Contracts Don't Come In On Their Own

Your ability to sell may save you and your company.

By Dirk Willard, contributing editor

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The work had run out at the engineering firm I was at. It was a taboo subject. Unspoken words hung in the air: "We must win this contract!" My boss and I gently nudged the prospective client and waited, answering all his questions and developing a preliminary process flow diagram for the desired water treatment plant to impress him — all under intense pressure. We'd watched departments, one by one, grow leaner and leaner through September and October. In November the entire architectural group disappeared. The environmental department, which I was in, also was vulnerable. To our surprise and relief, we won the contract, which saw us through the winter of 1992.

Never ever bad-mouth the competition.

That's the way it is in an engineering firm during a recession. Good friends fade away. Yet, you must remain unflaggingly poised and confident with a client despite financial troubles eating you alive. It's called business development by some, salesmanship by others.

Say what you will about salespeople, they have a hard life. If you ever find yourself in a sales role, keep in mind that selling consists of four distinct phases: 1) introductions; 2) bidding; 3) closing; and 4) winning future work.

Despite e-mails and other modern conveniences, selling still is best done face-to-face. You must believe in yourself and your product. Selling is about infecting the buyer with your enthusiasm for your product. Buying is an emotional experience. Your goal is to build a strong working relationship with the person who actually can hire you — hopefully, one that lasts for years. Be honest but guarded, generous but firm about necessary profits, and committed to the project but available to spend time on others. Choose your words carefully, listen to the tone of your voice, read the client's mind if you can. Walk in the person's shoes. And, never ever bad-mouth the competition — it creates negativity and begs critical comparisons.

Qualify the client. Is the person merely collecting bids or really shopping? Try to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the actual decision-maker.

Ideally you'll want to sole-source a contract. That means you must offer something the client can't get elsewhere or some essential expertise. Take care during this process to control trade secrets; a client could become a competitor.

Balancing expertise with likeability is one of the toughest things a salesperson must do. Many times a client is an inexperienced engineer who may feel threatened by the salesperson's know-how and smarts. Put the client at ease by asking lots of questions and gently helping whenever you have to fill in the gaps. Perhaps the easiest ploy for winning is to appeal to the client's ambition for personal advancement — hiring you could help. A tour of your engineering firm is a must, but focus on the client's specialty or other pertinent departments. If the person is a chemical engineer, just mentioning you have a structural engineer should suffice. Now that the client knows your name, make sure it's remembered when there's a contract to be won.

That's where bidding comes in. Don't let a salesperson write the estimate alone. Make sure to include the following costs: 1) business development; 2) bid preparation and negotiation; 3) project team orientation; 4) meetings and reviews, and; 5) idle time. Some clients insist you deal with their accounting department for payment, so put in extra for encounters with accounting. And then add at least 20% to the bid — except during a recession when keeping the company together is paramount. Also, include loopholes for over-runs; you may not need them but they're nice to have.

After bidding comes closing. This can be the most difficult phase of a sale. Remind the client that your bid has an expiration date but don't be annoying — keep the enthusiasm going. Meet face-to-face as much as possible. Assure the client of your undivided attention, even if that's not strictly true; after all, to make money, you want your team busy on numerous projects simultaneously. This will help dispel your natural hungriness for the contract.

The final phase involves not just delivering the product but bolstering the prospects of winning future work. The salesperson should act as liaison between the client and the project manager, and help resolve any issues. Building a good reputation can play a big role in securing future business.


DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor. You can e-mail him at dwillard@putman.net.

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