You know what happens. Your sales team have just sought feedback on the deal they've just lost. They come back from meeting the client, bearing news that's not as disastrous as they'd feared. "They told us we came a very close second. They said our proposal was really great.” More often or not they add: “It really just came down to price."
It always amazes me how many teams 'come second' in any particular procurement exercise. There must be a lot of silver medals waiting to be handed out in buyers' desk drawers.
It always amazes me how many losing teams submitted proposals that were 'really great'. So great they contributed to losing the deal.
And it always amazes me how many losing teams submitted the best solution, with the top team, but were thwarted 'on price' even though the client had complete faith that their approach was by far the best.
In reality, of course, it's not like that. The customer offering feedback - if indeed they can be bothered doing so - is focused on avoiding challenge, letting the losing team hold their heads a little higher, and hoping that somehow this might result in a better offer next time round. They're offering kind words, not scathing critiques.
There's another challenge, too, very apparent to me when I'm coaching folks through APMP's Foundation Level qualification. There's a detailed checklist in the association's training pack, with eight questions to use in the client debrief. They're all very valid issues, covering ease of evaluation, compliance and more.
Yet my experience when I ask people emerging from client debriefs is that the proposal is last on their list in those discussions. "What did they say about our proposal?" "We were 2.3% out on price."
"And about the document we sent them?"
"They didn't like that we weren't compliant with clause 28.2 of their Ts & Cs. And they thought the project manager we put forward was a bit too junior."
(Me, getting frustrated): "But what about the quality of our document – developed at the expense of so much blood, sweat and tears?"
"Oh: sorry. I ran out of time to ask them about that."
And, you know, I’d probably agree that in the limited time available, gathering feedback on your proposition is probably more important than on your proposal and pitch. If your products and services, implementation or legal approaches, costs and prices, are consistently out of kilter with the market leaders, it’s critical to understand that. Clients are going to want to discuss that. And, practically, nobody getting a debrief is going to get time to ask all of APMP’s eight proposal-related questions.
My preference in practice therefore is to focus the team seeking feedback on a couple of simple linked questions – such as “how did our proposal documents compare to those from our competitors”, then “…and what about our presentation?”.
Then, away from the battle, a client audit – with selected recipients of proposals in (say) the past quarter – is the perfect mechanism for a deeper dive. An interview (face-to-face if possible) by someone with a degree of independence from the team involved in the bid might take half an hour of the client’s time.
And so much the better if that uses a structured form, allowing the buyer to give your documents and presentations a comparative score versus the best of the other bidders – as well as to provide comments. The learning that results from this, done well, is so incredibly useful that I find it amazing that it’s not an approach adopted my more proposal teams – indeed, by all proposal teams.