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Don’t Let Your Written Proposal Torpedo Your Deal

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What I am about to say may be an example of life being unfair. Obviously, a poorly prepared written proposal could cost you a deal.

However, the most expertly prepared, well-written, catchy-reading proposal brings no guarantee of winning. To make things worse yet, an overly slick proposal might be a turnoff.

Let me give an example of the third possibility because I know that calling something “too good” sounds illogical. Take, for example, the redevelopment of a low-income housing project. Residents of the project will be represented on the committee making project decisions. Is an expensively produced proposal likely to impress them? Or, will it more likely send a message that you can’t be related to them? Someone who kept in mind the human element could be more likely to win.

The reasoning behind my “unfair” opening, and the example is simple. Despite the almost geometrical expansion of technology in the past decade or two, people like to be able to relate to the people with whom they do business. They want to know that you can do the job. They want to know that you can provide the quality product, service, or solution they need. However, with the good chance that someone else can also do so, relating to the potential client and making them want to work with you may well make the difference between making the sale and getting a polite rejection.

However, a good quality and appropriately targeted written proposal can be vital. In a complex sale with many decision-makers, your proposal will be one of the key reference documents that outlines your qualifications and approach to delivering your solution. It provides strong backup evidence of your company’s ability to do the job. It also provides structure to organize your thoughts, a kind of written report of the careful research and analysis you have done on the company. In most cases, the client will be reading the formal proposal after the meeting. A well-prepared proposal can reinforce the impression you left with your good presentation. A good proposal will be a lasting document the client uses to help inform their decision. The proposal needs to be able to stand on its own even though it will likely not be used on its own. A badly prepared proposal will add a jarring element, likely convincing the client that all you can really do is put on a good presentation.

Elements of a Quality Sales Proposal

So, what do you put in the written proposal?

  • Introductory sections or what book publishers call “front of the book.” This includes a cover and/or title page, depending on proposal length. The title page mentions your company and the name of the target client. If possible, include logos for both. Include a brief executive summary but without giving a price. Include a table of contents, which can also serve as a written agenda for the presentation. Use page numbers, or section tabs, or both. Page numbers can be eliminated, or numbered in each section, if you feel it likely or valuable to insert last-minute information.
  • State the client’s objectives. What do they want to achieve, and how do they want to do this? Use their words, which the client should be happy to provide you.
  • State how you can meet the client’s objectives.
  • Describe your idea. Go into more detail on how you will meet their objectives.
  • Present your financial analysis and cost justification. Tell how your ideas will benefit the client financially. Use tables and graphs, when appropriate. This is a summary section, so include any more detailed information in an appendix. Do not include your price at this point.
  • Reinforce your company’s “value-add.” Why should the client work with your company over competitor companies?
  • Provide your pricing structure. Tie your price to the value provided.
  • Summarize your proposal in three or four key points.
  • Include an appendix, if appropriate.
Your idea is to convince the client that you can respond to their needs. So, if they call for a set format different from the one above, follow their format.

At the risk of stating the obvious, take some care in how the proposal looks. Professionally bound proposals can have the same content as something e-mailed, but spending some effort on making the proposal look nice gets you off to a good start. Be aware of how your client might use the proposal. For example, he or she might print the proposal on a black and white printer. So, at the very least, think of how your copies will look in black and white.

Bring copies for each person expected to attend, plus a few extras. Try not to distribute it when the meeting starts because people will be inclined to at least glance through it. Good or bad, the proposal will be a distraction from what you are saying.

If you find it appropriate to give out the proposal during the meeting, walk the audience through it. Don’t read from it. Use attractive visuals, easy enough to do with a laptop, for anything you have to show the audience. Keep in mind that PowerPoint slides are not intended to be a teleprompter. Discuss details not on the slides. (Also, be careful not to accidently project something personal verbally or on the screen.) Find out beforehand audience preferences for charts and tables, and follow them while creating the materials. Use the same professionalism you did with the written proposal in preparing any visuals.

Bring copies of the visuals to have something to leave with the audience in case you need to revise the proposal — or in case technology is not available to project your presentation. Prepare for all possible scenarios! I might also suggest “just in case” free-standing copies of the executive proposal to leave the audience something if you want to rewrite parts of the proposal.

To summarize:

  • The written proposal is a valuable tool that sells on your behalf.
  • Know your audience, and prepare it as well and as professionally as necessary.
  • Be mindful of how you incorporate your proposal into your overall sales presentation.
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