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Software streamlines sales-proposal process

The experiences of companies like American Express and Hewlett-Packard show that sales-proposal software saves time on burdensome paperwork, freeing sales staff to concentrate on strengthening customer relationships.

To a salesperson, the phrase "time is money" is not just a figure of speech, it's a daily mantra. The more customers they can see, the better the chances of clinching a sale. Yet, whether responding to a sales call or filling out a request for proposal (RFP), the truth is that salespeople often spend more time at their desks crafting proposals than they do in front of the customer selling their products.


Enter technology-enabled selling. According to Robert DeSisto, vice president of Gartner Research, proposal generation can span weeks or months and require major technical resources to fulfill the requirements. "Companies that adopt a proposal-generation system will cut in half the time it takes to create, edit, approve and produce a professional proposal," says DeSisto. Sales cycle time is further reduced by using a customized database that can be quickly accessed by salespeople and others across the enterprise.

The central knowledgebase used to generate automated proposals aims to capture the most up-to-date, accurate and consistent company, product and service information. The data typically includes high-impact, relevant messages that improve a sale force's ability to articulate and communicate the value of their product or service. The end result is a client-specific document that includes everything from PowerPoint presentations to pitch letters to competitive analysis. Leading providers of proposal generation software include Ventaso, Inc., Pragmatech Software, Inc. and The Sant Corp.

In addition to increasing sales and improving response times, sales teams that use proposal-generation systems are finding another benefit: a new approach to selling. Rather than selling strictly on features or functions, the client- and/or industry-specific information culled from the system arms the sales force with more strategic, higher-level data that gives them an edge on the competition. In some cases, companies are using the proposals as market intelligence, taking the messages that resonate in the marketplace and using those to strengthen future customer interactions.

The American Express example

In an effort to create consistent messages and best-in-class presentations in its sales organization, two years ago, American Express' marketing arm performed an audit of its sales materials. "When we laid them all out, what we found was that there weren't many differences among the presentations, and there was some opportunity for improvement," notes Lisa Gregg, director of sales development. "For the most part, the presentations weren't accurately reflecting our customers' specific needs. Rather, we were relying on boilerplates."

With a geographically-based sales force selling credit-card acceptance in the business-to-business market, Gregg was concerned about an age-old customer-relationship problem: reps were spending too much time on administrative tasks and not enough time in front of the customer. For example, they discovered that reps had to tap some 100 different databases to become proficient about products, learn the messages and then speak intelligently to customers.

Gregg also wanted to increase rep effectiveness by providing them with superior messaging and tools that fit with the way they sell and the way customers buy. "We spent a lot of time, money and resources training our salespeople to sell based on the needs of the customer," Gregg explains. "But there was a gap between our marketing collateral and our training. What we were creating as marketers didn't strengthen our sales approach."

American Express bridged the messaging gap through a collaborative partnership with sales and marketing. Starting with the premise that marketing could no longer spoon feed information to the sales force, the two organizations came together to develop material that reflected sales' field experience. They probed the language used by various customers, carefully incorporating industry-specific nomenclature. In partnership with Ventaso (, a San Francisco-based company that designs automated, customized selling solutions, Amex consolidated all of its databases into a centralized knowledgebase called "Sales Force Online." It includes everything a salesperson uses throughout the sales cycle-the value information, customer testimonials, financial reports and survey findings.

"The bottom line is that every customer touch point is a unique opportunity," remarks Gregg. "With this online system, a salesperson or account manager can customize documents with unique messaging based on the needs of a customer. The software enables us to map the value proposition to the business objectives of a particular industry. Take, for example, a supermarket chain. A sales rep can go into our system, respond to a series of questions regarding the industry, and very quickly create a presentation that includes targeted solutions to the supermarket's main business objectives. It also incorporates industry nomenclature that resonates with educated consumers."

Before it launched Sales Force Online, American Express' sales reps spent anywhere from three to 24 hours developing customer presentations, according to Gregg. "This technology has helped us reduce presentation prep time by as much as 75%, which translates into enough time for hundreds of additional sales calls," she says. "It also has helped reduce the cost of acquiring a new customer. If you take that number and multiply it by our close rates, you'll see a definite bottom-line impact from getting more done with the same resources."

Another benefit of the technology, adds Gregg, is the ability to do back-end analysis. "After a salesperson delivers a presentation, we can see what messages resonated with a particular account," she explains. "Not only can we adjust the value picture based on this information, but we also can use it as a coaching opportunity for the next rep who calls on a customer in a particular market segment. We are very much in the nascent stages of maximizing this technology," she continues.

American Express' long range plan? "To integrate Sales Force Online with our contact-management software," she says. "While this technology was rolled out last year for our U.S.-based sales force, we ultimately plan to leverage it globally."

An increased focus on benefits

At Hewlett-Packard, the Services sales organization spends a good deal of time responding to RFPs, seeking everything from hardware maintenance to software support to IT infrastructure support.

According to Fran Linnehan, operations manager, Bid Support for the Americas, reps used to spend hours interviewing customers and searching databases and Web sites for the right information to seal a deal.

