the United States. These numbers donâ€™t even take into account the hundreds
of thousands of â€śmom-and-popâ€ť shops out there.
At the high end of the market, the largest services companies are begin-
ning to creep into the small and mid-size marketplace due to increasingly
competitive conditions for services contracts among the Fortune 1000.
160 The Front Office: Driving Sales and Growth
Leading professional services firms have gotten savvier in their pursuit of
new business over the past decade, employing time-tested techniques of
their product-based brethren, such as aggressive advertising and highly
formalized customer acquisition efforts.
So, itâ€™s a competitive market out there. However, small and mid-size pro-
fessional services companies continue to do a poor job in their new business
development efforts, which translates into enormous opportunity for organi-
zations that take business development and proposal management seriously.
Emerging services companies that develop formal marketing and sales plans
and diligently pursue them can enjoy tremendous competitive advantage
that leads to rapid growth.
In the sales and marketing process, a good proposal serves as the final con-
firmation before landing a new clientâ€”itâ€™s the powerful closer that is sum-
moned in the ninth inning to strike out the side. But a good closer is rendered
effectively useless if the team canâ€™t establish and hold a lead into the late in-
nings of the game.
The Role of the Proposal
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a proposal is defined as:
1. That which is proposed, or propounded for consideration or accep-
tance; a scheme or design; terms or conditions proposed; offer; as, to
make proposals for a treaty of peace; to offer proposals for erecting a
building; to make proposals of marriage.
2. The offer by a party of what he has in view as to an intended business
transaction, which, with acceptance, constitutes a contract.
In the business world, a proposal is generally presented to one of two au-
diencesâ€”new business with a new client or new business with an existing
clientâ€”but can take many forms, including:
â€˘ A conversation with the prospect
â€˘ A conversation with an inf luencer (an employee, colleague, investor,
â€˘ An e-mail
â€˘ A letter by postal mail
â€˘ An in-person presentation
â€˘ A public speaking engagement
â€˘ A formal proposal
â€˘ A response to a request for proposal (RFP)
Proposal and Reference Management
Itâ€™s important to avoid getting too caught up in the technicalities of what a
proposal looks like. Nearly all selling situations require some kind of formal,
documented confirmation of the work to be done to be executed. But that
doesnâ€™t minimize the importance of other proposal interactions. A good busi-
ness developer is always on the lookout to help individuals in his or her sphere
of inf luence solve problems. And thatâ€™s at the heart of a proposal: providing
solutions and ideas for problem solving, whether the problem is declining
market share, impending litigation, or an atrophying technology platform.
Whatâ€™s more, a proposal plays vastly different roles in the selling process
depending on the service being provided. Architects and insurance and real
estate professionals rely more on the actual proposal than do management con-
sultants or advertising agencies. Exhibit 7.1 illustrates one insurance execu-
tiveâ€™s view of the role of the proposal in the selling process; while many of the
points are applicable to all professional services, others are industry specific.
The Selling Process
At the highest level, selling professional services follows a generic sales pro-
cess as illustrated in Exhibit 7.1, which highlights where the proposal fits
into the cycle. Once a lead is acquiredâ€”a monumental task in itself and ad-
dressed in Chapters 4 and 5â€”the work, in many ways, has just begun.
Research prospect and hold brief telephone interview
to establish needs and potential fit with firm.
Meet with decision-makers at prospect. Discuss
In-person meeting and presentaton
needs in detail and present qualificaitons.
Does the characteristics of the lead align with my firmâ€™s
ability to serve it successfully and profitably? Is the lead
Lead evaluation and approval
a qualified and motivated buyer?
Develop a proposal based on needs identified in
face-to-face meeting and budget availability.
If necessary, make revisions to proposal based on
Refinement, negotiating, adds/changes
conversations with prospect.
Exhibit 7.1 The Professional Services Sales Process
162 The Front Office: Driving Sales and Growth
Each stage along the process should reinforce your firmâ€™s value proposi-
tion to the client and involve a go/no-go decision. â€śSelling services is a pro-
cess of seduction, not brute force,â€ť says Jim Jonassen, partner at Riviera
Partners, an executive search and placement firm. â€śDesperate moves are
quickly identified by prospects, and no one wants to do business with a des-
perate firm,â€ť he notes.
PRELIMINARY DISCOVERY. Preliminary discovery determines whether the
prospect has the potential to be a good client for your firm. There is a definite,
though sometimes difficult to identify, differentiation between good business
and bad business, also known as the qualifying or prescreening phase. This
phase includes examining:
â€˘ High-level needs
â€˘ Industry specialty
â€˘ Availability of buyer/decision maker
â€˘ Credit history
Most of the areas can be understood through secondary research and a
brief telephone conversation with the prospect. Though it depends on your
pipeline and sales structure, securing an in-person meeting with a prospec-
tive buyerâ€”assuming a financial decision maker or senior staffer who inf lu-
ences spending decisions will be presentâ€”is almost always a good idea.
Regardless of whether the potential to serve that organization is a perfect
fit, youâ€™ll be giving your firm the opportunity to display its capabilities and
make a favorable first impression, which often leads to related opportunities.
â€śThe high-net worth financial community that Iâ€™m involved with is small and
tight-knit,â€ť says Antony Abiatti, a director at SCS Financial, â€śso any time I
can get in front of a member of that community and leave them with a posi-
tive impression of my firm, itâ€™s time well-spent.â€ť
However, at the same time, you want to make sure scarce sales resources
are deployed effectively. To do that, your organization should already have in
place a target client profile to use as a guide during the screening process. A
prospectâ€™s size, industry specialty, geography, and buyer description (CEO,
CIO, general manager, etc.) should be established based on the organizationâ€™s
success and failures serving diverse customers.
IN-PERSON MEETING AND PRESENTATION. You never get a second
chance to make a first impression. Thereâ€™s no better opportunity to showcase
your firm than during an uninterrupted, in-person 45 minutes with a prospec-
tive buyer. Making the most of that meetingâ€”that is, taking the necessary
steps to successfully secure a second meetingâ€”requires staying focused on
Proposal and Reference Management
1. Mining the prospect for detailed information about his or her specific
2. Demonstrating deep competence and some form of differentiation
â€śGood services salespeople have a knack for being able to identify good
prospects and then extracting an incredible amount of information from
them during the buying process, especially during the first in-person meet-
ing,â€ť says Alan Osetek, senior vice president at Carat Interactive.
First meetings can be casual and informal or highly structured. Firms
need to be prepared for either scenario, which can most times be ascertained
before the meeting. To make the most of the initial meeting and get the or-
ganization in a position to craft an effective proposal, business developers
need to be prepared to be active listeners and effective presenters.
A good business developer will have the following questions answered
after the first in-person meeting:
â€˘ What is the driving force behind the issue being discussed (e.g., reduce
operating costs, prepare for acquisition, improve profitability)?
â€˘ Who is most affected by the suggested improvement (e.g., CEO, share-
holders, VP of HR)?
â€˘ What is an ideal outcome of what is being discussed?
â€˘ What, if any, budget has been made available, and how will the success
or failure of this project be measured?
Depending on the nature of the project, there are endless additional ques-
tions to be addressed, many of them arcane and specific to the services being
provided. But by making sure you also address high-level issues and, there-
fore, appeal to the fundamental needs of the buyer, who likely has to justify
expenditures in some economic fashion, you ensure that the proposal will be
aligned with the buyer â€™s needs.
Firms also need to be prepared to address the core questions that every
prospect is interested in getting answered:
â€˘ What does your firm do (services)?
â€˘ Who have you worked for (clients)?
â€˘ How do you do it (process/methodology)?
â€˘ How much does it cost (pricing)?
â€˘ When can you do it (timing)?
Though they wonâ€™t ask for it explicitly, prospects are also interested in
how you differentiate from the competition. Firms need to walk a fine line
here. You need to differentiate to stand apart in a crowd, and one way to
do that is to address the preceding questions completely. Present irrefutable
164 The Front Office: Driving Sales and Growth
examples of your work, and be prepared to talk about them in great detail.
Tailor the examples to the expected needs of the prospect. Discuss the
unique philosophical approach your organization employs when delivering
services and how it benefits clients. Remember that prospects use the vendor
evaluation process to attempt to mitigate risk while also maximizing return
on investment and look good in the process.
LEAD EVALUATION AND APPROVAL. After the in-person meeting, you
should have enough information about the prospect and his or her needs to
determine whether there is a potentially good fit between your organiza-
tions. Can your organization serve the prospect successfully and profitably?
Is there an opportunity for a mutually beneficial, long-term relationship?
Depending on the nature of your business, this decision could have huge
implications. When talking about large-scale information technology projects,
for example, the upfront investment can be significant. Sarah Casalan, vice
president of IT at Ecko Unlimited and former Accenture consultant, com-
ments, â€śSometimes we want to see a free proof-of-concept, on a small scale,
before weâ€™re willing to move forward on a project.â€ť In these scenarios, firms
need to have a solid understanding of the opportunity before making such an
upfront investment. The following questions help determine an answer:
â€˘ Does the prospect fit in the firmâ€™s â€śsweet spotâ€ť? If not, how far on the
periphery is it?
â€˘ What is the history of the relationship between the firm and the buyer?
â€˘ What is the prospectâ€™s history in dealing with service vendors? Is the
prospect a veteran, successful user of services or notorious for squeez-
â€˘ What are the prospectâ€™s future plans? Is the prospect on a growth tra-
jectory or simply protecting market share?
Ultimately, the decision to move forward or not with the prospect relies on
a variety of internal and external factors. The wise firm will walk away from a
project for an attractive, strong brand name company that will bring a signifi-
cant dose of favorable publicity along with it when there are too many warning
signsâ€”price sensitivity, low perceived value of outside vendors, no decision
maker, and zero growth plans. The presence of several negative factors will
turn an otherwise attractive prospect unattractive. Alternatively, firms also
make the decision to take on projects as loss leaders because the prospect has
the characteristics of a profitable long-term client, yet needs tangible evi-
dence in the way of a small project to understand the value of the firm.
PROPOSAL DEVELOPMENT. Itâ€™s usually time to develop a proposal after:
â€˘ A lead has been sufficiently qualified.
â€˘ A detailed needs assessment meeting has taken place.
Proposal and Reference Management
â€˘ A company has selected your organization to be one of a few on a short
list to submit a proposal.
The core requirements of a good proposal are covered in the following
section of this chapter, but there are two considerations to heed at this junc-
ture in the sales process:
1. Understand the competition. Just as thereâ€™s such a difference between
bad business and good business, there are times to submit proposals
and times to abstain. If youâ€™re one of 10 firms submitting proposals
and lack a strong relationship with the buyer, chances are youâ€™ve been
invited simply for comparative purposes and are wasting your time.
Knowing the competitive environment will help to differentiate.
2. When it makes sense, do your homework. â€śI see some proposals and it
was as if the vendor had read my mind,â€ť says Marc DeCourcey, a
Washington, DC-based political consultant who helps clients evaluate
and select vendors for government contracts. â€śAnd I know from having
been on the other side of the fence selling services that itâ€™s because
they did their research, talked to everyone in the community who
might be helpful, and got as much information as they could from the
In an ideal situation, fee negotiations and other alterations to the proposal
will be completed before the final submission of the document. But ideal sit-
uations require that many disparate factors come together neatly and cleanly,