HAVE YOU EVER SPENT MONTHS courting a customer, touting your firm's expertise, providing demos, proposals, and elegant solutions to their biggest problems, only to have that customer reject your bid on price? Or have you aggressively sought a piece of business with low prices only to lose out because the client didn't feel you could meet their needs? Matching what you sell to what the customer is buying is one of the most basic and most difficult challenges faced by your sales force. Getting in touch with customer requirements is both a talent and a skill. It is a talent in that some people simply have an innate ability to sense another person's needs. It is a skill because anyone can learn how to recognize some of these signs and make appropriate adjustments. Whether you are managing dozens of salespeople or your freelance business, you need to continually review your sales checklist. These questions are designed to keep you grounded in your client's needs so that you don't miss the opportunity to complete the sale.

Who is the Decision Maker?

When tailoring your sales and proposal efforts, you need to understand who will make the recommendation and who will make the final decision. Selling to an end-user is much different than selling to a producer. In either case you will have a distinct advantage if you know who the decision maker is and what is important to her. As a freelancer, you might need to earn your way onto an approval list and then maintain a relationship with a booking agent. As a staging company, a technical director often reviews prospects and makes recommendations to the decision-making producer. If you are not allowed access to the decision maker, then your relationship with the recommender becomes critical. Occasionally you will not have direct access to any advocate in which case your written proposal will have to do all the talking for you.

What makes your customer profitable?

Your customer is in business to make money, and what they do to make money does matter to your proposal. Selling a training seminar to a widget manufacturer that operates on 2% margins is different than selling to a multi-level marketing company that needs to pump up its sales force with a dynamic meeting. Non-profits also make money, but they do it differently from meeting planners. Does the service or product you are selling have the potential to increase their profit or will it just add to their overhead? Will a high profile AV staging reinforce the message or contradict it? Some of my largest budget events have been designed to appear very low-tech; sometimes the high-tech look can mask a small budget. The needs of a growing company will differ from a mature one. If the proposal you are about to submit does not fulfill their current needs, then make sure that you are laying the groundwork for their future needs.

Is your firm ready or capable of meeting their needs?

Or more simply, are they buying what you're selling? Clearly, you need to ask your customers about their needs and try to meet those needs. The hidden message is as salespersons we need to understand what our firm is truly capable of providing. Just because they are buying doesn't mean you have something to sell them. Know what your core competencies are and stay within them. Help your customer discover how your product can work for them but don't try to force things together. If you can't align their present or future needs with your best products, then say thank you and move along. No one wants their time wasted, and you probably don't have resources to squander on dead-ends.

Have you addressed those needs in your proposal?

Sometimes in our excitement and basking in our success at relationship building we forget the basics. Sure, this customer may like you and think your firm would be great to work with, but is that what's in your proposal? Spell it out for them. Explain why your offering will accomplish what they want and why working together will be beneficial. If you need to propose something different from what the customer has requested, be sure your cover letter explains that you know your proposal is outside their current scope of work and why. Also, take the time to review what you think you know about the customer and this particular proposal and look for hidden assumptions. Some assumptions are inevitable. Eliminate the ones that aren't.

What questions will the customer have?

Your proposal should anticipate certain questions, but there may be compelling reasons to leave information out as well. Many executives will tell you that they would rather see a short one-page proposal than a three-inch binder of documentation. Corporate buyers on the other hand often prefer the thoroughness of a detailed proposal, because it gives them more information on which to base a recommendation. Make sure you know who the decision maker is and sell to that person. In either case, allow for some questions to be asked as long as they are good questions. A good question would be “How can you finish this project so quickly?” to which you answer, “Hire us and I will tell you.” A bad question would be “Why did you propose using this solution when the RFP specifically asked for something different?” That one should have been addressed in the proposal.

Build Long-term Relationships

Successful selling is more than winning jobs; it is about building relationships. Good relationships start with listening. Better relationships build from there through common language and clear expectations. You can learn to speak your customer's language if you know who the customer really is and what they are actually buying. Next, match your customer's needs to what your firm can profitably provide and when there is no match to be made, know when to walk away. If you use your checklist and successfully master these skills, you will not only know which jobs are worth pursuing; you will increase your success rate.

Tom Stimson, MBA is director of sales and operations at Alford Media Services in Dallas, TX. He has more t han 25 years experience in corporate theatre and is a member of the ICIA Board of Governors and the ETCP Certification Council.