Messages that Matter: Question 1—What is the customer's problem or need?


Posted By Dr. Tom Sant | Jun 18, 2012


7 Key Questions to Answer When Writing a "Killer" Sales Proposal

Lots of bad proposals are bad because they were written in a knowledge vacuum. The proposal writer knows very little about the account, the business situation, or the decision maker's goals. Sometimes the salesperson has thrown a request for proposal over the wall and said, "Just give them our standard response." Sometimes the proposal team hasn't bothered to ask any questions. Either way, the result is a turgid, generic document that sounds self-centered and fundamentally irrelevant.

So what does the proposal team need in terms of information and insight from the sales organization? Not a lot really. In my experience if you have the answers to seven key questions, you probably have enough to write a "killer" proposal. If you don't have the answers, you need to work hard to get them—talking to the client, doing more research, thinking about similar clients you've worked with. And if you can't get the answers at all, maybe you should consider not bidding.

Here are the 7 questions you need to answer:

  1. What is the client’s problem or need?
  2. Why is this problem worth solving?
  3. What results does the customer seek?
  4. Which specific result is the most important?
  5. What products or services can we offer that will solve the problem and deliver the right results?
  6. Of the solutions I can offer, which one is the best fit for this client?
  7. Why are we the right choice?

First, What is the Client's Problem or Need?

When I ask this question with clients, they often refer me to the request for proposal. "Read this—it tells you what they need." Well, no, it doesn't. Unfortunately, the RFP almost never states the real need. Instead, it merely describes the requirements for a compliant solution. Companies are not likely to put the real problem in an RFP, because the RFP can fall into the hands of a competitor and reveal weaknesses that the competitor can exploit—Not smart.

Suppose the RFP said something like this:

Bud's Auto Parts seeks a system to manage the inventory of parts and equipment at all 13 store locations. The desired system will use bar code data to maintain a current inventory of parts and will integrate with our existing MAS 90 accounting system to automatically update inventory as parts are sold.

So—what is the customer's need or problem? If you're tempted to answer, "They need an inventory control system that integrates with their accounting system," please think again. Or think deeper.

Uncover the Real Reason

We need to go beyond the obvious. We have to ask ourselves, why is the lack of that kind of inventory control system worth spending time and money to address? What waste has it caused? What errors? Lost sales? We can state with a high degree of confidence that nobody ever wakes up in the morning and says, "You know, I think I'll go buy myself an inventory control system that uses bar code data." There has to be a reason. That reason is the customer's need.

The late Tom Amrhein, one of the most successful proposal writers of all time, used to say, "You can be 100% compliant to the RFP, and 100% wrong, because you don't know the problems that lie behind the scenes." The point of question # 1 is to uncover what lies behind the scenes.

For most of us, the 80/20 rule applies to customer needs. Most of the opportunities we encounter can be traced back to a fairly small set of needs that pop up frequently. By writing up frequently encountered need statements and storing the text in our proposal automation tool, we can simplify the process of responding to standard opportunities. What's more we can do it without making customers feel they are getting a generic response.

Take a look at Qvidian's sales enablement and proposal automation tools to see if that approach will work for your team. You might find that they answer a need for your organization.

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