Anyone involved in sales, marketing or demand generation should make it a point to get involved in buying processes from time-to-time to see how others manage the sales process. I’m lucky enough to see multiple processes on a regular basis.
Between the prospects I’m discussing services with, working with our existing clients and in my role as CEO of Imagine (on the buying side) I easily participate in many processes every month.
There’s one thing that about 90% of them have in common with each other - they suck! I mean they’re really bad.mThey’re boring, self-centered, confusing and basically a waste. And the lynchpin of their suckiness (is that a word?) has got to be the proposal. That critical point where the seller is going to deliver the full proposition and demonstrate how their solution fills the needs of their prospect is so bad, so often that I’m surprised people actually buy.
The reason it’s so bad isn’t because of a lack of time, attention or even money. I know many companies where the costs of developing a proposal are in the tens of thousands of dollars. You’d think with an investment like that, it would be the best part of the process. Unfortunately it’s not.
In my experience, there are four primary reasons that that proposals are as bad as they are. I share the fixes below. Before I get to the solution, let me be clear that when I talk about proposals I’m talking about formal and informal proposals. If you’re asking someone to buy something from you, you’re making a proposal. Following these rules is crucial to success.
Invest the Time for a Quality Diagnosis/Needs Assessment
Let’s be clear, if you haven’t done a quality needs assessment or diagnosis, then by definition your proposal is going to suck. An effective proposal must present a clear, cogent and solid business case. It should highlight:
- The outcomes desired.
- The problems/barriers that are preventing those outcomes.
- How the proposed solution addresses the barriers.
- The impact of the solution, both in terms of the problems that are solved and/or avoided, as well as the opportunities that are captured.
If you haven’t done an effective job establishing a deep understanding of their situation, issues, challenges and opportunities, there’s no way you can make it anything more than an “all about our product” treatise.
Be Sure You’re Teaching Something
A solid proposal educates your customer. It’s the opportunity for the salesperson to teach the prospect the how and the why of the proposition. Proposals that start off with things like, “What we heard you want…” are the beginning of the end. In today’s competitive world, if you’re just giving me what I want, then you better do it at a lower price than anyone else offering to do the same thing.
The proposals that stand out create value and stand on their own. When developing your proposal, answer this critical question, “How would the prospect be better off after seeing our proposal, even if they don’t end up buying from us?” If the answer is nothing, then start over.
Communicate to the Audience that Won't Be Attending Your Presentation and/or Wasn’t Directly Involved in Your Sales Process
In today’s consensus-driven buying world, you’d better be prepared for people that you’ve had no contact with viewing your proposal. For example, if you’re asking a prospect to pay a significant amount for your product/service, you can bet the finance department is going to influence the decision, whether they’re involved directly or not.
You no longer compete only with others who offer the same types of solutions as yours; today you compete with every initiative or item asking for budget. Your proposal must demonstrate a clear business case and show why buying from you makes everyone stronger.
Proposals Should Be Presented, Not Sent
The last item on my list is a huge pet peeve of mine. The number of salespeople who tell me they’ve “sent the proposal” is astonishing. If your proposal is so simple that it can be merely sent, then you better be the low price provider.
If you’re sending the proposal you lose the opportunity to teach, demonstrate real value and prepare your prospects to present your recommendations effectively to others within their organization. The very idea that you can simply send a document to someone takes away a tremendous amount of the power you have in the selling process.
Now, if your prospect says they don’t want a presentation and they would like you to send it; then you have one of two problems:
- You haven’t demonstrated the value you bring to justify the prospect spending more time with you, or
- Your prospect doesn’t value the solution enough to spend time reviewing it with you.
If it’s the former problem, go back to the beginning and do a better diagnosis to demonstrate value. If it’s the latter, realize that you’ve been commoditized and respond accordingly.
While I firmly believe that sales is not won at the proposal stage (they’re won much earlier), they are often lost. This is a very important stage of the process. Be sure you’re giving it the time and attention it needs. Remember that delivering a proposal is a form of theatre, so be sure to put on a great production. You’ll get great reviews...and checks to go along with it.