A great proposal speaks directly to a customer’s preferences and unwritten requirements. So how exactly do you do that when you really don’t know them that well or you’ve never spoken directly to them? Believe it or not, classical marketing techniques can help.
But first, if you don’t know the customer, you ask yourself whether or not you should be bidding. It depends on the nature of your business and the amount of lead times your customers give. For example, companies that deal with municipalities (of which there are thousands) on small or medium sized projects may only find out about new business opportunities when they are publicly announced and not be at a competitive disadvantage. On the other hand, a company that has targeted a customer organization and has multiple contacts and existing relationships clearly has a competitive advantage. If you don’t know the customer, you should ask yourself if the best way for you to win more business would be to bid fewer opportunities to customers that you know better. If the answer is that you must bid to a customer you don’t know, then let’s get on with how to do it and still win.
Start with classical market segmentation. Which part of the market are you targeting? Your company’s strategic plan should provide some guidance. Within your target segment(s), who are your potential customers?
Once you’ve identified your market segments, then you can think about the attributes of the buyer. What is their risk tolerance? What is their level of technical expertise? What attributes define their culture?
Profiling the customer
When you haven’t had personal conversations with them and don’t have deep insight into the potential customer’s preferences, you can still attempt to speak directly to them through profiling. Profiling is just a way of describing the attributes of your potential customers. Really what you are doing is speaking directly to a kind of customer. Ask yourself, “What kind of person or organization buys from my company?” Answer this in enough detail to speak directly to their key concerns.
Profiling works best in combination with market segmentation. For example, if you do business with the Government, you can segment the market into civilian and military business. You can segment civilian business down into agencies. You can also segment by maturity of the program, by asking whether your offering is something needed for a new program or the continued operation of an existing program. There are many, many different ways you can segment the market.
When you don’t know the customer personally and you write to your profile, it’s a calculated risk. What if your profile is wrong? This often leads people to hold back and write a lame, boring, standard issue, just barely good enough proposal that is based almost exclusively on the RFP. If you want your proposal to be great, then work on perfecting your profiling technique and use clever copywriting to mitigate the risks of being wrong. You may not hit the bull’s eye when anticipating your customer’s attributes, but you can still sound useful and beneficial. You can still sound great.
Weigh the benefits of writing a great proposal against the risk of losing because you wrote to the wrong customer attributes. When the attributes are based on market segmentation and strategic planning, then if the customer doesn’t match your profile, they are probably not in your targeted market segment and are less likely to have been a potential buyer anyway.
Your goal is a great proposal, one that speaks directly to their goals, interests, concerns, and unwritten requirements. You can get there if you think in terms of what “customers like this one” want, or in terms of what “the kinds of people and organizations who become our customers” want. When you do so, you can prepare great proposals for the companies in your targeted market segment. You can’t be everything for everybody, and when you try to be like that in your proposals you just end up watering things down to where you are unimpressive to everybody. Who cares if your proposal doesn’t speak to people who aren't in your target market? Focusing on being great means being great to those you are focusing on.
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