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The Art of the Executive Summary

If your sales process involves proposals, you must be able to write a winning executive summary. If it's lame, the proposal goes unread; if it's hot, readers will think "YES!" before they get to the end of the page. Here's exactly how to write an executive summary that closes business quickly:

Paragraph 1. Define the problem, need or goal.

Description: Let the customer know that you "get it" and truly understand the customer's business situation. However, your definition can't just parrot the customer's original requirements. Your definition must reflect what you've learned, through research and interviewing, about the customer's situation. Demonstrate that you have insight into their problems, and therefore can add value. Keep the focus on the customer; don't say ANYTHING about your company and products.

Length: No more than one to three sentences.

Example: "ABC industries has determined that excess inventory at the Podunk plant is reducing the profitability of ABC's participation in wholesale widget market..."

What not to include: "ABC industries has asked Acme, the world leader in inventory control mechanisms, to propose an inventory control system for their Podunk plant..."

Paragraph 2. Define the expected outcome.
Description: Explain what will be different when the problem is solved, the need is fulfilled, or the goal is achieved. Do NOT NOT NOT get into a discussion of your solution's features and benefits. Keep the focus on the customer and the advantages the customer will gain from implementing your as-yet-undescribed solution.

Length: No more than one to three sentences.

Example: "Improving inventory control will decrease the cost of goods for ABC's widget business in the range of 20 to 25 percent, adding a yearly increase in net profit of roughly $25 million..."

What not to include: "Our Fireball-XL10 software, with its fifth-generation widget counting extensions, will make your Podunk plant massively more productive..."

Additional Paragraphs. Define the solution.
Description: Provide a brief overview of the solution you're proposing, tying each element of the solution back to one of the customer's problems, needs or goals (paragraph 1), AND to one of the desired outcomes (paragraph 2). Use words that a non-technical executive can understand. Don't use technical jargon, unless it's the customer's technical jargon.

Length: No longer than half the page (leave room for the final paragraph, the call to action).

Example: "We will customize our counting module to allow ABC to more quickly use stored widgets, thereby saving $10m per year in floor-space rental..."

What not to include: "Our XL25G-pro v2.1 widget counting module is the best-in-class and fully functional, and will be the core of the state-of-the-art widget control system that we intend to build and support for ABC..."

Final Paragraph: Call to Action.
Description: Ask for the business. Then mention one or two key factors that differentiate your as a vendor and that make you the right company for the client to choose. DO NOT put pricing in the executive summary unless the customer has specifically requested that the price be mentioned there. The reason is simple. If you've made a truly compelling case, the price (assuming it's not ridiculous) will simply be a detail.

Length: One to three sentences. The entire executive summary should not be longer than a single page!

Example: "We look forward to working with you. Our inventory control solutions were recognized in the annual report of XYZ Corp. as being responsible for increasing profitability and Gartner rated our performance guarantee program as the best in the widget control industry..."

What not to include: "We can offer you our basic package, with customization services, at a total cost of $250,000 plus time and materials..."

In other words, the executive summary should establish your credibility by showing that you understand the customer needs, provide a compelling value proposition with quantitative measurements, emphasize what you can do for the customer and what's unique about your solution, and create a perception of value that raises your proposal above the rest, even if other solutions might cost less.

By the way, the above is based on a conversation with (who else?) Tom Sant, author of Persuasive Business Proposals (Amacom, 1992; second edition 2003).

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