Why Your Sales Proposal Language Might be Giving You Away

For someone who spends so much time dealing with sales proposals, I really hate reading them.

It’s not just that they are boring, it’s that they often lie, or obscure truth.

In an effort to sound convincing, their authors subvert their own intentions. Ever seen a proposal that talks about how the company is “truly focused on the customer”? Would they be “untruly” focused on the customer? (Well, I guess they might, especially if they use language like that.)

An article in the Wall Street Journal by Elizabeth Bernstein highlights some psychological aspects of these “performatives” or “qualifiers”, indicating that we use them to follow good manners, and a general desire to avoid outright lying, while still avoiding topics that may be uncomfortable. The article focuses mainly on spoken communication (how often have you heard a salesman say “honestly, …” and immediately assumed that what followed must be b.s.?), but also applies to written text.

One simple example: recently someone was preparing a presentation and wanted to mention that they had “well over 100,000 users.” I argued that “well”, while added to strengthen “over”, actually weakened it. “Well” causes us to rethink what follows. ¬†Having “over 100,000 users” is already strong stuff. Don’t throw it into doubt.

Similarly, don’t talk about how you’re “truly customer focused.” This makes it sound like you care more about meaningless corporate speak than your customers. Describe how you take care of your customers. For example, you might:

  • provide testimonials from happy customers.
  • provide your own cell phone number with an invitation to “call me personally if there are any problems.”
  • introduce your support team on the phone and provide pictures and brief bios of them in your proposal.
  • describe how feedback from prior customers has shaped the features of the solution they want.
  • etc, etc, etc.

The point is, make it concrete and believable. If you don’t have anything concrete to say, go back and fix that problem.

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