If business proposals were judged solely on their weight and volume (rather than content and focus), then most of them would be very successful.
The problem is that, somewhere in sales folklore, there are two fairy-stories about proposals that, most proposal writers appear to believe, will cast the magic ‘buy-this-one’ spell over any prospective customer.
The stories are:
1) Lots of ‘bumph’ is better than too little.
2) The first thing proposal-readers are looking for is information about us.
Driven by an almost universal belief in these stories, the assembly order of most business proposals tends to be as follows:
– Title page
– Information about ourselves- how long we’ve been in business etc
– Pictures: Our directors (with career backgrounds), Our office/ warehouse
– Detailed Information about our services and products
– Confirmation of the amount of product/service the customer wants to buy
– The Price the customer will have to pay
– The Installation and implementation requirements
– Terms and Conditions and copy of our contract
The first, horrible truth I have to set before you, in an effort to wean you off this mythical-magic-proposal- template, is written below. It is so fundamental to the whole sales process that I would like you to do this for me right now: (write, print, draw, daub the following words on a very large piece of paper and place it over your desk where you can see it every day:
“NOBODY CARES ABOUT YOU AND YOUR BUSINESS”
The word ‘I’ (alongside its close companion words, ‘We’ ‘Me’ and ‘Our’ ) is the weakest and least persuasive word in the World. And yet it is the commonest word in all business communications. Yes, despite the fact that every bit of research on business-persuasion says that, ‘stuff about you and what you think’, has no positive effect on the selling process, business people still cram their proposals full of it.
If you want to read up on the research and books about why this is not the way to do it, you can start back 75 years ago with Dale Carnegie’s seminal work: “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (still a best seller and still in print) and work through to all of the most recent business books. But they will ALL tell you the same thing: (Apart from your family and close friends) Nobody cares about you….nor what you are…nor what you do….nor what you think. And ‘no’ your business is NOT different. And ‘yes’ this does apply to YOU too.
So, if you kick-off your proposal with a whole lot of guff about you and your business, it will soon have a key position in the pile labelled: “Same As All The Others”.
Not only do the majority of proposal-writers pad out the first few pages of their proposals with stuff about themselves (“Yeah-this is what they want to know…this’ll impress them!”), but they go into tremendous detail about it too. You will find full ‘Bios’ and CV’s of all their key players, smiling head-shot photos, photos of the premises, pictures of warehouses and offices and even photos of the trucks and vans used for delivery.
As the reader ventures further into the proposal, in a vain search for that which he truly seeks, he is next confronted by ‘the product brochure’. This usually consists of a description and/or pictures of the products the customer is interested in, plus – for good measure- all or nearly all the other products and services offered (just in case). This is several pages long and often includes detailed technical specifications.
After that comes the price list and bottom-line quotation for the job in hand. Plus a full description of payment terms and penalties for not paying on time and other ancillary costs.
Finally comes the killer conclusion: “Do not hesitate to call us if you require any further information. We look forward to hearing from you soon.”
OK You’ve got your wish: You’re dead.
So what’s to be done?
Would you like me to show you how your proposal can go in the rare pile marked “Winner.”
OK it’s not difficult…here goes:
First let us remind ourselves about the reason your business exists. It exists, like all businesses, companies and commercial organisations, to solve at least one problem. That’s it!…If you are not clear about the problem your business solves then you probably don’t have a business.
When your customer made contact with you -or responded to an overture from you- the only reason they did it was that they thought you might be able to solve at least one problem for them. What that specific problem is (and there maybe more than one) depends on the type of problem your business is set-up to solve.
So the first thing that needs to appear in your proposal is something about ‘the problem’. Because the first thing your prospective customer will be saying to himself, as he opens the pages, is: “My problem.. where is it?…Was this person listening when I was telling him about all my problems- the ones he might be able to fix?… Does he show, somewhere here, that he understands my problems and the effect they are having on me?”
To satisfy this basic customer need, the first few pages of your proposal must therefore feedback to the customer, in his/her own words if possible, that you were listening and have understood all the problems that your customer wants fixing. There should be nothing ‘problem-solving’ in your early words. It should be a mirror-summary of what the customer said to you.
Immediately following this opening section, start at the top of a new page.
In this next section you will be outlining what, ‘might’… ‘has’… ‘could’ happen if these problems are not fixed. Enlarging on the knock-on effects of not fixing a problem, starts a process of psychological reinforcement which increases the desirability of your service. This is especially powerful if you have previously managed to get the customer to tell you what he thinks could happen if the problem rolls on unchecked. And it is even better if he has revealed how much the problem is costing or might cost him. If he’s told you put it in (but don’t invent anything).
