Getting back to writing feels like sinking into an uncomfortable bath tub. I know this will be relaxing, but the start is a bit of a chore. Well.
I write about my other life today. You see, I have mostly written about product management and software engineering. The “other” life I talk about is pre-sales. Many firms and leaders I have worked with believe that demand generation and delivery are a bit intertwined. Like two sides of the same ploughing wheel which rolls ahead, sowing seeds of new opportunities that germinate to grow into platforms and products.
But that isn’t always true. The industry also likes to see them as a bit distinct (probably to make recruiting easier?) and hence I refer to it as the other profession. But in the words of the inimitable Ali G, “I digest”. So, let me swerve back to the time when I started with pre-sales. Over the years I played various pre-salesy roles like bid manager, proposal writer, solution designer, proposal defender, go-to-person-for-all-sales-folks etc.
As I look back, I see a few tips that could have saved me a good amount of hassle and heartburn.
I write these now to help anyone wishing to get into pre-sales or growing into a pre-sales leader. In the era of chatGPT and generative AI, you will not struggle to create content for your proposals (arguably). However, there will still be an uphill climb to package that content into a winning proposal.
There will also be areas to learn from a process management perspective. I am not going to cover stuff that you can find easily in other blogs.
Below are the somewhat obvious and well propagated things which I will mention cursorily. These are the 2 from my list of 5!
1. Reading the RFP- The RFP (and all docs) are your best friends. Know them as well as you would know your best friend. Know their brightest stories (the core asks), their darkest secrets (problematic clauses), the usual stuff and what they need to function (dependencies).
2. Writing a powerful response- Where all the below is super relevant
Tell a good story- that’s always true for almost anything.
Be detail oriented- needless to say.
Diagrams speak more than words- also a bit obvious (but not entirely true by the way)
Now for the main course, the other 3.
What I will now cover is stuff I don’t see people talking about much in pre-sales. These are hidden in plain-sight and can make a tremendous difference to your pre-sales endeavours.
So here are some of my top not-ultra-obvious tips for beginner or associate pre sales professionals.
Your proposal is your product that needs a MVP
We love building MVPs to ‘fail fast’ and test the waters to steer accordingly. The same principle applies to that proposal document or deck you are putting together.
Your proposal is going to go through a phase of incremental iterations to take the shape you want it to take
Well, that should be obvious. But here is the part that isn’t.
Your proposal must look like the real deal as early as possible.
What does the real deal mean? It means that the proposal must look neatly formatted and designed even when you present the first draft.
Just like you focus on some part of the experience in your product MVP, your proposal’s first draft must provide that experience to your consumers (exec reviewers, prospects etc.)
The mistake I have made before and I see younger bid managers make often is, coming up with a story slide or a set of “index” slides for feedback.
Most C-suite proposal reviewers don’t have the mental bandwidth to play along and imagine what the real thing would look like, to give you feedback. Also, this is a game of confidence. The more you can inspire confidence in the collaborating teams and sales folks, you will get eager participation, more powerful story building all like a flywheel effect.
Pre-sales (many a times) is a sales enablement process
We all want to feel that our role is impactful and driving and pre-sales is a key role in an organisation. It wins bread, correct?
The true bread winners are sales or business development folks.
That’s.. just a fact.
The technical teams are crucial to realise the win and actually convert it into dollars paid. But most wins are sales-led.
Why am I stating these facts?
The sales person is going to lead the process, especially if you are starting out in pre-sales with limited face time with the suspects and prospects
Hence, your job is not just telling a good story or writing great stuff, but making that sales person 10x better. This is done very effectively when you understand what strengths do the sales persons bring.
Are you writing a technically complex proposal, that the sales person will not be comfortable presenting?
Are you quoting research that you know is contradictory to the direction the sales person will take?
As pre-sales we must closely collaborate with the strategy that the sales person has.
Is a “proper proposal” required or just a conversation starter over coffee?
Is the prospect looking at any competitors that you can sneak in some subtle material showing your firm as better?
As beginners, most pre-sales folks I have seen have a lower connect with sales personnel. That could be because sales personnel can demand things here and now and can make you work harder and even make you work on things that won’t be super useful. But that’s reality. Sales is a dynamic, unpredictable process.
The closer you are aligned to the sales process of your opportunity, the more useful your outputs will be and the waste would be controlled.
You are the (nicest) boss
Few young pre-sales folks underestimate the tremendous power they carry in a pre-sales engagement.
A multi million dollar project. A multi year contract. A deal in the sweet spot.
It can all happen if your proposal lands.
If it doesn’t, none of that good sounding stuff sees the light of the day. You can make it happen and only you can. So whether you are young or experienced, everything that you need people to do- they MUST do it. If they don’t, your proposal fails and none of that good stuff happens. So, convey action items to the respective teams, as early in the game as possible. Get those case studies and references assigned. Get the legal team to vet that NDA asap. Get folks moving while you pull the threads like a deft puppeteer, like a far-sighted captain sailing the proposal through good and bad weather.
But here is the deal. Use force (escalations, noise) as a last resort to get something done. Always try to build a solid rapport first, since you will probably need to go to those teams (technical, legal, finance etc.) time and again (AND being nicer is generally better?)
Good rapport goes a long way in building relationships that encourages people to leave a good word for you with their replacement, if they ever leave.
How does one build said rapport?
It’s really simple- don’t just swing by people’s desks (or meeting rooms) if you have work they need to do. Say a hi outside the scope of an engagement. Ask them about their work. It will surely teach you a thing or two about a section of your proposal and will build that rapport. It’s all basic stuff, more important in the remote era. But this basic rapport building makes you more resourceful and helps you get better quality of work from teams you collaborate with.
Those are the three things I wish someone had told me when I started out. How did my proposal of these top-tips land with you? Do you have any other pointers you keep in your mind?
Drop in a comment or message and let’s chat!