Your Ticket To The Dance: 7 Steps To Master the Sales Proposal
Updated: Sep 12, 2020
A well-written sales proposal on its own isn’t likely to win you the business but it can get you in the door.
However, a badly written proposal will leave you out in the cold. To help you craft a compelling, customer-focussed proposal that gives you every chance of winning the dance competition, follow my 7 Steps below:
STEP 1: Carefully and thoroughly read the Request For Proposal (RFP). Basic stuff, yes, but a common failing is that people don’t read RFPs properly because proposal submissions have tight deadlines. A short proposal runway just means you have to be extremely organised. Read the RFP cover to cover, several times over. And don’t just deep dive into sections relevant to your area of expertise. You need to see the whole picture as there may be inter-relationships and dependencies with your section.
STEP 2: Circle and highlight key words and phrases that relate to the customer’s business and technical objectives, and selection criteria. Jot down the customer’s jargon, key words relating to their success factors or naming conventions because you want to use their language to show you understand them. Always have the customer’s RFP in front of you and refer to it often when coming up with the solution. I can’t count how many times bid teams have been in the room and talk about our solution without once referring it back to the customer’s business and technical requirements. After the submitted proposal is rejected, we wonder how we got it so wrong.
STEP 3: Review the proposal response template. You might use a standard template or the customer may ask you to follow their template for the response. If you’re following the customer’s template be sure to closely stick to it, otherwise your response won’t be compliant.
If you mostly follow your standard template, you need to review it. Some of these templates have been around for years and are never updated. Here’s what a good sales proposal template looks like: The front cover should focus on the customer and not your company. That’s because your sales proposal response is not about you, it’s what you can do for the customer. For example, the customer’s logo should be larger than your company logo. In addition to the main heading referring to what you’re responding too, it’s a good idea to include a value proposition tagline. You should also have your front cover image reflect the customer’s business or industry.
If your front cover or page one includes a legal disclaimer move this to the back of the proposal. Yes, you need to include it, but putting it at the front creates a psychological barrier to the customer believing and feeling that you’re offering something of value. All they can see is that you’re more concerned about legal liabilities.
If your cover page or the first few paragraphs of your first page (usually the executive summary) are loaded with motherhood statements about how you are the leading provider of xx software, or you’re the No.1 partner to a global IT powerhouse, rip that out because this is not the place to talk about how great you are. The customer doesn’t care. What they want to see first off is that you can help them solve a problem or help them meet a business objective. Your credentials should be inserted later on as proof points when talking about your solution or service.
Note: If your organisation is using a standard proposal template that is more than 5 years old, you should work with your marketing lead or communications specialist to refresh the template. I’ve done this many times for medium sized IT organisations working with the sales director. The new sales template is tested and iterated with sellers and solutioners before it’s finalised. To keep sales proposal templates truly fresh, they should be updated every 12 months.
STEP 4: Get Your Thinking Right and Create a High Level Outline. Start writing as early as possible as quality responses require several drafts. However, don’t rush in and start writing via a brain dump. Stop first and review or remind yourself of the following: Who is my audience (CEO, CFO, CIO, Procurement, CMO, etc.)? How will our solution help them in their role? What are my organisation’s unique differentiators that will help the customer overcome challenges or fulfil their business objectives? What is the strategic, user, operational or financial benefits our solution or service will deliver to the prospective customer, and so on? You may already have worked with the bid team to come up with win themes or a value proposition statement, and you should keep these persuasive pointers close at hand when writing your response.
Whether crafting the executive summary or writing parts of the technical response, it’s best to first bullet point your ideas and answers and include some sub-headings especially if you’re responding to a section that you know will require you to complete pages of content. Putting down the bones of your response first, allows you to easily review story flow and make changes early so that by the time you’re writing the response in full, you’ll have the confidence you’re on track to deliver a compliant and compelling sales proposal.
STEP 5: Approaching a Question and Answer RFP. One of the most common types of RFPs sent out by organisations is Question and Answer ones. You would think these would be the easiest to complete as the prospective customer is asking specific questions. Yet time and again, customers complain that vendors do not directly answer questions, which makes them non-compliant. So what’s the problem? I think it’s a combination of two things: One, you’re not reading the question properly or two, your brain is fixated on giving them an answer you think is right.
