At the recent APMP Bid & Proposal Con 2013 we co-hosted, along with SAVO, an “invitation only” reception. The event we planned was fairly straight forward and should have been very easy to arrange. It wasn’t. Fortunately, the many challenges we faced led to our having an event that far exceeded our expectations and confirmed my belief that challenging situations often lead to good things.
Here’s what happened. We had about three weeks lead time when the SAVO team and I agreed we wanted to hold the reception and asked our new Marketing Director, Carol S. to make the arrangements with the hotel. This was the first event Carol would be coordinating for Strategic Proposals and, as you might expect, she was eager for this event to go well and took the task very seriously.
Carol immediately obtained the name of the person responsible for such events at the hotel and attempted to contact that individual, sending e-mail and phoning. For several days she received no reply, despite sending additional e-mails and phoning again. Over the next two weeks, Carol persisted in trying to reach this person, only to be put off each time. Ultimately, when we arrived at the hotel on the Monday before the start of the conference, Carol had only had the briefest of conversations with this person and had no information from her. To say Carol was stressed about this is way beyond an understatement. Trying to be supportive, I told her I was confident it would all work out.
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Not sure if I have posted on this previously (I know Jon, that’s what starts to happen at my “advanced age”, right my friend? Of course, if that’s true, I have an excuse. What would yours be then?!).
I was in a local store which had a fair amount of things that were breakable and/or potentially dangerous for children. Many a store I’ve been in has had a sign along the lines of “Please watch your children” or “Parents are responsible for any damage done by their children”.
This particular store had obviously given some thought to the individuals to whom the sign was directed (the parents), as well as to some potential motivators that would cause the parents to heed the sign. It read:
“Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free puppy.”
The several children I saw in the store were being held firmly by the hand and closely watched by the parents.
Are the messages within the proposal you submit as compelling to your clients as this sign?
If the pre-stay welcoming email from the first of my Atlanta hotels wasn’t irritating enough, the conference hotel itself went one step further. Its communique observed:
We are delighted to announce that the Sun Dial Restaurant, Bar, & View is renewing your fine dining experience with a highly anticipated renovation. The restaurant will be closed April 29 to August 2013, but pleased be inspired to join us for brunch, lunch, and dinner at The Café and The Lobby Bar, located on level 5.
Now, I’m all in favour of hotels updating their facilities. And, just as in proposals, writers sometimes have to look for a positive spin on bad news. I’m guessing that the following would have been the most honest story:
Perhaps the most notable feature of our hotel is its 73rd floor restaurant, with 360 degree views over Atlanta. Unfortunately, you won’t get to enjoy it as it’ll be closed when you’re here.
So, maybe they could have been more apologetic:
Our Sun Dial restaurant will be closed for renovation during your stay, but you will still be able to join us…
… or even…
We’re sorry that our Sun Dial restaurant will be closed during your stay, but…
Instead, they’re “delighted” we won’t get to experience it. I’m so pleased for the guests who’ll be staying with them from September – but please don’t patronise me. Because the only way I’d be happy would be were I a regular guest (and their systems could show that it’s nearly a decade since I was last there), or if the truth is actually:
The Sun Dial restaurant really is dire. It’s shut. You should be thankful.
There’s a lesson in this for proposal writers. Sometime we do have to break bad news to the client – that, for example, we can’t quite meet their needs in the way that they have specified. We have to shine a more positive light on things, perhaps along the lines of, “instead we do this the following way, and evidence shows that this will enable you to achieve the same goals / realise the same benefits, but in a slightly different way”. Done well, non-compliances or weaknesses in your approach can be explained in a customer-friendly way – and evaluators do actually like vendors who appear to be honest. But we have to do so without sounding arrogant, patronising or merely downright insenstive, as the Westin managed to do with their email.
I’m heading out to Atlanta tomorrow, a few days before the start APMP’s ‘Bid & Proposal Con’. The way flight prices work, it was cheaper to stay in town for the weekend prior to the event – and that was a good excuse for a little time off in a city that I really like.
The hotel in which I’m staying for a few nights before moving across to the conference venue dropped me an email a couple of days back, entitled:
“Check out what’s happening while you’re with us.”
I clicked on it with interest: a little insider knowledge about events in town for the weekend sounded great. Theatre? A gig? Baseball, maybe – a sport that, despite being English, I love!
But the actual contents of the note? The usual, boring dull stuff: confirmation of my booking, details of transport options from the airport, advice on how to amend my reservation. Nothing whatsoever on things that are ‘happening’ – other than the rain showers that look ever-so-likely.
It struck me that there was a parallel with many proposals, where the Exec Summary promises so much – and yet seems entirely removed from the content of the remainder of the proposal. If you lure people in with the promise of an interesting and relevant story, but then offer up content that’s bland, mundane, then readers will end up deeply frustrated – and even annoyed.
I love finding quotes in another context that could have been written about proposals. Take this from the Guardian newspaper earlier in the week, interviewing Thomas Bangalter of dance act Daft Punk:
“The only secret to being in control is to have it [from] the start. Retaining control is still hard but obtaining control is virtually impossible.”
He was talking about the media circus surrounding the release of the band’s new album – but the same clearly applies to proposals: if you don’t get your team working in the right way and to a clear plan from the outset, the project is forever going to be a struggle.
An interesting discussion recently on the age-old topic of “features versus benefits”. Sometimes I find that one has to ask “so what?” twice to get to the real benefits. Here’s one example I rather liked:
“Our laptop has fingerprint security.”
“Well, that improves security, as users don’t have to remember their password. And there’d be fewer calls to the help desk, too.”
But, to me, that only took it so far. “So what” again revealed some much stronger benefits:
Less time spent by Help Desk solving password issues (= saving in IT support costs)
Less time wasted by end-users requesting and awaiting password resets (= cost saving too)
Lower risk of fraudulent or unauthorised access to your information (presumably there’d be data to quantify that as well).
It’s a fun game – and good mindset to be in when working on proposals. What are your favourite “feature versus benefit examples?
I laughed aloud the other week when driving in Ireland with Emma. She’d phoned one of Dublin’s top restaurants to try to book a table for my birthday, which falls on 28th December. (Following the principle established by my friend Sarah, who’s also my PA, I’ll be 36 again this year!).
She asked whether they were open between Christmas and New Year, and the response was just perfect:
“Jesus, God, no; I can’t think of anything worse.”
I hope your bosses think the same way when it comes to proposal centres working over the festive season, and that you have a good break.