How to Write a Proposal
- Limit your proposal to 1-2 pages
- Direct your proposal to the correct stakeholders
- Seperate deliverables from pricing
- Anchor pricing with a range of options
- Keep language simple
- Use copywriting best practices
- Pay attention to the implications of financial language
- Include customer testimonials
- Reserve sharing company details until the end
- Ensure your proposal is viewable across a variety of devices
- Make your contract signable
- Proofread your proposal before sending (really)
Let’s face it, there’s nothing fun or sexy about sales proposals. You’ve got a hot lead and you’re anxious to close the deal. But before your prospect will sign on the dotted line, you’ve got to provide them with the paperwork necessary to do so in the first place -- and often, that process starts with a sales proposal.
Plenty of salespeople drop the ball when it comes to sales proposals, treating them as nothing more than an administrative hurdle to be jumped in pursuit of the deal. That gives you an opportunity to stand out and differentiate yourself -- if you’re willing to put the time into writing a great proposal.
Business Proposal Definition
A business proposal is a multi-page document that outlines who you are, what you’re offering, what results you expect to achieve, and how much it’ll cost the client. Sales or business proposals aren’t required in every purchase decision; they’re more commonly used in complex sales processes or larger organizations with defined RFP (request for proposal) processes.
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STOP: Should You Be Writing a Proposal?
But before I get into what a great proposal looks like, I want to point out that there are a few circumstances where sales proposals aren’t necessary (or even appropriate). Ask yourself the following questions before you start writing:
- Is the client serious about moving forward with the project? Only serious prospects should get sales proposals. If you’ve got a tire kicker or someone in the early stages of their exploration, save your effort until they’re further down the pipeline.
- Do you have a realistic shot at winning the business? Is your prospect actually looking for a solution like yours? Do they really have the budget? Time saved not writing proposals for poor-fit prospects is time that can be spent seeking out better buyers.
- Have you talked to the prospect about their budget and the intended scope of work? Plenty of salespeople are afraid to talk specifics too early on, fearing it’ll kill the excitement of the deal. But why would you put energy into writing a proposal if you aren’t sure the scope and budget you’d include would match your client’s expectations? Have the hard conversations first.
- Are you required to submit a proposal to be considered? Sometimes, you can’t get around submitting a proposal - even if the criteria above haven’t been met. In these cases, there’s not much you can do besides get to work.
- Can you repurpose an old proposal, or do you need to start from scratch? Finally, don’t assume you have to reinvent the wheel each time. While your proposal should be customized to the specific prospect you’re pitching, you can still develop a base template you translate to each prospect’s needs.
A good sales proposal should never be a surprise. Instead, it should feel like the next logical step in the conversations you’ve been having with your prospect and the relationship you’ve been building.
Make sure you’ve answered all of the questions below before starting work on your sales proposal:
- What problem is the client trying to solve? What pains are they experiencing? Yes, proposals need to convey the specifics of the deal. But they should also prove they’ll provide the outcomes the prospect is looking for, so make sure you understand their pain points before undertaking a proposal.
- What’s their budget? If you don’t know their budget, don’t write the proposal. Disqualify prospects that aren’t likely to fit early on by pressing them to nail down a project budget.
- What are their goals and expectations? Why is your work so important to the client? What will having it complete allow the client to achieve? Sales isn’t about what they can do for you. It’s about the problems you can solve for them.
- When do they need results? What are their expectations regarding timelines and deliverables? Make sure you can realistically meet these expectations before capturing them in your proposal.
- Who will be involved in making the decision? Capture key stakeholders not just so you know who to deliver your proposal to, but also to address their individual needs in your document.
Best Practices for Proposal Drafting
The principles below aren’t set in stone. Instead, think of them as general guidelines you can use as a starting point to give your proposal direction. Don’t be afraid to go your own way, when appropriate.
- Aim for no more than one-to-two pages. Unless a longer proposal is required as part of an RFP process, shorter is generally better when you consider people’s short attention spans.
- Make sure your proposal gets to the right place. Do this by directing your proposal to the right person (or people) and including any necessary information at the start.
