“Can you send me a proposal?”, is one of the best questions you can get in sales. But it also leads to a lot of stress. Small business owners who moonlight as the “VP of Sales”, and even seasoned sales reps lose sales and profit by committing these 6 unforced errors.

1. Making It All about You

The proposal tells the customer how you will solve their problem. Period. Resist the temptation to include lots of background about your company, your team, and most of all, your products. Describe expertise and features only in relation to the customer’s specific problem and the benefit you provide. If you feel you must have an “About Us” section, keep it to a short paragraph. It’s great to introduce key players on the project, but keep their bios short, too. You can always use hyperlinks to product literature, awards lists, the “About Us” section of your website, and other material, giving the customer the option of learning more, without compelling them to waste time while they are reading the proposal.

2. Not Talking about Value

This section ties into #1, but relates to the customer’s point of view. You need a crisp, clean answer, not just to the “who? what? where? when? and how?” of the project, but also the “why?” Why does the customer want to do the project? What happens if they complete it successfully? What happens if they don’t? Everyone on the project should have a clear view of the project goals, success metrics, and impact. This doesn’t mean that every project has a precise ROI of 322% in 6 months. While quantitative value is great, even something simple like “we don’t know how many web visitors are not converting, so we can’t even start to optimize conversion yet” can provide clarity. (See “how to write a killer proposal” for more tips on gathering value information.)

3. Writing Like a High Schooler

High school essays seemed like a contest to take simple ideas and turn them into complex sentences laced with SAT vocabulary words, extended until the essay met the minimum length requirement. It’s a wonder our english teachers are still sane. Write your proposals the opposite way.

Keep them as short as possible. Your readers are busy.

Distill the words and sentences to be as simple as possible, but no simpler. (I got a rude awakening in my college freshman writing course. The professor took a red pen to my bloated writing, often simply crossing out over half the page.) Avoid jargon, unless it’s your customer’s jargon. Don’t leverage the word “leverage”, when you can use the word “use.” Your writing reflects your thinking. (Oglivy reference, Orwell reference). If your writing is bloated and incoherent, what does that say about your ability to deliver the project? Reread your proposal to find sections that you can streamline, simplify, or clarify. (For great writing tips, see this advice from Orwell and Ogilvy.)

Make sure your grammar and spelling are correct. (I once started a presentation with a slide that misspelled the project leader’s name.)

4. Vagueness

Your proposal should spell out who needs to do what, and when. Almost every proposal should have a timeline so the customer knows what to expect as the project progresses. You may not know enough to spell out every date and milestone in detail, but be as specific as you can. If you can’t give a date, give a range, and tell the customer what influences the estimate (“data collection can take from 1 day to 1 month, but typically 2-3 weeks, depending on whether we have full time access to your database administrator”). You can use relative dates (“1 week after data collection, we will have the initial TPS reports”). Make sure you specify what you need the customer to do for you. Many projects run into trouble because you are waiting on the customer’s help, but you never told the customer that you need 6 hours of the VP of sales’ time to validate the TPS reports. Stuff happens and peoples’ schedules may get shuffled around, but at least the customer won’t be blaming you if they know that the project is blocked on their side. Being upfront about commitments also demonstrates your expertise in solving the problem.

5. Not Asking for What You Want

Small business owners are the worst offenders here. Most sales reps have enough constraints that they have to ask for certain things, whether they really want them or not. Don’t ask for what you think the customer wants you to want. Ask for what you want. The most important issue here is price. Don’t underprice. Especially when you understand the value. Don’t overcommit on schedules. If you need to take a week off to deliver a talk at a conference, tell the customer when you lay out the timeline. If you want to collect some payment before starting the project, ask for it. I can’t count how many of my customers wanted to get some upfront payment to reduce their risk and improve cash flow but never thought to ask for it. When they started asking for it, they got it, over 75% of the time. Want a customer quote or video testimonial? Ask for it. Want to work offsite 50% of the time? Ask for it.

The customer may say no. They may want to negotiate. That’s OK. If they do negotiate, know that you can negotiate, too. (You might not be getting enough price objections.) The customer wants a lower price? Maybe they can’t get the rush delivery. Or maybe they have to pay more upfront. Or do a video case study. Or let you work in off-hours. The proposal should create a positive outcome for both sides. If you don’t even specify what your positive outcome is, don’t be surprised when you don’t get it, when you’re working long hours for low pay on a project you don’t find exciting. However, all of these mechanical issues that we often avoid discussing have be discussed with the customer before you create the proposal, because we don’t want…

6. Surprises

Surprises are great for birthday parties and terrible for proposals. Imagine if you were discussing a problem with a potential vendor, you thought you had a good solution, you asked for a proposal, then you find out the project costs twice what you had expected. Or that your commitments will shut down your sales team for a week. That wouldn’t feel good– don’t do it to your prospects. Discuss everything ahead of time, so the proposal just puts everything crisply and cleanly on “paper”, whether physical or virtual.

7. Using Proposal Technology from 1995

If you’re writing your proposal in Word, copying and pasting from different templates, dumping pricing information from Excel, sending the whole thing off via email, then wondering the next week whether the prospect has even read your proposal, there is an easier way. Now you can easily create a great looking proposal in the cloud, send your customer a link, get notified when they read it, see how much time they spend on each section, and collaboratively create a great solution. Shameless plug, of course, we offer just such a solution, because I was tired of struggling with proposals, too. (Check out a sample proposal about how to save the Death Star.) Give Mimiran a try for 30 days on us. See if you don’t sell faster at higher price points, while you spend less time on the grunt work of creating and updating proposals. You won’t want to go back to 1995.

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