How to write a successful sales proposal

winners podium - business awards marketingWhilst an essential part of business life, a sales proposal often engender a sense of reluctance in those who have to compose them, and a sizeable degree of boredom in those that have to read them.

So how do you write a sales proposal that engages the reader and makes them feel working with you is an absolute must?

 

Look through their eyes

It’s common practice for customers to source 3 or more quotes before they select on a supplier, which means that’s 3+ sales proposals/ estimates they’ve got to wade through. So, let’s imagine them for a moment sitting at their desk with these in front of them.
This is the information they want to get:

  • How much will this cost?
  • What do I get for that (in terms of the product or service)?
  • How will this make my life easier or solve an issue I’ve currently got?
  • How much was it again?
  • Can I afford this with my cash flow?

Added together in the customer’s mind these collectively form a sense of the ‘value for money’ your proposition represents. That’s not to say the cheapest will always win. If your solution is slightly pricier, but offers the greatest benefits to the customer, they may be happy to pay at the higher range.

 

Going back to that customer facing the 3 proposals:

What do they do first? Well, they’ll probably take a quick glance over the 3 documents and they may even pick each up and flick through them. Their initial thoughts in doing so are probably going to be along the lines of one of these:

  • Wow that feels and looks heavy – a lot to read through here. Have I got time? Not sure. I’ll just flick to the back where the costs usually are
  • That’s lighter in weight and look, I’ll just give it a skim read for now
  • Oh, that’s really concise and to the point. I’ll read that now

If their day or week is extremely busy, the longer and more cumbersome proposals will probably get relegated and relegated down the ‘to-do’ pile.

 

Proposals’ bad reputations

We’ve seen many attempts where business people feel they have to create a novel of a sales proposal, in order to sell their business offering and justify their costs. It’s one of the reasons why people find the process of putting them together so laborious… and why the recipients often find proposals so dull and a drain on their time.

What’s worse is when people try and cut corners to save time, pasting chunks of previous proposals into the new one. This is incredibly obvious to the reader and just fills the document with general junk that puts people off rather than impresses them.

The best proposals, cost estimates, pitch documents and quotations are those that are concise and tailored to the customer. What’s more, they lay out the information according to what the customer most wants to know. So here are some thoughts on how to make your proposals stand out from the crowd and get read in full.

 

Printed proposals – what does it look and feel like when your proposal lands on the desk?

Ditch convention and what everyone else is doing. Opt for something that feels light to the touch, perhaps printed on both sides of the paper to reduce pages. Lay out your proposition in a format that will appeal naturally to the eye – for example in a magazine-style with 3 or 2 columns per page. Sprinkle in lots of white space and incorporate visuals where possible. These can be photos, diagrams and key text points highlighted in boxes like ‘quotations’. Do consider the skim-reader and make your choice of headings and sub-headings grab their interest.

 

Digital proposals – understand how it will be read

Many proposals are now sent digitally, typically as a pdf. People are busy, and the traditional working day and environment has changed under the influence of mobile technology. Ask up front if your customer will be reading this on a mobile device or desktop? Will they in fact be printing it out at their end? We’ve even heard of some companies carving up different proposal sections and getting different members of the team to review them – so the proposal is never read in its entirety.

If your customer contact is going to read on screen (and particularly on a mobile), then keep everything concise. Test how the document looks on mobile and avoid the customer having to scroll through masses of dense text.

Similarly if you know the customer is going to print off the document at their end, offer to send them a printed copy as a courtesy. Don’t put additional burden on their printing stocks if your sales proposal is really long. Also, if you’ve spent ages doing a colourful proposal and all they’ve got is a black and white printer, your document isn’t going to stand out as much as you’d hoped. Do check how your digital sales proposal will be consumed.

 

Speak the customer’s language and use their words

Don’t blast customers with your industry vocabulary and terminology, adopt a writing style that they will connect with. Use acronyms and specific jargon only if they do. If they’ve used specific phrases to describe key wants or needs, then include these to show you listened and you’re on their wavelength.

