Does Your Sales Proposal Have a Great Villain?

Darth Vader
If you don’t do this project, this guy will cut off your hand.

A good proposal is a story, and great stories need strong villains. Villains provide an emotional push to the story beyond numbers in a spreadsheet. No matter how much ROI is involved, or how logical the CFO is, organizations rarely move unless they have a gut-level reason to do so. (Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow divides the brain into the emotional “elephant” and the logical “rider.” The rider thinks he’s in charge, but he’s really not.) Villains can also unite different teams that may not work together well.

Make sure your villain of your story is the same villain your customer sees, even if they don’t use that term. You don’t want to cast the wrong villain. Fortunately, customers are eager to tell you about their villains. It’s when a bit of anger or other negative emotion creeps into their voice.

Competitors make great villains. If a competitor is attacking your customer’s customers, or has just launched a superior product, or, most villainously of all, has done something underhanded, they can be a powerful motivator.

Be careful not to blame the people you want to work with. If their decisions have caused the current situation, highlight why those decisions made sense at the time, and in this case, you may have the slightly less emotionally motivating “obstacle” or “challenge” compared to a true villain.

Climbing the mountain
Mt. Legacy System

Examples of faceless challenges include:

  • Antiquated software that everyone hates. (Just make sure that you don’t insult anyone who may have written all or part of it, although often the folks responsible are as eager as anyone else to unload the burden, as long as they feel they still have job security.)
  • Inefficient process that drive people crazy.
Note that it’s not just the numbers around lost time or revenue, it’s about things that frustrate people. The frustration and the hate are what make people want to solve the problem. The numbers are how they justify doing it.
If you just have the numbers but can’t get the sale, you may need to go back and look at your villains. If you’ve got Darth Maul instead of Darth Vader, that could be your problem.


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