To solve the sales-cycle dilemma, Hewlett-Packard tapped Pragmatech Software. Using Pragmatech's Proposal Express, a sales rep can access a single repository for accurate and consistent information once sought at multiple locations. By simply typing in a customer's name, pointing and clicking on specific products or services, a 150- to 400-page proposal can be produced in about 10 minutes.

"We've reduced the amount of time spent on RFPs by 262,000 hours annually," reports Linnehan. "That translates to somewhere between $15 to $17 million in cost savings per year. And, our number of opportunities has probably gone up 30 to 40 percent, year over year."

In addition to those benefits, Linnehan notes that proposals are of higher quality, with an emphasis on benefits versus features and functions. And, with more than 1,000 sales reps generating proposals worldwide, the sales organization is now creating documents that have common logos, formatting, language and strategies. "This not only helps present one face to the customer, but it also creates a more consultative sales force," he says. "Because reps were spending so much time tracking down information, they were more reactive than forward-thinking. The Pragmatech tool frees them up to consult, providing added value to our customers and distinguishing us in the marketplace."

Hewlett-Packard is looking at linking its proposal-automation tool with its contact-management software to better prioritize and focus its sales efforts. But even sooner than that, Linnehan says a closer reality is the ability to leverage Pragmatech software on Hewlett-Packard's Web site.

"Customers would be able to come to our site and quickly generate e-proposals that include relevant product and service information without the prices," he continues. "The customer will benefit from the ability to quickly view offerings without any sales pressure. And we'll be better able to identify decision makers, reducing the cost and time of cold calling."

Closing more sales

Before David Peckinpaugh came along, salespeople at Conferon-a meeting and convention planning firm-were using the cut-and-paste method to write proposals. Since these 40- to 50-page documents were taking between 60 and 100 hours to complete, this was not very efficient or, as Peckinpaugh explains it, was analogous to "Indians beating on a drum."

To help reduce the sales cycle time for Conferon's 50 salespeople, Peckinpaugh, vice president of sales, engaged The Sant Corp. Using the software firm's ProposalMaster and PresentationBuilder, the Conferon sales team now writes 30 to 50 proposals and RFP responses every month. "We've seen a 10% increase in close ratio since using ProposalMaster," says Peckinpaugh. "In under 30 minutes, you can create 90% of what you need."

ProposalMaster asks users a few key questions about the opportunity and prospect, and then draws from the customized text library to instantly build a complete professional proposal. The end product is a Microsoft Word document that can be edited and modified. PresentationBuilder reads the proposal created by ProposalMaster and converts the key points into bullet-point format, launches Microsoft PowerPoint, and builds a structured slide presentation.

"The built-in consistency of the software has been a real benefit for us," says Peckinpaugh. "As a manager, I no longer have to double-check the proposals, particularly the ones that come from our independent contractors. I know that what they're sending out reflects our look, feel and philosophy. The feedback from our inside and outside sales force has been positive. The software enables them to spend more time on the strategic area of the proposal, resulting in more opportunities."

Conferon used an outside technical writer to create its own targeted content. The information is tailored to address the diverse needs of its corporate and association customers. "We basically did a brain dump and then edited and tweaked the documents created by the writer," explains Peckinpaugh. "It was a painful three-month process, but a valuable exercise to ensure we were capturing the right data. It remains a work-in-progress, as we continue to add and change information based on the marketplace, our products and services and our customers' requirements."

Next step: enterprise-wide CRM

Sources interviewed for this article say that integration with CRM systems is the next step in the sales-proposal process, but few companies are actually there yet. The value of integrating sales-proposal technology into enterprise systems is not lost on customer-centric organizations. Over the next 12 months, we'll see a definite increase in the number of companies focusing their systems-integration initiatives in this area.

Integrating sales-proposal information into the company's centralized customer view can help improve the bottom line in several ways, including making service reps aware of a large proposal on the table, in case a client with an outstanding proposal calls with a problem. That awareness could possibly play a role in closing the sale.

For instance, a customer who has not purchased much previously may not qualify as a most valuable or most "growable" customer, but having a large outstanding proposal on the table may nudge them into that category temporarily. If a very important prospect were to call with a question or problem, and that person was treated as an most valuable customer, that might be just the extra incentive needed to help the prospect make a final decision. Conversely, it helps with that age-old problem of a sales rep making a sales pitch to a customer who has an outstanding service issue he was not previously aware of. If he solves the problem before he walks in the door, he's a hero, and it could potentially impact his ability to secure the sale.

In addition, the due diligence conducted to put a proposal together can be added to a knowledgebase to help reduce the amount of work that goes into the next proposal. If sales reps leave the organization, the "paper" trail exists to help the new sales rep pick up where the other left off, without the customer feeling a blip in the relationship. It also helps in presenting one face to the customer if, for instance, sales forces in different divisions or different countries were presenting to different divisions or global offices of the same prospect. One cohesive, and perhaps "package" proposal, could provide just the competitive edge.

To read more articles like this one, visit Peppers and Rogers Group's Web site at

All materials copyright 2002 Peppers and Rogers Group - 1:1 Marketing.

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