Do you have good listening skills, or is your customer hoping the meeting will just end?
Meeting with your customer is an important step in writing a winning proposal. You want to make the most of these meetings. You need to leave with an understanding your customer’s requirements, hot buttons, and budget. You want to get feedback on your potential solution, innovations, and risk mitigation approaches. So, now that you scheduled that critical meeting, how do you make the most of it? Listen…
- Listen twice as much as you talk. This is the first rule. You are unlikely to have a successful meeting if you are doing all the talking. You want to impress your customers with great products or services. There is a tendency to push a prepared capabilities brief that may not be what the customer needs. The customer already has some confidence that you can do the work since you have the meeting. If you are talking, you are not learning the customer’s issues. You are assuming you know them. Seek to maintain a two-to-one ratio: listening to talking. When it’s your time to talk, ask questions.
- Ask probing questions. The goal of the meeting is to learn, not to tell (sell). Prepare a short list of questions and seek answers to guide your proposal. Ask about requirements and their validity. Ask what the budget is. Ask what they have tried and how satisfied they have been with the results. Propose solutions and seek feedback. Ask if your ideas seem innovative. Be flexible and ready to ask questions in response to things you hear your customer say. Ford Harding has a great list of questions in his book Rain Making.
- Listen with your eyes. Watch your customer’s body language, and your own. You can tell if you are losing your customer when you pay attention to the nonverbal signs. If they are sitting in a defensive posture or are “zoned-out,” it is a clear sign you are talking too much. You give the customer the impression that you do not care what they have to say if you are fidgeting (my favorite).
- Don’t interrupt. There is a tendency to want to fill every minute of the meeting. It extends to anticipating the customer’s thoughts and jumping in before they finish talking. Besides being rude, anticipating is assuming and often wrong. If you are watching body language, you know when it is your turn to talk. White space in a proposal response is a good thing. It’s also okay to let a few seconds elapse to form a response before you respond.
- Learn the customer’s story. It’s not about you. Your customer is the hero of the story. Your customer has journeyed to get where they are. It is to your advantage to learn that story and where they need help. Has the organization struggled with their current solution? Are they looking for a change or are they content? If they are struggling, seek to learn what the issues are. If they are content, you need to prepare for an expensive bid or may opt to no bid the opportunity. Discover what has changed since last they awarded the current contract to your competition.
When you write the proposal, remember, it’s not about you. It’s how well you understand and can solve your customer’s needs. How well you understand their needs depends on if you listened. How they perceive your solution depends on the questions you asked. Using good listening skills during customer meetings improve your proposal win probabilities.