There are few activities in the world of selling that are more time-consuming (but potentially lucrative) than writing sales proposals. They're a lot of work, but they're also the key to winning the big money deals. Therefore, if you're going to write a sales proposal, you've got to do it right, and get it right.
In this post, I've collected and ordered everything that I've learned about sales proposals from Tom Sant, the world's foremost expert on writing winning proposals, along with some great suggestions from other experts.
In the process, I've created one "go-to" post to help you structure your sales proposal activities from the beginning of the sales cycle. Bookmark this post, because if you're going to be writing sales proposals, this is where you'll want to start.
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Illustrations by Lorelyn Medina
READERS: An easy-to-follow system for selling B2B -- including an improved version of this post -- is provided in my new book How to Say It: Business to Business Selling available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.
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Your sales proposal will not be read unless you've established some recognition in the mind of the decision-makers -- long before you write and submit it.
In a global sense, this is accomplished through having some reasonable visibility in the marketplace, which is usually accomplished through highly targeted advertising, sponsoring conferences, sending speakers to conferences, publishing newsletters, and so forth.
In individual sales situations, you establish recognition through sales calls, customer meetings, e-mails, notes, and phone calls.
While you're cultivating the opportunity, take the time to find out about the prospect's business, business model, competitors, organizational structure, and buying behavior.
The reason is simple. The prospect will reject your sales proposal if you fail to uncover the customer's true decision criteria and decision makers. Your proposal will need to address the customer's real concerns, which may lie deeper than the customer's collective wisdom about their own problems.
In order to make sense, the proposal must state the solution in terms that the customer understands and accepts. In order to provide value, the proposal must address the specific value system and concerns of each set of decision-makers.
Engineers, for example, may have a different set of value criteria than accountants, looking for technology enhancements rather than ROI. A proposal targeting a mixed group of decision-makers from both Engineering and Accounting will need to provide a value proposition for both disciplines.
IMPORTANT: If possible, get involved early enough so that you can help the prospect write the RFP. Customers often work with a vendor (or vendors) to write an RFP that makes sense and which will attempt to address the prospect's challenges in a reasonable way.
When vendors write the RFP, they almost always get the business, according to Ryan Kubacki, president of the sales training firm Holden International. "The idea is to shape the RFP around strengths that the competition cannot match," he says. "Ideally, you want to change the groundrules from expected customer value to unexpected value, this early in the business development campaign."
Even if your proposal will be constrained by a rigid request for proposal (RFP) structure, look for opportunities to tell a creative story in RFP sections that ask for solution overviews, architectural principles or customer references.
A proposal theme is not unlike the plot in a novel or film," according Richard Fouts, a research director at the market research firm Gartner. "The storyline sets up the prospect's situation, the impact it's having on their bottom line â€" and how you propose to deliver resolution."
Get your team in a room with a white board, generate as many themes as they can, then use a voting technique to start prioritizing ideas. Start merging ideas into single themes, then wordsmith them down to a theme that everyone can agree upon.
A confident story shows you've done your homework -- that you've charted a clear path between the prospect's desired outcome and your capabilities.
Here are three rules:
- Rule #1: Keep it simple. Stay focused on the single, most-important thing you want the prospect to remember about your offer.
- Rule #2: Keep it memorable. Create a vivid picture of a business outcome. Think of a favorite novel or film. There's usually one character or image that people remember, even years later.
- Rule #3: Have a story line. Acknowledge the prospect's situation or pain, the impact this situation is creating and show you will can help turn a challenging situation around. I
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Many salespeople wrongly believe that an executive summary should be a summary of the contents of the proposal. As a result, they write the executive summary last, after all the information has been gathered into the body of the proposal. In fact, the executive summary does not summarize the proposal; it summarizes the reasons why the customer should buy from you.
Think of it as an executive briefing-focused on basic issues and bottom-line results. It is your key sales tool and should be written first, in order to set the tone and direction of the body of the proposal. As we shall see, the primary function of the body of the proposal is to offer a detailed solution and substantiation of your capabilities to deliver it.
According to Sant, the executive summary should follow a structural pattern he calls the "persuasive paradigm":
- Part 1: The Problem/Need/Goal. Demonstrate your understanding of the customer's business situation. The definition of the problem/need/goal is more than a paraphrase of the customer's original requirements. Instead, it should reflect the results of your research into the customer's situation and should show that you understand their business.
