When and How to Present a Proposal – Six Rules

Just because you’re asked for it doesn’t mean you should provide it – yet. And when you do, it should inspire.

(Part 2 of 3)

Irony abounds. Sales professionals tend to hedge and delay when asked the “how much does it cost” question as we reviewed in Part 1 of this series, but we’re quick to scramble to put together a proposal almost as soon as a prospective customer asks.

We should do the opposite.

As with jumping to the “how much does it cost” question, it makes sense that prospective customers are quick to ask for a proposal. It’s a clear, easy, concrete request to make and most buyers haven’t been trained in how to evaluate and purchase something. Asking for a proposal after an initial discussion is a simple and seemingly logical thing to do.

When to Deliver a Proposal

A formal proposal is one of the LAST things we should provide to a prospective customer. It must be complete and clear, and there’s no way that we can deliver such a proposal early in the sales cycle.

A formal proposal is one of the LAST things we should provide to a prospective customer.

Sales professionals should be constantly summarizing and feeding back to their buyer their understanding of the situation – requirements, objectives, timing, pricing parameters, etc. This can be done in emails after calls or meetings, in formal summary of understanding documents, or in ‘what we’ve heard’ sessions at the beginnings of presentations.

The important thing is to make no assumptions and continually validate – and challenge when necessary – the understanding of your buyer to ensure you and s/he are talking about the same thing and working collaboratively toward the same goals. No guessing, no speculating.

It is only at the end of comprehensive discovery and differentiation activities when you’ve received indication that you’re a viable vendor or even a finalist that a formal proposal should be delivered – though you’ve been doing the work to prepare it all along.

Then you do so with incredible thoughtfulness and care.

How to Think About a Proposal

Proposals are ambassadors. An ambassador is the highest ranking official representative a government can place in a foreign country. They are charged with representing policy, negotiating agreements and protecting their citizens within a host country. It is a position of tremendous gravity, honor and prestige.

Our proposal must serve as our ambassador within the buying organization, speaking for us when we’re not there

Our proposal must serve as our ambassador within the buying organization, speaking for us when we’re not there and communicating to decision makers with whom we’ll never meet, like the CFO approving the spend or the purchasing committee reviewing a requisition request.

For this reason, a proposal is perhaps the most important document that you can prepare throughout the sales cycle.

More often than not, the proposals that are delivered to customers are repurposed pieces of crap that are unreadable

But what happens? More often than not, the proposals that are delivered to customers are repurposed pieces of crap that are unreadable. Sales reps do a find/replace on company name, update a pricing table, and deliver the same voluminous nonsense that they deliver to every other prospect. Nonsense that they in all likelihood have never read.

It’s amateurish and disrespectful, and it should not be allowed to continue in any sales organization.

Six Rules of Good Proposals

Proposal Rule #1 – No Surprises

A proposal should be a formal summation of an understanding that you and your buyer have already established. There should be no surprises at all. Pricing should have already been reviewed in another format, important commercial terms discussed ahead of time, and delivery schedules considered as part of an engagement planning process.

The only thing your buyer should be surprised by is how clean, accurate, thoughtful and gorgeous your proposal is

The only thing your buyer should be surprised by is how clean, accurate, thoughtful and gorgeous it is, because they have been trained by lesser sales professionals to expect uninspiring proposals as the norm. They should be surprised by how inspired they feel reviewing yours.

Proposal Rule #2 – Decision Makers Don’t Read

You barely read the material that your own company produces – why should you expect a senior executive at your prospective customer to do something you yourself can’t be troubled to do?

Make your proposals clean and readable. Lots of white space, lots of crisp bullet points. Stick to the facts and make the document easily able to be skimmed. Strike large blocks of text and complicated graphics that you pilfered from some product team’s PowerPoint. If it doesn’t add clarity, it takes away. Get rid of it. If you must, place expansive detail in the back of the proposal in an appendix section.

Assume that the CFO at your prospective customer has the attention span of a 15 year-old boy sitting in class on a Friday afternoon

Assume that the CFO at your prospective customer has the attention span of a 15 year-old boy sitting in class on a Friday afternoon and you’ll be just about right. Structure your proposals for them.

Proposal Rule #3 – Show the Math

You’re asking your buyer to spend their money on this project instead of another, and with you instead of somebody else. Do them the courtesy of showing the math to support why that’s a good idea. It’s hard to argue with math. It’s math. Outline a clear and concise business case – what you expect your solution to deliver, over what period of time, in real dollars – either savings, revenue growth or both. Try for both.

Always, always, always include some sort of business case that shows the outcome of what you’ll deliver in real dollars

Always, always, always include some sort of business case that shows the outcome of what you’ll deliver in real dollars. This is table stakes. This is not optional.

Then make sure that your pricing explanation doesn’t require an accounting degree to decipher. See rule #2.

Proposal Rule #4 – It Must End

Please, I beg of you, include an expiration date. Anytime you deliver a summary of pricing, put an expiration date. Every quote you send, every time. And especially in your proposal.

I beg of you, include an expiration date

You know from your Engagement Plan by when your buyer needs to make a decision and complete all paperwork and signatures to meet their desired outcome – so put it in there. That’s the expiration date. It helps you, it helps them, it helps everybody.

Proposal Rule #5 – Make it Beautiful

While there is absolutely no empirical data to support this, we will assume for the sake of this discussion that all ambassadors are so strikingly handsome and gorgeous so as to make one’s heart skip a beat. So too should your proposal be. These are not to be white papers, they are to be compelling messages of premium value and extraordinary experience.

Convince your marketing organization to lend you a designer

Convince your marketing organization to lend you a designer and then spend time with them on layout, fonts, imagery and readability. You’ve trimmed most of the junk already by making the content readable and clear, your designer should be able to turn back to you a proposal layout that’s more engaging than anything your sales organization has produced…ever.

Proposal Rule #6 – Make it Repeatable

You can’t keep that designer forever, and sales professionals need to be self-sufficient, so ensure that all of this work is done with an eye towards repeatability and scalability. There are a number of ways to do this.

I like using PowerPoint as opposed to MS Word. Word demands that users possess an advanced degree in ‘How to Format Stuff Without Losing Your Patience and Smashing Your Laptop to Bits.” It also invites verbosity. PowerPoint is much easier for layout changes and the nature of it forces lots of great whitespace. An easy Page Setup change and – voila – you’ve got yourself a portrait oriented document that’s facing the “right” direction for a proposal.

Upload into Google Slides, fix some formatting, and now you’re cooking with a document on which your team can collaborate, copy and share. You’ve got an artifact in which best practices, positioning and content can be shared throughout your sales organization.

Extra credit to those who print, bind and hand deliver their gorgeous proposals to the buyer in creative ways

Reminder: always print to PDF – don’t deliver a proposal in its native format. Extra credit to those who print, bind and hand deliver their gorgeous proposals to the buyer. With some chocolates. Or tchotchkes relevant to their business. Something. Anything. Set yourself apart and show that you cared enough to take the time to do something special and different. Pressing ‘send’ on an email with an attachment isn’t doing something special and different.

A great alternative is to subscribe to a SaaS service that automates this process for you. One of the best companies for this is TinderBox and it provides sales automation tools for everything from presenting through proposals contracts in a platform that integrates directly with your Salesforce.com instance.

If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes

Regardless of the tool or service you use, commit to treating your proposals with the respect they deserve. You and your teams work too hard during the sales cycle and spend too much energy crafting a compelling value proposition to diminish that effort so badly with a sub-standard proposal. A little care and attention with this critical deliverable can make a world of difference.

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