Putting "Pow" In Your Proposal
Winning Ways to Make Yourself Stand Out from the Pack
Putting “Pow” in Your Proposals
I. Winning Ways to Make Yourself Stand Out from the Pack
II. People DO Judge
a Book by Its Cover
VII. Putting Sales
Technology to Work
Ready, Set, Go!
Winning Ways to Make Yourself Stand Out from the Pack
You’ve met with a prospect, listened to his or her needs and come up with a plan. Your technology is the right solution and you’re confident your company would do a great job. But the prospect has met with three other companies, all competing for the same opportunity. How do you convince the customer that you’re the right choice? A great proposal can make the difference.
What turns a good proposal into a great proposal? And does it really matter? From my experience as a former sales executive, playing a key role in building a $50 million international technology integration business, I know personally just how much power an awesome proposal can have. It really does matter. That singular document has the potential to serve as the piece-de-resistance that sets you and your organization apart, pushing you over the finish line ahead of your competition. Don’t ever undervalue its significance in closing the deal.
For technology integrators offering a wide range of solutions to a diverse set of clients, proposals come in all shapes and sizes. Even so, there are many things you can do that will almost universally improve the impact you make, the impression you leave and the likelihood that your firm will be chosen. If you’re selling technology products and services and looking to up your game by bringing your proposals to the next level, this guide is for you.
People DO Judge a Book by Its Cover
Let’s start with the basics. Appearances count. Just as the clothes you wear to a presentation make a statement, so does the look of your proposal. Make sure your graphical design and fonts are clean, modern and attractive. This is particularly important in the technology sector. Nobody is going to trust their technology systems to a company that presents itself as if it’s circa 1980.
If you’re distributing printed copies of your proposal, make sure to use high quality paper and that the documents are neatly bound. All logos, graphs and photos should be crisp and of high resolution. If you’re presenting a digital copy, check that text and images haven’t become blurry or pixelated in the process of creating the PDF or digital format.
Customize the cover of each proposal to show your prospect or customer how much you value the unique opportunity to work them. Include the customer’s name, the project name, the proposal title, and ideally, a relevant graphic or photo. This is in addition to your own company’s information, proposal identifier, logo, the date and a confidentiality clause. Make sure that the proposal makes a first impression that’s the right impression.
Make it Personal
Start your proposals with a personal letter. So much of sales is about building relationships and trust; here’s your chance to show the customer that you’ve been listening to them. Refrain from using a form letter that’s all about you and your company. Instead, the letter should communicate how well you understand the customer, their project goals and particular pain points – and that you have a specific solution to address them.
Next, an “About Us” section can make the customer feel more personally connected to your organization and introduce key players who will be involved with the project. Not only should this section highlight your expertise and corporate philosophy; it should provide a window into your corporate culture and what makes you unique. Try thinking beyond head shots and bios to create a section that really tells your story and shows off your company’s personality.
One of the things that top sales organizations do really well, setting them apart, is to concisely describe the customer experience they provide. This is best done as a graphic, video or in some other format that’s engaging, memorable and easy to digest. Explain what your “process” looks like. How are you uniquely positioned to help? These first sections of your proposal should be developed in collaboration with your company’s marketing team. The same skills they bring to developing your website and other corporate communications can be applied to designing front-end proposal content that makes an impact. Starting out strong, out of the gate, can put your proposal and your company, on different footing than the competition, establishing you as a contender to be taken seriously. If the proposal you’re generating is so straightforward that this type of opening section seems like overkill, be sure to at least include an executive summary. This should be three to four sentences, tops, that explain what you’re presenting. It assures the high-level manager reviewing the proposal that you understand their needs before he or she flips to how much it will cost.
Consistency, Consistency, Consistency
As much as you should steer clear of cutting and pasting, there should still be consistency in how all proposals represent your organization and its brand. Adhere to the same branding standards used in your other marketing communications, including use of colors, logos, logo placement, fonts, mission statements, boilerplate copy, taglines and other standardized content.
Sales organizations are best served by creating templates for all key proposal elements to ensure consistency not only in appearance, but also in messaging. A library of these documents should be available for sales people to access, and guidelines provided as to how and when each should be used. Some proposals may require only a few documents from this library; more complex and pricier projects will require most or all of them. Salespeople may need flexibility to make edits as needed, however starting out with a framework for documents like About Us, Scope of Work, Timelines, Product & Services and Terms and Conditions makes their job easier, makes your company look more professional and goes a long way toward enforcing a level of consistency.
Remember that a focus on consistency and branding, must extend beyond the proposal. Most customers who look at your proposal are also going to look at your website, your LinkedIn profile and other online resources. You should be delivering consistent messaging across each platform. Otherwise, you risk confusing the customer and undercutting your authenticity.
