If you're selling to the corporate market, it can often take months of working with a prospect to get them to the point of finally making a change. The last thing you want to do is blow it after all that time you've invested.
One of the sagest people I know on this topic is Mike McLaughlin, author of Winning the Professional Services Sale, a book I highly recommend. (Note: Click here to read his excellent blog, download his ebooks & sign up for his informative newsletter.)
Recently I had a chance to talk with him about his strategies for dealing with prospects at the final stage of their decision-making process. I think you'll enjoy the interview ....
HANDLING RISK-AVERSE PEOPLE
Jill: Most prospects today are afraid of making the wrong decision. What do you suggest sellers do to minimize the perceived risk associated with doing business with them?
Mike McLaughlin: We've all got concerns about any purchase we make, even if it's just a nagging doubt. For the seller, responding to risk-averse people requires you to be highly targeted in your communication about risk and how you'll mitigate it.
That means you have to understand your buyer's perception of risk, whether you think those beliefs are valid or not. Too many sellers emphasize all the reasons why their offer is the safest choice.
Resist the urge to take that approach. Instead, use your interviews and sales meetings to pinpoint your buyer's areas of concern. Be candid about your views of the potential risk your buyer faces and, chances are, your buyer will reciprocate.
Then, create a communication approach that identifies each specific risk and provides compelling evidence for how you plan to mitigate it. Offer relevant examples of how others have successfully managed similar risks. You'll need to make a strong case that you've dealt with the perceived risks to overcome the buyer's reluctance, so don't be timid.
DEALING WITH NEW DECISION MAKERS
Jill: Oftentimes new people get inserted into the decision process at what seems like the last minute. That throws everything off -- and sometimes even totally derails a sale. What suggestions do you have to prevent this from occurring - and deal with it if it does?
Mike McLaughlin: It's common (though rarely fun) to have new decision makers enter the sales process at the 11th hour. You can make it easier to manage this change if you can predict and prepare for it.
As you progress through the sales process, identify your buyer's peers and superiors in the organization. Ask yourself, will your offer affect them (or their staffs), and in what way? Will they participate in or benefit from what you're proposing? If yes, expect one or more of them to be part of the decision-making process at some point. Also, be sure to periodically ask your buyer how the decision process is unfolding, with a particular emphasis on who will be involved in the decision.
Once you identify potential new decision makers, learn as much about them as you can. What are their business priorities, operating constraints, and key challenges? If possible, try to meet with them before they get directly involved with the sale.
If you can't meet earlier in the sales process, be ready to offer any new decision maker a briefing on your proposal, focusing on your value to the organization. The point is to bring a new decision maker up to speed quickly, and with a favorable opinion of your proposal.
Jill: Mike, I know this is one of your favorite topics. Based on your experience, do you think buyers and sellers see proposals differently? If so, how?
Mike McLaughlin: I think they do view them differently. For buyers, besides revealing potential costs, a sales proposal serves two important purposes.
- First, it demonstrates how well the seller listened to and understood what the buyer needs. It doesn't take long for buyers to figure out how well you've translated their needs into a workable solution.
- Second, it shows buyers if you've thought through the delivery of the value you've promised. Once a buyer is convinced that you can deliver value, they want to see how you're planning to do that.
Most sellers know that buyers are looking at proposals in this way. Still, the most common proposal you see in the market is full of seller-centric language, jargon, and generalizations.
Today's buyers want a proposal to be a blueprint for how to achieve value, while sellers are still cranking out warmed-over brochures and calling them sales proposals.
STUPID MISTAKES in PROPOSALS
Jill: I know you've seen a ton of proposals in your career. What are the stupidest mistakes that sellers make in their proposals?
Mike McLaughlin: There are many excellent proposal writers in the market, but I see three mistakes that crop up a lot.
- First, some believe that every proposal must follow the same template, no matter what. The best sales proposal efforts begin with the assumption that every client situation is different, even if you've done a similar project hundreds of times. Besides, following a template can stifle creative thought.
- Second, proposal writers have a tendency to "bury the lead," as journalists say. Too many proposals take too long to get to the point-which should be how you'll address the buyer's issue. Your buyer wants to know immediately how you'll help, not how great you are. Of course, you want a section in your proposal for qualifications, but focus on your buyer's issues first.
- Finally, some proposals are just sloppy about grammar, spelling, and language. It sounds like a small point, but clients have rejected more than one proposal for spelling errors.
CRAFTING PROPOSAL THEMES
Jill: I know you're a big advocate of creating "themed" proposals. This is a new concept for me - and I'm sure others. Can you explain what you mean, why it's important and give an example?
Mike McLaughlin: I like to see sales proposals focus on two or three key buyer priorities. Instead of describing all of the wiz-bang things your client gets from working with you, emphasize the few that matter the most.
Think of your proposal theme as describing the end state your buyer wants to reach, not the means for reaching that state. Once you've identified that end state, show how you'll achieve that objective in every section of your proposal.
For example, if your proposed solution helps the buyer achieve better customer service, with reduced costs, make that your proposal theme. Think of the proposal theme as an expression of value. Then, return to the theme again and again in your proposal.
ONE PIECE of ADVICE
Jill: Speaking of themes, what's your theme? What's the one piece of sales advice you find yourself sharing over and over again?
Mike McLaughlin: You already know what to do, so do it. I often find myself giving that advice to sellers. They know all about selling with the buyer's interests in mind, differentiating themselves with value, not benefits, and creating long-term relationships with buyers. it's hard not to know given how much is written on these topics.
But, when it comes to execution, there are stumbling blocks and they don't follow the advice they know they should.
He's the author of Winning the Professional Services Sale, and the coauthor of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants.
His newsletters, Management Consulting News and The Guerrilla Consultant, reach a global audience.
Before founding MindShare Consulting, he was a partner with Deloitte Consulting, where he served clients and mentored consultants for more than two decades.
Visit his blog at http://www.michaelwmclaughlin.com.