Clear thinking

Learn how to improve your proposals and win more business.

 

Bid Proposal Writing: Read it aloud for evaluator-friendliness

 October 2, 2012
by Paul Heron

Years ago, a friend and avid fiction reader became blind. So he started listening to audio books. When I suggested that being able to get books on tape (this was many years ago) must be great, his reply was interesting.

“I’m glad they’re available,” Charlie said. “Unfortunately, several authors I enjoyed in print don’t stand up to being read aloud.”

Charlie had identified one of the hallmarks of high quality writing—the ease with which it flows when read aloud. That’s why in the literary world, successful poets, lyricists and scriptwriters, whose output is spoken or sung, are at the top of the heap. Most novelists and others writing for readership command less respect.

So what does this have to do with proposal writing?

Since many of our clients sell solutions that are already complex and loaded with technical terminology, evaluators need every break they can get. Yet many proposals we see are full of really long sentences—so long it’s easy to lose the point well before the period. That’s why much of our editing work consists of breaking up sentences, using shorter words, converting passive voice to active and using bullet points instead of commas to set out multiple points.

Is it easy for evaluators to engage with your content?

How well does your proposal flow? Find out by reading it out loud. (Yes, I really mean out loud. If you need to, go somewhere where you won’t feel embarrassed.) If you find yourself running out of breath long before you get to the ends of sentences, you have work to do.

Can you ignore this step?

Sure. But if you do, evaluators will have to work that much harder to appreciate your offering and the great value-adds you and your team worked so hard to develop. And if, consciously or unconsciously, an evaluator feels burdened by reading your proposal, that can easily creep into his or her perception of what working with your company might feel like.

Think of Charlie. Write proposals that stand up to being read aloud.


Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 

 

 

  

Engage website visitors with Claims and Proof

 September 25, 2012
by Sam Heron

Claims and Proof

For a lot of people the web is confusing. There are lots of different kinds of websites — confirmation sites, brochure sites, portfolio sites, and more. It can be hard to figure out where you and your business fit.

Today we focus on the spine that runs through every website, or at least the good ones: Claims and Proof. It's exactly what it sounds like; make a claim, and then prove it.

Time is valuable on the Internet. If you monitor your website's activity you already know this. Visitors give you between 4 to 8 seconds to make an impression. If you don't do a good job in that time, you’ve lost them, perhaps forever. The best way to keep them, to get them to venture deeper into your site where your real value lies, is to make bold claims.

What to claim?

Your claim ties into your unique value proposition. We'll delve deeper into unique value propositions in future articles. For now, it's what you do differently and better than any of your competitors. This is your first bold claim.

I’ll give you two examples:

Your Web Department

Industry: Web/IT
Makes: A website Content Management System (CMS)
Unique Value Proposition: Employees come and go. Only Your Web Department's website service maintains continuity and the relationship with the business owner(s).
www.yourwebdepartment.com

Second, Complex2Clear - us:

Complex2Clear

Industry: Marketing Communications
Makes: Complex information clear
Unique Value Proposition: In a world where complexity is growing and attention spans are shrinking, C2C cuts through the clutter to deliver clear persuasive bid proposals, thought leadership and marketing communications.


Now your claim

Phrase your Unique Value Proposition as a statement. This is already done above for both examples. What's yours?

The Takeaway

This works for more than websites. You need to engage your audience no matter what medium you're using or what your purpose is. Just remember, even if they're disagreeing with you, it's still a conversation, and conversations bring business.


 
Learn more about:

  

Bid Proposals | Why love matters

 September 18, 2012
by Paul Heron

A surprising number of B2B services re-bids (studies show as many as 60% at the federal government level) are unsuccessful.

Some incumbents lose because their pricing is based on realistic costing, while one or more hungry challenger is basing theirs on overly optimistic assumptions. In other cases, a challenger has overtaken the incumbent with better technology or some other advantage.

