Who better to learn all about business proposal writing than from someone in the trenches, winning with them every single day? That is exactly what we are bringing you today. We’ve caught up with a business professional much like many of you, navigating the world of proposal awesomeness, one day at a time.
Jo Shanahan is an entrepreneur based out of South Australia. She currently works at two businesses: DVE Business Solutions and Animal Therapeutics. DVE Business Solutions provides process improvement, custom technology, and training solutions through its offices in Sydney and Adelaide, serving all of Australia and New Zealand.
Recently, we had a chat with Jo about the proposal process within the DVE Business Solutions organization. DVE is passionate about helping clients achieve their goals – whether that is increasing efficiency through an improved process or implementing new technology to make work-life easier.
Here is what Jo had to say:
Todd Spear: So, tell me how DVE Business Solutions came to be.
Jo Shanahan: DVE Business Solutions started in 2008, when my mum, Dianne van Eck, and I joined forces to deliver our vision of a high performance team that could move amongst businesses and manage complex projects.
My mum formed the business following a career working in a variety of projects in the university sector. I joined after leaving a manufacturing engineer role with GM Holden, bringing with me very specific skills in continuous process improvement, project management, and systems implementation. DVE stems from the combination of our unique abilities.
Todd: I hear you are fielding tons of business proposals these days. What is the proposal process like at DVE?
Jo: The basic business proposal process is:
Hear of a problem or a client who just wants to do things a better way.
Meet with the client (and possibly their team) to determine the root cause of the problem — this is often not the “perceived problem” which is quite often just a symptom!)
Determine what actions are necessary to rectify the actual problem, most often considering immediate “quick wins” that have a positive effect straight away and short-to-medium-term solutions that will enable the business to continue to improve.
Write up the recommended solutions or strategy and go through it with the client.
Follow-up or provide any presentations that might be required.
Get approval, and begin.
Jo: At DVE, we pride ourselves on providing solutions to the root cause of issues not just the symptomatic sources of pain. This means that we implement solutions with a longer-term benefit that will enable the business to move to the next level.
We always take the time to properly scope out the client’s requirements. We often hear of day-to-day problems like issue with communication or systems that are causing many manual workarounds, sometimes we just hear people say, “There has to be a better way.” Using a collaborative approach, we work with the client and their team to discuss solutions.
In our experience, a bottom-up approach has always resulted in more positive than the top-down equivalent. This enables us to provide solutions as well as recommend the next steps for the customer. These actions often include solutions that we offer, but may also involve the expertise of one or more of our strategic partners.
Todd: What has been the biggest proposal challenge so far?
Jo: We often work in large companies, so the biggest challenge is getting buy-in and commitment from all levels of the rather large teams we encounter. This can be time consuming as we often do several presentations, meetings, and workshops. We use this opportunity to confirm that we have isolated the correct problem — and then provide the right solution, of course.
A more common challenge, but one we are experienced in dealing with, is to understand what the actual problem is and committing to improve it. Fixing painful symptoms is the easy part, but setting up processes and systems to avoid future issues takes a bit more decision-making and strategic vision.
Todd: What has been your favorite success story so far?
Jo: Often a client will ask us to come in and have a look at a bit of a time-consuming process, where there just must be a better way to do it. We will go onsite to have a look at what they are doing to see if we can help them.
What we have found are over-complicated things like a system of no less than 16 Word documents that would have to receive updates on a daily basis to keep the business going, day-to-day. In that situation we could help them. They thought we could simply help with their word docs, but what we found was the problem was that the core data was in multiple places, desperately needing consolidation. So we ended up building a customized advanced excel solution which we call a Quick Tool. It reduced a daily process from over 100 mouse clicks to just three on the part of the client. This change made a massive difference within that organization.
