Let’s admit it. Most people hate writing proposals.
To avoid the hard work of creating this all-important deliverable, we fall into the trap of cutting and pasting from previous documents, dumping in pages of data in an attempt to overwhelm the prospect, talking about ourselves and what we know best, or selling an easy deal instead of going after the big one at play.
But proposals are an essential part of most sales processes, unless you’re in a business where a simple quote can suffice. For industrials with more complex products and services, the proposal is one of most critical sales tools. So how do we make our proposals better? And is it possible to become that sick fool who actually enjoys writing them?
In this two-part series, we’ll examine both proposal writing tips and a group of emerging technologies that make proposal creation a breeze. First, in this post, we’ll review best practices. If you decide you want to stick it out for the tools article, subscribe to Industrial Marketer to receive it via email once it’s published.
What Is a Proposal, Anyway?
One thing that a proposal is not is an information packet. A proposal should be the result of numerous conversations with a prospective customer. By the time you put pen to paper, there should be no surprises — not with price or with services you’re recommending. The proposal itself should be merely a written recap of your conversations to date. Think of it as the place to sign; not the place for convincing. In other words, you should only spend time crafting a proposal once the agreement has essentially already been reached.
Put more eloquently, author Blair Enns in The Win Without Pitching Manifesto states: “We will examine all the reasons we ask, and are asked, to write unpaid proposals and we will never again ask documents to propose for us what we ourselves should propose.”
Enns believes that when we spend hours on a lengthy written proposal, we immediately put ourselves in a position of weakness by diagnosing and prescribing a solution for free. If a prospect is asking for a proposal, they’re doing one or more of these things (none of which are good for you): keeping the hordes at bay, comparison shopping, stalling, or stealing your ideas.
So Is a Proposal Even Necessary?
If we look back on all the deals we’ve won and the proposals we’ve written, can we point to a situation when the proposal itself won the deal? Probably not. But we can likely point to examples when a bad proposal lost one.
Business proposal writing expert Tom Sant offers one of the most sobering proposal writing tips we’ve come across: you can often meet your prospect’s needs for a clear recommendation and sufficient supporting detail just by writing a 1–4 page letter. This especially goes for cases where you’ve simply been asked, “Why don’t you put together a proposal for me so I can take a look at what you’re thinking?”
It’s always best — before putting pen to paper — to ask the prospective customer how they would like the proposal presented to them. That way, you can potentially save yourself some time and guarantee that you will provide exactly what they want.
And if they do end up requesting a written proposal, it’s always advisable to schedule a meeting right then and there to review the proposal when it’s ready. Never just send your proposal via email and hope for a response. Whether you expect the review meeting to occur two days or two weeks later, if the prospect can’t commit to giving you time to review your proposal, you shouldn’t be spending time creating the document. Remember, it’s OK to take a stand — they’re the one with the need that you’re solving.
If you’ve got a meeting locked in and it’s time to start your masterpiece, let’s look at some proposal writing tips to guide your actual writing.
Key Proposal Writing Tips
- Needless to say, show that you’re excited. Customers want to give their business to folks who are genuinely eager to work with them.
- Appearance is as important as content. Spend some time designing your documents or find a great-looking template so that your document stands out. Put your company’s logo next to your prospect’s logo to subconsciously create a connection and use their colors throughout, not yours.
- Never title your proposal “Proposal.” Bore-ing. You can do better than that. Create a compelling title that reinforces a benefit to the customer and focuses on their primary needs.
- On a similar note, make sure your proposal is about them more than you. Once you’ve finished writing, count the number of times your company’s name appears compared to the client’s. Here’s a hint: It should be a 3:1 ratio in their favor. Or, as Tom Sant puts it in Persuasive Business Proposals: “People do not buy what you do. They buy what you do . . . does for them.”
The Executive Summary
- Start by writing your executive summary first (begin with the big picture . . . macro to micro). Don’t just make it a summary at the end of everything you’ve written. And for heaven’s sake, don’t make it an introduction to your company. Remember, at this point, your prospect should know you pretty well after plenty of previous conversations.
- The executive summary is your chance to illuminate your value proposition and top differentiators. This might be the only page some executives read, so make it count.
- Here’s a trick: State two obvious facts in this section — two things the prospect knows as true. Doing so will make the reader more receptive to continue on while dropping and defenses they’ve put up unknowingly.
Style & Brevity
- Use plain English, avoid jargon, and write for clarity and simplicity. It’s better to send two pages of targeted text than 25 pages of platitudes and generalities. As they say, a confused mind always says no.
- Keep it brief! As readers, we all want proposals that are short, sweet, and to the point. But funnily enough, when we sit down to write, we fail to deliver anything like that. Size does matter in this case— more information will not make your proposal better. Think quality over quantity.
- Ask yourself, “So what?” at the end of each page or, “Why should I care?” to be sure your writing addresses your customer’s needs. When in doubt, add the phrase “which means that . . . ” to the end of any statement about your company. In other words, write what the customer wants, not what you want to say.
There you have it — some simple proposal writing tips that will hopefully may this necessary process a bit easier. Stay tuned for the second part on this short series on proposal writing: a review of the top technology services that can help you save hours and hours of work when writing proposals.
In the meantime, if you have any proposal writing tips of your own, please share them in a comment. And good luck out there!