But often there’s another, less tangible factor at play. Call it fatigue or “time for a change.” The fact is the client has fallen out of love with the incumbent.

Since services contracts can run for a decade or more, maintaining a positive relationship is not unlike managing a successful marriage. If you think divorce rates are high now, imagine the consequences if every spouse in the country were given the option to walk away from his or her marriage on a given anniversary date with no legal consequences and no responsibilities.

So how do you keep the client in love? Part of the answer is choosing a project manager with the right temperament. Instead of assessing candidates for technical skills and knowledge in project management and your products and processes, look first for people with good relationship skills.

Online assessment tools, such as Strengths Finder or Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), cost anywhere from $20 to $60 and will give you a fairly reliable indication of whether a candidate is a natural at relationships. Being a natural is important. We’ve all learned to be social and show empathy – but if it’s not in our nature these traits won’t survive over time and/or in stressful situations.

We’ve tested this idea with companies in our network that enjoy good track records at client retention. Our contacts all say the same thing: “We hire client-facing people based on relationship skills and teach the technical stuff.”

This also aligns with our experience at Complex2Clear. After seeing a project manager win over clients with skills we didn’t know she had when first hired, we’ve assessed PMs for relationship orientation ever since.

We’ve also borrowed her favorite phrase: “Make sure they feel the love.”


Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 

 

 

  

WEBSITES: How to make your home page work harder

 September 11, 2012
by Paul Heron

How hard is your home page working for your B2B services company? This is your storefront on the world. It needs to invite visitors to enter and engage with your site. And it needs to do it fast!

Visitors leave sites quickly if they don't see what they need. Your bounce rate (one of the key measures in Google Analytics) will tell you what percentage of visitors land on and leave your site within 30 seconds. If yours is high (>30% for most B2B services sites), consider implementing the ideas below.

Every business is different – but you can adapt these tips to make your home page work harder for you.

  1. Tell the visitor what you do. You can do this in the page banner, a headline or using slides, if your offering is segmented. Do not start with “Welcome to . . .” and write paragraphs about your history, mission etc. Leave this for the About page.
  2. Focus on your prospects’ needs. B2B services are almost always selling to prospects who want to improve on past experience. Tell visitors what pain points you address and how.
  3. Prove credibility. Include testimonials, client names and/or logos, years in business and other measures of credibility to make your company a low-risk choice.
  4.  Invite contact. Assuming the aim is to attract leads, make it simple for prospects to call or email you.
  5. Grab them “above the fold.” Your home page can scroll as far as you wish – but visitors will stay or leave, based on what’s on their screen when they land on your site. That real estate is precious. Use it wisely.
  6. Use appropriate design, images and colours. Professional-looking sites use colours and designs that suit their industry and service. If your site looks off-key, visitors will click away for that reason alone.

You have just a few seconds to engage a first-time visitor and keep him or her on your B2B services website. Make the most of that precious time.

See a 2-minute video on how to self-audit your B2B services website.


Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 

 

 

  

Bid Proposal Design: Justified vs. ragged-right text

 September 4, 2012
by Paul Heron

A lot of B2B services proposal templates use right-justified text. When we ask why, bid managers tell us it makes their proposals look more professional.

NOTE: For non-typographers, “right-justified” means the right edge of the text is vertically aligned just like the left edge.

Every word processing program today can produce right-justified copy. But the fact it’s available doesn’t make it a good choice.

On the plus side, right-justified text is more compact than ragged-right, or left-aligned, text. This is one reason book, newspaper and magazine designers use it. But compactness is rarely a consideration for proposals — which brings us to two drawbacks of right-justification:

  • Word spacing issues
  • Messaging impact


Word Spacing

Justified type can produce rivers of white space (see sample copy below) in narrow columns and/or if the text contains many long words. These can be resolved with hyphenation and text-tweaking (assuming you have time). But even under ideal conditions MS Word and other word processing software lack the justification capabilities available to high-end publishers. Left-justified text has less potential for word spacing challenges.

