Winning With Customer-Driven Sales Proposals

Learn how customer-driven sales proposals can differentiate your company from the competition and help you close important deals.

Today's selling world is more competitive than ever before. In light of that fact, can your company really afford even one poor quality sales proposal? As buyers become more sophisticated, they are looking for hard cold facts and positive proof that a product or service will deliver on its promise.

Though experts insist that sales proposals are critical to the success of both the salesperson and the selling organization, many sellers still continue to discount their importance. Rather than being just a sales tool, however, an effective sales proposal helps prospects make a buying decision. At the same time, a potent proposal can sell in the absence of the sales professional by communicating all the aspects of the deal in writing. Remember, sales proposals stay in front of the buyer long after the salesperson is gone and may reach the final decision-maker even when the salesperson cannot.

Common Reasons for Rejection

Why do so many sales proposals fall short of their intended objective of closing deals? Simply stated, it's because they are written from the seller's point of view. Experts say a vast majority of companies are still using sales-driven sales proposals that do little to differentiate one seller from another.

"In this day and age, you can't have a general sales proposal approach -- they have to be customized," says Dave Lakhani, director of sales and public relations for Cougar Mountain Software, an accounting software developer based in Boise, Idaho. "No one solution is going to be a completely perfect match. The proposal has to educate the buyer, it has to show them how it's as perfect a match as they will get, and it has to justify the price in the customer's mind."

Sales-driven proposals fall short in all three categories. Their focus is on dazzling the buyer with product or service feature dumps instead of illustrating exactly how the purchase will positively impact the buyer's business environment. These types of seller-centric, boilerplate proposals often end up in a decision-maker's circular file because they cause a major disconnect between the buyer and seller. To be sure, the boilerplate proposal is a direct contradiction to the consultative selling approach many companies are now beginning to adopt. According to Robert Kantin, author of "Strategic Proposals: Closing the Big Deal" and president of KEI & Associates, a Texas-based sales consulting firm, the sales-driven proposal fails because it:

  • does not include a description of the buyer's current situation or an understanding of the buyer's needs and objectives.
  • makes only generalized money-making or -saving statements.
  • includes only generic product or service descriptions and benefits statements.
  • does not provide customer references.
  • does not provide specifics on productions, implementation, installation, etc.
  • does not clearly identify roles and responsibilities of both the buyer and the seller.
  • often forces the buyer to estimate total fees and prices on their own.

In a nutshell, sales-driven proposals center on the seller and fail to give enough attention to the buyer's unique situation.

Customer-Driven Proposals Facilitate Sales

Customer-driven sales proposals, on the other hand, focus more on the prospect's needs and anticipating their questions. And experts agree that customer-driven sales proposals can facilitate the sales process.

"A very well-done proposal can shorten the sales cycle," says Mark Gardner, managing partner at OnTarget, an Atlanta-based sales consulting firm.

A client-focused proposal will differentiate you, it will sell you in your absence, and it will let the customer know exactly what it is you are going to do for them, explains Gardner. In this manner, customer-driven proposals help close the gap between buyer and seller expectations. More importantly, they set the right expectations for all parties from the get-go. The bottom line with sales proposals is the prospect should come away with the feeling that you truly understand their business, their needs, and how your solution will fix their problems. Customer-driven sales proposals often exceed client expectations and stand out in a crowd of boilerplate documents.

According to Kantin, customer-driven proposals facilitate the sales process because they:

  • require the salesperson to gather more information about the buying organization and its current situation. Kantin says this process results in a stronger rapport with the buyer, who appreciates the seller's effort to fully comprehend the needs of the buying organization.
  • require an accurate description of the product or service being sold and define its specific financial and non-financial benefits to the buyer.
  • include a detailed explanation of how the product or service will impact the buyer's company.
  • describe the business aspects of the deal, such as fees/prices, invoicing and delivery schedules, etc.

Anatomy of a Winning Sales Proposal

"The proposal, in the buyer's mind, may be a wrap-up of the entire sales process, clearly defining the buyer's needs, a reason for change, how the new product or service is going to make or save money for the buyer, as well as the application of the seller's product or service in the buyer's business," explains Kantin.

A winning sales proposal begins with a descriptive title. For example, if your company sells pre-selection testing for new employees, an accurate title would be, "ABC Testing Company: A Proposal to Use Pre-Selection Testing." Experts suggest, however, that a more creative effort. In this case, "Reducing Employee Turnover Through Pre-Selection Testing" would work well.

Again, most companies make the mistake of putting too much seller information up front. Kantin says it is critical for the first section of a proposal to reflect the seller's empathy for the buyer. Part one of the customer-driven sales proposal should consist of background information on the prospect and identify the improvement opportunities. This will set the stage for the next area of explanation: the proposed solution.

