Winning Sales Proposals Are Client-Centered

By Jeff Weil

In a competitive climate with more and more companies competing for business, and a performance bar that keeps on rising, the sales proposal process has become more complex, with tighter deadlines and more requirements. Yet, with more and more companies submitting RFPs and knowing very well what types of responses they are looking for, and more and more providers hearing many of the same requests and responding accordingly, is there really a way for providers to stand out?  The answer is a resounding “yes.”

While there are specific approaches and techniques providers can follow to make sure their materials are effective selling documents, a stand-out proposal has to be more than a compilation of information, data, tables and boilerplate text.  It has to address the issues the client cares about and the key strengths you can bring to the business relationship – all while providing a glimpse into your unique corporate personality.

Why do companies place such high value on proposals anyway?
At a high level, customers want to compare offers from various vendors to make sure they buy the highest value solution based on your differentiators and value proposition.  On a simpler level, they just may want to compare prices, clarify complex information and gather information so that they can review it in order to select a vendor. And to be honest, sometimes they just want to slow down the sales process and proposal writing is a good way to keep a sales rep busy for a few weeks.

Whatever the motivation, the fact is that the sales proposal is required writing – and usually the only way to close business.  The objective is to provide enough persuasively presented information to prove your case and motivate the client to choose you among all the companies vying for their business. Seems straightforward enough, but not always easy.

Below are four tips for ensuring that your sales proposal goes to the top of the pile:
1. Show that you understand the business need

Companies, like most individuals, can view a major buying decision with some anxiety.  They understand that even a well-intentioned vendor could end up wasting their time or money, and a bad decision could reflect poorly on the person responsible for the selection.  One way to reduce this anxiety is to demonstrate that you deeply understand their problems, issues, needs, opportunities, objectives and values, stating clearly how your solution will address each one of them.

2. Provide a recommendation, not just an overview of your offering
It may be surprising that most proposals contain no recommendation at all, which could be a specific approach, methodology, system design or application. What they contain instead are descriptions of products or services, yet there is a clear difference between the two.  A recommendation explicitly links the features of the product or service to the client’s needs and shows how it can receive positive results.  It also uses language that shows that you believe in the solution, with words such as we urge you to implement…, or we strongly believe… Moving away from providing check-off items or laundry lists, and providing more specific solutions to business problems can go a long way to helping you stand out.

3. Make the value proposition front and center
What usually wins the business is the best value proposition. You can write a proposal that hits all the prompts that the client presents, and that even provides the lowest price, and still lose the business. This can happen because a competitor may have made a stronger case for a solution that would offer the higher return on investment, lower total cost of ownership, faster pay-back or another measure of value that matters to the client. Make sure your proposal prominently and clearly provides a good estimate of the rate of return, in addition to pricing.

4. Provide evidence that you’re up to the task
Most proposals show how you will deliver on time and on budget, but they can often fail to answer the question, can this vendor really do this? Substantiating evidence is key to putting the client at ease. Each proposal should include case studies, references, testimonials and bios on key team members.  You also might want to include white papers, awards and other third-party recognition, but be careful not to throw in everything, but only information that is important to the customer and that doesn’t take up too much of the customer’s time. Also remember that every data point or content should provide proof of either your responsiveness, competence or value.

Each proposal should be structured to clearly accomplish the following:

  • Summarize the client’s needs
  • Show the potential for gains or improvement
  • Recommend the solution
  • Substantiate your ability to do the job

There’s no question that customers expect more today and a boilerplate sales proposal simply won’t cut it.  To truly stand out from within a pile of proposals, today’s providers must treat customers as unique entities, not demographic units. Demonstrating that you truly understand the customer’s business challenges and marketplace needs and you have a recommendation that can address them head on is what separates a failing proposal from a winning one.

Jeff Weil, General Manager, Upland Qvidian, is a recognized enterprise software executive with 25+ years of experience building strong organizations and leading high-performance teams. Connect with Jeff on Twitter or LinkedIn.