Better Proposals in Less Time, with Michelle Golden

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Michelle Golden

Better Proposals in Less TimePresented by Michelle Golden,Golden Marketing Resources, Inc.

Session Moderator: I'd like to welcome everyone to AccountingWEB's workshop! Today we are featuring Michelle Golden. Michelle Golden founded Golden Marketing Resources to implement business development and management solutions within small to mid-sized professional service firms. Michelle spent several years as the marketing director for Williams-Keepers LLP, a mid-sized regional CPA firm. She then joined the multi-state law firm, Husch & Eppenberger LLC, as the marketing manager for all six of the firm's offices. Michelle is deeply committed to educating CPA firms and their marketing professionals about new ways to enhance sales and marketing results. Today's presentation, Better Proposals in Less Time, will focus on techniques for creating excellent proposals, keeping in mind that bigger isn't always better.

Welcome Michelle! The floor is yours!

D. Michelle Golden: Hi. Thanks for having me here today. I want to share some ideas on one of my pet topics...proposals. I'll cover 4 steps: prepare, compose, deliver, and follow-up.

First I want to say please ask questions anytime! Or if you have questions after the session, e-mail me at [email protected] and I answer them for you later.

I'll warn you right off that I am not a fan of "thick" proposals. Unless a prospect specifically asks for a proposal that'll be judged on its weight, it is important to keep it concise. Thick proposals tend to bury the "good stuff" inside a lot of fluff. By the time the reader gets to the meat, they've become bored with irrelevant (to them) information. So the proposal should be user friendly and, as such, it should reflect consideration for the reader's time. Big, thick proposals don't do that.

What is the average size of proposals you guys usually deliver?

Kristi: How many pages do you consider to be too thick? Ours are normally 8 - 12 pages or so.

Karen: 8 to 10 pages.

David Joy: 7-12 pages.

Lisa Campo: Around 10.

D. Michelle Golden: Wow. I'm impressed. All of you are doing great with regard to size. I've actually seen firms present proposals exceeding 25-30 pages!

Do you find that you read big documents all the way through? Or do they put you off a bit?

Kristi: That's a marketing person with too much time on their hands - 25 pages.

D. Michelle Golden: Kristi, you made me laugh. Actually, these were canned proposals they hadn't been refined in years and the template just grew and grew and grew.

Anne: What if they supply the questions, as in a predefined RFP?

D. Michelle Golden: Yes, Anne, there is one exception: if a governmental proposal or an RFP specifies umpteen pages and sections, you should ALWAYS comply with the instructions or else you demonstrate you cannot follow directions.

Business executives who receive your proposals are as busy as you. Of course, you have a lot to say in your proposal. If I'm suggesting you need to keep it short, you might be wondering how do you get everything you need in there? The answer is: Simple. The proposal must be personal to the prospect. It must IMMEDIATELY acknowledge the key issues/trouble spots. And it must clearly address an approach to solving them.

I'll define what should go in after I talk about what shouldn't.

If you skip the personalization and send a generic proposal blind, your chances of winning are pretty slim and will be based solely on price. I could be wrong, but I don't believe there are many firms who actually strive to be low bid winners.

Deciding what doesn't need to be in there is pretty easy. Anything that starts with "us", "we", "our firm", "I" or anything else that screams "all about me." Avoid it like the plague. You can include a page or two of firm history or philosophy at the back...but don't actually expect anybody to read it. Just don't put it at the front. It will drown out what is important to the prospect.

Also, unless they ask for it, do NOT include a bio for every single person and department in the firm. Obviously, if your firm has 3 people, it's okay. Otherwise, just give them what they need to know about the key contacts and service areas.

What I specifically recommend you include is this...

Page 1 should be a brief cover letter with some bullet points about the issues pertinent to the client (yes, go ahead and start thinking of them this way). Say something to the effect of",together, we will help you address the following areas of concern...." Try to keep the problems to 5 bullets or less. Bundle if you need to. Listing 20 bullets will scare the heck out of the prospect or make them feel their problems are insurmountable.