In this second step of the customer-driven sales proposal, it is appropriate to describe the seller's business solution. This is your chance to illustrate how your product or service will impact the buyer's business environment and how it will be implemented.

"In a consultative sales process, the proposal cannot simply present generic product or service offerings," says Kantin. "The more clearly the seller defines the application in terms of the buyer's unique situation, the easier it becomes for the decision-makers to make a buying decision."

The key is matching up your value proposition with the customer's requirements and then taking a proactive role in helping the client obtain value from the product or service being offered. This is one area where you can differentiate your proposal from the rest of those in the prospective buyer's pile.

"Look at any major market. If there was any one supplier that had the best quality, best service and lowest price, there would only be one supplier," says Jacques Werth, president of Pennsylvania-based High Probability Selling and author of a book by the same name. "But that's not what everybody wants. Some want the best service and will pay through the nose to get it."

This second section of the client-focused sales proposal should discuss your product or service benefits, both financial and non-financial. While most proposals do an adequate job of describing soft gains, experts say not defining financial benefits is a common oversight. Lakhani insists discussing the financial benefits should be a strong selling point in a winning proposal. However, Gardner warns you better know ahead of time that your number is going to be accepted by the prospect or risk rapid rejection. Don't just pull numbers out of the air -- discuss the issue ahead of time whenever possible.

Next, a call to action is in order. Experts say this is another area of weakness in many proposals. "You are sending a proposal because you want somebody to do something," says Gardner. "If you leave it to the customer to imagine or think up what they should do next, they probably won't."

In other words, you have to follow up. Ideally, you should follow up within a week just to make sure the prospect doesn't have any additional questions or concerns and to determine where they are in the sales process. The sales proposal should outline what the follow on will be, and the salesperson must adhere to it. If you don't follow your own schedule, then you've just told the buyer you are not reliable.

Now that you've identified the buying organization's problem, proposed a solution, and provided justification for your price, it is time to afford the buyer an explanation of your company's credentials. The seller's profile discusses the way you do business and may include your mission statement, customer service issues and references. Experts stress that most proposals give far too much information in this area.

"Just give enough information to demonstrate to the prospective buyer that you have the capability to actually do what you say you can do in this proposal," recommends Gardner. "It's a risk-management tactic."

Finally, the last section should contain the drier business considerations, such as detailed pricing and fee information, delivery and invoicing schedules and any other business or legal requirements specific to the agreement.

Drafting the Proposal

With this framework in mind, your first step in drafting the customer-driven sales proposal is gathering information about the prospect. If you can shape the customer's requirements in a way that more closely aligns with your company's strengths, then the proposal has a good chance of winning the sale.

Effective sales proposals are difficult to create, and not just anyone should attempt to write one. Experts say although a sales proposal is really the responsibility of the sales department, it's a good idea to have marketing involved in such a critical customer communications document. Marketing can help draft a template that can act as a foundation for a customized sales proposal.

Kantin says strategic sales proposals follow the 80/20 rule. That is, 80 percent of the wording in a company's proposal is going to be standard from one buyer to the next, and 20 percent is going to be very customized.

"It's so easy if you can put yourself on the other side of the desk, in the buyer's shoes, and ask yourself questions about what you would need to know to make this buying decision," says Kantin.

Werth points out that sales proposals are generally far more complicated than they need be -- loaded with salesy talk that comes across to the executives who read it as a lot of hype. Strategic sales proposals should be as clear and concise as possible, but the length of the document largely depends on what you are selling. For example, in the high-tech industry, proposals can be dozens of pages long. Smaller companies pursuing less complex deals, and larger companies seeking follow-on business with an existing client, however, can approach proposals in a much shorter, letter format that includes all the elements of a customer-driven proposal outlined above.

Presentation of the proposal is paramount, as it is a reflection of what it is like to do business with your company. "The proposal should look and feel like it is a proposal generated by the customer themselves," insists Gardner. "It is a great way to show how you map into their culture and that you do things the way the customer does them."

However, experts warn the presentation will count for little if the content is not up to par.

Closing the Deal

Strategic sales proposals make closing the deal much simpler because the prospect is likely to have all the details and information they need to truly compare apples to apples. As well, preparing a customer-driven sales proposal demands more buyer-seller interaction, which often results in a stronger relationship between the decision-maker and the sales professional. Still, experts say a common misperception of many salespeople is assuming that the sales proposal will close the deal for them.

"It takes a lot of time and effort to prepare a good proposal," says Werth. "But a proposal should not really be a selling document because if paper would close sales, you wouldn't need salespeople."

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