So in these first two sections you have shown the customer that, unlike probably ALL the other proposals on his desk, YOU were listening to what he was saying. This is as rare as a ’90 cent Bill’
Only at this point is the customer sufficiently ‘softened-up’ and therefore open to read about how your service and/or product will be able to address the previously described problems. Having been reminded of his problem he is ready for the solution.
But beware; DO NOT at this stage be tempted to talk too much about what the product ‘is’ or about your company and its background. Rather set out the way and manner in which your product or service will solve the problem. In other words concentrate on the solution (‘the benefits’) rather than the raw-facts (‘the features’)
And DO NOT be tempted into the common trap of adding-in a load of other features and benefits which don’t address the specific problems given to you by the customer. Spurious bits and pieces added in, like sprinkles on a cake, in order to give a proposal substance (and generally pad it out a bit), will usually not have the desired effect.
Far from making a proposal more desirable, research shows that there is a direct correlation between loads of unrequested bits and pieces and the prospective customer complaining about the price!
Yes, sometimes, despite your huge arsenal of products, they only want ONE thing from you…that’s it; and in that case, that’s enough!
So if, for some vague masochistic reason, you want to generate price objections, do add in more un-asked for stuff. If you don’t want them then DON’T.
Having now taken the trouble to pay the customer the compliment of clearly having listened to their problems and shown how you can fix them, he/she will be looking for the price.
So, in the next section (new page) set it out very simply. And always endeavor to have already given them a good idea of what it will be in previous conversations. The proposal should ,whenever possible, NOT be the first time the prospect learns about the price. If there has been no opportunity to do this, you must do everything in your power to deliver the proposal in person and go through it with the customer face to face.
If your proposal is actually a response to a Request for Quote (RFQ) or Request for Proposal (RFP) received from a potential customer out-of-the-blue (no prior face to face discussion possible), then I have to tell you something rather alarming: You are probably very late to the table and the whole deal is more or less sown up with someone else. You are being used!
Invariably another preferred supplier has already quoted. But during the decision making process the boss asked for a few comparative quotes just to cover himself if anyone asked. The problem is that the tender document is based on your competitor’s existing quote (and strengths) so you are, from the outset, fighting a very tough battle.
Most out-of-the-blue requests (with no discussion possible) will result in a massive amount of time wasting and mostly no deal.
Well here you are…the bulk of the important work is now done.
You may, if you wish, now add, towards the back, some brief sections about you, your company and how long you’ve been in business, but DO keep it short. People don’t have time or the interest to wade through loads of stuff…would YOU? And, as a general rule, no pictures of warehouses, factories or trucks…one looks like another. Nobody’s impressed.
It is often good to offer references at this point but only if they have asked for them. Remember that the proposal reader has usually and subconsciously made a decision by now. This is because people (your customers) primarily accept ‘you’ based on the amount of interest you have shown in them.
The final part in the compilation of your ‘Winning Proposal’ should concentrate on telling the customer what he needs to do next. This should be expressed in very positive terms with none of the usual, ‘Please do not hesitate to call me’, stuff which accompanies the majority of business offerings and covering letters. Remember that the human brain can’t hold a negative thought and fails to register the ‘do not’ leaving only the, “Please….hesitate to call me”, as the final message.
Make sure too, that you print and bind your proposal with a decent front title page and a see-through front cover. Do several top-copies too in case your prospect wants to distribute it to her colleagues; much better they all have a top-copy rather than a misaligned, gray copy, of a copy, of a copy. If you can’t do it take it to your local copy-store, on a memory stick, and ask them to do it for you. If you do this DO check that the pages look the same on their P/C and that there are no formatting differences that cause words, titles and sentences to leak across on to the next page.
Now print it on very good quality paper (Not the usual 60-80gm copier-stock). Check for spelling mistakes -especially people’s names- and use a good clear font (NOT ‘Comic Sans’ it makes you look ‘stupid’ not ‘quirky’). And do number the pages and, after the front title page, add a contents page….it makes the document look more professional.
There is nothing more I need to add and it isn’t difficult to do.
– Title page
– Contents Page
– Problems in need of fixing
– Knock-on effects of not fixing
– Our Focused Solution
– Who we are/experience/background
– Any other relevant material (keep it short and simple)
– What to do next
Following the method outlined above is going to make your proposals more interesting, readable and effective when presented to you customer.
It is also going to differentiate your offering from the many, even if your product looks very much like your competitors. And best of all it will bring you more business.
That’s not a fairy story