What do customers really want? As capture and proposal professionals, that question haunts us. We work very hard to understand customer hot buttons and craft our solution accordingly. However, too often, the proposal focuses too much on our solution and too little on articulating a value proposition that truly reflects the customers’ desires.
As you strive to understand what is “behind the curtain,” take an honest look at your listening skills. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” We often schedule meetings with customers and spend most of the allotted time presenting our capabilities rather than listening to the customers’ wants and needs. In reality, your capture plan should be 90% about listening and 10% about talking.
However, listening, as opposed to hearing, is a learned skill that requires active, conscious effort. So, how can you best embark on an innovative listening campaign?
The “customer” is really the “customers.” You may have noticed that I refer to the customer in the plural. Remember, a single customer does not exist. Each opportunity has many stakeholders: programmatic, technical, subject matter experts, acquisition, executives. Your listening campaign must include all of them.
If possible, identify and engage with the full gamut of leaders, influencers, followers, and decision-makers.
Listen to employees too. Engagement need not be directly with the customers. Current and former employees of the customer organization, the incumbent contractor, if there is one, and teaming partners will often be quite honest with you regarding problem areas as well as potential successful strategies. Research employees on LinkedIn and reach out. Make sure to use personal emails or LinkedIn messages after hours to avoid disruption to the workday.
Ask specific questions. Instead of asking the customers what you can do to help them, suggest solutions and listen to their reaction. Ask very specific questions that require them to answer with examples. For instance, ask customers about:
- Acquisition strategy requirements, preferred vehicles, and key evaluation factor preferences for this procurement
- Technology requirements and preferences
- Negotiable and non-negotiable requirements
- Performance level and customer satisfaction expectations
- Mission and program objectives, both qualitative and quantitative
- Transition timing
- Budget, change, and risk tolerances
- Other drivers such as Executive Orders, Congressional mandates, and the like
Moving from general to specific questions generates a higher level of engagement as well as the more thoughtful and detailed responses necessary to gain the insights you are seeking. For better results, invest the time to improve your questioning techniques.
Shape the opportunity. Without shaping, you are at a real disadvantage. Shaping is more about listening to stakeholders and, based on listening, suggesting scope, evaluation factors, procurement vehicles, technologies, and the like that will work well. Propose ideas based on evidence and listen to the reaction. Come back with new ideas, and listen some more.
Once the RFP is released, analyze the solicitation to ensure it reflects the shaping you think you accomplished. If it doesn’t, seriously re-evaluate your bid decision and/or adapt your solution accordingly.
Identify unanswered questions. Knowledge gaps may require that you identify additional stakeholders with whom to engage and/or identify new or better questions. Make sure all gaps are covered prior to RFP release and that you have fully listened, shaped, and tested your value proposition with customers.
Avoid jargon and acronyms. Often we fall into the habit of using idioms, acronyms, and/or complex terminology. Customers may not fully understand what you are saying. Try speaking in plain English for greater clarity of intent.
Repeat, repeat, repeat. When customers talk, repeat what you think they said to gain confirmation. When you talk, ask each meeting participant to offer their perspective on and/or summary of what you just said. By making everyone re-frame their understanding, you will gain greater precision. Poor listening is costly because it results in incorrect assumptions surrounding win strategy, misunderstanding of the desired value proposition, and errors that waste Bid and Proposal (B&P) money. Understanding what the customer really wants begins and ends with your listening skill innovations. If you have ideas on additional innovations I should cover in future columns, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.