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Creating Successful Proposals – A Checklist of What It Takes
If you’ve been in sales for at least a short time, you know or should know everything on this list.
At least I hope so.
So, you probably could create this list yourself.
The real benefit for this list is that most sales people, justifiably so, spend their time in front of customers, clients, or prospects and they really don’t get too excited about taking selling time out to write proposals, let alone figure out how to do that well.
The important word in the last sentence is “Time.”
Hi. My name is Al Borowski and I have taken the time and my experience to compile this list.
Not only will you discover a single location for this list, but also why this list is important and how to achieve success the items in this list.
This list reveals 16 skills required to create those successful proposals.
So let’s get started.
Creating Successful Proposals – A Checklist of What It Takes
These skills are in no particular order of importance. You may need to combine all of these skills to blend a great proposal.
Also, be aware that not all of these skills apply to all proposals.
What or how many apply depends on what industry you serve or what you clients require or request and the form that request takes.
For example, if you are in the AEC area – architecture, engineering, construction, you might receive a formal, written. RFP or bid request. Government contracts also require extensive specifications and bid formats.
On the other hand, a short, one to five-page proposal might satisfy some clients’ needs.
I offer this checklist as a tool to ensure you at least thought about some of the ways you could increase the success of your proposals.
Because it is a checklist, we will not spend a lot of time explaining what each means or how to use the skill. If you are in the business world, these are business skills you should be familiar with.
Product, Service, or Client Knowledge
Obviously, this is not really a skill but rather the prerequisite for creating a proposal.
Do you think the crew of the Endeavor knew their product pretty well?
I think so.
Did the suppliers and contractors of the Endeavor know their clients well, what their needs were, what they needed to survive in space?
I think so.
You need to know what products or services will fill your clients’ needs best. The real skill here involves knowing exactly what your customers or clients need, expect, want, or say and then matching that with the correct products or services.
In some instances, what the client says versus what the client wants or the product or service that fits the client’s needs may not match.
The product or service knowledge portion of your proposal is where you emphasize your USP, your unique sales proposition.
Your USP is what separates you from your competitors.
Your USP is what separates your proposal from your competitors.
This is where some of the skills listed below will help you win the order.
The better your business writing skills, the better your chances of winning the order. Excellent business writing skills will help you exhibit the qualities of a good proposal.
Remember words like clear, concise, complete, correct, and conversational.
Proposals are not academic assignments. Do not write a proposal the way you wrote term papers. This is a business-to-business document. It is a people-to- people document.
By the way, are you aware that we are facing a comma conspiracy in our country?
Someone is stealing all the comments. Not only are they stealing the commas, they are dropping them into sentences were they do not belong.
So your writing skills definitely include spelling, punctuation, grammar, format, structure, and style.
Remember when Mom or Dad checked your homework?
Did they save you from some silly mistakes or maybe some embarrassment when you handed in your homework in school?
If salespeople write the proposal, make sure the marketing department reads and edits it. You may also want the manufacturing, engineering, or accounting departments to review the proposal.
I believe Editing skills are more important than writing skills.
Let me show you why.
I see many proposals that start:
Drummond Design, Inc would like to take this occasion to thank Host Technologies for the opportunity of presenting this proposal to become the design firm that draws up the plans for your new corporate headquarters campus. 36 words
Had this company that sent that proposal spent a few more seconds on Editing, the sentence would read:
Thank you for inviting Drummond Design, Inc. to offer this proposal to become your designer of choice for your new corporate headquarters campus. 23 Words
Which sentence do you think you clients would rather read – the one with 36 words or the one with 23?
They both say exactly the same thing.
Let’s look at how you might Edit the second sentence of your Executive Summary.
Our forty years of serving the Pittsburgh area with excellent design services positions us clearly as the company most qualified to provide you with a site exactly in line with your specifications.
Host Technologies’ new facility will graphically reflect the vision, innovation, and leadership your company is known for.
Now that you created more attention with a 23-word sentence rather than a 36- word sentence, you need to keep them interested and excited about reviewing your proposal.
Have you ever been told to “Stick to the Subject?”
The Subject of the first sentence is “Our forty years.”
The Subject of the Edited sentence is “Host Technologies.”