- Part 2: The Expected Outcome. Describe the potential positive impact on the customer's organization if the problem is solved, the need is fulfilled, or the goal is achieved. Note that this is not a discussion of your solution's features and benefits. Rather, the focus is on the organization and the gains it will achieve from implementing your solution. Examples: "When problem 'A' is solved, you will have 50 percent less downtime..." "Achieving goal 'B' will allow you to open your products to new markets..."
- Part 3: Solution Overview. Provide, for the non-specialist, a brief overview of the solution that's being proposed. Ideally, each element of the solution should tie back to one of the customer's problems or needs and to one of the desired outcomes. Examples: "We are proposing 'A' because it solves the problem of..." "We are proposing 'B' because it provides the following value to your firm..."
- Part 4:The Call to Action. Ask for the business. This can be something as simple as "We're eager to work with you." In asking for the business, mention one or two key factors that differentiate your as a vendor and that make you the right company for the client to choose.
Similarly, if the executive summary (or indeed the body of the proposal) contains jargon, it should be the customer's jargon, not your company's idiosyncratic jargon. You don't want the reader of the proposal to be wondering what you're talking about because you introduce unfamiliar terminology.
Avoid putting costs in the executive summary unless the customer has specifically requested that the price be mentioned there. Instead, use the executive summary to make your first presentation of a compelling value proposition-increased productivity, reduced operating costs, increased market penetration, lower total cost of ownership, or some other important measure of gain.
Emphasizing what you can do for the customer and what's unique about your solution creates a perception of value that can raise your proposal above the rest, even if other solutions might cost less.
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The body of the proposal is written for evaluators who are looking for details and evidence about your solution, your experience, and your capabilities. They are looking for detailed explanations of how you will do the work, who you will provide, what prior successful experience you have in this area, which other customers you have done this kind of work for, how you will manage the project, and evidence of your core competency and financial stability.
Start each section of the proposal body with a summary statement that indicates what the section will cover and that reinforces your key value propositions.
Avoid the mistake of providing information that is too technical or that offers an abrupt, nonpersuasive answer. For example, suppose the customer's Request For Proposal (RFP) contains the question: "do you have 24/7 support?" As a proposal writer, you have three possible responses:
- Answer "Yes" and move on to the next question.
- Include pages of technical detail about the mechanics of your support infrastructure.
- Describe specifically what differentiates your 24/7 support from the competition's and how those differences will reduce the customer's overall costs.
Articulating business outcomes is one of the most obvious ways providers can distinguish themselves from others, according to Fouts. "It's the business outcome you propose to deliver that provides the inspiration for your proposal theme and storyline," he says. "A product-oriented approach, with pages of features, functions and architecture not only puts you in the proposal clutter, it shows you haven't been listening to what the prospect is trying to change."
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Because the proposal is a "product" of your firm, you must make certain that it represents the quality that your firm is offering the customer. Needless to say, there can't be any glaring inconsistencies in the description of the products or services that are to be provided. But appearance can be as important as content.
There should be no obvious grammatical errors and an absolute minimum of typographical errors. If boilerplate (standardized material from other proposals) is included, it must be carefully customized to match the customer's own situation.
IMPORTANT: be extremely careful to edit any passages that might contain the names of other companies for which the boilerplate was used in the past. Many proposals have been thrown out simply because the proposal-writer left the name of one of the customer's competitors in a paragraph lifted from an old proposal.
Make sure that you edit out all the biz-blab and useless buzzwords, unless those are words that you hear constantly in the prospect's regular business lingo.
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Gartner's research into successful proposals show clearly that proposals that end up being presented personally to the buying team have a 50 percent higher probability of winning that those that are not presented.
Don't be shy about demanding a personal presentation, long before you agree to write a proposal. After all, you've invested heavily in a proposal effort, so you're entitled to the courtesy of a chance to present it.
But there's an even more important reason for you to present personally according Fouts. "Because trust is the most important component to winning a big-ticket opportunity, providers need to have face time with the prospect to secure their commitment to the deal," he says. "The presentation is also an opportunity to continue sustaining the relationships the account team began during the sales cycle."
CLICK for a summary and extra advice Â»
- Step #1: Lay the Groundwork
- Step #2:Create a Compelling Story
- Step #3: Make the Summary a Sales Tool
- Step #4: Target Your Audiences in the Proposal Body
- Step #5: Edit Your Proposal Mercilessly
- Step #6: Present Your Proposal Personally