In the engagement proposal process, the way a firm allocates time could be the difference between winning new business -- or losing out.
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Template creation is one of the biggest initial time-savers, a strategy Kari Schott brought to her role as director of marketing for Los Angeles-based accounting firm Green Hasson Janks after five years with a Big Four firm.
"One of the best lessons I learned was coming up with some sort of boilerplate, a template that's 75 percent of the way to a completed proposal," she explained. "Often, there's a quick turnaround, and [the proposal] is last-minute, so having content for the basic part of the proposal saves the team a ton of time."
Jennifer Wilson, co-founder and partner of national leadership and marketing consulting firm ConvergenceCoaching, agreed, but warned that templates run the risk of becoming too stale or lengthy. "What I fear is that, over time, everyone embellishes [the templates], and that's how we get the War and Peace proposal," she said. "The next guy adds three paragraphs, the next guy adds three, and by the time I get them, they're 35 pages. No one edits them down, everyone edits them up."
California firm Macias Gini & O'Connell avoids that trap by providing two things to the 230 professionals in its six offices: a proposal toolkit of streamlined language and art, and an annual proposal boot camp.
The toolkit is a central repository of past sample proposals, powerful language, brand elements, catchy headlines and stock photography, said director of marketing Linda Forbes. This achieves the important factor of consistency, unifying the look and feel of all proposals in a way that echoes the firm's marketing collateral.
Meanwhile, the boot camp keeps the material fresh, as every year the firm's six to eight lead administrators gather for a day of technical training on software like Adobe InDesign, and to re-evaluate MGO's current templates, especially in comparison to competitors. In this way, the foundational documents operate more as a "living toolkit," Forbes explained.
Schott recommends looking over the firm's boilerplate information "every month or so. Often the firm is evolving but not up to date [in its proposals], and so is missing out on an opportunity to tell the story."
Wilson advised that this story begin with an executive summary. "One thing I'd stress, and hardly anyone does it -- it should be a rule and not the exception -- is an executive summary, and it should be up front. But everyone buries price in the back; they don't put an executive summary in these things. Ask [prospects] how many of them read every word of the proposal -- what they do when they first get the proposal is put it face down and whip through it until they find the price. You're so scared of your own price, you're going to hide it; it's psychological."
The overall template should communicate the firm's value -- without overselling. "A lot of the 'about us,' 'our history,' etc., could be stripped out," Wilson said. "The proposal should feel all about them, not all about us. Firms should search their proposal for 'you' and 'your' versus 'we' and 'our.'"
Firms can cut down on space by directing prospective clients to their Web site and digital elements, Wilson continued. She recommended that roughly 25 percent of the overall proposal be about the client. Schott and Forbes report a similar ratio.
This customized quarter of the proposal requires adequate research, which begins with the qualification process. Here, said Wilson, the firm should follow its sales methodology in understanding the prospect's needs, timing, decision-making process and budget.
The firm should ask the right questions, especially relating to client need. "Need is huge -- very rarely is it just a client coming to you with, 'I need this: I need an audit of an employee benefits program, I need state and local tax assistance' -- it's usually deeper than that," Wilson said. "You need to go deeper, especially if you want to win the business. You need to solve a root-cause need. Come to me and tell me your symptoms and I'm going to find the true underlying cause -- it's the same with a good salesperson."
Research should also be conducted online, through the prospective client's Web site and social media channels, Wilson said, and by capitalizing, when appropriate, on current relationships with deciders -- because "firms win relationships with deciders" and not always mere influencers.
MGO, known for its humorous slogan, "Proud to be boring accountants," has also customized catchphrases for its bigger proposals, like one for the City of San Jose. This approach, "reflective of our brand stance, tongue-in-cheek, but with seriousness behind the message," said Forbes, achieves the right tone of a successful proposal.
"I would recommend trying to adopt a more friendly, informal tone, and one that really shows we know the client, perhaps more familiar," Wilson said. "I do not like third-person with clients, as if we've never met them. Refer to the client as 'you' and 'your,' as opposed to a disembodied entity."
Schott agreed: "Address them personally, almost conversationally. Tone is critical."
And while accounting firms should strive to match the tone to the prospective client's culture, it shouldn't be at the expense of the firm's own.
While the response to MGO's rebranding has mostly been good, in the form of about 100 unsolicited e-mails and positive proposal feedback since it was rolled out two years ago, "Some people don't get it; the idea of their accountants behind a mahogany desk," Forbes shared. "We work extra hard to win them over, but we're not going to change our voice, personality or tone. It's who we are. If it doesn't work, it might not be the best fit."
When the proposal document has achieved a balance between selling the firm's services and the specific value proposition to that client -- with an appropriate, conversational tone uniting the two - the next opportunity to shine is the proposal presentation.
"Firms spend a lot of time developing the proposal, editing it, e-mailing each other, pulling together data, agonizing to get it just right in terms of layout with no typos, binding it, but don't talk about the meeting," Wilson explained. "Then they're in the parking lot before [the meeting], having a powwow but not a planning meeting ... . That's not how firms who win consistently are doing it."
Both Schott and Forbes acknowledge the importance of this planning. MGO even performs a full dress rehearsal before big client meetings.
Presentations, even when they don't result in a close, offer learning opportunities for the current and future proposals. Wilson said, "One question I encourage firms to ask, that they don't like to ask - a brave, powerful question you can ask: 'What, if anything, would keep you from engaging with us at this point?'"
If the answer is nothing, that's an invitation to close. And if objections arise, the firm's team will be in the room to offer a defense. Either way, the response can help shape future proposals.
"Every firm should regularly audit the process and evaluate it," Wilson advised. "Identify one improvement you can make and drive it through the process. The process does become bloated and sort of outdated, like all of your business processes."
And like many of those, it can be seamless when properly executed, but fatal when not. "A proposal isn't going to win a new client," Schott said. "But it certainly can hurt if not done correctly."