Let’s imagine you run a consulting firm that specializes in helping companies in the widget industry improve sales productivity. Half your business comes from this industry, but you also have clients in other industries, and some of your projects extend beyond sales into finance and accounting.

You get a lead on your website requesting a proposal for a sales training program and they need your help asap. A perfect prospect. You call to qualify for budget and timing and everything seems good. You enter the deal in your CRM system and get excited. This might put you over the top for the quarter, and it’s a fastball over the middle of the plate. You create a proposal from your standard Widget Industry Sales Training program template, full of glowing client testimonials attesting to your deep industry expertise.

You send the proposal out and a week later there’s no response. You send some emails and leave a couple of voicemails before finally connecting with your prospect on the phone.

“What happened?”, you ask. “We were the perfect fit.”

“We know you understand the industry, but our industry is behind the times. We were looking for someone who could bring in some ideas from some more forward-thinking industries.”

“We can do that. We work with leading companies in the gadget industry, too.”

“Sorry, we didn’t know that. We went with Competitor Corp.”

You get that sinking feeling. You just whiffed on the fastball down the middle. The worst part was that you could have addressed the customer’s needs. You just didn’t bother to ask what they really were. All of your industry expertise might have got you in the door, but it wasn’t what the prospect needed to move forward.

You could have avoided this problem and won the business, by asking one simple question: What are you looking for from us?

This is one of the most powerful questions you can ask before writing a proposal. Sales reps often ask a slightly different version of this, like “what are you looking to do?”, “how many days of training do you need?” or “who needs training?” These are important questions, too, but they are much more focused than “What are you looking for from us?” This is the question that lets you know about the issues surrounding the project that the prospect and her colleagues find crucial for the vendor they select. Using this question helps you tailor your proposal to the prospect’s real underlying need, not the symptoms of that need that may make up the bulk of the RFP or even the discussions of the project.

[Of course, it also helps if you listen to the answer. In one of my earliest sales cycles as a consultant, the prospect kept telling me that they were overworked and understaffed. They needed a consultant to convince the executive team to let them hire more people. I thought my job as a consultant was to objectively evaluate evidence and make unbiased recommendations. I stressed my impartiality and my unwillingness to make recommendations before I could thoroughly analyze the situation. I didn’t get the business. I wasn’t solving their problem. (I didn’t yet realize that one of the main functions of consultants is to tell executives what managers already know.)]
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