To Bid Or Not To Bid

A Tragedy in Four Acts

©2003 All Rights Reserved

ACT 1: You have just received a Request For Proposal from a prospect that you have been trying to penetrate for months. Your rapport building skills and persistence have finally paid off! Based on a preliminary review, it looks like you have the products they need to meet their business and technical requirements, so you begin to assemble the proposal team.

ACT 2: In the next couple weeks, you not only sit in on the prospect's vendor meeting, but you have a couple good sessions with your primary contact. In these meetings, you were asked for and gave recommendations about the specs, alternative ways to address their needs, and information about the features and benefits of your product. Although this contact isn't the decision-maker, you know he'll push hard for your product if he likes you, and he says he does.

ACT 3: The day for opening the bids has arrived. You know you have a good shot because you have given them lots of advice on how to evaluate the proposals, and your product meets all the technical requirements. To ice this deal, you even shaved an additional 10% off the already low prices reserved for key clients. What could go wrong?

ACT 4: You receive a call from your contact saying the award went to Brand X competitor. In spite of your contact's best efforts, the decision-maker didn't listen to him. The contact concludes by thanking you, saying you did everything right, and by assuring you that you will be given top consideration in the next bidding situation.

For a few of you, this story hits too close to home. But, even for the rest, how many proposals have you written that turned out to be a waste of time and money in hindsight? Wouldn't you rather know this before you had made the investment instead of after? If so, how many "tough" questions do you ask of your prospects up front? If you avoid doing just one of these tragic proposals, the time and money you save could be spent developing more and even better prospects. Before we describe how to do this, let's take a look at what's happening now.

When you and your prospect begin the selling "play", there are always two systems at work: the prospect's system and the sales system. In the prospect's system, the agenda is usually one of trying to gather as much free information as possible, negotiating for the best possible price and terms, playing their cards very close to their chest, and minimizing the amount of time they invest. In short, prospects view the "play" as one in which they have the leading role and the sales person is, at best, playing a minor role, and at worst, doesn't even have a copy of the script.

In our opening play, the prospect was soliciting technical and business problem solutions, probably not just from you but from all the vendors they talked to. And, because you are knowledgeable about your capabilities and want to create some credibility, your script says to give away your information and technical consulting. Unfortunately, in this environment, the prospects get everything they want, and you get nothing.

In all fairness, sales people must assume much of the responsibility for what has happened to them over the years. They have trained prospects to behave this way by putting up with this subordinate role. To change this situation, you must participate in the writing of the script and the role definitions.

Starting with an "Up-front Contract" will help you get a co-leading role in the play. The Up-Front Contract is an agreement between you and the prospect that occurs at the beginning of your first meeting and again at each subsequent meeting. It covers those areas which, if not addressed at the beginning, will put you under pressure later on and force you to go back to the supporting role.

In Act 1 of our play, for example, when you get the RFP in the mail, instead of jumping up and down and cheering, you should find out why the prospect sent it to you. Are you their pawn supplying the mandatory third bid, or are they genuinely considering your company and product? The reason you might not ask this question is because you might not like the prospect's answer. It's easier to assume we are have a starring role in the play than it is to find out we only have a bit part.

In Act 2, we need to get an up-front agreement about what our participation in this play entails. If you give the prospect the advantage of your knowledge and experience, what will they do for you in return? Information about what it takes to win? A meeting with the decision-maker? Last look? If you find you are still only playing a minor role, then you should re-evaluate the need to invest in the proposal, because you can be sure that one of your competitors has the starring role.

It is in also Act 2 that you should address the issue of price, particularly if you aren't likely to be the least expensive. You do this by "telling it like it is". For example, your script might be: "Before we each invest a lot of time, I should tell you that we won't be the low bidder. Is this going to be a problem, or are there other factors in your decision?" If price is the only factor, this may be one of the bids you don't have to prepare. If it's not the only factor, this is the opportunity to ask what the other criteria are and their priorities. The "star" of any play will always have a copy of the script that matches the ones the other actors have. Your sales situation should be no different.

All good method actors have the ability to ad-lib (and your prospects are VERY good actors). So, in your role as a leading character, you need to get information from your prospect, not give it. You need to be able to ask enough insightful questions to get through your prospect's corporate role and into their personal interests and concerns. Your value to your prospects and their corporations is in direct proportion to how much you know about their real, personal needs, not how much they know about you, your company and your product.

So, in every act of this play, you must be asking questions of the decision-makers, users, recommenders and gatekeepers. They all are playing roles in the play, and they all have personal and emotional reasons for selecting their co-stars. If necessary, they can always go back to their roles to justify their decisions. The only way to uncover their personal reasons for buying from you is by asking questions, not by talking about your features and benefits. If they have no personal reasons for buying from you (or you can't find them), then you will continue to get sales the way you always have ... based on the law of averages at best, or a pre-written script at worst.

The bottom line is that business is not won or lost based just on the number of hours you spend on the bid. It's won or lost at the beginning of your meeting with the prospect when you decide whose play or script is going to prevail. If you don't have a system that allows you to participate in the writing of the play, you will find that prospects are very good at theirs.

By not letting prospects write all the scripts in which you have a role, you may not increase your sales, but you absolutely will increase your sales margins. You will only be doing proposals for those people who are agreeing to play on a level field. You will know their personal reasons for buying, and they will believe you can address those reasons, so your proposals will be much more focused. When you play a leading role, your close rate may not hit 100%, but it will be much closer to 100% than it is now.

In our play, the underlying theme is "I will do whatever it takes to get your business, Mr. Prospect, but do I really have a chance to get it? What do I need to do to get your business, and if I do these things for you, what do I get in return?" A star player wouldn't accept anything less, so why should you?

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