Sunday afternoon was fun. My wife and I went to the Sidewalk Film Festival, a first for us. One film, a documentary called “Ready, Set, Bag”, attempted to answer the impossible: Paper or plastic? So, they covered the national bag boy competition…seriously, they did. While funny and interesting, it did not succeed in answering the paper or plastic question.
This brings to mind a question we are often asked: Paper or Digital proposals, what’s best?
We stand first on the proposition that if you are filling out an RFP then you have already conceded all the power in your buy/sell relationship to the buyer. When this happens (and keep in mind it’s not always possible to interrupt an RFP process), then you answer the first question by following the demand of the RFP; you do what they say.
Pursuing the concept of power management further in a buy/sell relationship, you can attempt to interrupt an RFP process in an attempt to regain control…but that’s another conversation for another day. For today, assume you have agreed to play by their rules. There are strengths and weaknesses to each mode of delivery. I’ve been reading an article online about the subject and the author comes to this basic conclusion:
Paper-based proposals have the benefit of being familiar. We all grew up with paper and like the feel and weight of a document. As much as I try to work online, I still prefer to take a document home and mark it up with a red pen. You tend to see more and you have the important advantage of being able to jump around in a non-linear fashion. Printed documents are easy to skim, easy to flip back and forth and easy to score. You can write notes in the margins, you can fold down the corner when you see something interesting, and you can underline or highlight things that you want to remember.
Trees do die but I will add that copier paper is a renewable resource. I live in Alabama where one-third of the state is used to grow pulp wood. So, I’m confidant we will not run out of trees anytime soon. Ok, before you fire me an email brow beating me with how un-environmentally friendly I am, call your paper distributor and do the math. Trees are renewable. Really. Oh, and I promise I do not drive a hummer or run the air conditioning with the doors open. First, go to your local mall and get those guys who run the store air conditioner with open doors on a 97-degree summer day.
P.S. The cost—both in terms of dollars and carbon footprint—to deliver multiple copies of huge documents…Well, you have me on that one. But most of us sales types send our documents electronically and expect the other guy to print and pay for the paper and toner, correct? Does it make you mad when this happens to you? Is there a lesson in that?
Digital proposals save fuel costs, save trees, and can be delivered to the prospect almost instantaneously (so your procrastination does not seem to hurt as bad!). There’s no need to make multiple copies because the prospect can forward your document to, well, whomever. Most of us use Microsoft Office products so swapping files is a breeze. But digital documents can be difficult. A PDF file is hard to make notes on. Skimming on-screen documents can also be difficult. And if you deliver a document in native Word format, its appearance will change. We once lost a job because the bullet points changed to small airplanes instead of dots. They thought we were too silly to be taken seriously. We no longer send Word files…ever.
But, really, the worst part of digital documents is that you lean on your prospect to do the work. Both the labor and cost of printing and the labor of reading online. It’s just not smart.
So, Paper or Digital?
I take the position that a well-presented document, delivered in a box will always feel a bit like Christmas. The opener feels important to have gotten a package, will appreciate your thoughtfulness in not making them do the printing. It allows your well-crafted words to shine and have impact. You can choose the paper, cover, color and, in turn, the experience. Your 500 page RFP might come to this. The winner of the job will be the best positioned firm that makes the buyer FEEL good about themselves and the company they want to buy from.
Also remember that it’s still best to have a well-positioned and articulated company that avoids an RFP in the first place. Clients that have “required RFP” procurement systems can prove to be very creative when they want to buy from you.
What are the next generation of selling documents?
We see the future being online creation of “living documents” that first serve as non linear based sales tools, then as living updateable, leave-behind tools and, finally, as customer interface tools. We call them “living documents” because of the interactive nature they have…never static, never outdated. Can you imagine giving out a brochure with prices that could be updated automatically? Well, you can. We are!