Sales Skills

by Jeremy Cassell and Tom Bird

Writing sales proposals that get you work

Few writers think of the messages they are trying to communicate in a report.

Bruce Ross-Larson, Riveting Reports

Winning business in today’s highly competitive market often means you will have to write some type of proposal. Whether you are trying to win a new customer or sell an idea to a current one, your sales proposal is unlikely to win you the deal, but it could easily lose it for you.

Your proposal is a sales, not a technical, document. It is imperative that you demonstrate your credibility, understanding and customer focus in every proposal that you present to your customer or prospect.

Ten steps for success

What can you do to produce a high-quality sales document that gets results? To get to the promised land, just follow these 10 commandments!

1. Elicit criteria for the proposal

When you are with your prospect/buyer and it has been agreed that you should write a proposal, spend some time identifying what the decision maker would like to see in the proposal. Avoid assumptions. Simply ask questions like

  • What would you like to see in this proposal?
  • What will a really good proposal look like for you?
  • What annoys you in proposals?
  • Who is going to be reading this document?
  • Are you a big picture or detail person?

Once you have elicited the criteria, summarise and then confirm this by email. You are getting lots of yes answers before anything has been written as well as demonstrating that you are customer focused.

2. Under promise and over deliver

Most proposals do not have to be written yesterday, however pressing the requirement. It is best to pick a date that is realistic and then complete it ahead of time. In this way you are under-promising and over-delivering. Customers love this.

3. Make sure proposals are customer focused

When you start writing the proposal, ensure that you focus on the customer. Customers need to know that they have been heard and understood. Customers expect you to be responsive to the requirements that they have outlined, whether those requirements were provided verbally or documented in a formal request for proposal (RFP). If the prospective client has sent you an RFP, read it assiduously. Most RFPs include specific guidelines regarding submitting your sales proposal – so, do what you are told!

Use their language and identify their concerns and their challenges. Focus on matching any proposal with a need or want that has been identified in the needs analysis selling phase. Cite your customer’s name throughout the proposal. Note specific words down when making notes during an initial meeting – and then play these hot buttons back to the buyer in the proposal. It demonstrates that you were listening and that you can empathise!

4. Brainstorm

Whether you write the proposal in isolation or as part of a team, spend some time brainstorming. Identify lots of things you could include and then start paring the total down to a manageable chunk. Here are the sorts of questions that will get your creative juices flowing:

  • What is the customer’s core issue?
  • Why is this problem so important?
  • What does the customer want?
  • What are the measurement criteria?
  • What options does the customer have?
  • What is our value proposition?
  • How can we prove that it will work?

Once the brainstorming is over, you can start outlining your proposal and preparing a rough draft.

5. Have a template

To save time, create a basic template that you can adapt for each proposal. A typical proposal will include

  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
  • Identification of issues/challenges
  • Alternatives
  • Recommendation
  • Process – show the steps to provide whatever it is your potential client needs
  • Cost of investment
  • Summary.

6. Write well

Use the following guidelines to make your proposal easy to read and evaluate.

  • Use section headings to help the reader understand the logic of your proposal.
  • Avoid confusing sentence structures – keep sentences short and coherent.
  • Avoid using words, expressions or three-letter acronyms that will not be readily understand by the reader.
  • Use 10-12 point font size.
  • Limit paragraph length to ten lines.
  • Break up the text with some visuals and graphics. Effective proposal graphics can include charts, photographs, cartoons, graphs and diagrams.

7. Substantiate all claims you make in your proposal

Buyers will be on the look out for over-exaggerated claims. Ensure you can back up what you are saying. Use real life examples and case studies, and illustrate how your organisation differs from and is better than the competition.

8. Offer options

Proposals can often seem too formal and restrictive. Identify a number of options and your buyer will then feel as though she has more choice. Your proposal should, ideally, include all options – including what the competition is or may be offering and the consequences of doing nothing. Too often, proposals are done too quickly and are too limited in scope. Ensure there is room for creativity and input from the customer.

9. Have a strong executive summary

An executive summary is often the last thing you write, but the first thing that the customer reads. It provides a consolidated summary of all the key points that are included in your proposal.

Let’s be realistic: many buyers, and indeed others involved in the decision making process, will simply choose not to read your entire document. So ensure your executive summary is accurate, interesting and persuasive – avoid grovelling or profusely thanking the buyer for the opportunity. Customers should never have to search for your key responses.

Include a call to action. You need to direct people to take action – what action do you want them to take as a result of reading your proposal?

10. Follow up and present if you can

Ideally, you want to present the proposal at the same time as you deliver it. This may not always be practical. If you are unable to present formally, send a hard and a soft copy of your proposal, and make sure it looks great. Telephone soon afterwards for feedback.

If you are able to present aspects of the proposal formally, your chances of winning the work are immediately strengthened because you can answer queries and back up your recommended solutions with additional information.

Note

You may have heard of the ‘power of three’ before. Three is a magical number and if you limit yourself to three key points, you will come across with more credibility.

See the topic on Report Writing