Originally published in Forbes
By Randy Illig
A few years ago when I was running my IT business, we spent several grueling weeks answering an RFP for nearly $30 million of onsite services for a major pharmaceutical company. After delivering presentations and other hoopla, we won the business.
As our crew was setting up at the client, we found a box filled with proposals from all the companies that answered the RFP (including our own). I notified the client, and she responded, “Oh, you can throw those away. We didn’t read them.”
There’s an old client joke that if you want to get rid of a salesperson, give them something to do. Businesspeople are usually polite, and instead of saying, “Look, I’m not interested in your company’s offerings” or “No, this doesn’t make sense,” they’ll task us with a request. Can you give me some data or a proposal? Do you have a white paper? Can you send me a contract? And now that I have a sample, do you have a reference?
So the next time a client gives you something to do, run through these five steps to make sure it’s worth the effort—for both of you:
- Clarify: Get clear on what the client really wants, not what you think they want. When working with sales professionals, customers almost have a knee-jerk reaction to ask for a proposal. And most sellers have boilerplate that fills the need. What’s missing is what the client actually wants. I’ve never heard a client say, “I’d really like to know all about your company, see where your offices are located, how long you’ve been in business and how many employees you have.” In most proposals this is the first section—but don’t give them information they didn’t ask for and won’t use. When clients ask for a proposal, the first thing I say is. “I’d be happy to give you a proposal. Let’s talk about what you’d like to see.” When I clarify what the client wants, they get what they need and I do an appropriate amount of work, nothing extra.
- Qualify: When they get it, what will they do with it? The next step in this dialogue is to say, “I can certainly get that together for you. When would you like it?” They tell me the deadline, and I’ll respond, “And then what happens? What would be the next part of our discussion?” I’m not trying to force them into doing anything; I’m just trying to understand what they’ll do with the information once they get it, and how I can support that.
- Think reciprocity: What they will do in return? We’ve all heard the saying, “Don’t do something for nothing.” So if we fulfill the client’s request, we can usually ask for something in return. We’re not playing a game or trying to one-up someone. If there’s truly something that would help serve the client, it’s appropriate to ask now: “That deadline works for me. I’m wondering if I could ask something of you in return. Would you be willing to give me the following data/send me this report/arrange for me to meet with this person?”
- Choose: Decide if you will do it. Often, people don’t actually need what they’re asking for. When I was running the company mentioned above, I had a great meeting with the principal of a firm that provided a service I needed. He gave me a price on the spot and then asked about next steps. I asked for a proposal. He said, “Fair enough. I could give you a proposal. And if you got the proposal, what would you do with it?” I told him I would use it to decide if I wanted to buy his services or not. He said, “Didn’t you already decide that?” Now that he mentioned it, I had! I guess I didn’t need a proposal. The choice was made by both of us. And frankly, it was liberating for me, as a client, to eliminate that step. Occasionally, though, we need to disengage at this point, often referred to as exiting gracefully: “It seems like there isn’t a good fit between what you need and what we do. Might I suggest that we stop here and part friends?”
- Establish next steps: Review the decision process. Clarify the next steps in the client’s decision-making process: “I’m happy to provide you what you need, and I’ll get that to you next week as agreed. Can we talk about the process you’ll go through in order to make a good decision one way or another? Can you tell me the steps you would take?” Then ask about timing, who would be involved, and the criteria that they would use. That would frame the conclusion of that interaction.
We’re not trying to be anything other than helpful to the client by using this process. The intent behind these five steps is to make sure we use our time and our client’s time well, answering requests that serve both of us.