’s prescribed response format and templates.

Word Documents converted to PDF

Many organisations still use Word for the majority of proposals, particularly where there isn’t a centralised bid or tender team and/or there are many staff members who need to produce their own individual quotes or proposals.

Why it works:

Word is a valid way to format proposals. The key to getting Word proposals right is to have a nice clean template designed that looks modern, up to date, and fresh, allows you to insert (but not stretch or shrink) graphics, and leaves enough white space that you don’t end up overcrowding the text.

When to use it:

Word proposals, by definition, are available to almost everyone because Word software is loaded onto most computers. Because of this, they can all start to look the same, and it can be difficult to tinker too much with the design and layout of Word templates if you want the average Word user to be able to use them.

Word proposals are perfectly fine if you're responding to competitive tenders that have a lot of content, and when you don't have a lot of time to complete the proposal. Occasionally, in a competitive tender, you might need to submit a raw Word document (instead of a PDF) if the RFT requests this for audit purposes.

 

Excel proposals

Sometimes you will still see competitive tenders issued with an Excel template for the non-price criteria, as well as for the price criteria. This is a sure sign that price is really the most important factor, and that the request has been written by somebody who doesn't care very much about the words.

Why it works:

Unfortunately, when it comes to written content, it really doesn’t. Excel is exceptionally unfriendly when it comes to presenting any kind of text.

When to use it:

If you're unlucky enough to be faced with an Excel template in which you must complete a written proposal, keep your words to a minimum, make sure your formatting is easy to read, and make your responses short and to the point.

Which of these options are you using now? And how can you up your game?

For example, if you're currently working mostly with Word, consider how you can introduce some PowerPoint proposals.

In my Pimp My Proposals program, I’ve worked with organisations that use both, and that have seen a dramatic difference in the win rates of their PowerPoint proposals when compared to the Word-based ones.

If you're already using a combination of Word and PowerPoint, consider getting some professional design advice - particularly if this is an expectation in your industry, and your competitors are already doing this, because your proposals will seem amateurish by comparison.