Five Fatal Flaws in Proposal Writing
By Jeff Weil, General Manager Qvidian
The days of a simple handshake to cement a deal are long gone. Today, the sales proposal process is complex, involving a review committee on the buyer’s end, governance and compliance requirements on the supplier’s end, and a myriad of questions, referrals, and ROI prompts that rival United Nations trade agreements.
Traditionally, the thinking has been that once the hard work of convincing a company that your services are what they need is accomplished, the sales proposal just means formalizing the agreement on paper. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The sales proposal elevates the conversation between a salesperson and the line-of-business buyer. Even if both parties agree to move forward, the sales proposal must pass muster with a whole new delegate of deciders—from the legal team to the CFO, chief security officer and beyond.
While many companies are now recognizing the need for comprehensive and thoughtful proposals, many continue to make fatal mistakes. Here are five of those fatal flaws and how to avoid them.
Chasing Pipe Dreams
Sales people spend thousands of hours yearly on sales proposals that don’t have a remote chance of succeeding. This sounds unlikely, but how often have you received an unsolicited (yet reputable) request for proposal (RFP) in your email inbox and just tossed it out? Probably not. The common thinking is, why not respond? What do we have to lose? In reality, you have a lot to lose. In fact, the large majority of RFPs responses fail.
Closing a complex deal requires lots of resources, research and careful analysis of the buyer’s market and needs. If you don’t know what they need, you can’t align your products or services to meet them. Before putting a minimum of a half a dozen professionals on the RFP project, you need to know who is the incumbent? What are the business drivers? Is their business a good fit for our skill-set? In addition, just because a business issues an RFP doesn’t mean it’s serious about it. Maybe it’s just trying to play mind games with its incumbent provider or just trying to look through when they already have a winner in mind. Only through a conversation with the buyer can this type of information be uncovered.
Making the Wrong First Impression
Research shows that the first question companies ask themselves when reviewing a sale proposal is “will we get what we need?” So, right out of the gate, in your executive summary, show them. Many providers focus too much in the executive summary on their own history, credentials, and even how pleased they are to be a part of the process. Content focused on the customer and its goals almost always trump self-centered content. Yet, many proposals start with a corporate overview or listing of qualifications.
Not Getting the Power of Persuasion
It’s important to understand if the reader’s intent in reviewing a sales proposal is to understand facts, because if so, then the structure should be informative. Yet, if the goal is to make a decision, then it must be persuasive. You can’t go wrong with creating a persuasive structure, which typically consists of the following four steps:
- Demonstrate your understanding of the customer’s needs
- Indicating probable outcomes from your efforts
- Recommending a solution to deliver the results
- Providing proof that you can do the job on time and on budget and why you’re the best choice
Missing the Value Proposition
The vast majority of sales proposals completely miss the value proposition—the positive impact they will achieve in specific areas of business performance. You need to spell out how you will increase market share, lower costs or automate labor-intensive processes. Whatever the customer seeks, you need to carefully spell out how they will get it through the differentiators that distinguish you. Each company assigns its own unscientific percentages to key criteria when making a decision. It’s important that you score high in each of these areas to make it an easy decision.
Being Unclear and Complicated
Showing you have mastery of complex processes and technical details is one thing, but speaking way above the heads of the reader is another thing altogether. Many a deal was lost simply because the company had no idea what you were saying. Language that is inappropriate for the reader’s level of technical understanding; overuse of acronyms, jargon, and buzzwords; and the use of long complex sentences completely turns off prospective buyers. This type of esoteric content only serves to create barriers between you and the potential customer.
Studies done by the Dartnell Institute find that most executives don’t read the entire proposal, but instead, they skim it, looking at the first page or two and scrolling down to find pricing information. Make your key points jump off the page clearly and directly, easy to find and absorb.