Messaging Impact
For us, this is the biggie. We believe every aspect of your proposal sends a message to the evaluators. The expert consensus on right-justified text is that it appears more formal than ragged-right. We’d go further and say it appears inflexible and unfriendly. Readers associate letter-sized pages of right-justified text with contracts, wills, corporate by-laws and other legal documents — set in stone, closed to change.

At the proposal stage, you’re producing a sales document. It needs to look professional, but it's equally important to look approachable, friendly and flexible.

So save right-justified for drafting contracts after you’ve won the business. Stick to ragged-right text for your B2B services proposals.


Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 

 

 

  

Pre-designing your proposals

 August 28, 2012
by Paul Heron

If you’re selling B2B services through bid or pitch proposals, you know that evaluators pay attention to more than price in making their decisions. Several factors, including product features, delivery capability, the likelihood of a consistent and satisfying experience and price combine to influence their decision.

Before evaluators recommend contracting for several years with you or any vendor, they will want to see consistency and professionalism across all the elements of your proposal. And that includes the look and feel of the proposal itself.

Whether they realize it or not, good design influences evaluators in two ways:

  1. PROFESSIONALISM: A well laid-out proposal is a sign of professionalism. It sends an important signal that you care about appearances and are willing to sweat the details. This is especially important if your service involves interacting with your client’s customers or large numbers of its employees.
  2. READABILITY: Good set-up, solid typography, well-chosen graphics and clear, consistent use of heads and subheads make a proposal easier to read. And that leaves evaluators with more energy to engage with your content.

For these reasons, design should be in your proposal plan. Unfortunately design considerations are often left to the end of the production process, where they get squeezed by last-minute content changes.

The solution? - Create one or more proposal templates in MS Word. When the RFP arrives, pre-load the deliverables structure into the template as heads and subheads, and then build the proposal in the template. Use Word’s merge function to combine docs from various subject manage experts/content developers.

This approach has several advantages over last-minute formatting:

  • Allows design decisions to be made ahead of the proposal-production crunch
  • Ensures design consistency across all sections
  • Creates clarity for subject matter experts on required content elements 
  • Makes it easier to identify and manage any gaps

Be sure to use Word templates, not simply styled documents, in your process. Templates do not allow users to add/change type styles or the heads/subheads structure.

Update your template as new requirements arise. If necessary, create a library of templates to suit the various styles of RFP you receive.

  

Positioning vs. Messaging: What’s the difference?

 August 21, 2012
by Paul Heron

B2B services marketers need to think about both positioning and messaging when preparing proposals or writing sales copy.

Here’s what each means:

  • Positioning defines how you want your audience think about your service, while
  • Messaging is a set of specific statements crafted to establish and reinforce your positioning.

Think of positioning as your “big idea”— what you’d say if you had just 15 seconds.

Positioning can and should be about your key benefits but — since nearly all of us face mature market situations where we need to steal share to grow — it’s also about how you are different and better than your key competitors. So positioning often begins with a negative statement against which to contrast your product's benefits.

Modern elections, for better or (more often) worse, are textbook cases in negative positioning. Each candidate spends heavily to “define” (read “position”) his competitor in ways that favour his own candidacy. This year, the Obama campaign has worked hard to position Romney as a cold-hearted rich guy who cares only for the one percent, while Romney’s has sought to position Obama as a socialist dreamer who wants to take working people’s money and give it to the undeserving poor.

In commercial situations, it's unwise (and potentially libelous) to single out specific competitors. Instead, paint a picture of common issues your prospects may have experienced with whichever vendor they currently use. The aim is to get the attention of those who see themselves in your picture.

Once you get prospects nodding in agreement at the cost, risk and/or other challenges of dealing with the rest of the field, you have a receptive audience for your positive messages.

Messaging is often built in a matrix of audiences and key points. More on this in a future post.

