Visualizing the customer relationship as one big conversation

We usually think of a proposal as a tool to close the sale. Does that mean it’s an ending to the conversation you’ve been having with the customer? Or is the start of another conversation? What if you go into the proposal and you haven’t had any conversation with the customer? Can you have a conversation on paper? How does that work?

We discover the customer’s needs, we brainstorm solutions that match our capabilities, and we offer them to the customer for consideration. We really want to ask questions that drill down to a deeper understanding of those needs. After we do some brainstorming of our own, we’d like to do some more with the customer. When we offer them things for consideration, we’d really like to hear their feedback. That sounds a lot like a conversation.

But too often, we start with an announcement or statement of requirements that we get either by email or on a website. We respond to that in writing. Sometimes, without any discussion beyond some minor negotiation, we find out that we won or lost in writing. Contracts are signed and people start working. Then we actually start having real conversations with the customer.

When your conversation is mostly on paper, you can see why having verbal conversation prior to the announcement is so critical. It’s your only chance. And you can see how those who have actually spoken to the customer have a very real competitive advantage.

One way to mitigate this is to better understand what a conversation really is, and build your business development practice around it. Conversation is more than just telling. It is more than just describing. Having a conversation with someone who just talks about his or her self is boring.

Conversation is interactive. If you are stuck in a procurement process that is turn-based (on my turn I release an RFP, on your turn you submit a proposal), you can still demonstrate your conversational skills. Part of having good conversational skills is recognizing the needs of the other person. It’s adapting what you say and how you say it to what you know about them.

See also:
Relationship marketing

When your conversation is on paper, you need to do the same thing. Part of having good conversational skills is asking questions and listening to what the other person has to say. When your conversation is a proposal, you can offer approaches that will give the customer an opportunity to speak and demonstrate your skills at listening.

When the proposal is part of the conversation, it shows that you listened to what they said (even if it’s in writing), provides things for them to consider, invites them to share their thoughts, and then seeks an opportunity to resolve those considerations in person. This is a different style of writing than most people are used to. You may not actually propose doing anything differently, but you must communicate it with a different attitude, desire, and intent to escape the trap of describing yourself and invite the customer to participate in a conversation.

Instead of fronting like you’re omniscient and hiding what you don’t know, in a conversation you feature it. Share what you would like to learn more about the customer in the proposal. Don’t patronize them by telling them who they are or what they need. Tell them about what you see and what the possibilities are. Tell them what their options and choices will be if they accept your proposal. Show them that you have an approach for getting to know them and adapting your offering to their preferences. Focus on how you will be able to deliver better results because your approach involves listening to them.

If you are bidding against someone who has already had a conversation in person with the customer and earned their trust, the odds are stacked against you and you may not even want to bid. But if the customer found them unresponsive, there’s an opportunity to demonstrate your responsiveness in your proposal. When a customer considers a vendor unresponsive, that means they weren’t available for conversation or didn’t take action in time. Instead of telling the customer your approach and describing your qualifications, try setting up a conversation.

If you are the customer and your choice is between:

  1. A vendor who says the same-old things, restates the customer’s requirements and says they understand, makes many promises, brags, flatters, and sings their own praises with unsubstantiated claims; or
  2. Another vendor who shows they have listened to the things you’ve said, demonstrates that they actually listened with insightful comments and options for you to consider, is up front about what they don't know but has an approach to finding it out, and then invites you to a real conversation so that the things they do will reflect your preferences

Who are you tempted to pick?

The best thing about the conversational approach is that it doesn’t involve doing anything differently than how you otherwise should be doing them. You need to discover the customer’s needs and preferences. You need their approval for what you intend to do. You want their feedback along the way.

Instead of hiding behind meetings, reports, requirements analyses, surveys, and other process instruments of customer interaction, approach it all like one big conversation. Keep all the process instruments, just recognize that a conversation is bi-directional and interactive. Each meeting and each deliverable is just one part of a larger, ongoing conversation.

When you remove the conversation, you are just pushing paper. When you make it all part of an ongoing conversation, then you have a relationship.

If you go into the bid without an existing customer relationship, you have a critical weakness against someone who does. Your only shot at overcoming that weaknesses is to become a better conversationalist than your competitors. Even if you have to start the conversation in writing.


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Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

Carl is an expert at winning in writing. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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