Publish or perish” is the code for survival of every scientist or professor seeking recognition, promotion or financial grants, and it concerns the concept, layout, content and presentation of research papers or proposals that will (hopefully) convince governmental agencies to fund yet another fiscal year. Credible publishing is very serious business.
However, the importance of publishing critical documents is not limited to the world of academia. Most audio/video manufacturers, for example, publish very dynamic literature. Many even provide small booklets in addition to cut-sheets, utilizing full-color graphics that incorporate compelling and impressive themes. In fact, a good percentage of custom integrators probably make their final buying decision based on the quality of the manufacturer’s literature and its ability to sell a certain product through its representation on paper.
Yet with all of these “big players” literally proving the point that great paperwork closes sales, many custom integrators continue to offer standard “bid forms,” or worse, a few stapled sheets (with brand names, model numbers and prices) as their definition of a client presentation (formerly known as a “proposal”).
Al Capone once said, “You can get more with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.” Today, Al would be saying, “You’ve got to get the job before you can do the job,” and he would be holding a client presentation, instead of a gun. Why? Because long after an integrator has left the client’s home, a well-prepared client presentation continues to make an impression. What kind of impression is what compels more and more custom integrators to create and publish innovative “proposals” in the first place.
Bob Kantin, author of Sales Proposals Kit for Dummies writes, “A proposal is basically a customer communication document–meaning that its purpose is to communicate with the customer.” Robert J. Hamper and L. Sue Baugh, authors of Handbook for Writing Proposals write, “A proposal is primarily a sophisticated sales piece that seeks to define a client’s problem and/or opportunities and to sell the client on your company’s ability to provide solutions and strategies.”
No matter how it is phrased, a company’s sales presentation kit is about as important as it gets in terms of its role as an effective sales tool. Every time prospective clients look at a sales presentation packet sitting on their kitchen table, it’s cover and graphics should compel them to pick it up. Next, it should speak to them via easy-to-follow, innovative layouts that are arranged in logical order. These “collateral materials” should walk clients through every phase of a prospective project, just as if the sales person were standing right next to them, explaining every part of the system in detail. The literature that is left behind is, in every sense of the word, a silent (and creatively persistent) salesperson.
If, however, the presentation looks and reads just like the other two proposals sitting on the same table, the integrator may have just been reduced to compete on price alone. After all, if an integrator doesn’t show the client how he or she is different from their competition, the client will assume that the integrator is actually the same as their competition, and that’s a no-win situation.
Unfortunately, many integrators often find themselves defending their prices instead of discussing their innovative and creative system designs. To make matters worse, if an integrator finally succeeds in capturing a client based upon pricing, it’s a hollow victory because every future dialogue will most certainly involveor revolve around money, and little else. Companies that fall into this trap are ultimately forced to go in search of cheaper products and short cuts in labor until one day it’s no longer about the quality of the system at all.
In the end, a poor-performing system may be all the client will remember. Ironically, after doing everything to offer the client low prices and keep them happy, the integrator might not even get a referral. Why? Because the bitterness of a poor job remains long after the sweetness of a low price has faded.
I dared to write those words almost 15 years ago as a summary to one of my “custom” proposals. At the time, I was competing against two other companies, both of whom were offering lower prices, yet in my opinion, clearly inadequate components and unacceptable sound coverage. And yet, in spite of my higher pricing, my company was awarded the system because my proposal had convinced the client (when he sat down later that day and paged through my detailed and easy-to-read booklet) that low prices and high quality were not necessarily equal parts of the same business philosophy.
Ultimately, the client hired the beliefs of my company, rather than the specifics of any one system. Still, without the specifics of the system and the layout and backup of the proposal, the philosophy of my company would never have come to light.
So then, how can an integrator re-direct the client’s attention toward the character or reputation of the custom installation company, rather than the elements of system pricing? By changing the rules, and the rules begin with the proposal.
Instead of trying to compete on the same field as his or her competition, the integrator who hopes to separate their company from the rest will look for an opportunity where the client will be naturally inclined to spend extra time listening to that integrator. The client presentation is just such an opportunity. By creating a unique project presentation format, an integrator can breakaway from a price-only negotiation and at the same time, effectively eliminate the competition.
The integrator/designer should first devise an outline, with specific goals intended to capture the attention of the client. “Capture goals” would include the incorporation of information that is meaningful to the client, like the correct spelling of everyone’s first and last names, hobbies, sports or weekend interests, which were made apparent during the initial meeting. Next, the cover of the client presentation should include the specific intention of the document (“This custom audio/video/home theater system has been created for the residence of Sam, Sarah and ‘Spike’ Smith.”) Finally, the “body” of the proposal should include:
II. System Information
1) Useful and understandable informational pages (with larger type), consisting of easy-to-read explanations concerning the practical aspects of the proposed system design, broken-down as follows:
a. Prewire outline, including types and ratings of all cable.
b. Speaker and subwoofer use and rationale.
c. Equipment identification, placement and intended use.
2) Company documentation (such as licenses, liability insurance certificates, workman’s comp, etc.).
III. System Specifics
1) Line-item pricing consisting of:
a. Pre-wire pricing.
b. Speaker pricing.
c. Equipment pricing.
d. System Totals.
IV. System Layouts & Diagrams
1) Speaker, control and equipment layouts.
a. Room-by-room identification.
b. Zone-by-zone identification.
2) Other plans, diagrams or technical sheets.
By dividing the proposal into sections, the installation company will make it easier for the client to follow the proposal from one phase of the project to another. Moreover, dividing the proposal into segments renders an otherwise long “play” into several short “acts,” as the stage is set for a self-guided tour of the system that is being proposed. Ultimately, an easy-to-follow format may encourage someone to actually read it.
Once a client presentation has been created as outlined, the integrator may find themselves with 30 or 40 pages of material. Therefore, it’s important to physically assemble all of this great information into an easy-to-manage format. Office supply stores offer a range of binding options. If a company is in this for the long haul, it may be expedient to purchase a high-quality comb-binding machine. There are no shortage of uses for comb binding.
When presented and left behind, all elements of a well-planned client presentation validate an underlying message that subconsciously speaks to the client from every page that “this is no ordinary custom installation company.”
Steven Robbins, an entrepreneur with an MBA from Harvard and a computer science degree from MIT writes: “A good proposal demonstrates that you understand how your client thinks: how they think about their problems, special needs they have and so on. The more your proposal meshes with the way the client thinks about the problem, the easier it will be for the client to see that your product or service meets their needs.”
Of course, a winning proposal implies a higher level of performance and therefore dictates that the concept of the proposal be followed-up with the reality of a stellar installation.
Tom Sant, owner and founder of Thomas Sant & Associates, a full-service firm specializing in communications, training and consulting, writes, “A good proposal can be both useful to you and to your potential client. How useful it is depends on how carefully it’s been designed, developed and written. If you write a good proposal, you may win more than just a specific contract. You may win good will, respect and credibility that will carry over into future business relations.”
To publish or perish? That is the question that every integrator must consider when deciding what significance to attach to their company’s paperwork and what it could ultimately mean to the life of their company. Yet while some integrators just think about it, other companies are creating innovative proposals which are becoming their most dependable, albeit silent, salespeople.
Paul Fida is the author of Management in a Bottle, a practical guide for custom business owners & managers, and Prescription for Management, a practical guide for business managers, both books available at www.soundox.com