Beating the Competition

How To Write a Winning Proposal

By Tom Sant, Founder, Bestselling Author, Educator, and Founder of The Sant Corporation

In today’s economy, sales people have to write more proposals, and better proposals, than ever before. As the industry has become more competitive and complex, customers have become both more confused and more demanding. As a result, they are likely to listen to a presentation, nod their heads, and mutter those dreaded words, “Sounds good! Why don’t you put that in writing for me?”

Why do customers want proposals?
Writing proposals is about as much fun as having your teeth drilled. And reading them isn’t a whole lot better. So why do customers ask for them?

One motivation is that the customer wants to compare offers from various vendors to make sure they buy the highest value solution based on your differentiators and value proposition. At a simpler level, they may just want to compare prices, clarify complex information, and gather information so that the “decision team” can review it. And let’s face it, sometimes they just want to slow down the sales process and they figure that asking for a proposal will keep the sales rep busy for a few weeks.

Whatever the customer’s motivation, the fact is that proposal writing has become a common requirement for closing business throughout the entire business world. Today, people who sell everything from garbage collection services to complex information technology have to create client-centered, persuasive proposals.

What goes into a winning proposal?
Your objective in writing a proposal is to provide your client with enough information—persuasively presented information—to prove your case and motivate the client to buy your services or applications. That sounds pretty straightforward.

So why do the vast majority of proposals start out with the vendor’s company history? Does the author believe there is something so fundamentally compelling about their origins that clients will immediately be persuaded to buy?

And why do a huge number of proposals focus entirely on the vendor’s products and services, but never mention how those products and services will help the client solve a business problem or close an important gap? Does the proposal writer believe that facts alone are enough to motivate a prospect to say “yes”?

Winning proposals must be client centered, not company- or product-centered. Most people buy because they’re looking for solutions to pressing problems, additional resources to close gaps, or the means to cope with difficult issues. What this means is that a proposal is nota price quote, a bill of materials, or a project plan.

Each of those elements may be part of a proposal, but they are not sufficient to make a persuasive, client-centered case.

In our experience, there are four categories of content that proposals must contain to maximize your chance of winning:

1. Evidence that you understand the client’s business problem or need.
People view major buying decisions with anxiety. The bigger the decision, the greater the anxiety. They know that even a well-intentioned vendor may end up wasting their time or their money or both. One way to reduce their anxiety and minimize their perception of the risk of moving forward with you is to demonstrate that you clearly understand their problems, issues, needs, opportunities, objectives, or values. Whatever is driving the client’s interest, you must show that you understand it and have based your solution on it.

2. A recommendation for a specific approach, program, system design, or application that will solve the problem and produce positive business results.
It may surprise you to learn that most proposals contain no recommendation at all. What they contain instead are descriptions of products or services. What’s the difference? A recommendation explicitly links the features of a product or service to the client’s needs and shows how the client will obtain positive results. And a recommend contains language that unmistakably shows that the vendor believes in this solution: “We recommend…” or “We urge you to implement…”

3. A compelling reason for the client to choose your recommendation over any others.
This is your value proposition. Remember that you may write a proposal that is completely compliant with the customer’s requirements, that recommends the right solution, that even offers the lowest price, and still lose. Why? Because a competitor made a stronger case that their approach offered a higher return on investment, lower total cost of ownership, faster payback, or some similar measure of value that matters to the customer.

NOTE: Most proposals don’t contain any value proposition at all. They contain pricing, but no estimation of the rate of return the client will get from choosing you. Failing to address the client’s needs and failing to present a compelling value proposition are the most serious mistakes you can make in writing a proposal.

4. Evidence of your ability to deliver on time and on budget.
Most proposals are pretty good in this area. You want to show the substantiating evidence that helps answer the question, “Can they really do this?” Good evidence includes case studies, references, testimonials, and resumes of key personnel. You may also include project plans, management plans, company expertise, and other forms of evidence (white papers, awards, third-party recognition). Avoid throwing in everything. Keep the evidence focused on the areas the customer cares about.

These are the essentials. Every scrap of data, every figure, every paragraph in your proposal must contribute toward providing one or more of them, because they directly address the three key factors on which every proposal is evaluated:

1. Responsiveness: Are we getting what we need?
2. Competence: Can they really do it?
3. Value: Is this the smartest way to spend our money?

Some tips for maximizing your win ratio
If you follow the basic structure outlined above—first summarizing the client’s needs, then showing their potential for gain or improvement, third recommending your solution, and finally substantiating that you can do the job—you will see an increase in your win ratio.

But there are two other principles that can push it even higher. In fact, one way to remember these is to recall that there are two “P’s” in successful proposal writing:

  • Personalization
  • Primacy

    Customers expect more today. Why? In part, because they have been trained to expect more because of the business community’s emphasis on excellence in customer service, focus on “total quality,” and increased competitiveness of the market.

