You get done with a great prospecting meeting, concluding with a promise to send over a proposal. Then you get back to your desk, stare at a blank page, and wonder what to write. Having a great proposal template will help you with the basic structure, which lets you focus on the details.

When it comes time for the details, however, it’s hard to know what to write. Then, you fall back on talking about you, your company, your products and services, because you know how to write about those things. However, your proposal needs to focus on the prospect and their problem.

I’ve talked before about the need to ask good, open-ended questions (See How to Write a Sales Proposal in 6 Easy Steps). In reality, that’s only half of it. The other half is writing down the answer! For a long time, I did this in exactly the wrong way. I created prospecting forms with problems that mapped to my services, and if the prospect said something that looked like something on my list, I would put a check mark next to that item. Then I’d go back and write a proposal which was more like a product brochure for everything that was checked off. This is really bad.

The Secret: Take Good Notes

What you want to do is write down what the prospect said. It doesn’t have to be word-for-word, every word, but it should be word for word on the key points.

For example, suppose your prospect says, “the thing that drives us crazy is that we never know which proposal template format we’re supposed to use, so the sales guys make up their own and the customer doesn’t see anything consistent. The VP of Sales hates this. And you end up with different terms on the TPS reports, which drives legal crazy.”

Old me would have checked “proposal templates.”

What you want to write down is something like: “drives us crazy, never know which prop temp format to use, sales guys make up their own. inconsistent for cust. vp of sales hates. different terms on TPS reports, legal hates.”

Notice that I captured the key words the prospect used. Some of them may have to be changed for the proposal (especially for things that drive customers so crazy they end up using expletives to describe them), but you now know exactly what to write about the problem. Naturally, you would ask some more questions after this, to get into the details. Remember, don’t use jargon unless it’s the prospects’ jargon.

When you’re in the problem definition section of your proposal template, you can now search through your notes and describe the problem and its impact in the prospect’s own words. In other words, using the right words. Do the same thing for the timeline and solution. No more guessing. No need to fill your proposal with junk about you.

How to take notes

I used to take notes in Moleskine notebooks, which was actually may favorite for taking the notes. It was easy to draw diagrams, arrows, and link thoughts in a way that’s hard to do on a screen. However, when I went back to read them, I would discover that much of my writing was encrypted by bad penmanship, and it was impossible to search. I still occasionally take notes on paper, but then I transfer them to Evernote as soon as I can.

If I’m on the phone, I use a headset, and then I can type straight into Evernote.

In a meeting, I type on my laptop, if that’s culturally acceptable, or on the iPad, which is slower, but quieter, and I can go fast enough to make it work. (Good abbreviations are really helpful.)

After I get done with a call, I organize the notes as soon as possible, while the conversation is still fresh. I try to group similar themes about problems, impacts, and constraints, which may have turned up in different parts of the conversation. If you’re good at this, you may get to more or less dump your notes into your template and be ready to go. More likely, you’ll need to polish some more when you actually write the proposal, but you’ll have a good head start.

In an ideal world, you’d have someone with you taking notes, so you could focus on the conversation, but most small business owners and their sales leaders don’t have that luxury.

I used to worry that prospects would be annoyed by me taking lots of notes, but they seem to like that someone is really paying attention to them, and writing it down so they can use it later. In many cases, the prospect can’t make the decision alone, so they are trying to help you prepare something that will be convincing to their colleagues. They want you to get it right almost as much as you do.

Whatever method you use, take good, detailed notes. Then, when you actually need to go back and write your proposal, you don’t have to wonder what words to use or try to remember what the prospect said. It seems like more work at the time, but it will actually shorten your sales cycle, reduce your stress, and improve your win rate.

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