Today’s post is by Paul Cherry, author of The Ultimate Sales Pro: What the Best Salespeople Do Differently. He is also the founder of the sales (and sales leadership) training firm, Performance Based Results.
I don’t know who invented the request for proposal (RFP), but it’s one of the biggest rackets in business today. A company sends out a vague document – often with no actual commitment to buy anything – and sits back while vendors fall all over themselves responding.
Ultimate Sales Pros (USPs) don’t take RFPs seriously. They see RFPs for what they are: BS, smokescreens, and façades that buyers hide behind.
That doesn’t mean USPs ignore the RFP. But they feel no obligation to follow rules they never agreed to. They only use it as a springboard for conversation.
If an RFP arrives on their doorstep from a company they’d like to do business with, they don’t start filling out the forms. They pick up the phone, call the person whose name is on the RFP, and say, “Hey, thanks for thinking of us. I have a few questions about that RFP you sent over.”
Their questions are designed to find out what’s really going on. Why did the company put together the RFP? What triggered it? With some direct questions, you can usually flush out the truth.
What’s the Real Reason for the RFP?
Perhaps something is going on with the existing vendor relationship. Or maybe there’s just a new face in Purchasing who wants to justify his or her job by shaking things up. Ideally, there are real business reasons driving the effort: some underlying threat in the market or some new opportunity. If the contact can’t or won’t give you a straight answer, figure out how to reach a key decision maker and have a real conversation: “So, about this RFP…what are you trying to do?” “Tell me more about…” “Why is this an issue all of a sudden?” “How is this problem affecting you, your company, your colleagues?”
You get the idea. USPs use the RFP to build a relationship, weave things together, and find out something other vendors don’t know. So, when you make a recommendation, the buyer is thinking, “Wow! You know us better than we know ourselves. You’ve identified problems we never even considered. You made us think.” At that point, the RFP is pretty much irrelevant.
However, some folks don’t want you looking under their covers – whether because of shame about how they run their business, lack of desire to really resolve the issue, a hidden agenda, office politics, a desire for free consulting, or because they don’t want to tell you they just need three quotes before they give the business to the vendor they really want to use.
You don’t have time for that. If someone wants to do business with you, they have to give you the truth.
Does that seem too aggressive? Will it put off the prospect? Well, what do you have to lose, really? You’re not likely to win the business, anyway, if you don’t have good information. You might get lucky. But, if you want to roll the dice, go to a casino – the odds are better.
The Courage to Say No to RFPs
The other day, someone called and asked me to come in and meet with his executives about putting together a sales training program. It seemed like a great opportunity: a prestigious company. Close to home. Talking to decision makers.
Then, he asked, “So, what do you charge?”
I gave him an honest answer: “I don’t know what I’d charge, because I have no idea what you need or want. But, since you raised the question, let me ask: What kind of budget are you working with?”
Long pause. “I don’t know. My boss hasn’t set a budget.”
This is a game I no longer play.
“Look, I said. “If you don’t have a budget, I’m not comfortable coming in for a day to spend time with you and your people trying to diagnose your problems. If it turned out the budget is too low, then there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be a good fit. It wouldn’t be fair to waste your execs’ time. So, before we set up a meeting, why don’t you go back to your boss and get some ballpark numbers?”
I was being diplomatic, but I was saying no. I was basically telling him, “You’ve got to give me information if I’m going to give you a day of my time.”
Guess what? He did. And he had no hard feelings. I’d simply explained the rules by which I operate. The numbers were workable and we were off to a great start.
So how about you? Have you ever evaluated a prospect’s current operations or system, spent hours to diagnose the problem and develop a recommendation, only to have them take your proposal and shop it around to other suppliers to get a cheaper price? Or leave you hanging without ever making a yes-or-no decision?
If so, repeat after me: “I will never give away my knowledge and expertise without getting something of equal value in return.”
USPs learn to charge for their services. I’m not necessarily talking about sending them a bill for your time; but, if you’re going to give something, ask for what you want or need in return – a meeting with a decision maker, a promise not to shop your solution around, a commitment to move forward if your proposal makes sense.
Of course, a prospect could always renege. But, when you 1) make your expectations clear and 2) get agreement, you activate the law of reciprocity. Most prospects will feel obligated to balance the books.