    You can’t give customers a boilerplate proposal in today’s market. You have to include their name and their company’s name throughout the proposal. You have to acknowledge that you have listened to them and remember what you learned about them from previous interactions.

    Here are three conclusions that emerge from the reality of heightened customer expectations:

    Effective sales people do not deliver one message. They do not treat customers as demographic units. They engage in conversations, they listen, and they view customers as individuals.

    Effective marketing and sales require a combination of content and insight—you must have something worthwhile to say and you need to say it in a way that shows the audience that it’s relevant to them.

    Boilerplate messages may be worse than no messages at all because they sound “canned” and undercut the rapport we’ve created with customers.

    Use the customer’s language and refer to issues from their business and their industry. If you use the jargon they use and if you show familiarity in the cover letter and executive summary with what’s going on in their business and industry, they will assume that the entire proposal has been personalized to them.

    Unfortunately, most sales people resort to “cloning” as a means of getting their proposals done quickly. They borrow a proposal that somebody else has written for a different client, use the Find/Replace function in Microsoft Word to change the client’s name, and print it! That’s about as personalized as a can of spinach. (Plus they run the risk of having the wrong client’s name show up somewhere in that proposal. You can imagine what that does for rapport and credibility.)

    The Primacy Principle
    What is the “primacy principle”? It’s the tendency we all have to judge future experiences based on our first one. You might call it the principle of first impressions.

    For example, if we go to a new dry cleaner in our neighborhood, and they end up losing a couple of our shirts or blouses and are rude to us, we’d have to be masochists to go back. It may be that they are normally very efficient and polite, and a combination of circumstances conspired to produce a negative impression on us. But we’ll never know. We’ll never go back. Research indicates that the primacy principle is so strong that it takes at least seven positive experiences to overcome a first negative impression. (Or, conversely, seven negative ones to overcome an initial positive experience.)

    So what does this mean for proposals? It means we must put the things up front in our proposal that the customer cares about the most. It means don’t send a boilerplate cover letter. Don’t write an executive summary that’s all about you. And don’t call your proposal something generic and pointless, like “Proposal.”

    The primacy principle tells us that it’s vitally important to understand the client and then structure the message correctly. Put the customer’s most important business issues first. Put the goal or outcome they want the most first in your list of outcomes. And structure your substantiation in terms of the things that matter the most to the decision maker:

  • Meeting a perceived need
  • Delivering superior value or ROI
  • Complying with the specification
  • Proven vendor competence

    Don’t guess! If you don’t know what the customer cares about, ask them.



Converting an Advocate into a Coach

By Steve Kraner, TopLine Solutions, Inc.

Coach or Gatekeeper?

We were taught to find a ‘coach’ or internal champion to work the big deals. It’s a good idea, but it’s been turned around on software sales people. Software buyers go to schools to learn tricks to squeeze more out of you. A couple years ago, for example, someone told me about a tape being sold on the Gartner web site, titled “How to Squeeze More Dollars Out of Your Software Vendors.” It was a recording of a talk done for a group of CIO’s. I looked at their site recently, and that tape isn’t there any more, but there is a white paper called “RFP’s for Fun and Profit.” I am like Dave Barry – I am not making this up! Go look!

One of the things they are being taught in these programs, is that sales people try to find ‘coaches.’ So they assign a person to be the ‘coach’ – one for each of the three bidders. (‘There shall be three bidders’ must have been carved on that stone tablet the Mel Brooks dropped.) The ‘coach’s’ job is to pretend to help, to control their access to other people in the organization and to keep them thinking either:

  • They have competition (If they are the A vendor).
  • They are winning (If they are B or C).

    There are five key litmus tests to determine if your internal advocate is a true coach.

    1) You have their trust and confidence
    2) They have the trust and confidence of the people in power. (Beware loose cannons!)
    3) They have a personal stake in this project (your coach in the last project may not be your coach on the next).
    4) You ask them to be a coach, and they accept.
    5) They translate their words into action that helps you both move the sales cycle forward.

    This personal experience illustrates the importance of #4.

    The Friend who couldn’t Coach

    A personal friend recently called me into an account. Since he was a friend and had gotten me involved, I assumed he was a strong coach. Further, he gave me all the inside information – players, executives, motives, competitors, etc. He also got me in to see his boss – the ultimate moneyman.

    A red flag went up, however, when I asked to have access to 5 key players prior to a presentation to the group. I go the interviews, but so did the competitor. I called and asked my buddy, “Hey, that was my idea – why’s he doing it now?” My buddy said, “It’s only fair.” I said, “I don’t want to be fair, I want the inside track. Don’t you want a sales trainer who can do that?” He said, “I just want to keep the playing field level. My personal sense of integrity makes me want to be fair to all parties.” I said, “So I guess you’re not comfortable being my coach?” He said, “Steve, you know I like you. I brought you in and think your stuff is what our people need. I’m just not comfortable being your coach. It violates my sense of fairness”

    Now isn’t that a disappointment!