The first sentence tries to describe your qualifications.
The Edited version mentions the client’s name and allows the client to see and feel your interpretation of their vision.
Capturing the client intellectually and emotionally happens in the first two sentences of your proposal.
Structured, focused, experienced Editing wins more proposals than boilerplate company advertising.
Let’s face it. Proofreading is a pain and it is boring and it is extremely difficult to do it properly.
Find someone in your organization or a friend or two who know nothing about your customers or clients or the proposal itself.
Let me tell you why.
If you or your group complete the proposal at 10 o’clock in the morning, you may be inclined to proofread it at two in the afternoon.
At two o’clock in the afternoon, are you really reading the proposal?
What are you doing?
You are remembering all of the great ideas and wonderful prose you offered in the proposal.
You see some of the keywords in your sentences or paragraphs and you conjure up the image that this is a great proposal.
Find someone or hire someone who is not physically or emotionally attached to the document.
Proofreeding is your final change to insure the qualite of you’re poroposal.
Did you find the six errors?
Proofreeding change insure qualite you’re poroposal
Marketing and Sales Skills
I am showing you these two skills together so that I can separate them for you.
Too many people and companies use these terms interchangeably or incorrectly.
Marketing requires one set of skills, training, and experience.
Sales requires a different set of skills, training, and experience.
Both skills are necessary in creating successful proposals.
Actually, explaining the differences between marketing and sales would require at minimum a webinar, tele-seminar, or e-book specifically dedicated to that topic.
So make sure you understand you require both sales skills and marketing skills to put together a great proposal.
Artistic & Graphic Skills
These two skills are important because one of the qualities of successful proposals is Attractiveness. Artistic and graphic skills might come from other people in your organization or you may need to outsource these skills.
The importance, value, and profit generated by the proposal should guide you in measuring the extent you add the artistic and graphic elements to your proposals.
You need analytical skills to review your client’s websites, financial position, and the content and purpose of the RFP, bid request, or invitation you received.
As a sales professional, you need to analyze the differences between what the customer needs, expects, wants, and says.
What can you do to make your proposal truly unique?
How can you separate yourself from all of your competitors?
How can you present your solution in such a way that your clients will immediately recognize you and your proposal as the most logical product or service provider for their situation?
Project Management Skills
What happens if you receive the contract for a huge project that involves multiple locations, multiple projects, multiple timetables, and multiple groups of people?
Do you have the time, talent, and resources to be able to manage and complete a major project to your client’s complete satisfaction?
If you get a big order or a big contract, you had better be prepared to handle it.
This is obvious.
Are you going to make any money if you win this proposal?
Is all the time, effort, talent, resources, and money you spend creating this proposal going to turn a profit for you or your company?
Just because a client asks for a proposal does not necessarily mean that you have to create one. Sometimes, honestly telling the client that creating a proposal at this time is not a good business decision for you might gain you more respect and more business in the future.
So make sure you make money with your proposals.
In my opinion, your listening skills may be the most valuable skill set you have.
If you’ve ever taken any Listening Skills courses or training, you might remember that one of the techniques you can use to become a better listener is to ask the right questions at the right time for the right reason.
Then, after asking the question, you need to listen and sort out the importance of the answer.
For example, if I asked Fred, “Fred, how old are your kids?”
Fred might respond, “Ten and twelve.”
With one question, how much information did I get?
I now know:
1. The fact that he has kids
2. The number of kids he has
3. How old the kids are
It also gives me some idea of how old Fred might be.
So I gained a lot of information by asking one question and listening.
On the other had, he might respond, “Jack is 10 and Sarah is 12.”
Now, besides the first three pieces of information, I now also know the names and sexes of the children.
I asked one question and got five answers.
How much information that you could use in your proposals are you missing because you don’t ask the right questions, or even worse, don’t listen to the answers?
How much information are you missing because your clients offer information you didn’t ask for but you weren’t listening?
If you are in sales or marketing, you probably pride yourself on your presentation skills that include your listening skills, questioning skills, and rapport-building skills.
We are going to take that as a given.
What we will not take as a given is the amount of skill, experience, and training you have had in writing and presenting a proposal.
