In a perfect world, business proposals are written to offer solutions to problems faced by prospective customers. Business proposals are supposed to help buyers get the exact products or services that they want. Unfortunately, in the real world many business proposals fall short of what they are intended to do. On top of that, recognize that in many cases, your customers might request something that is not the exact solution to fit their needs.
Clients often ask me, “What should be in a proposal?” First start by understanding that executives and buyers make decisions by asking, “Why do we need this?” or “What problem does this solve?” Next recognize that buyers are most comfortable with the vendor that best understands their situation and presents the greatest value.
A winning business proposal should help the client (1) gain comfort with you and your organization and (2) understand the value of your solution. Companies that see the value are more likely to pick your solution.
Here are 4 steps to help you create a winning business proposal.
Step 1 – Explain that you understand what the client needs, and why it is important
In your proposal clearly demonstrate your understanding of not only the client’s stated challenge, but also the secondary impact to their organization of not solving the issue. A majority of your time and effort should be placed here. As the client reads your proposal, they might even recognize new, important reasons this issue needs to be solved. They won’t be wondering whether or not you “get it.”
For example, you might say it this way in your proposal, “From our discussion with your team, we recognize that the reason you are replacing this system is the frustration your customers face when they cannot get accurate information. We appreciate how this is impacting your brand reputation, and we will work closely with you to ensure your customers adore the new system and will want to tell their friends about it.”
Step 2 – Demonstrate how you have solved similar problems for others
Share stories in your proposal about how you solved challenges for organizations facing similar issues as your client. Even if you have not solved the identical issue at hand, illustrate how and why the client might find another client’s predicament is similar enough to demonstrate where you delivered solid results. That said, be candid if you have never before delivered the exact solution you are proposing to your client. The client will find out and your honesty will build trust.
Do not make sensational, unsupported claims in your proposal about being the only people on the planet who could possibly solve the client’s issue. Identify any potential risks of achieving their goals, and your plan to avoid those challenges. You could explain it like this in your proposal, “Recently, another client of ours (XYZ Company) faced a similar challenge with their customer-facing systems. Visit this URL to see how their customers are now raving about their system. Though the functionality is not identical, you might find they had similar challenges.”
Step 3 - Talk about yourself very little, and the competition even less
In your proposal use your existing customer's words to talk about you. For example: "Our clients describe us as responsive, innovative, and reliable." Nobody believes the vendor’s claims about themselves. But, your client's words are credible. The reader gives those words almost as much weight as a 3rd party reference. It may seem like a subtle difference, but adding your client’s voice makes a positive difference.
Though you can certainly be conscious of the competition, never say anything negative about your competition (especially in a written proposal). Your client can say something negative about other vendors, and when they do, the only appropriate response is “It’s unfortunate that you’ve had that experience.” If you add fuel to the fire, you’ll only get caught in the mess.
Step 4 – Pricing and Timing
Your business proposal must directly connect your pricing (their investment) to the value the client will receive from your solution. In the book How Smart Companies Save Money, Jack Quarles explains that the goal of buying is Value. Value, is the difference between the benefit and the price. (Value = Benefit – Price).
Successful proposals portray a solution as an investment and clearly show what happens if the client DOESN’T solve the issue at hand. Michael Boyette shared in his article: Create sales proposals that will ‘knock their socks off’ your proposal should define a business case for your solution. Michael shares in Step 3 four pieces of the business case puzzle: illustrate the costs, benefits, timing, and financial impact of your solution. Remember it’s essential your proposal focuses on results, not resources. The customer wants to solve a problem, not buy hours or items.
Above all, get there early in the proposal process. In most cases, executives tell me they win fewer than 10% of the ‘Blind Bid’ opportunities. Comparatively, when they get to a deal early, they tell me they win more than 50% of the time.
Jack Quarles confirms that eventually, buyers have a preferred vendor for whom they are rooting. If they are not rooting for you, rest assured they are rooting for someone else. (In the interest of full disclosure, Jack is also my co-author for Same Side Selling, which ships in early April).
If the customer was rooting for you before, they won’t be if you deliver a lousy proposal. Invest the time to deliver a quality proposal, and you’ll make their decision easy. Just be sure to always make it clear what’s in it for them, and demonstrate how you are sharply focused on their results.
It’s Your Turn
Where do you struggle with proposals? When on the receiving end of a proposal, what catches your attention (in a good way – or a negative way)?
More from Vistage: