Part 5 - How you craft a winning proposition
In the first four parts of this series of articles on how to write a winning sales proposal, quotation or tender, we explored: Part 1 - How you make decision makers read your proposal, Part 2 - Structuring for 200% conversion, Part 3 - Writing a powerful executive summary and Part 4 - How to write compelling selling points.
In this final part we look at how you turn lacklustre proposal into a masterpiece of sales persuasion.
Encourage decision makers to read your sales proposals
Clarity encourages reading. It also ensures that your message is understood. Here are some important aspects of clear writing.
Clarity and meaning
Nothing is more certain to stop people reading than uncertainty of meaning.
You probably have many years experience in your products or services, so-much-so that you tend to explain things from the position of an expert. Expert words and descriptions are part of your own everyday language. You probably also use similar expert terminology to demonstrate that you know your onions. What compounds this offence is when you write your proposal for an expert buyer, not the senior decision maker. A surprising number of professionals who sell business services, consultancy and technology products are guilty of this failure.
The problem is this. The most influential decision makers often have little specialist understanding of what you sell. Imagine writing a proposal to sell an IT Data Network to the senior partners of legal or an accountancy group.
When you write and proof-read your own proposals or quotations you’ll probably find nothing wrong. You may even congratulate yourself on your specialist skills, terminology and writing prowess. But when customers, particularly senior decision makers, fail to understand what you’re saying, or they find it difficult to follow your points, they will stop reading rather than struggle on. This is particularly the case when a reader is busy or tired – and most decision makers can claim to be one or the other much of the time.
The only way to be sure that a sales proposal or quotation is understood by everyone in a buying group, is to get others to read it. But don’t ask your colleagues who are bound to know. Ask people who have the same level of understanding as the senior decision makers you need to influence. Ask them specifically if they understand every word and sentence.
Editing your proposal copy
Clarity also involves keeping to the point. If you deviate into unrelated issues, waffle on about secondary or minor details, or embellish your copy with superlatives, then expect the decision maker to stop reading. They are busy people. They would much rather read five pages than twenty five.
Search out all duplications, redundant information, unnecessary trumpet-blowing and waffle. Use a red highlighter. And be ruthless. The challenge is to reduce your copy length by two-thirds in your first edit. It’s not difficult when you put your mind to it. The resultant copy will be more inviting to read and far more influential.
If you feel that something may be of interest to one or other member of the buying group, but not others, mention it briefly and place the additional detail in an appendix. That’s what an appendix is for.
Focus on the customer
A key skill in selling is understanding your customer's needs. You need to stand in their shoes and understand how they see, describe and gain from your product or service. Start by considering the language the customer uses. ‘I need my employees to be able to access their computer files and customer information from whatever location they are working.’ (Not ‘Secure host-verified password access’). ‘I also want to be sure that our stored information is kept confidential and secure (Not ‘Firewall Protected’). This forces you to acknowledge the customer's needs. This also forces you to communicate using language that the customer is certain to understand.
But you must go a stage further and understand why customers use a particular product or service - what it does for them.
When you do need to mention specialist words and phrases make sure you tag on an explanation for the less expert. For example, ‘Host-verified password access ensures that only your employees’ personal computers and laptops are able to connect to your head office computer system. All other computers are blocked. This combines with a further two levels of password security to safeguard your confidential company information and customer records to the same level as the leading international banks.’
But why, you may ask, is it important to describe products or services in this way, particularly in proposal and quotation writing?
The reason is simple. Customers only buy products or services to satisfy needs. They interpret needs in terms of their own understanding of what a product or service will do for them. Customers may not necessarily relate to descriptions which are based on the supplier's knowledge and understanding. If senior decision makers don't perceive how they can gain from what you sell, they may not authorise a purchase or alternatively they buy elsewhere.
Your final sales proposal check list
Before you seal the envelope or press the email send button check the following:
1. Use simple words and phrases. When you read your brain compares word patterns and phrases on the page with a library in your memory. Most people build a library of two and three word combinations. Regular readers read patterns of four or more words.
‘Available immediately on demand.’ is unfamiliar and difficult to read. A simple combination like, ‘Ready to take away’ is absorbed at a glance. Fractions of difficulty add up to annoyance, so use simple, easily recognised, word combinations.
2. Use short words If you’re tempted to use long, impressive words, don’t. Long words make reading difficult and many stop reading altogether. Use short, familiar words that everyone understands and find easy to read. The acid test; do you use the words when you speak?
3. Do I include an opening ‘Affinity’ statement to demonstrate that I understand what the customer expects to gain as a result of buying my product or service?
4. Do I communicate impressive customer outcomes? For example; reduce their work load or cost (machinery), make them feel secure (alarm system), increase their success (training), make them wealthy (Advertising agency), release time for more important activities (business services). Do I also touch on the most important secondary customer gains as well. But no more than three outcomes or gains in total or you overload them.
5. Do I repeat the three most important customer gains or outcomes at least three times in my quotation, varying the way they are explained, perhaps with different examples. (It’s the way you control what the customer remembers. If you mentioned nine outcomes once you can be sure that the customer will recall the least important three. Murphy’s law)
6. Have I convinced the customer that they will achieve what they want from the purchase? Have you included convincing referrals, testimonials, evidence or used simple logic to make them believe, for example when you reduce costs you increase profits.
7. Do I explain why my offer is better than any one of my competitor's? Will all the important decision makers, particularly the CEO, understand everything I say; all the descriptions, terms and any specialist words I use?
8. Do I recommend a next course of action for the customer – or are they expected to guess what to do next?
9. Is my proposal positive. If you focus on negative issues your customer will associate your offer with problems. So don’t write about how you ‘manage adverse publicity’, ‘reduce costs’ or ‘eliminate late deliveries’. Convert negatives into positives. Write about beneficial things such as how you ‘create positive publicity’, ‘increase gross profit margins’ and ‘achieve on-time delivery’.
Don’t write, ‘Our full height barriers prevent accidents.’
Write, ‘Our full height barriers keep your workers safe.’
Some advice on fonts for sales proposals and quotations
Books, newspapers and the majority of magazines are typeset in a serif font. There's a very good reason why publishers do this. It encourages reading and increases sales. An inappropriate typeface dissuades people from reading and that loses sales.
Avoid using Sans Serif type like Arial for your proposal copy. It puts many people off reading, especially older readers (Senior decision makers?). Yes, it does look neat and tidy and it does suit technical products. But if people don't read your proposals, how much will you sell?
It is, however, acceptable to set short headings and subheadings in a sans serif font such as Arial (Not recommended) or better still Helvetica, Calibri or Gill Sans.
Good reading typefaces include Garamond, Carlson, Palatino, Baskerville, Century Old Style and Bembo, among others. If you’re wondering why I haven’t included Times New Roman or a web font like Georgia, read my free e-book.