Request for Proposals – know when to say ‘NO’?

Request For Proposals (RFPs) are the lifeblood of marketing agencies and yet last week I declined one of the most exciting RFPs that I have come across in the past 12 months….and I still feel sick to my stomach. It was for an industry-leading brand, working on a highly visible global B2B campaign with a big budget and a fantastic team. But sometimes you need to know when to say ‘no’.

It is easy to get carried away with the excitement of receiving an RFP, particularly when it comes from a new potential customer, and even more so when it reads like the one we turned down. But getting carried away on formulating an adequate reply can cost the agency a lot of wasted time and money; winning an unsuitable RFP can end disastrously.

Here are the six criteria I use to determine how we reply to an RFP:

1. Client Fit

The most important question is whether the potential client is a good fit. Do they add value to your portfolio? Do you feel you have something unique and valuable to offer them? Do you have a positive experience in their sector? Although it is tempting to go for every attractive RFP, if the answer to any of the previous questions is ‘no’ you have to consider whether your time and effort isn’t better spent attracting or working on a ‘sweet spot’ client.

2. Project fit

Does the particular project match your highest best? Does it play to the strengths of your agency? Are you able to fulfil the requirements of the project? Any answers apart from a solid ‘yes’ means you need to politely decline. If only part of the RFP is a perfect match, you might consider partnering with another entity – it might mean sacrificing part of the profit but it will be worth the peace of mind. Alternatively, you should ask whether you could respond to only part of the request, providing convincing reasoning why you are still worth considering.

3. Resource availability

The client might be the perfect fit and the project playing to your absolute highest best, but if you don’t have the available resources (or the ability to resource up), the chances are that the perfect project will end up a massive disappointment. Lack of resources to deliver will generally end up in rushed jobs with mediocre results and/or late delivery. Worse, it might prevent you from servicing your other clients, creating a negative knock-on effect.

Last minute resourcing typically sees your profit margins being eaten away by expensive freelancers and contractors. Make sure you consider the resource requirements carefully and factor these costs into your proposal with a good margin of error to avoid disappointing yourself and ultimately the client.

4. Budgets

3_types_of_serviceSome say ‘the best things in life are free’…but unfortunately that doesn’t apply in business. Delivering quality costs money but, in turn, should always provide the client with a good return on investment. That is the essential win-win criteria for an effective client-supplier relationship. When you have reached this point in your considerations, you need to know what the budgets are and if you don’t know, you need to ask.

If you don’t at least get a budget range, I would seriously question the sanity of investing time in the RFP. Having a budget isn’t an opportunity to fleece the client by pricing it right to the limit, but should instead mean that you design the best possible solution within the boundaries set by the client.

5. Win potential

The most subjective factor in your decision is the probability of winning. Your chance of winning is unfortunately not just based on a good fit in terms if client or project, or even the quality of your response. Very often other factors come into play, including whether other agencies responding are better positioned than you to deliver the goods, or whether the incumbent agency has an unbreakable bond with the client.

My advice is to always ask how many agencies are included in the RFP (the more agencies, the less inclined I am to reply). Research the RFP owners and see whom they are connected to on LinkedIn or who they are communicating with on social media (this can often uncover a strong bond with other agencies). Search the Internet for potential agencies the company may have worked with (often awards are a good indicator). None of these factors necessarily imply you decline, but at least you go in with your eyes wide open. As I said, this is very subjective so go with your gut. If you don’t feel confident you have a good chance of winning, maybe now is the time to back away.

6. Future potential

Lastly, although the longevity of the relationship and the guarantee of further work are not necessarily essential, I always consider the future potential of the account. If you are going to invest money in an RFP you should do so under the assumption that you are going to win and therefore willing to commit your valuable resources. If you are willing to commit your resources and, assuming your resources like everything else on earth are limited, you do so at an opportunity cost – the value of the other projects you will have to forego to deliver this one. Therefore it is always worth considering clients that offer a high lifetime value, over those that represent a one-off gain as the acquisition costs are often the same.

Back to my RFP…Sadly, the one I turned down was a perfect fit in terms of client and project. It would no doubt have had a decent budget and certainly had a huge potential for the future. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the resources available to deliver our highest best and submitting a proposal would have put at risk all the potential benefits. In the interest of the potential client and for the chance to work with them in the future, we had to withdraw.