In order to know what to list, you must have an understanding of the future client, right? I strongly recommend a personal meeting. Face to face is a wonderful opportunity to begin building the relationship. It also shows you are serious about your interest in working with them. Offer to meet for an hour. Bring along your marketer or a manager or senior (because it's a great training opportunity) and they will help you analyze the client's responses and be there to bounce things off of after the meeting. It will be important you agree you heard the same things.

Any questions at this point?

How many of you meet personally with every prospect before actually proposing your services?

Kristi: We rarely send out a proposal if we haven't met the prospect.

D. Michelle Golden: Good, Kristi. I'll bet you've seen that helps your win ratio

Anne: How can you meet every prospect if you have a strong phone relationship?

D. Michelle Golden: Anne, you *can* conduct pre-proposal meetings over the phone, but face-to-face is really best.

Anne: We always respond to all RFPs.

D. Michelle Golden: Responding to RFPs is good if they fit your model client profile

Anne: Face to face always makes a difference but sometimes is not possible. Of course if we do not fit, we decline. What I mean is that the tradition is not to travel to every prospect - We have nationwide prospects.

D. Michelle Golden: How many of you respond to RFPs routinely? Maybe you do lots of governmental work?

Kristi: We do some governmental work... but we always know the prospect personally.

D. Michelle Golden: Before you meet with any prospect, the first thing you need to think about is "what do you know about the prospect?" On a fresh piece of paper, make notes about the things you know about the business or entity. How long have they been in business? What are the key issues for that industry historically and presently? How does this company manage those issues (i.e. where do they stand)? What do you know about what their needs are? How about the underlying issues? If you don't know much about their industry, consider subscribing to a service like First Research to get quick access to key issues and sample questions to ask. This can make quick work of industry research!

When you are planning, also note: How can you leverage relationships? For instance: Who are the decision-makers? How well do you know them? Does anyone else in the firm know them? Are you acquainted with anyone else who knows them? Then tap all these resources.

Kristi: We use the Dunn and Bradstreet Million Dollar Database. Helps us gather info on prospects.

D. Michelle Golden: D&B is great, Kristi!

After you've noted all the background information you can think of, prepare a detailed list of questions (10 or so) that will identify the results the client expects to achieve.

This last part is VERY important. Sometimes, what they say and what they expect are 2 different things.

Ask questions that will uncover what they DON'T want as well. If you can identify the REAL reasons they are "shopping" that is a plus, too. Ask "open ended" questions. You many want to read my earlier workshop transcript on active listening. Prepare some questions that will identify what the client will most value about YOU being the service provider. Do not be actively thinking of questions while you are there!! If you are doing this, you aren't listening properly and you will certainly miss some important comments, gestures, or clues about the prospect's real feelings.

Does anyone have questions at this point?

Whoever actually writes the proposal-you, your marketing department, or your administrative team, will need either to be there during the meeting or will need ALL the information you have gathered-invite the writer to sit in while you, and the person who accompanied you, debrief one another. This after-meeting discussion is probably the most important part of the proposal process. Don't omit it.

Kristi: I think it's important to reiterate to CPAs to be careful not to talk too much about their firm in the meetings. Asking the right questions is crucial. Don't get sucked into the trap of talking too much about yourself.

D. Michelle Golden: Kristi makes an excellent point. This meeting is for listening, not talking. You are NOT selling…yet.

When writing it, word the proposal to clearly communicate the value the client will realize by having YOU on their side.

Page 1 or top of page 2 (if you must) should bear the fee. Right up front. Get it over with and provide the outline of the solutions after you provide the number. This way, they can focus on the solutions rather than bracing themselves for the cost. Sometimes we want to bury the fee toward the back. This is a mistake.

After you describe solutions (you possibly call this "approach" but I'd rename it something more powerful like solutions), you would include relevant experience in the format of very brief case studies, key contacts (with phone extensions and e-mail addresses) and very brief bios highlighting relevant information, and perhaps your references. Then put general firm information-but keep it minimal.

Is there anything else you typically include in your proposals?

If you send a sample "work product" keep it as a separate document. Ideally, a written proposal should be about 10 pages or less. 15 tops. Most of you are well within that range it sounds like.