- Separate your deliverables from your pricing. Mia De Beche of Attach.io recommends separating your offer into individual elements prospects can relate to. But resist the temptation to include pricing with each of them. As she notes, “If you add a price to those sections, you’ll make the prospect to focus on its cost, rather than what it entails to the overall project. As a result, they’ll consider each element in its relation to their budget, rather than as a milestone towards achieving their goals.”
- Anchor your pricing with a range of options. It’s not always the right move, but there’s a reason many salespeople find success offering a range of prices. When a reasonable offer is presented next to a higher-ticket option, it looks even more reasonable, in comparison.
- Keep your language simple. Jargon doesn’t make you look smart. It makes you look out of touch. Cut it ruthlessly.
- Weave copywriting best practices into your proposal. Sales proposal language doesn’t have to be dry. Use relevant statistics to build authority. Use language to paint a picture of the “before” and “after” conditions clients will experience. Include CTAs between sections to entice readers to move to the next section.
- Pay attention to the implications of financial words. As Michael Michalowicz, writing for American Express, describes, “‘Investments’ pay off. ‘Fees’ are money you never see again. The differences are subtle, but very important in terms of client satisfaction.”
- Don’t just promise it. Prove it. Include customer testimonials, case studies and any other content that proves you can deliver what you’re proposing.
- Save details about who your company is until the end. Rather than starting with who you are -- which prospects don’t really care about, by the way -- focus more on the client and their problems than your company and its background.
- Make it accessible. Expect that your prospects will view your proposal on different devices and in different formats (such as print, desktop, mobile, etc. ...). Don’t frustrate them with a viewing experience that isn’t accessible across these different options.
- Make it a signable contract. Capitalize on the excitement your prospects may be feeling after reading your proposal by letting them sign on right away. Several different SaaS proposal delivery programs exist today that will turn your sales document into a signable contract.
Pre-Delivery Proofing Checklist
Think you’re ready to send? Hold your horses. You’ve got a few final checks before sending your proposal on its way.
- Does your proposal have any spelling or grammatical errors? Don’t lose business on mistakes that can be easily caught and fixed. Drop your proposal into Microsoft Word and run spell check to ensure a clean document.
- Have you addressed all elements required by their RFP process (if applicable)? Review your proposal one final time against any specifications covered by the prospect’s RFP guidelines. Missing a single one could take you out of the running.
- Is your proposal targeted specifically to the pain points identified by the client? This point is so important it’s worth a final check. Does your proposal speak more to your needs or your prospect’s needs?
- Are the timelines you’ve proposed reasonable? When a deal is so close you can almost taste it, it’s tempting to speed up your proposed timelines to make your offer even more attractive. But this is a recipe for long-term disaster. Don’t risk disappointing future customers by promising timelines you can’t realistically achieve.
- Have you created an experience that makes it as easy as possible for clients to do business with you? Finally, scan for any roadblocks you’ve inadvertently introduced to the process. If clients need to do anything more than agree with what you’ve written, decide on specific offerings and sign off on the deal, you’ve added unnecessary complications to your proposal.
You don’t sell the way you did when you first got started. Your sales proposal process has to evolve as well. To increase your odds of landing more closed-won deals in the future, you need to be paying attention to your sales proposal KPIs.
A few of the obvious metrics you could track include:
- Number of proposals sent
- Number of RFP processes where you’re chosen as a finalist
- Number of closed-won versus closed-lost deals
However, because the proposal process is so important to your overall success as a salesperson, get creative by moving beyond these base metrics. For example, could you track the number of prospects who reach out with follow-up questions because something in your initial proposal wasn’t clear? If you’re using a SaaS proposal program, are you able to monitor how much time prospects spend viewing your documents?
Becoming a Sales Proposal Rockstar
Landing more business by improving your sales proposals isn’t rocket science, but it does require some effort. Review the guidelines described above against every proposal you send, and look for cues that suggest prospects are responding well to your proposals.
With time and a commitment to continuous improvement, you’ll find that business proposals aren’t something to dread. Instead, when wielded well, they can be a valuable tool in your sales arsenal.
Originally published Aug 8, 2018 7:30:00 AM, updated March 21 2019