 

Try and get your proposal across in 4 pages or less

There will be cases where this may not be possible (for example when having to respond to a formal invitation to tender or brief put together by procurement professionals), but where you have more freedom try and create a short concise document.
Here’s a structure you might want to try:

Page 1 – The proposal on a page – an overview which includes:

  • A brief summary of what you understand their requirement to be
  • A brief overview of what your solution comprises
  • The cost (if what you’re proposing is outside the customer’s budget, burying this at the back of the document isn’t going to help you win their business)
  • The benefits they are likely to get from this
  • Flagging any payment terms/options to help ease cash flow

Against each of these 5 areas you can always point to the part of the proposal document which gives more detail about them.

Page 2 – Your proposed product/solution/ offer in more detail

  • What features it comprises
  • How these will help the client’s situation/requirement
  • Give real-life examples or stories to show how your product/solution has helped others
  • If you’re a service company, you might want to flag the people the customer will be dealing with and what specific experience/relevance they have to their situation

Page 3 – The cost in detail

  • If your total fee/price is arrived at from various elements, show how these break down. It’ll demonstrate your figures as being that much more transparent
  • Don’t write your figure with +VAT. Show the net, the VAT and the gross totals so they know the breakdown and don’t have to work this out for themselves
  • Reinforce the benefits to them again in a summary box
  • If you can, do detail any flexible payment options/stage payments etc. to ease cash flow and make it easier for them to buy from you. Include this towards the beginning of the document, so it sounds affordable to them and their cashflow
  • If your Terms and Conditions aren’t too lengthy then include them on this page. If they are, then you might want to put them in a separate document that accompanies the proposal. Again, try and keep that concise and not like a lengthy report in appearance

Page 4 – Why your business and not a rivals’?

In this section, rather than giving them a potted history of your business and a list of your services etc. describe yourself through those you’ve helped in this situation. Use 1 or 2 simple case studies which demonstrate what value you brought to a customer similar to them. Use diagrams instead of words to describe the process or other imagery. You might want to also sketch out the next steps in the sales process as you see it to guide them how to proceed.

 

But what if they’ve given me a detailed brief or if this is a tender driven by procurement?

In this situation it is very important to answer all the questions/points they’ve put to you in their brief. Lay out your information in the order they’ve sent you (if they have to skip forward and back to find out what they want, they’ll soon get frustrated).

If different decision makers will be reviewing different sections of your proposal – signpost these to them in the document to help them find what they need (and show you respect their time).

Also, unless the customer has been very strict about the format your document should take, try and consider them reading your proposal. Can you make it a more enjoyable, quicker experience? They will appreciate this if you do.

 

Make it visually appealing

Well-designed sales proposals are more attractive and will have a bigger impact and make the content enjoyable and easier to read.

  • Use diagrams and charts instead of paragraphs and paragraphs of words
  • If you are using a digital document – embed short videos which bring your key messages to life (check first though the customer has the software/firewall permissions in their organisation to view these)
  • If you have a lengthy report, include a ‘our proposal at a glance’ with a summary of the key points you want to convey and which the customer will be looking to find
  • Make it easy for the customer to say yes. Don’t swamp them with loads of material they have to wade through as this might put them off your sales proposal and will probably opt for a rival’s ‘simpler’ proposal.

 

Be enthusiastic

Words are emotive and dull technical language will present you as a dull supplier. Do you want this new business/customer? Well show it. You don’t have to be gushy or pushy, but you should show your enthusiasm to help this customer. They will be impressed – especially if this is on top of a proposal that has been tailored to their situation 100%.

 

Summary

If you’ve worked really hard to develop a relationship and win this customer, your sales proposal should be a mere tick box exercise for them that you are right for the job. Ideally, you should have shown in the process up to now how good it would be to work with you/buy from you. If you’ve asked the right questions the answers will guide you on, not just what needs to go into the proposal, but how it should look and feel to get the customer’s buy-in.

So, ditch your boring ‘War and Peace’ proposals and instead impress those you’re selling to with punchy ones that perk up that person’s attention. They’ll be relieved, they’ll be thankful, and it may well motivate them to give you the YES rather than a rival!

For more advice on marketing your business contact us or tel. 01483 429111.