Don’t get me wrong, all the above doesn’t make that decision any less painful…but it does make it easier.

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Total Sales: abandon process compliance and embrace a flexible approach

Holland's Total Football
Holland’s Total Football Strategy

Even if you are not an avid football (soccer) fan you might have heard of the term ‘total football‘. If not, it is a revolutionary tactical theory of football in which any outfield player (i.e. not including the goalkeeper!) can take over the role of any other player in the team. So if a player moves out of position he is immediately replaced by another from his team. This strategy (and mindset) made Ajax one of the most successful teams of the 1970’s and still drives Barcelona’s (and many other clubs’) success today.

Before Total Football, teams typically hoofed the ball up the pitch into the opposition’s box in the hope their star striker could get a foot to it and slot it into the back of the net. The other 10 players on the pitch are there for defence and to feed the ball.

This traditional football strategy reflects how many companies manage their sales efforts today. As described in the HBR article ‘Dismantling the Sales Machine‘, most companies rely on process driven sales strategies, typified by activity metrics and tried and tested set sales pitches, designed to help their sales team members replicate the approach of their star performers.

The reality is that in today’s competitive and fast moving environment, with longer sales cycles, smarter competition and almost total transparency provided by the internet, this brute force sales tactic is no longer efficient or even relevant. To compete it is necessary to adopt a flexible strategy that allows us to be agile and adjust quickly to market forces. I have taken some key strategies and tactics that make Total Football so effective and compared them to what I believe should be best practice in sales. Whether you enjoy football or not, I hope you find the lessons learned useful!

Each player is vital to overall success
The first and most important lesson we need to learn from Total Football is that the whole team needs to work as one unit. If there is one player who doesn’t understand the concept it will leave gaping holes that can easily be taken advantage of.

Likewise, companies need to get their teams to understand that everyone in the organisation is a salesperson. From the receptionist, who is the first voice people hear to the accounts department following up late payments, everyone is influencing the next sale. A great sales team can be let down by poor implementation and overselling can lead to poor delivery. Therefore everyone needs to understand why you sell what you sell, who the key accounts are and what the overall sales strategy is. Everyone should also share in the success (and rewards) of sales. This is the only way you will get everyone involved and excited about the next big deal.

Fluid and interchangeable team structure
Essential to the successful implementation of Total Football is the flexibility of the individual members to play different roles and fluidity of the team to adapt to their opponents. 

 As a company it is all too tempting to stick to a winning formula, wheeling out the same team for the important pitches under the premise that ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’. This is how organisations become victims of their own success as it prevents the team from developing. The star players become over-confident and too comfortable, loosing touch with their changing audience and market; new members of the team pick up old vices and are unable to breathe the necessary fresh air into the existing processes to avoid them going stale. To avoid this, companies need to create sales teams made up of sales as well as operational/delivery staff, where individuals are interchangeable and the team structure is fluid, constantly adapting itself to the requirements of each client meeting, pitch and presentation.

Share the ball (collaboration)
Although Total Football teams have their star players (Ajax, biggest exponents of Total Football, had Cruijff!) but no player can be bigger than the team itself. The attackers have to work just as hard to defend as the defence is required to support the attackers. Most importantly they have to work together as a team, rather than play as individuals.

In sales organisations it is very tempting to focus most of the attention on the star performer. As the star performer, it is equally tempting to get carried away with your own success (and frustrated by the lack of success of others). To gain long-lasting success, organisations need to encourage their team to work together and pool their resources. Common goals and performance rewards help unite the team but often it requires a change in mindset. Companies need to create an ‘inclusive’ environment, where star players train, accompany and are responsible for the new salespeople. No one goes it alone. It is good to maintain a healthy level of competitiveness (as it is the fuel that drives good salespeople) but by having a team and mentoring mentality the momentum will be positive and long-lasting.

Understand your opponent
A team that plays a flexible positioning system needs to understand their opponents, how they play as a team and who they need to cover at all costs. The team adapts their tactics (and players) to each opponent.