You should develop a database (or at least a folder of documents) with previously prepared case studies (by industry), bios tailored by industry, too, if you wish, and references, so you can pull all this together quickly.

If you prepare lots of proposals, consider purchasing a program like "RFP Machine" to help you organize all this info in searchable format. Such programs even let you store multi-media files.

Does anyone here use such a program?

Before you present the proposal, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Invite your marketing professional or another trusted colleague to critique. This can seem a little embarrassing, but it is SO important. Golden: Be sure to get everyone who will attend the presentation involved in talking about the proposal. No one should attend who does not have a role in the presentation (looks too much like time-wasting).

For the presentation, create a compelling message. Don't merely regurgitate the written proposal! Use a discussion format. Or multi-media. I strongly recommend using a program like PowerPoint but not in the common sequential page format. Instead, use its capabilities to make it act like a web page with various hyperlinks coming off a "home" page to each aspect of your prepared discussion. This way, the client can lead the discussion if they wish and you can respond readily to their questions without appearing inflexible or as though they are "interrupting your flow."

As Anne asked earlier, if you cannot deliver proposals personally, deliver them in the way the prospect prefers or their industry merits. If, for instance, you are dealing with a technology company, offer to deliver it electronically either as a PDF file or document. The most important thing is to be sure to ask how they want it and be ready to accommodate them. Your response is essentially a test-run of the future relationship. You want to be FLEXIBLE. A word of caution...if you send a Word or WordPerfect document, copy & paste the entire text into a brand new document so they cannot view a history of your changes or other embarrassing information about edits you've made.

Has anyone here delivered a proposal in a non-traditional way?

The preparation process should take a few hours to prepare and conduct the meeting. The actual writing can be done very quickly if you've asked good questions and inform the writer as to the key issues. If you have well-written case studies, bios, references and firm information ready in advance, pulling this together shouldn't take too long. Even so, please be sure to give the writer adequate time to prepare your proposal. Always be sure to have someone other than the preparer review the proposal for grammar and flow.

After the proposal presentation, follow-up promptly with the decision-makers. Let them know you enjoyed the meeting. After selection or rejection, ask for a brief meeting. If they've selected you, meet to discuss the solutions/approach in more detail and ask why they favored you in the selection process. Also, take the opportunity to ask for referrals. New buyers are prone to behave in ways that support their purchase decision-it is one of the very best times to ask for a referral.

Karen: We keep a proposal tracking log with comments as to why our proposal was declined. This way, we can adjust our proposal accordingly for the next request.

D. Michelle Golden: Yes, Karen, if you weren't selected, you want to learn why.

Session Moderator: We have only a few minutes left - are there any other questions you want Michelle to cover?

Prepare some questions such as: what are their perceptions about your attention to their specific needs? Professionalism? Pricing? Strengths and weaknesses? and How do they perceive our firm overall? Ask for more detail if you feel their answers are vague. The information you gain from this follow-up whether you were chosen or not, will, as Karen said, help you mold your proposal process for future success.

You've all been so polite letting me go on...

What are your most pressing proposal dilemmas--the ones that interested you in coming today

Session Moderator: It appears that you answered everyone's questions, Michelle! We really want to thank you for joining us - and for presenting a first rate workshop!

Phyllis Mroczka: How do we compare to the competition?

D. Michelle Golden: That's a good question, Phyllis. Do you mean, “what are other CPA firms proposals saying?" Often, when my firms would win an engagement, we had "access" to the other proposals. But, perhaps you meant what are other industries doing?

Phyllis Mroczka: We are concerned with comparing our abilities to the competition.

D. Michelle Golden: Phyllis, in conducting the pre-proposal meetings, you will want to dig deeply into their core issues. By doing so, and then following up with a relevant proposal, you will demonstrate how different your firm is in its approach.

D. Michelle Golden: Thank you all for allowing me to share with you about a topic close to my heart.

Session Moderator: Thank you to all of you who attended today and shared your questions and ideas. We hope you'll join us again for future workshops.

Workshop sponsored by NetLedger


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