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6 Dumb Reasons Your Sales Proposal Bombed

It's been said that "everything happens for a reason." That's certainly true... and often it's for a dumb reason. Especially with sales proposals. Proposals have the unfortunate combination of being both expensive to create and easy to screw up. Maybe that's why so many sales reps loath writing them.

Not to worry. This post describes the 6 most common dumb reasons that sales proposals end up in the trash, along with some easy-to-follow advice to help you avoid these mistakes in the future.

CLICK HERE for the first dumb reason

NOTE: This post is loosely based upon a conversation with Tom Sant, the world's foremost expert on writing winning sales proposals.


Illustrations by Lorelyn Medina
Reason #1. You Didn't Lay Groundwork
  • What You Did: You heard about the opportunity through the industry grapevine, obtained the RFP, wrote a proposal based on the RFP, and sent to the proper individual, within the deadline specified in the RFP.
  • Why You Did It: You knew from the RFP that the prospect had a need that your offering could satisfy and figured that, by simply writing a proposal, you'd have a fair and equitable chance of being the vendor selected to help them.
  • What Happened: The individual at the prospect's firm who was responsible for selecting the proposals that will be passed on to decision-makers took one look at your title page, wondered "who the heck are these guys?" and pitched your proposal into the trash.
  • Why It Didn't Work: When a prospect issues an RFP, they're not really interested in competitive bids from people they don't know and companies that they don't recognize. Usually, prospects already have a short list of vendors who they're considering, but may be required, for legal reasons, to have some kind of open bidding process.
  • How to Avoid This Error: Only go to the time and effort of writing a proposal after you're reasonably certain, as the result of multiple meetings with the customer, that your firm is actually in the running. If you can't meet with at least some of the decision-makers up front, you're probably not going to get the business and writing a proposal is simply wasted effort.
Reason #2: You Flubbed The Executive Summary
  • What You Did: After writing the proposal, you summarized the most important points of each section. The executive summary described, in brief, the full scope of the solution that you were proposing and contained the most important facts and figures.
  • Why You Did It: You (not unreasonably) assumed that an "executive summary" was supposed to summarize the proposal. You forgot that the primary purpose of the executive summary is the "executive" part, not the "summary" part.
  • What Happened: When a real live executive started to read your proposal, he or she glanced at your summary, wondered why you missed the point about writing an executive summary, and then moved on to the next proposal.
  • Why It Didn't Work: An executive summary is not intended to be a summary of your solution (as described in the proposal) but instead must be a summary of why the executive should buy your solution.
  • How to Avoid This Error: Write an executive summary that defines the financial impact of the problem in a way that leads naturally towards the purchasing of your solution as the most logical and cost-effective way to fix the problem.
Reason #3. You Sold Price Rather Than Uniqueness
  • What You Did: You worked through your numbers, found every place where you could save the customer money, researched the competition to figure out their pricing, and came up with a price that you were pretty certain would undercut everyone else's.
  • Why You Did It: You assumed that the deal would go to whatever vendor came up with the lowest price, because a low price would naturally provide the most value.
  • What Happened: You got a brief email explaining that a competitor got the business. To your surprise, it was the competitor that, according to industry reputation, never discounts its offerings.
  • Why It Didn't Work: Unless you are selling a commodity, every solution is (by definition) different in some respects from those of the competition. While customers do care about price, when they bother to ask for proposals, they know they need something that's not pre-packaged. Therefore, they're going to look first at the nature of the solution being proposed, and then analyze whether that solution is worth what's being asked.
  • How Avoid This Error: Conduct deep research into the customer's problem, market position and industry. Throughout your proposal, restate the problem in terms that emphasize those aspects of the problem that your solution can uniquely address.
Reason #4: You Were Telling Rather than Selling
  • What You Did: Inside each section of the proposal, you included ALL the information that would possibly be needed for the prospect to completely understand and evaluate the solution you were proposing.
  • Why You Did It: You felt that providing a wealth of information would be the best way to create credibility and to show a truly comprehensive solution.
  • What Happened: When they tried to read your proposal, the decision-makers got lost in facts and figures and were unable to understand why your proposal made more sense than the others.
  • Why It Didn't Work: A sales proposal is a sales document, not a technical specification. Those are two different animals entirely!
  • How To Avoid This Error: Think of each section of the proposal as a separate sales document. Summarize the problem being solved and the financial impact in a way that naturally leads towards the purchase of your offering.
Reason #5. You Failed To Edit or Proofread
  • What you did: You threw the proposal together using bits and pieces of other, previous proposals. You read over the results, made some quick changes and sent the proposal in, just in time to make the RFP deadline.
  • Why You Did It: You were pressed for time and overworked, and you figured that it would be better to have any proposal -- even a hastily written one -- rather than risk losing the opportunity altogether.
  • What Happened: When the prospect's decision-makers read your proposal, they found sentence fragments, mentions of other companies, incomprehensible jargon, and various disconnects in the flow of the writing. They naturally concluded that you and your firm does slipshod work.
  • Why It Didn't Work: Proposal writing is one of those situations where it's worse than useless to do a half-baked job. If you don't write a proposal, it's true that you won't make the sale, but at least you'll emerge with your reputation intact. By contrast, letting a prospect see shoddy work will forever mark you and your company as being second-rate.
  • How to Avoid This Error: Never write a proposal unless you have the time and energy to do it right. If you're like me, and not very good at editing and proofing your own writing, hire somebody to edit and proofread it for you. (Note: A blog post is not a sales proposal, so no fair complaining about the typos that I undoubtedly missed.)
Reason #6. You Let Your Competition Outsell You
  • What You Did: After laying the groundwork with decision-makers, you wrote a sales proposal that made an ironclad case for your solution by emphasizing its uniqueness. You even hired a writer to make sure that the proposal was picture perfect.
  • Why You Did It: You're not dumb, and thus you were avoiding the previous 5 dumb reasons.
  • What Happened: Despite all your best efforts, the competitor won. When you called the prospect to find out why, you weren't able to get a satisfactory answer.
  • Why It Didn't Work: While you were busy writing away, your competitor was busy meeting with the prospect, pulling in favors, working the angles, undercutting your work, building doubt about your solution and generally doing a better job of selling. Oh, and she also wrote a proposal that was just as good as yours.
  • How To Avoid This Error: It's not enough to have a strong offense; you need a strong defense, too. When you're involved in competitive bidding, find out the names of the sales reps who are representing your competitors. Research their job histories on the web and figure out how they'll approach the account and (most importantly) who they might already know. Then, as you move the opportunity forward, hit the bases before she hits them and line up your ducks more quickly than she can do it.