Another example was a large process improvement project. The client-side management team wanted to create some consistency and transparency around processes, so they called us in to discuss our methodology. They were quite nervous about the reaction and responses of their staff, as this sort of project can sometimes cause negative perceptions. When they asked us how we would start this project, we said, “We’ll run a staff forum! We’ll tell everyone what we’re going to do, and answer any questions you have.” They agreed to try our approach but were very cautious about how it would be received by their whole staff. We conducted our forum and the feedback was highly positive. Comments from the staff included things like “We’ve never been informed or involved at this level before, and we feel like we have some involvement in our future now”; “We really want to improve our processes, when are you going to meet with us?”; and “This sounds like a really great project.” Following the forum, the project was entrusted to us and we were able to run a successful project. The result, thankfully, was positive for all involved.
Todd: How do you and your team celebrate successes?
Jo: One of DVE’s key values is to “Love what we do.” This principle manifests itself every day, but especially in our successes. Team members feel a real personal sense of achievement when they are able to see a project successfully help and improve a client’s work processes.
We make use of online, internal forums to ensure that our staff across all locations stays in the loop, and encourage everyone to celebrate their wins in a fun way by sharing them.
Our most objective way of celebrating our wins is our fortnightly target reporting, whereby the team receives an update on any major wins and made aware of how the team is doing, collectively. This allows for plenty of involvement and sense of ownership, as well as team celebrations. We sometimes like to escape on the odd “naughty day” where the out of office assistants are flicked on and the team sneaks off for some completely non-work-related fun!
We also love to have lunches! Although, this is getting harder with the team spread around the country, we are trying to get people at least having lunch out at the same time even if we are not altogether.
Todd: How is DVE following up after the business proposal submission?
Jo: We usually run through the business proposal with the client at the time so that we can ensure that they understand the problem and relevant solution properly. We can then answer any questions or, if we might have been off-track, we can advise any adjustments. We are very flexible as we offer customized solutions, so we do adjust proposals to suit further needs and requirements. If further approval is necessary, we usually stay in touch by phone or email to ensure that the person we are dealing with has all the support that we can provide to help them get their project approved.
That said, we look at each person differently and try to give them the experience that suits their needs and situation.
Todd: How are you retaining customers after a winning business proposal is completed?
Jo: We often find ourselves continuing to work with the same clients regularly. Once we work successfully on a project, we often come back to look at another area or system. Process improvement projects are about continuous improvement, so invariably the result is a list of recommendations of future improvements that would help. As our clients are typically quite busy and just want to “make it happen,” we routinely assist with further improvements.
Todd: How much follow-up interaction do you usually engage in before winning a bid?
Jo: As you can see in our proposal process, we do quite a lot of work prior to the actual proposal to ensure that the solution we are offering is actually what the client needs. This does vary depending on the requirements of each individual client and the stage they are at with their own improvement initiatives.
Todd: What happens when a bid is lost?
Jo: Fortunately, due to keenly understanding our scope and knowing our customer really well, we are very clear on when we can really add value and help people, so we do not actually lose many bids. When that has happened, it has usually been for budgetary concerns or high-level decisions. It is important for us to stay in touch and make sure that our solution aligns with the future direction of the business in question, as well as the individual we are dealing with. In the few cases where we have legitimately lost a bid, we met as a team and discussed what happened, and we discuss and document the causes, internally, so we can learn from the experience next time.
Todd: Finally, can you share your best sales tip for our readers?
Jo: I am an engineer, and one of my favorite sayings is what I call an “engineering mindset,” and that is that you need to be asking questions to determine the problem before you can formulate the solution.
Well, there you have it – wise words from someone working hard in the trenches (so to speak), aiding in creating winning proposals and taking bids on a daily basis. Are you applying Jo’s “engineering mindset” to your proposal process? How might her advice apply to your organization?
Jo also works for Animal Therapeutics Online offers a range of therapeutic products to aid in the success of performance animals, with a keen focus on horses. Animal Therapeutics Online is currently part of the SAYES program (South Australian Young Entrepreneurs Scheme. Jo was also an honorable mention in Anthill Online’s 30 under 30 in 2012.