I remember it like it was yesterday, though it was a dozen or more years ago. One of my key clients was fretting over an upcoming renewal with one of their largest customers. But it was more than a renewal because the customer was taking the business out to bid for the first time in five years, and the bidding was between my client and their largest (and most formidable) competitor.
The format was pretty straightforward. An evaluation team from the customer (headed by an SVP selected by their CEO) would visit my client’s headquarters in about a week for a three-hour proposal presentation. The following day the same evaluation team would fly out to meet with the competitor.
I was contacted by the SVP of sales (my primary contact) and asked to preview the presentation the account team had prepared in collaboration with operations and the marketing department. It was slick: approximately sixty slides with terrific graphics and animation detailing the history and superb capabilities of my client. But slick or not, sixty slides in three hours is a lot to stay awake for. What’s more, as the presentation droned on, I noticed that the customer wasn’t mentioned until slide forty-eight. In fact, of the sixty slides in the deck, only nine mentioned or pertained to the customer.
An Honest Assessment
Afterward, I was asked to give my assessment of the presentation. Steeling myself for a tough conversation, I first congratulated them on an outstanding technical presentation. Their delivery was smooth, practiced, and showed a mastery of the material. But I did have a few questions:
How long had this customer been doing business with my client?
Answer: fifteen years.
The customer was going to the trouble and expense of flying a team of six people, including a senior executive, to our corporate headquarters. Did we know their goals and objectives for the meeting?
Answer: Upon further reflection, we weren’t sure.
Did we know what was important to the SVP, how big a priority it was, and how he would measure success if he entered into a new contract with us?
Answer: After much hemming and hawing, we realized that we really didn’t know.
Based on their answers, I recommended that we quickly change course, reasoning the following.
The customer already knew who we were and what we did.
We needed to reach out to the evaluation team immediately to determine their objectives for the meeting to avoid wasting their time.
We needed to do the same thing with the SVP, who was the key buying influencer.
We couldn’t afford to waste a golden opportunity with all the customer’s key decision makers in the room. We had a captive audience and it would be a shame if we didn’t use this opportunity to learn more about what was important to them. What’s more, it would be risky to assume that everyone on the customer’s evaluation team was aligned and in agreement on what they wanted to achieve, much less what a great deal looked like.
I consoled the account team with the good news: we only needed a handful of slides, and looking at the current presentation, we had plenty of material to use for the couple of slides that would be about us. Then I had to share the bad news. We were missing critical material for the remaining slides that concerned the customer—and we had a lot of work to do in a short period of time to pull that together. Not surprisingly, my recommendations came as quite a shock to this experienced account team, but at the urging of the SVP of sales, they revamped their entire approach.
The following week, the presentation (which in truth was designed as a dialogue) went off without a hitch and was deemed extremely successful. In fact, at the end of the meeting, the SVP of operations for the customer approached the SVP of sales for my client and said that of the hundreds of supplier presentations he had seen over the years, this one had by far been the best. My client did not give the customer everything they asked for—they were not expecting that—but by shortening the presentation and focusing more on demonstrating an understanding of the customer’s needs and challenges, they were able to make a very positive impression. After the presentation, the SVP of operations said that he saw no reason why my client would not be selected again. Now, that was a positive sign!
Winning the Deal
Fast-forward six months. The customer renewal had been won, and the entire sales organization was in Las Vegas for the annual sales kickoff. I was there and shared the stage during one keynote session with executives from three of my client’s largest customers. One of these executives was the SVP of operations on the evaluation team for the renewal we had just won, and I seized the opportunity to ask him some questions during the rehearsal.
He reiterated that it was the best proposal presentation he had ever seen. The format had helped him and the evaluation team focus and agree on what was truly important to them in the deal. He was also surprised that my client had shared what was important to them in the deal. He had never seen this before, but it really helped the evaluation team see how a deal could be done that was good for both sides. He added that being given options by a seller was a rare occurrence for him and the team; it made them feel they were being given the opportunity to choose what worked best for them.
When selling, you cannot afford to view the proposal as an isolated event to be completed just to “check the box” near the end of the sales cycle. Rather, you should view it in the context of the desired ongoing business relationship and as an opportunity to manage the complexity and uncertainty inherent in a B2B deal.