There is nothing quite so exhilarating as the call from a prospective client saying, "We chose you." It's not just the fact that your business will benefit from the income; it is as much about a personal triumph, an affirmation of all the work you've put into your proposal.
Then there's that other type of call. It usually starts out friendly enough. Then the bottom drops out: "I'm really sorry, but " And that's usually all you hear. The rest of the conversation, it would seem, is pointless.
But don't stop listening. We all lose at some point. And while your natural tendency is to retreat, lick your wounds and soothe your hurt feelings with some ice cream or decaf mocha, there is something more positive you can do: You can lessen the blow of rejection by learning from the experience.
The smart business leaders know that a systematic and ongoing process of proposal debriefings can glean value from the times when your prospective clients say no. Debriefings allow you to obtain useful feedback that can help you increase the number of times that you get that good, "we chose you" call.
You probably don't have time to thoroughly analyze all your proposals, so choose the ones that you feel have (or will have) the most impact on your business. The simplest method of debriefing is asking the decision-maker or key influencer at your prospective client's organization why you did not win the proposal.
For more important and extensive proposals, you'll want to have a methodology that, over time, could bring you results. You may decide to debrief all proposals over a certain dollar amount or those that are in a particular service area or industry.
Debriefing begins at home, so your first step is to debrief your own firm's proposal participants. The spectrum of their observations can be valuable. Ask them what aspects of the presentation they thought went well and what they would have done differently.
Maybe there was body language, glances or other physical cues that clued them into a possible loss. Why do they think the firm lost the bid? Also, ask about any other challenges or needs the prospective customer has that your firm might be able to address.
Your next step is to interview the decision-makers and influencers at the target company. Most business people are open to giving you their opinion and feedback, even if it's because they feel badly about having to tell your company that you lost. Ask the person on your team with the closest relationship to the client to call or write a note requesting a brief interview.
Explain that the purpose of the interview is to help your organization learn how to improve your delivery of service. Be sure to emphasize that the debriefing process is confidential, and that you will not be using any of the information you gather in an unethical or inappropriate way. You can conduct the interview by phone or in person, depending on the proximity of the client and the importance of the proposal and target company.
Who should conduct the debriefing interview? You'll likely get the most honest feedback if you use someone who was not part of the original proposal team. You might want to consider involving your marketing director in the process. Alternatively, you could hire a third-party consultant, who can often get the most objective information.
During the course of the interview, try to probe for answers to key questions. Make sure you were on target as to who the decision-makers and influencers were. Ask what went well in your company's relationships with their company and what could have been improved. You can learn from knowing what you might have done differently.
Try to find out which criteria were most highly valued in the decision-makers' minds. If you included testimonials, recommendations or referrals in your proposal, were they given any weight? An important issue is whether you demonstrated sufficient knowledge of the prospective customer's industry. How did this enter into the decision process?
Don't be afraid to talk about price. Where did your proposed charges fit into the decision process? While it's often cited as a deciding factor, the question of cost usually depends on the value the client feels it will receive for its money, not the bottom-line number itself. Where did you rank, price-wise, in the bids submitted? The answer can often give you crucial competitive information.
Ask if your firm would be considered for work in the future, but leave the issue there. The last thing you want is for the interview to be seen as a sales call. At some point in the future you'll want to revisit this with the prospect. Don't take it for granted that they know the range of your services.
It's not at all uncommon for a decision-maker to think of your firm as only providing the product or service you talked with them about. Educating your clients and prospective clients about everything you can do is an ongoing process.
When the interviews are completed, write a brief memo summarizing the gist of the interviews. Describe why your firm was not selected. Make recommendations on how to improve the proposal process. You can share this with appropriate management. If you uncover a problem with one particular individual on your team, consider addressing it directly with the person involved, rather than putting it in writing. This avoids finger pointing and assigning blame, which can poison the process.
At regular intervals, review the debriefing memos to spot trends that need to be addressed, such as whether the team is correctly identifying prospective clients' decision-making criteria. Keep in mind that you can also discover points of differentiation that can be used to strengthen your overall marketing program.
A well implemented, systematic debriefing process can help improve your team's win rate. And you know how much everyone loves to hear those three little words: "We chose you."
Sharon Berman is principal of Berbay Corp., a marketing consultancy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Entrepreneur's Notebook is a regular column contributed by EC2, The Annenberg Incubator Project, a center for multimedia and electronic communications at the University of Southern California. Contact James Klein at (213) 743-1759 with feedback and topic suggestions.
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