3 Secrets for How to Write Your First Sales Proposal

For many entrepreneur’s, writing a sales proposal is an excruciating activity, harder than building a product or delivering a custom solution. Yet it’s just as essential to the health of your business. Here are some tips that will take much of the pain out of writing sales proposals, especially your first.

The proposal is not a magical document that solves problems brought up in conversation with the prospect. It’s a summary of your discussions, laying out the problem and the proposed solution. If you are staring at a blank screen, not sure what to write, 90% of the time, it’s because you haven’t asked the questions you need to fully understand the problem and suggest an appropriate solution. The other 10% of the time, it’s because you think you need to write some “professional” document, with 20 pages of boilerplate and lots of big words (see this post on avoiding jargon). Ask yourself, would you want to read that? If the prospect wanted to do that, they would have bought from a big company. (Sure, there are cases where you really do need enormous proposals. They are not your first proposal.)

Think about the discussions you had with the prospect, where they eagerly discussed their problems and you brainstormed on potential solutions. It felt good, right? Not like writing a proposal. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Secret 1: Imagine a Conversation instead of a Pitch

Imagine you are at the bar, having a beer with your prospect, sketching out the proposal outline on a napkin. Could be fun. Might not even feel like work. As long as you have enough to create that outline, that’s all you need. Then create the proposal in clear language, as if you were at the bar and had to hand the proposal to your prospect’s colleague. (Your proposal will get passed around to people who aren’t familiar with all the conversations, so make sure it stands well on its own.)

Secrete 2: The Proposal Tells a Story

The proposal is like a story. It answers the major questions: why? who? what? when? how?

“Why?” is the most important, and yet the most frequently overlooked. If you don’t know why the customer wants to do the project, your chances of winning the business are small. So put the “why” part at the beginning. I like to start with a summary of the situation, including why there’s a problem, what the impact is, why they need to solve it now, and why they need your help to solve it. For me, this is usually 1-3 paragraphs, about half a page.

Then, fill in the other questions. In other words, the solution part. Make it really clear what the prospect gets when, and what you expect them to do, when. For me, this is usually 1-3 pages.

You’ll need a bit of legal boilerplate– about a page. I’m not a lawyer, but you can start with the language in one of our sample online proposal templates.

Then, give them a place to sign, whether online, or simply by printing and signing the old fashioned way.

Before you send your proposal, you of course need to check for spelling and grammar, but more importantly, check that it tells a compelling story. There is an obstacle to overcome (the “why”, or the “villain”, which is hopefully not really a person), and a path to the goal, which may involve certain challenges, but can be reached with a talented, dedicated team. And there’s a secret here, too.

Secret 3: Read It Out Loud

I’m serious. Read. It. Out. Loud. Even though I’ve bolded this and repeated it, you won’t do this. Or if you do, you’ll start mumbling through it like an actor trying not to get a part. You need to read it out loud, conveying some excitement, again, like you are back at the bar, explaining to your prospect’s boss why this is such a great plan. It should sound clear, straightforward, and memorable. Even the legal stuff should make sense. The customer is the hero, right? Not you? You are just the guide, the catalyst. Is it easy to understand who does what and when? Is it crystal clear why the company should do this?

Even better, read it to someone else. Can they understand it? Bonus points if it’s someone who isn’t familiar with the project.

If you get through the reading (or partway through, I often find) and it starts to suck, go back and rework. When it sounds good, clear, and crisp, send it over (or, if you’re using Mimiran, just share the proposal with your prospect.)

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