The Beauty of Unsolicited Proposals

If you’ve read some of my earlier posts or if you know me well, then you are aware that my wife Donna is a procurement executive for a large company. For anyone who may not be familiar with the role of procurement execs, they help the enterprise buy things. Having Donna as a sounding board over the years has helped me (a sales professional) understand a buyer’s psychology.

Last night I was telling Donna that we were planning to send a bold proposal to a client—one that could drive significant benefits for this company. She said, “Did they ask for it?” “No,” I replied. I wanted her gut reaction to this approach (she generally takes her time to answer). Her first impression was “I would wait until they asked for it.” We debated. Sparing you the details of our conversation, the root of her justification on why clients are uncomfortable with this approach has something to do with being in control, not being taken by surprise, or being unwilling to deal with something they don’t want (and will probably create more work). There is also a fear of “stirring the pot”—depending on who might read the proposal.

Her reasons seemed valid, but I still didn’t like the answer. Nearly every organization I talk with these days is trying to do bold things—reinvent themselves—change (or risk losing market share). Many companies I talk with are going so far as to create a “transformation leader” who reports directly to the CEO. That’s the person I want to talk with—that’s the person I want to hear my ideas. My justification: times are so uncertain that buyers don’t know exactly what they want. Meanwhile, we’re creating new capabilities and new approaches every day. It’s impossible for a client to know all of the possibilities. If our ideas are any good, they might just help to shape theirs. Wouldn’t a client appreciate the unsolicited thought?

My response to Donna was simply this. “So the next time you want the vase in the foyer filled with flowers—just ask me. I’ll be more than happy to do it.”

She stopped, thought for a second, then said, “Hmmm, I see your point.” Making it personal moved her thinking. She went on to say “You know I am always asking our partners to be more innovative—but at first blush we don’t love unsolicited proposals.” The more we talked—although there was no conclusive or “one size fits all” answer—the more merit she gave the approach of unsolicited proposals.

Look, for anyone who’s tried it at home—you know you get more points for bringing flowers, buying concert tickets or making dinner reservations when you’re not asked. “Unexpected” feels good—it’s nice to know someone is thinking about you and they put the effort into making your day a little better. Why can’t this work more in business?

I am a proponent of thoughtful, unsolicited proposals. The key to thoughtful is relevance and timing. It’s a combination of who you give the proposal to, when you give it to them and most importantly, how connected the proposal is to the buyer’s specific situation. It’s not an easy thing to do and you have to establish a level of trust with a client before this approach can truly be effective. If you’re just throwing “stuff” against the wall carelessly, don’t expect it to stick. Think about it—if someone walked up to you on the street and handed you something you value, you would be cautious if not suspicious. Most likely you would not take it.

There is no right answer here, but we don’t bring clients unsolicited ideas or proposal as much as we should. Carefully think through this approach and push yourself to see the possibilities. Let me know how it works.

Happy Selling. By the way, the picture of flowers (above) is actually the vase in my foyer.

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