Sales: My way

Shelly’s company received a request for proposal (RFP) for a rather large project. The type of work was right in her company’s sweet spot, so she decided to look further into the opportunity to see how winnable it was.

In this particular case, the buying process was rather structured. So Shelly’s first step was attending a walk-through meeting where the customer took the competing vendors through the RFP and informed them of the rules of the game.

One of those rules was that anyone who deviated from the plans and specifications associated with the RFP would be summarily disqualified from bidding (note: this was not a government project).

Fast-forward about four months: Shelly deviated from the plans – a lot –and won the job!

Make my life easy, please

Why do customers “demand” absolute compliance with their specifications? In about 20 percent of the cases, it’s for quite legitimate reasons, such as regulatory compliance issues that they themselves have to live with. In these situations, you’re pretty much stuck.

But in the majority of cases, it’s simply so that the customer can put all the vendors on a level playing field You know: apples-to-apples! These customers believe their lives will be easier if they make all the vendors follow the very same rules so that they can compare all the offerings on a spreadsheet.

That’s their choice. It is, after all, their money. But how you respond to this demand is your choice.

To play it safe or not, that is the question

The safe response is to fall in line and bid per the specs. Maybe you make a phone call to see if the customer is interested in alternates, you get a short “no thanks; just stick to the specs,” and you walk away thinking that that settles that! This, of course, is your choice. It is, after all, your money.

But Shelly – and countless of Shelly’s colleagues in her company – have chosen not to fall in line over and over again and have been hugely successful doing it. The strategy has blown up in their face…but not often. And the few times it has, Shelly believes they would have had no chance of winning anyhow. Or if they had won…they’d have wished they hadn’t.

Variables to consider

I believe that the decision to deviate from what the customer demands you to do is among the hardest decisions a salesperson can make. I also believe that executing the sales campaign – once that decision is made – is among the most challenging of all strategies to execute. But if you’re up to the task, here are some things to consider.

  • What do you say to whom and when do you say it? Say too much too soon or to the wrong person and you get shut down on the spot. Or more likely, you’re told to bid per plans and submit an alternate. The timing of all of your communication is critically important.
  • To what extent do you believe you can you get assurance that the customer won’t shop your ideas? The real question here is: are you prepared to tell the customer that you will not participate if they won’t give you the assurance? Shelly did!
  • What should you put in writing or what should be communicated via spoken word? The short answer here is if you really want them to understand something speak it. If you prefer that something be part of your official response but prefer it not get much attention put it in writing—people hear. They don’t read.
  • What can you do to get some kind of live meeting to go over your proposal?  This is critical. It’s almost impossible to succeed without a live meeting. You have to do more than just request it. In Shelly’s case, she said she would require one…and got it. Getting the right people at the meeting is just as important. The people actually paying for the project are, of course, the key ones.
  • Be prepared with your response when the customer says they’d also like you to bid per the plans so they can have a “fair comparison” to the other vendors. Usually – not always – agreeing to do this will get you killed. Frame your response in terms of your own resources, not your desire to do what’s right for the customer.

Remember: money talks! If you can show cost savings by taking creative approaches in your solutions you will often get attention, even if you were told to behave like a good little vendor, fall in line, and bid to the plans. 

But are you up to it?

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