In the past, customers looked to the salesperson for guidance and advise. However, thanks to the proliferation of information on the internet, today’s buyer is often very well, if not too well, informed. This means that salespeople need to be much more prepared, become adaptive and creative in their sales. They need to gain an understanding of their customer’s needs and challenge them intelligently on their preconceived ideas. Very often it requires the resourcefulness to identify and approach different stakeholders in the same organisation to get to the real decision maker. Today’s successful salespeople need to do the research; understand the requirements (and interests) of the person they are meeting and adapt their pitch accordingly; provide insights and bring knowledge to the meeting; and offer unexpected solutions. This is essential part of what is called Insight Selling (here is a great article on Insight Selling). 

Practice makes perfect
One of the more recent exponents of Total Football is former Arsenal superstar Dennis Bergkamp. He was once told by Johan Cruijf that if you have to run to catch up with the ball you have started running too late. Subsequently Dennis trained incessantly to developed a sixth sense of where the ball would would end up and ensure he was there.

We don’t train enough in sales. Most salespeople, if they were lucky, were given a little bit of training and mentoring but most have largely been left to their own devices. It is generally seen as a waste of time because most salespeople think they are already perfect. How many times have you practised your cold calls on your colleagues? How many times have your role-played sales presentations? How often do you brainstorm with colleagues in how you could improve? Even more concerning, how much time did you allow for running through that vital sales pitch? I am pretty confident that most people would answer: not enough. Practice makes perfect!…And it allows you to build that invaluable sixth sense.

Total Management
In Total Football it is essential that the manager has a holistic view and in-depth understanding of every player’s ability and performance at all times.

Sadly in sales it is typical that salespeople are managed at a distance and from behind a desk through scorecards, activity metrics and monthly reviews or, if you are lucky, weekly sales meetings. When it is noticed that targets will be missed it is generally too late to do anything about it. Individuals are managed by extremes, through praise (when they win a deal) and criticism (when they have missed a target).

In my opinion, Total Sales requires total involvement. A sales manager (or director) needs to be aware of exactly what is going on within his or her team at all times. This requires constant dialogue, providing encouragement, advise and support based on their hands-on experience. It is a great way (if not the only way) to command respect, anticipate and reverse setbacks and missed targets, as well as get direct feedback on the effectiveness of the sales approach. In my last football analogy of this post, it doesn’t mean a successful sales manager needs to actually play in every game but they always need to be on the sidelines rather than in the directors box.

Remember, everyone is a salesperson!

How to sell effectively in the digital age

I recently read a fantastic article titled “Why Top Sales Reps Will Be Unemployed In 2 Years” (posted by Steve Loftness), in which Steve highlights that the buying environment has changed but the sales force has failed to adapt.

He uses Rick and Domina as the two distinct types of sales people around today. Rick is your traditional salesperson, whilst Domina is the evolving (or 21st century) salesperson. Rick relies on his years of experience, whilst Domina is focused on self-improvement. Rick knows what the customer wants, whilst Domina works with the customer to identify their pains and needs. Rick has a LinkedIn account, Domina works her LinkedIn account. And so on. There are quite a few more examples and it is well worth reading through some of them to check your approach and to see if you could benefit from some of Domina’s insight. I certainly did.

Here are few examples:

Symptom Rick (obsolete) Domina (evolving)
Social Network is challenged. Has a hundred or so LinkedIn contacts, but rarely spends time there. Doesn’t even check messages on Linkedin or research prospects. Does not have a twitter account. Built up a large 1000+ contact network over the years. Lately, however, has started to work her LinkedIn network better to focus on prospects.  LinkedIn is her first stop for prospect research. Recently switched her Tweets to be more valuable to prospects/clients than what she did before – tweet about her products and events.
Uses own “tried and true” sales presentations. Although Marketing has supplied multiple versions of sales presentation templates that stress the company value propositions, he insists on adding his own flair and interpretation to sales presentations. This results in reusing his tired inward-out slides that he is comfortable spinning stories around. (At least he is telling stories.) Has always leveraged presentation material from other Reps and Marketing.  In the past, was not happy with Marketing’s output, so augmented it where necessary.  Now, however, she is active in piloting and providing feedback to Marketing on the presentations that their Internal Content Marketing Agency produces.
Doesn’t understand who the competition is. He is convinced that his only competitors are the two major providers of similar products.  He has never considered that competition could come from an ancillary market.  Does not ever discuss with prospects his main competitors: the prospect doing it themselves or doing nothing. Since learning about it, she is now keenly aware of the possible competitors to an opportunity including known competitors, “doing nothing”, the client doing it themselves, and completely different markets that may actually be in need of her solutions. She makes it a point to be prepared to address all possible competitors – relying heavily on Marketing’s customer and competitor intelligence.
CRM usage is absolute minimum and not accurate as far as forecasting goes. He only uses the CRM system out of mandate – putting the minimum info out there.  He may have some well-known contacts in the CRM, but keeps most of them in his own rolodex for fear of someone poaching them.  Entries he makes in the CRM on opportunities are only ever made when he has a good level of confidence in their becoming a deal. She is a strong user in the CRM system. She loads opportunities in the CRM and tracks them through the sales process. Her entries have ample notes and she keeps all of her contacts in the CRM.  She realizes that accurate, complete records allows for easier and better forecasting as well as the chance for her SM to find and coach her on sales improvement.
Story telling, if used, is about irrelevant, dated subjects. The stories he tells are engaging stories because of his charisma. Unfortunately, the stories are about olden days in a market that no longer exists.  His stories aren’t always relevant to the industry he is selling to, either. She has not always leveraged story telling, but has resolved to be one of the best. To this end, she has been studying the art of story telling and has started to put it into practice.  She knows that storytelling must have a purpose, must be relevant to the audience, and must enable emotions.

