How many of your proposals get accepted? If it’s less than 75%, you’re losing business you could probably save.
Our most common mistake: we don’t have enough information when we sit down to write the proposal. So instead of appealing to our prospect’s deepest needs, we focus on our own capabilities. And when we focus on ourselves, we miss the opportunity to turn interest into action.
To bring a prospect to “yes” you have to ask the right questions and listen carefully to their answers. This approach takes more work on the front end, but it’s well worth it.
Getting to Why
After you discuss what your prospects want, try asking open-ended questions to get to why they want it:
Q: Tell me more about why you’d like this.
Q: How will this affect your business?
Q: How will this help you achieve your goals?
Q: What would success look like?
Q: How would you measure that?
Q: Can you estimate the value of this to your business?
Q: What would failure look like?
Q: How might you quantify that?
You may think that these questions are intrusive. But if you ask them in a non-aggressive, curious tone, your prospects will appreciate it. I find that the more questions I ask, the more I help them clarify what they really want.
Ask questions until you know what they want, why they want it and the value they place on it. Now, and only now, are you ready to write a winning proposal.
Here’s the basic structure of a winning proposal:
- Situation Summary
- Measures of Success
- Process and Deliverables
- Fees, Terms and Conditions
- Next Steps
- Support Materials
Eleven years ago, I read a book by Alan Weiss. His advice on pricing and proposal writing set the direction for a very successful consulting practice. To learn more, I would encourage you to read his books.
Here’s what I gleaned from his advice:
Open your proposal by summarizing your understanding of the prospect’s situation and what led them to you. Make sure that this is totally accurate. If it’s not, you will lose them. If it’s spot on, you will instantly hook them. There’s nothing more enticing than being understood. Be sure to show that you get them.
Now summarize their key objectives. These should be specific and serve to lay the foundation for why you are the perfect solution. Use a bullet point list for clarity. An example: “Fill to capacity your annual tech conference.”
Measures of Success
Using the information gathered during discovery, summarize the objectives stated above in a quantifiable way. For example: “Sell 600 registrations to the annual tech conference.” Measures like this help you and your client know what success looks like so you can monitor progress along the way.
I see you wringing your hands. “But what if they say they want to achieve 25% sales growth and they don’t? Won’t they hold me responsible?” Not if you show that you are in this together and totally committed to their success, even if you cannot guarantee it.
Try language like this:
“Since there are many factors that contribute to achieving your objectives, it’s impossible to guarantee success. However, I can promise that I will live up to the commitments in this proposal and that by doing so, we will greatly increase the odds that, together, we will meet or exceed your expectations.”
Most of us are afraid to include a statement of value, largely because we’re unsure of it. But if you do your initial discovery well, you will understand the prospect’s definition of value and, by stating it here, provide an important turning point in the sales process.
Here’s an example of a value statement:
“If we are successful at employing a social media marketing strategy for your fall conference, you will sell to capacity. By doing so, you will net $125,000; your sponsors will renew, securing $800,000 in sponsorship revenue; and your conference attendees, who requested a larger group this year, will be happy and help further build attendance through positive word-of-mouth.”
Now you’re creating a scenario where you and your client build value together. And that’s really powerful.
Having presented your understanding of your prospect’s situation, goals, definition of success and desired value, you can now (and only now) talk about yourself and how you’ll address their needs. You’ve laid out the “Why.” Now it’s time for the “What.”
If you’ve done the first part well, your recommendations will seem a natural and ideal fit. Everything you say here should focus solely on how it serves your prospect’s specific needs. If you use boilerplate language pulled from other proposals (there’s nothing wrong with being that efficient), be sure to edit so that it speaks directly to this prospect.
Offer options. This gives prospects choices and lines up the decision to be one of “which” versus “whether”. Try three options, making the second one the best fit, the first one a fallback, and the third one an enhanced option. I’ve been surprised over the years how many clients choose the third option.
Process and Deliverables
This section allows you to explain “How” you’ll deliver the recommended services or products described above. Call this section something else if it doesn’t fit your industry. The point here is to detail how you’re going to fulfill the recommended options above. If you’ve offered three options, make the distinctions between them very clear.
Fees, Terms and Conditions
If yours is a service-related business, try breaking down your fees into discreet pieces. I like to use a small chart that clearly lays out the three options with a breakdown of services within each one. This approach:
Takes away the shock of a single (and possibly large) price tag
Gives you tools if asked to discount (you can go to each piece and offer to remove or reduce its scope in order to lower the overall fee)
Shows all of the components that go into a complete solution
State your terms and conditions clearly. If you require partial or full payment upfront, be sure to state that.
Consider including a guarantee; a non-cancellation policy and an expiration date. Here’s the language I use, borrowed from Alan Weiss:
“This project, once approved, is non-cancelable, although it may be delayed, rescheduled and otherwise postponed without penalty. I fully guarantee my work. In the event you feel that I am not meeting the standards described in this proposal or in mutual conversations and agreements, I will refund your entire fee.”
In 11 years, not a single client has asked me for a refund. But a few have told me that the guarantee helped them overcome any reservations in hiring me.
Then close this section with: “The fees quoted in this proposal are firm for 30 days.” Thirty days is sufficient and creates some sense of urgency, but use whatever timeframe you like.
Lay out what you want your prospect to do next. If they’re ready to commit, ask them to sign and send you this document (I include a signature and date line so the proposal becomes the agreement). If they have questions, encourage a call or meeting. Don’t finish the proposal without a clear and final call to action.
You may need to include support materials such as:
- Assumptions (a list of assumptions that have guided the scope of the proposal, outside which you will quote additional fees)
- Timeline (specific time estimates for doing the work, beginning with your proposal)
- Background (relevant details about you and your company)
- References (name, phone and email for relevant contacts)
It’s best to include this information at the end so you maintain the momentum from interest to action without bogging down the flow with details.
The best way to produce winning proposals is to practice. Make up a scenario (ideal client for an ideal project is always fun) and craft a proposal using this format. It’ll give you a great template next time you’re ready for a resounding “Yes!”