Your immediate answer may be “If we get the sale our proposals are good – if we don’t, they’re not.”
For sales teams, that binary won/lost assessment works for the primary, singular purpose of sales proposals; to win deals.
Yet sales proposals can affect customers beyond the one-and-only winner. There are secondary benefits to good proposals that customers experience, and as a result make it worthwhile for sales teams to improve them beyond their current state, such as:
- Be positioned as the 2nd choice if the 1st choice falls out during customers’ contract negotiations – Procurement likes to negotiate with the top 2 proposal finalists for just this reason
- Lose the bid/RFP but win large non-contract projects as a test case for 2nd source – Procurement loves to have a proven alternative as a backup if the 1st supplier goes squirrely during the contract’s term
- Achieve the position of a credible, valued supplier for that customer’s next bid
Since sales teams will always submit proposals for the primary wins, why not get those secondary benefits too?
Heads up: If you believe that tracking proposal win rates is the path to improvement, here’s a reality: Tracking win rates does not improve sales proposals. Win rates show if sales proposals are getting better or worse over time – they don’t provide specific insights for what to fix or improve.
However, if your win rates are acceptable as they are, don’t worry: Keep Calm and Carry On (as the British like to say).
But if you’re like most of us, you want to win more and bigger sales. This means zeroing in on what you can and should fix in your sales proposals, and that requires going to the source…
If you want to know how good your sales proposals are, ask those who evaluated them, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Ask Customers About Your Sales Proposals
Simple enough. Customers make the decisions, they read and evaluate all the proposals, isn’t it logical to ask them how good your proposals are, as compared to others, regardless of winning or losing that bid?
But just asking customers is not easy. At least not if you want to end up with actionable information you can use.
Ask customers about your sales proposals in the wrong way, with the wrong questions, and/or at the wrong time, and you’re likely to hear only crickets as feedback.
And who knows, you may also step on customers’ toes in the process, which can come back and hurt your chances with future deals.
With that in mind, here are several considerations and recommendations for setting up a “Voice of the Customer” (VoC) feedback process. Follow these, and you’ll be much closer to finding improvements you can use, rather than heedlessly pushing ahead.
When to Ask Customers’ Permission
First, customers must be asked permission if they’re willing to give feedback about your proposals. Obviously, they can’t provide feedback before they’ve reviewed and evaluated all proposals as part of the bid/RFP process. But when to ask their permission?
Ask Before Bids/RFPs Come Out
Customers will likely be in a better frame of mind to accept the request before they’re hotly embroiled in the evaluation and decision-making process.
This has the added benefit of possibly getting only your sales teams the opportunity for feedback – because if permission is asked during the bid/RFP there’s a strong likelihood Procurement may make that available to all bidders.
Of course, this requires sales teams to have an awareness of when the bid/RFP may be released and seek to talk with customers’ contract owners and/or Procurement. In some cases, sales teams may need to get permission from both.
If Sales Teams are Unaware when Bids/RFPs Come Out
Should a request to bid/RFP land on your doorstep unannounced (it happens) and sales teams want proposal feedback, there is one primary question to consider before asking for customers’ permissions during bid/RFP processes:
“Do you want competitors to also receive customers’ feedback on their proposals?”
This would require customers to decide if they give feedback at all, to all bidders, or not at all.
If your sales team is OK with that, then, by all means, ask away. And hope you get the requested permission, and then useful feedback.
NOTE: Customers’ responses as to whether they will provide proposal feedback should never be a condition of whether your firm participates in the bid/RFP. Your sales team should have determined whether to bid or not before asking for proposal feedback (for an easy assessment tool, see Pre-Qualify RFP/Bid Opportunities).
How to Ask Customers
With customers’ permissions that they’ll provide feedback, structuring how customers will be asked becomes critical.
The type of information to be gained from customer feedback will not be set and pat answers. It’s likely to require some finessing. Therefore, using an online survey will be problematic as customers can easily jot a short, unhelpful answer and whip through the questionnaire quickly with little to no benefit to sales teams.
However, there is a better way than online surveys: Hold phone interviews using live interviewers who can ask follow-on questions at the moment. This will increase clarity and deepen insights from customers’ answers.
Here are additional VoC best-practices to consider using:
- Type verbatims in real-time (an acquired skill) rather than recording – typing verbatims is a form of distillation that happens as questions are answered, which will have to take place later anyway for answers to become actionable findings
- Schedule interviews for no more than 15-minutes, which is easier for customers to squeeze onto their calendars – and once customers get talking, they can really go much longer – so, schedule double that time for your interviews – just let customers talk as long as they want
- Limit questions to 10-12 using a mix of open-text for comments & scale-based assessment ratings – lots of work should go into the questions & how the final report presents results
NOTE: Customers will dictate when they want to give feedback but hopefully no later than 60-days after contract award as memories can easily fade after that.
Beware the 3rd Rail of Interview Questions
There are questions that you might think about asking, and believe you should ask but may cause emotional responses with customers that put their hackles up and make them less willing to share information. Questions that ask how a specific competitor responded will definitely do this, especially around pricing.
Sales teams always want to avoid implying and/or making customers feel they made a wrong decision, or have to justify their decision: Not the leave-behind sales teams want.
To get around asking competitor-specific questions, consider phrasing questions about where your proposal fell within the pack of bidders. This gives you placement understanding without identifying how your specific competitors were rated.
Who Should Ask Customers
There are inherent challenges for one of your sales team to ask customers about proposals as some customers:
- May feel antagonistic if asked to “explain” their choice to one of the losing sales teams
- May be less than honest & their responses lack candor if they personally know the losing sales team & don’t want to offend them
But if your firm has enough resources to supply an interviewer, use someone other than a sales team member, plan ahead and give it a go.
However, to avoid the above challenges, consider using a 3rd-party to interview your customers. The 3rd-party should have VoC interview experience along with deep industry and sales knowledge to best create questionnaires and report actionable findings.
Be Cautious with Feedback
An important consideration after getting proposal feedback is to recognize that you are not likely to get 1,000s of customers’ feedback. VoC interviews are time-consuming. So, beware of making sweeping decisions based on small data sets.
Realize that one customer’s emphatic feedback may only represent their view or only a few like-minded customers. You wouldn’t want to drastically change your proposals for a few customers while pushing away many others.
You’ll be making your best-guesses on what to fix in your sales proposals. With VoC evidence you’ll have better insight where and what to improve. This is where expertise in proposals, sales, and VoC is really needed.
Ask Us to Ask Your Customers: We Can Help
I’m hoping the 3rd-party VoC interviewer mentioned above sounds a lot like me and what I do because it is, and we do. We interview customers, design questionnaires and reports, and report out VoC feedback from live phone interviews. Feel free to ask Chris Arlen @ +1 206-909-5860, [email protected]
In summary, consider the following when asking customers what they think about your sales proposals:
- Continuously seek to improve your sales proposals’ ability to win deals – but don’t forget there are secondary benefits as well
- Good proposals, if not 1st choice, position you as 2nd choice; for when the 1st choice falls out in negotiations; to win large non-contract projects; and to become the credible, valued supplier for next bid
- Ask customers for permission to get their feedback about your sales proposals before the bid/RFP process starts
- Hold live interviews to capture verbatim, not recorded responses, & turn them into actionable findings
- Consider using an outside 3rd party to increase candor & honesty in customers feedback
First published on LinkedIn