For the full list and blog post, click here.

 

Do our customers deserve us?!?

The client is king! – There will be very few who haven’t heard this statement before and most people would agree with it wholeheartedly without a second thought. However, every time I hear it I can’t help but think that it must have been conceived by a client! My second thought normally is…’well, what does that make the supplier?’.

The term ‘supplier’ has always had a bit of a negative connotation, yet without suppliers there would be no product or service for the clients to buy, therefore making the relation between the two parties rather symbiotic and mutually dependable – a ‘partnership’ if you like.

Having worked in client facing rolls all my life (i.e. supplier-side), achieving this ‘partnership’ is the true utopia of account management and very difficult, but not impossible to achieve.

For my (potential) clients reading this, rest assured that I am not going to commit commercial hara-kiri by lecturing you on how you should play nice with your suppliers. However, a recent rather disappointing (but thankfully uncommon!) situation which involved one of the senior stakeholders walking out during the middle of a pitch (which we had painstakingly prepared for 4 days), claiming he had ‘something more important to do’ inspired me to focus my thoughts on how to nurture this delicate relationship.

So, how can we ensure that we find the right partner for us? I don’t claim to have all the answers but here are my thoughts:

Qualify each other
The initial stage of getting to know each other (in my sector it is normally the presentation and pitch process) is hugely important for both parties. The client will want to see if you are a safe pair of hands and capable of doing the job. As a supplier it is your chance to find out if the client is right for you. Ask the difficult questions and dig deep. If the client is unwilling to answer your questions for fear of giving the game away, you might want to consider if this is a relationship that can be built upon. How can you give a client sound advice if they don’t trust you enough? If their tender process includes 15+ other potential suppliers, is the client really confident in your abilities (or sure of what they want)? And therefore is your time not better spent on the clients that have taken the time to understand your business and value your time and work?

Trusted advisor
Once the relationship has begun it is only natural that as a supplier you will have to work hard to maintain the relationship. By now you should be working with someone who values your opinion, so make sure you voice them. Provide them with proactive communication and honest advice. Of course the relationship has to be win-win, but if you attain the trusted advisor position the client will not want to lose you, and will be much more inclined to treat you fairly. Don’t take advantage of this relationship and don’t allow yourself to grow complacent.

Evaluate the relationship
In an interesting blog post by Jason Ross on how to re-pitch for an existing account, he raised the importance of evaluating the relationship. No one likes to admit when a marriage has failed, but most of us also know that it is a lot worse for all involved to let it fester. Evaluate each other on an ongoing basis. An interesting approach is to score each other at regular intervals and on a mutually agreed scoring system. Present each other with the findings and discuss them openly. This way adjustments can be made before it is too late.

Now, I would love to say that I follow these rules all the time and that it is never our fault that a client relationship has turned sour, but you would all know I was lying. It is incredibly difficult to build ‘trusted advisor’ relationships and it also requires courage, especially on those occasions when you need to say ‘no’ to a client. But it does work…ask some of the  clients I work with…(but let me select which ones!).

Ps. We won that pitch!