How do you present that proposal to the client?
It’s a lot more than just e-mail something to the client.
Some salespeople assume that presenting a proposal means sitting across the desk from the client and reading the proposal word for word.
I have one word for that.
I once did a Google search for the phrase presentation skills. To my surprise, Google sent back to me several pages of what presentation skills means to a chef or a catering company.
How do they present their food!
I learned the lesson that day. I did not get what I expected from Google but I learned a new way to look at my presentations.
What do chefs and catering companies do to make their presentations attractive?
Might some of these techniques work for you?
Using information technology skills with proposal writing just might be the subject matter for a new webinar, online class, or e-book.
Let me give you one example of what I mean by IT skills.
How do you send and receive e-mails? Do you use plain text or HTML?
Do you know how to use plain text or HTML effectively if a client asks you to send the proposal via e-mail?
Have you ever considered using a webpage or a custom-designed website specifically focused on a client proposal?
The size, complexity, length, number of copies, and scheduling of your proposal many times dictates the need for a lot of administrative support.
In the written document that your customers and clients receive, how readable is the page layout, are the pages in order, is a document bound properly, are the tabs or separators in the proper place, do you have the proper number of copies, is the spelling correct?
Because proposals involve many details, the success of the proposal may depend on how seamlessly the administrative details were handled.
So please, do not overlook the administrative details.
Packaging and Shipping Skills
Are the proposals packaged properly and addressed properly for mailing?
Most salespeople are not necessarily detail-oriented types.
What happens if you receive an RFP or a bid for a product or service that you know is built around your competitor’s specifications?
Do you have the negotiating skills to get back to your clients to negotiate or re-negotiate those specifications?
And suppose you know that your solution is much better, less expensive, and more effective.
The problem is the client is expecting you to respond based on specifications you can’t or won’t meet.
Do you send in a proposal that you know you cannot win or do you try to negotiate the specifications based on your better solution?
Remember Kenny Rogers singing,
“You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.”
Do you walk away or negotiate?
This is one a lot of salespeople seem to forget about.
What happens if you don’t get the order?
Part of your proposal process should be a request for a debriefing. If you did not win the order based on your proposal, you should have the ability to find out why.
Most clients are willing to share their reasons for selecting another vendor or where your proposal did not meet their expectations.
I recommend doing this in a face-to-face meeting. In that face-to-face meeting you are able to gather a lot more information from the non-verbal’s of the clients for the follow-up questions you ask.
Telephone meetings and written explanations do not always give you the complete story.
Most government contracts are obligated to provide you with a debriefing session.
Debriefing sessions allow you to get inside your customers’ heads to learn how you can create more powerful proposals that win you more business.
All you need to do is approach your client and say,
“David, I’m really disappointed that I did not win this contract.
But, I’d love to sit down with you to learn how I might win the next one.”
What can I do to improve my proposals?”
Then you need the negotiating skills to ask the Right Questions at the Right Time
for the Right Reasons.
So, let’s review your Checklist of the 18 skills you need to create powerful, winning proposals.
1. Product, Service, Client Knowledge
2. Writing Skills
3. Editing Skills
4. Proofreading Skills
5. Artistic and Graphic Skills
6. Analytical Skills
7. Creative Skills
8. Project Management Skills
9. Financial Skills
10. Listening Skills
11. Presentation Skills
12. IT Skills
13. Administrative Skills
14. Packaging Skills
15. Negotiating Skills
16. Debriefing Skills
Very few individuals have expertise in all of this area.
So, I hope you realize true Proposal Writing success depends to a large extent on teamwork.
And I hope you let me be part of your team.
It’s ginzu knife time.
As a thank you for reading this article, you win!
If your send me up to 5 pages of your best Proposal Writing, I will review it, edit it, and return it to you with a written report on what you did well and what I suggest you change.
Is that a deal or what?
I want to prove to you that my system works and I can show you and your sales team that they can learn these concepts easily to help them make more money.
E-mail me your proposal sample of up to 5 pages to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Make sure you put the Subject Line: Proposal Checklist
Remember. No more than 5 pages.
E-mail me your proposal sample at email@example.com.
Subject Line: Proposal Checklist
I look forward to working with you.