Meanwhile, here's a 1-minute video on why positioning and messaging often go wrong.

  

Synchronize communications with product development

 August 14, 2012
by Paul Heron

I’ll go out on a limb and say the best way to ensure a new B2B service succeeds is to include your communications team in developing the product.

Why? Because, to a much greater extent than hardware, selling services demands clear, persuasive communications. Consider:

  • Tangibility: Compared with hardware, it’s harder to kick the tires on new services. So you really need to communicate what your prospects will get when they buy your service.
  • Variability: Most manufactured products today are engineered and built to perform consistently. Warranties and after sales service are important, but most of a product’s quality and performance features are “baked in.” Services, which are manufactured in the field, can’t make that claim. So prospects need to be made confident you can deliver consistently well.
  • Conversion cost and risk: Adopting a new B2B service usually involves investing time and energy in conversion. Prospects need to believe you have this process buttoned-down and can make good on your time and cost promises.

These and other factors make a strong case for bringing your communications team into the B2B services product development process at the beginning.

Good marketing communicators will push for clarity around:

  • What competing services’ shortcomings will your new product address? What are the top three frustrations your prospects currently experience and how will your new service make them go away?
  • What’s your process for reliably delivering the service? Can you describe it in (some small number of) clear steps? Can you say you’ve tested and refined it before launching? Better still, can you prove it works with client testimonials?
  • Separately, how do you make conversion easy? Can you make a promise around time to mobilize? What’s your track record on similar products? Again can you provide testimonials?

This process will do two things:

  1. Improve your products as you tweak them and your delivery model in response to input.
  2. Enable more powerful communications that can engage and convert prospects.

Successful B2B services companies include their communications teams in developing products. If you don't, it's time to start.

Watch a one-minute video on what every B2B services prospect needs to hear.

  

Building a B2B services thought leadership campaign

 August 7, 2012
by Paul Heron

In our last post, we wrote about the value of becoming a thought leader. Your goal is to be the go-to company within your industry for new ideas and best practices. Over time this will develop and reinforce a preference for your offering and value-added features.

Thought leaders are known within their industry for being innovative and providing superior combinations of technical solutions and client experience. As prospects come to understand and appreciate your solutions, they will begin to specify them in bids—or at least create room in their scoring systems to offset your higher price in competitive situations.

Content marketing is the fastest track to thought leadership. It’s a strategy of sharing information and ideas through case studies, white papers, industry event presentations, blogs, newsletters—any channel that supports a conversation.

Here are the steps involved:

  1. Confirm you have the appetite and resources for a content marketing initiative.
  2. Brainstorm ideas for content to share. Generate lots of topics.
  3. Identify each topic’s subject matter expert and rank its potential impact and time/effort to develop.
  4. Set your priorities, channels and schedule (frequency is important)
  5. Document your plan, assign responsibilities and deploy

Content marketing results take time. You’ll need to set up a system to communicate high-value communications consistently over time to become a thought leader.

  

Creating appetite for high-value services

 July 31, 2012
by Paul Heron

A client recently complained that prospective bid clients routinely dismissed his offering on price because they just didn’t understand the value he delivers. His company provides diagnostic services that help clients set operational priorities. “How,” he asked, “can I show how much we can save them if we never win a bid?”

This is a classic chicken-and-egg situation. Companies offering services that justify higher prices may never win bids — unless bid prospects know and appreciate the value of their offering. You can and should make the case for your value prop as part of your proposals, but often the RFP parameters don’t allow evaluators to award points for offerings beyond plain vanilla. So you’ll meet the (low) standard for technical acceptability and then lose on price.

Wouldn’t it be great if the RFP invited and rewarded innovative approaches? That’s the purpose of a thought leadership strategy and content marketing. Thought leaders are recognized within an industry as being innovative and providing superior combinations of technical solutions and client experiences.

Companies become recognized thought leaders in part because of their track records, but also through content marketing – which we’ll talk about in the next post.

  
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