Getting the edge in professional selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

I’VE BEEN ON the rampage over the last couple of months. The company I work for offers materials for infrastructure construction. We offer rock-fall barriers, reinforcement for road building, erosion control solutions, retaining walls and a host of other materials which frequently, on larger projects we are engaged in, run to millions of pesos. We meet with customers, gather data, conduct engineering analysis, provide design assistance and present our solutions, often after making a number of site visits and spending significant time in client meetings. Yet my sales team sees fit to issue a simple quotation that dumbs-down the proposed solution to a matter of price.

Asked why they don’t make more effort, I have had answers as diverse as, “I don’t know how to write a proposal,” “The client won’t bother to read it,” “It’s not important. Clients are only interested in cost,” and, finally, “What’s the point? I have already explained all of this to my client so he already knows what we do!”

At last I am beginning to see my sales engineers put  more effort into proposal writing. Now, I would be the first to agree that if I was a food manufacturer requiring a few hundred kilograms of all-purpose flour, I might contact a few suppliers and since all would be selling a commodity, I would only be interested in price and delivery. But we are not selling a commodity; we are selling highly technical, customized solutions. We put in more effort to help our customers; we invest in highly technical engineering staff to advise customers what to do. We manufacture all of our products under ISO9001; we proudly manufacture our materials in the Philippines.

All of this makes us considerably different from our competitors. Unless we tell our customers, how do we expect them to know and understand this? Of course, one of the reason why this is critically important is that we sell our products at a premium. Not because we are greedy, but because the materials are high quality, carefully manufactured, stockpiled so they are readily available to our customers, and manufactured in custom sizes as and when required. 

Consider my sales engineer who commented, “I have already explained all of this to my client so he already knows what we do!” Well and good if we have confidence that our customer will remember what he has been told during a number of sales meetings. And what about all those in the client company who are involved in the buying decision but were not present during sales meetings? Are we seriously expecting our contact to explain every little detail?

Proposals are effective selling tools particularly when they are sent out to the right person at the right time in the sales process. Complex selling is all about selling relatively expensive products and services to one or more decision makers. Selling cycles are often lengthy and may involve numerous visits to the client before a commitment is obtained. Sometimes, most of the decision makers will attend sales meetings. In other cases, a single person will meet with the salesperson and, once convinced that the proffered service or product is the right one, will take the responsibility of selling the idea to others in his company. The proposal is a document that will help him with this aspect of “internal selling.” This is why it needs to be carefully thought out and prepared so it can play its part as an effective selling tool.

It is not uncommon to receive telephone inquiries about products and services. And at the end of call, the prospective client may ask for a proposal. What they really want is product information and a price quotation. Most manufacturers, suppliers, vendors and agents have this product literature available and this can be sent to the client at this time. However, if possible, a face-to-face meeting should be asked for before a proposal is sent.

The principal difference between proposal and product literature is that the proposal shows how the proffered product or service meets the needs expressed by the client. Product literature tends to be more general with basic information and facts about the products available. Product literature is a marketing tool. Proposals are selling tools.

The professional salesman recognizes that it takes time to find out about client problems and needs. There are no short-cuts to this process. Face-to-face investigative meetings are required. Often, the salesperson becomes aware that many of the client’s problems have far-reaching effects on his business. (Yet the client may be unaware of these serious consequences.) It is during face-to-face selling that the buyer admits to having problems and expresses clear needs.

Who reads the proposal? You might think the person who has asked for it. However, they have already spent many hours discussing the proposed products and they are probably clear about the value of the proposed solution. Invariably, the document is used to sell the idea to other decision makers in the company who, perhaps, have not been able to attend all the sales meetings.

When putting together a proposal, start with an introductory paragraph explaining who you have met and a general overview of the topics discussed. Then identify all the client’s problems and demonstrate how these impact on their company and business. Without mentioning your solution, identify what will happen as a result of addressing these problems (all the positive outcomes). Then, identify those needs that have been expressed or implied by the client.

In the latter part of the proposal, show how your solution will meet the client’s needs and outline prices and implementation strategies. If you do this, you will have a document that will follow the selling process you have used with your client and which can be effectively used to sell the idea to other decision makers.

Terence A. Hockenhull is a long-term resident of the Philippines. He is an accomplished sales consultant who currently holds an executive sales position with an Italian geotechnical company.