Strategies for a Successful Proposal

sales proposal strategiesProposals can be effective sales tools – with the right preparation.

If your business sells products or services to other businesses, at some point you’ve probably been asked to submit a sales proposal. It’s equally likely that you weren’t too thrilled by the idea.

Ideally, we like to control the sales process as much as possible, applying all of the training and experience we’ve acquired to make our pitch as persuasively as we can. Unfortunately, proposals take most the selling out of your hands. Your carefully crafted pitch is reduced to a single document that’s measured against competitors’ behind closed doors. In the end, the proposal the prospect finds most persuasive, relevant and easy to digest, wins.

It’s not ideal, but it’s reason enough to treat your proposals with the same care you would any other sales efforts and activities. Maybe more. While you can rescue a sales pitch mid-stream if it hits choppy waters, you don’t have the same luxury with your proposal. It’s much easier to stop reading and toss a proposal in the trash than it is to abruptly stop a salesperson energetically pitching you across the table.

Done right, a proposal can be a highly effective sales tool – but it’s also a big investment of your time and energy. So how can you ensure the best chance of success next time you receive a request for proposal (RFP)? By preparing carefully, and drafting your proposal with an eye on details.

Lay the Groundwork

Research the prospect. Spend some time to uncover the prospect’s important business issues. Industry news, trade journals and annual reports can tip you off to what’s actually happening behind the scenes. You might discover the real problem is much different than what you’d assumed – or even what the prospect claimed in their RFP. This gives you the opportunity to bring the issue to the prospect and address it in your proposal.

Get to the root of the problem. What’s at stake if this problem isn’t solved? What does the prospect stand to lose? How does this affect company goals, or stakeholders’ reputations? How will the company measure success? Make sure your proposal addresses these issues and provides tangible value for the customer.

Understand the buyer’s fears. Anticipate concerns or objections a prospect might have in regards to your company or solution. These can range from your professional experience and available resources, to cost or complex implementation. You won’t have the opportunity to address these face to face, so make sure your proposal addresses them head-on.

Assess your capabilities. Determine what solutions you can provide that best address the prospect’s major issue. Of course, it must also provide value, convenience and quantifiable results. How does this differ from your competitors in a meaningful way? How is it superior in terms of cost, quality or technology?

Study the competition. If you know whom you’ll be competing against, study their offerings, too. Find where they are weakest and, if possible, promote a solution that exploits that gap in their abilities.

Shape Your Story

Focus on the prospect. Always address their needs first and foremost. Don’t start your proposal talking about yourself – your brand, company philosophy, history or capabilities – that can go at the end of the proposal. The prospect is looking for a knowledgeable partner who understands and puts their needs first.

Follow instructions to the letter. While there is a standard structure to most proposals, many companies will provide strict guidelines you’re expected to adhere to. This is the first test – if you don’t follow directions your firm could be disqualified before they’ve read a word.

Polish your Executive Summary. Prospects are busy, so this may be all they read (in addition to your price). Your Executive Summary should demonstrate your grasp of the situation, and include a paragraph or two that outlines your solution and promised results. Keep it short, but don’t exclude facts, figures or points that are critical to closing the deal. And always include a call to action – ask for the sale.

Explain your approach clearly. Provide detailed information about your solution and how it will be executed, including available resources, your process, a realistic timeline and the players on your team who will be involved. Unanswered questions become bogeymen in the minds of prospects.

Make the case for your company. Why should the prospect award you the business? You’ll have to establish credibility as convincingly as you’ve sold your products and services. Support your claims with relevant data, experience, professional references and case studies in supporting documentation. In some cases, a decision maker looking to cover his tail might be more invested in reputation than results.

Write for a general audience. Several people may review your proposal, all of them with differing levels of technical expertise. Use simple, straightforward language that anyone will understand, from the IT manager to the CEO.

Keep it short. The reality is most prospects won’t read every word of your proposal. It needs to be thorough, but clear and concise. Use subheads and bullets where possible, making it easy to scan important points. (As with most rules, there’s an exception: the more complicated the issue or expensive the solution, the more information is needed to show effectiveness and justify the expense.)

There’s plenty more to consider – a great cover letter, thorough proofreading, a professional presentation – but those factors matter less if the substance of your proposal isn’t sound. A beautiful proposal might get picked up first, but prospects will quickly spot cracks in the foundation.

What factors have you found make the most difference in your proposals? Tell us in the comments below.

photo: Jeroen van Oostron at

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