How to Nail Your Sales Proposals
5 December 2018
If you’re a business owner or an account executive, and you aren’t lucky enough to work in a company with a fully-staffed sales operations team, you’re probably responsible for completing any and all proposals that your prospects require.
I don’t need to tell you how critical this task is. Proposals are an important pillar of the sales cycle and, if done right, can lay out a path for the completion of a successful project. Too often, however, proposals aren’t managed consistently – salespeople are left to manage each project as they go, without the benefit of standardized templates or foundation for how to build an effective proposal.
Without that foundation, building an effective proposal process never seems to make it to the top of the to-do pile.
“If you have a fully staffed sales ops team, you are miles ahead of many people. But, for a lot of people, there is no good training or baseline context out there for proposals,” says Reuben Swartz, Founder of Mimiran Sales Acceleration Software, on a recent edition of The Predictable Revenue Podcast.
“I was a tech guy, and then I started my own firm. That meant I had to write a lot of proposals, and, I made a lot of mistakes. So, I wrote software that would help people write proposals. In addition to that, I spend a lot of time helping people with the process of proposals. Because there isn’t a formal infrastructure out there for everyone to draw on, so, we copy the bad habits out there, making the process even more difficult. If we can help people get better at this, even a little bit, it will make things so much for more efficient for people.”
The importance of storytelling
According to Swartz, the best place to start when designing an effective proposal (and, by extension, a proposal process) is understanding the story you need to tell. Many businesses get this foundational piece wrong, says Swartz, because they focus too strongly on their features and benefits, and not how those features and benefits actually work to solve a prospect’s unique problem and result in a great project.
“When I joined the corporate world, I got called into the RFP process to help with tech questions. I had no training, so I would look at what others had written. And it was a lot of marketing jargon – we synergistically leverage technology to blah blah blah,” says Swartz.
“At that company, we were in huge enterprise sales cycles, and there was a lot of back and forth in the process – you could get by with some of that kind of language working. But at a small firm, we didn’t have that kind of time. We didn’t have time to do lengthy discover, or flying to meet prospects. And, I had still had all of these bad habits. I sent confusing documents to people and had to explain them. I took me quite a while for me to learn that.”
So, what did Swartz do to fix that problem? How did Swartz rid himself of confusing language, and turn his proposals into clear, persuasive documents?
It was simple: he turned his attention to the customer.
“I put myself in the place of the buyer. Instead of assailing them with features and benefits. I wanted to share how I could actually help them,” says Swartz.
“I wanted to really learn their problem. I needed to get out of my own way. I needed to focus on the buyer.”
Swartz says that most proposals read like brochures for the company submitting it. But if the sales process was done well, he adds, and the right information was learned, there’s no need for a proposal to read as such. In fact, 95% of the work for a proposal actually happens before the proposal is even written.
“You have to nail the sales cycle. If you don’t, you can’t just magically whip up a perfect proposal. It doesn’t work like that,” says Swartz.
“The goal is not to win the deal, the goal is to summarize conversations we have already had, so we can set up a successful project. That is a huge change in mindset. So, that means you ask different questions and be sure you understand the project. You have to understand the situation you are in, and then tell that story.”
(We recently chatted with Max Altschuler, Founder of Sales Hacker and Vice President of Marketing at Outreach, about how to understand and incorporate buyer psychology into your sales process. You can read about our discussion here, or listen to the podcast here.)
Swartz’s proposal process
Although each proposal will, to be sure, come with uniques aspects and quirks, Swartz says there are pillars that each proposal should include.
- STEP A: Book time to review the proposal. There is no point in doing any of this work if you can’t book this session. If a prospect can’t commit to a time to discuss the details of your proposal with you, they likely aren’t serious and you can save yourself some valuable time in the process by not scrambling to produce a proposal.
- Step B: Start with a strong “Situation Summary.” This section recounts why the buyer is looking for a new good or service, and what the conversation between the buyer and seller has covered thus far. This section sets up the rest of the journey in the proposal – the language is simple, faithfully recounts what has been talked about, and why.
- Step C: This is the section recounts the investment the seller needs to make to tackle the problem (i.e. the actual work required to handle the project). This can be as detailed as the writer chooses, but shouldn’t be overwhelming.
- Step D: This section tells the prospect what happens next (i.e payment details). Proposal writers should ensure they keep the momentum going in this section. For example, ask the prospect: “how do we get started?”
Keep it simple…and make it human
Finally, remember to keep your language as simple as possible. For instance, your Terms and Conditions, a requirement for all proposals, should be as easy to understand as possible. It should be easily digestible and support the sales cycle, not slow it down.
“It will be sent to lawyers, so don’t give them a reason to mark it up in a huge way,” says Swartz.
“Make it as easy as possible to get through.”
If possible, add a short bio at the end, to reinforce the human aspect of the sale. People buy from people, so taking the opportunity to humanize the person behind the proposal can have a significant impact on the process.
“Show them that they are buying from a real person. Show them that you are relatable,” says Swartz.
“People want to see that, and get to know the person they are working with.”
For more Swartz’s thoughts on proposal writing, check out the rest of his interview on The Predictable Revenue Podcast.