    I still won – but had to change my tactics. Everything I discussed with him to gain the upper hand, he passed straight on to the competition, in a sincere effort to “keep the playing field level.” I found it was better no to be so open with him.

    Further insight – My friend told me after I won that he felt bad, but he thought about it after we spoke and he felt that our friendship caused him to want to be extra careful to be fair, so neither he nor I would be penalized.

    Good Selling!


Stay on Target – Proposals That Win New Business

By Mike Schultz, Principal, Wellesley Hills Group

Since it’s your job to give directions, you want to tell people the straightest, shortest, and easiest route. After all, you don’t want them to get lost along the way, or so tired on the path that they give up before they get to the end. Why is it, then, that so many new business proposals from professional services providers that cross my desk take the long and winding road? They start off in the wrong direction, take side-roads that lead nowhere, and take forever to get where they’re going. It’s no wonder the success rate of these proposals is so low. Fortunately, aimless wandering in proposals is avoidable with forethought and focus. Before writing your next new business proposal, consider the following five focus-building guidelines:

1. Focus on the Client Immediately
What’s more interesting at a conference: 1) a keynote speaker who begins a presentation with a 10 minute discourse of who he is, where he works and why he’s qualified to give the speech, or 2) someone who engages the audience from word-one with interesting stories and facts from the audience’s world? Far and away speaker #2 wins over more hearts and minds of the audience. Speaker #1 typically finishes with a lot of empty seats.

The same principle applies to your proposals. Nothing in the proposal bible says you have to start your story with, “In the beginning… Let me tell you about all seven stages we’ve gone through in our firm since the creation of time.” Instead, start your proposal with the genesis of your conversation with the prospect and describe what’s going on in their world. Invariably they like reading a story about themselves – and everything that follows it – a whole lot more.

2. Focus on Your Discussions
Your conversations with the prospect probably focused on one or two of your services. You touched on four other areas, but not in depth, and these services are not ‘on the table’ right now for the client.

When you write your proposal, focus on what you discussed – the deal that is on the table. You may lightly touch on the other areas, but generally you should downplay them, for now, so you can stay focused on the topic at hand. Don’t even include (unless it’s germane to selling what you’re selling) information about other services you offer.

Why? The last thing you want is to distract your client from buying. If you give them too many things to think about, you will take them away from the task at hand. The client will start asking about these other services in more depth. While this is great before you get to the proposal stage and even greater for the next project, it’s an unnecessary and dangerous detour for this sale. Once you get to proposal you’re trying to gain their commitment for a service, not get them interested in others.

Sounds simple, but many service providers have a strong emotional need to provide page-after-page of descriptive information about their services. It’s as if the service provider is saying, “While I may be proposing on this, I need you to be clear that this is not the only thing I do. Here’s everything (and I do mean everything) else.” This desire not to be pigeonholed as a provider of just one service trips up the ability to gain commitment for new business.

In preparing your proposal, don’t take detours from the service that you’re selling.

3. Focus on Clarity
Eschew obfuscation. In other words: avoid using big long words and lines of discussion that nobody but an insider understands. Many services are complex: lawyers set up corporations, accountants deal with the tax code, and consultants deal with complex systems and structures.

Your client may want to know how you’ll approach their challenges, but they typically want only enough detail to make the decision. They do not want pages of technical jargon detailing every task you’ll complete on their behalf.

Explain your service and the solution in plain English, and give only enough technical or methodological detail to gain commitment to move forward now.

4. Focus on the Value of the Solution
Proposal writers are not shy about outlining what the service is and how it will get implemented, but they are lax in outlining why the client should move forward. Regardless of how clear or plain it may seem to you why you are going to move forward, you should still lay out the business case for your prospective client.

First, your prospect may not be as clear as you think they are. They may also get distracted for a few days and lose focus on the business proposition of moving forward. Their boss may read the proposal and say, “I see what you’re going to do, but the ROI isn’t clear.” Or another provider may lay out the case more clearly… which can be the difference between who wins the business and who doesn’t.

Lay out your business case clearly and compellingly.

5. Focus the Client on the Next Steps
Some proposals end with a thud. There’s no call to action. No next step. No place for the client to sign. No sense of urgency. Proposals without calls to action can quickly go cold. Ask for a signature and the proposal may come back with that signature over the fax machine. If you wait until the next time you speak with the prospect to “see what they think,” the opportunity may slip through your fingers.

Don’t be afraid to simply state whatever you want the client to do next. If the keys to real estate success are location, location, and location, in proposal writing they’re focus, focus, and focus. Maintaining your own focus and helping the client maintain his will keep your proposals on target.