To help you deliver a compliant, compelling and clear response, do the following: read the question carefully – 3 or 4 times if necessary, and take note of and circle key words. If it’s a long question, break it up into sub-components. Bullet-point your answers first. When answering the question, it’s good to repeat some of the words the customer uses in their question. For example, they may ask: “Please detail your Transition and Transformation methodology,” which means you answer, “Our Transition and Transformation methodology follows a…”. This signals you’re directly answering the question.
Here’s another typical question: “Please provide a list of delivery centres both onshore and offshore including FTEs and level of technical competence of staff?” Instead of directly answering the specific question asked, a lot of the time the writer will start by throwing in some marketing fluff like, “Our delivery centres are some of the best in the world, rated by xxx in the top 20 globally, etc.”. That’s not what they’re asking, so why include it? In a Question and Answer proposal response, you must only include the essential information as per the question and no more!
A lot of proposal content lends itself to some standard boilerplate material; however, copy and paste cautiously. You still must customise the content to what the customer is asking for in that particular proposal.
STEP 6: Completing a free-form response. Occasionally, the prospective customer will send out RFPs that don’t impose a structure on the response and simply provide high-level headings or questions for you to answer. However, a structure needs to be created if you’re responding to multiple towers/solutions. You will want your team to follow the same flow whether they’re writing about apps or infrastructure as a Service.
This is where the sales and technical leads will work with a bid writer or a proposal manager to create headings and sub-headings. What they don’t always do is give you tips on how to start your opening paragraph or write your section logically so that it includes an introduction, body and conclusion. Also, no matter the type of proposal response, you must ensure that any claims you make are backed up by evidence like experience with similar projects or customer testimonials.
STEP 7: Proofread and edit your work. It’s important to set aside your response either for a few hours or days and then review. When revisiting your response, check and double-check that you have precisely and correctly answered the question or followed the writing structure given. Ensure that the most compelling information is at the top. Ask yourself, “Is the essence of the offering buried somewhere in the middle of my response?” If so, move it to the top. You can also follow these proofreading steps to ensure your final version is crisp, clear and compelling.
Use personal pronouns like ‘you’ and ‘we’. ‘You’ is considered to be the most powerful word in the business of selling. Remember, we’re writing sales proposals not technical manuals, so mix using the customer’s name with the word, ‘you’ and ‘we’ instead of your company’s name.
Shorten sentences and break up long paragraphs. As a guide, keep your average sentences 25 to 30 words long and your paragraphs 4-6 sentences long. It makes for an easier read.
Use subheadings to break up big chunks of text. If your response requires detailed information, insert a sub-heading above each paragraph or bold your text as I’ve done in this article. This keeps readers engaged and helps them easily move through your story.
Stick to using Plain English. Avoid abstract writing. Use active language and avoid big words if a simple alternative can be found. For example, instead of ‘facilitate’ use ‘help’, instead of ‘ascertain’, use ‘find out’, instead of ‘capable of’ use ‘can’, instead of ‘utilise’ write ‘use’.
Avoid geek and weasel words. Watch out for technical terms that are only used by your company. Don’t write them as acronyms, spell them out in full. You also want your sales proposal to sound confident. Saying "we are confident", is not the way to do it but avoiding Weasel words will inspire confidence. Weasel is language that squirms out of making any affirmative statement, and makes your assertions sound vague. Avoid words like ‘would’, ‘could’, ‘and leveraging opportunities’ as they create doubt in the decision-maker’s mind.
There you have it, Your Ticket to the Dance: The 7 Steps to Mastering the B2B IT sales proposal.
What happens when your sales proposal is successful, and you’re invited by the prospective customer to present your solution in person? Use the 6 Basic Elements of storytelling to help you choreograph an enthralling routine that leads the dance floor and helps you win the competition.
It’s likely you’re going to use PowerPoint as the medium to verbally showcase your solution. To avoid death by PowerPoint, see my article, 20 PowerPoint Tips to Help You Create Potent Presentations.