Know Your Audience
This is trickier than it sounds. The person you’re dealing with, as you scope out a project, is often one of many who will be involved in reviewing your company, your proposal and making the purchase decision. Their understanding of the problem – what needs to be solved and their priorities with respect to the solution – may be different from other stakeholders. It’s important to ask questions that help you understand the big picture from more than one perspective, so that your proposal resonates with all who will be involved in choosing you for the job. Are they most concerned with price? With having the job completed within a certain time frame? That training and support is included? That financing is available? Think of each opportunity as an onion, and it’s your job to peel back the layers by asking a lot of questions and paying careful attention to the answers. Understand what aspects of the projects are “must-haves” and what elements are optional or can be added a later date
One of the best ways to makes sure the solution you’re proposing aligns with the customer’s needs, priorities and vision is to include them in the brainstorming and creative process. If you work together to come up with ideas, then when those same ideas appear within the proposal, you’ve already got an advocate embedded on the client side. They already have a personal investment in your proposed plan and are therefore much more likely to encourage support from other decision-making team members when you aren’t present.
Understanding your customer’s budget is also critical. Everyone has a budget – whether they’ll admit it to you is a different story. It’s your job to dig it out. Keep in mind, a budget isn’t just a number – it’s where that number is coming from, what’s behind the budget. What’s really been set aside, who in the organization is responsible, and for use over what time period? Understanding budgets, up front, keeps you from wasting time creating a proposal that will be categorically dismissed due to price. It also allows you to explore pricing and payment options that the customer will find most palatable, ahead of presenting your proposal, therefore enabling you to provide the best solution and options with their budget in mind. For example, you might present the project broken into phases, where the first phase fits within the current budget and subsequent phases will be commissioned as more money becomes available. Or you can offer financing, or a leasing option, with little down and on-going monthly payments, or include certain services at a reduced cost for a limited time. Knowing your audience allows you to present options that are best for them, while keeping the project profitable from your perspective. If you’re presenting several possibilities, lead with the one you’d most prefer the customer to choose.
Of course, there are situations where the customer just isn’t going to be able to afford a solution that you feel is sufficient, no matter how much you try to work with them on price. In these cases, it’s better to walk away before the proposal stage. You don’t want to offer a compromised solution that will ultimately leave them unhappy and tarnish your reputation or will generate so little profitable revenue for your organization that it just isn’t worth it.
The Pricing Gambit
Sales people often wrestle with how much pricing detail to provide in their proposals. Some prospects require line item detail, unless it’s absolutely necessary, most integrators shy away from full itemization out of concern that a quick Google search will encourage direct price shopping. It’s important to keep in mind that what really differentiates your company are your services and their associated labor. If you can convince your customer of the value of the entire solution, which may include installation, integration, configuration, training and support, there’s much less opportunity for direct price comparisons. Further, if you can offer technology solutions that, by design, require less labor to install, that’s a win-win for everyone. For example, many security manufacturers are now promoting thin-client, cloud-based and wireless solutions that can reduce labor because they require less cabling, hardware installation and software configuration. Proposing these types of systems can slash the total cost of labor for a project, while allowing you to enjoy higher margins on the hours you put in.
Sometimes, for a highly coveted project, it’s difficult to move the needle enough just by adjusting margins on materials and labor must be trimmed. As a general rule, it’s best to quote a reduced hourly rate rather than to underestimate the actual labor hours a job will entail. Underestimating hours erode profit quickly and can lead to disgruntled customers and coworkers, when expectations aren’t met during delivery and installation.
Putting Sales Technology to Work
The Harvard Business Review reports that 52% of high performing salespeople are power users of their company’s CRM technology and internal systems, compared to only 31% of underperforming salespeople.1 They understand that technology is their friend, helping them function more efficiently and effectively.
When it comes to proposal generation, there are many software options from which to choose. What makes some better than others? Unlike accounting software, which is defined by a standard set of rules and laws for how businesses must manage their finances, there is much greater variation in how sales teams approach the job of selling – even within the category of systems integrators and technology sales and service providers. Therefore, the software used to create proposals needs to allow for a great deal of flexibility in accommodating the way your sales organization is structured, the roles individuals play, how they approach creating estimates, how commissions are structured, and many other issues. Almost all sales organizations can benefit from features like automated workflows, approval thresholds and automated commission calculation, but only if management can control how those items behave for individual system user, each with their own specific responsibilities and permissions.
Some organizations rely on a combination of Word and Excel files to compile estimates and proposals. This approach often causes more problems than it solves. There is little control over how documents are shared and kept current throughout your organization. Files residing on the local drive of a salesperson’s computer may not match the version submitted to accounting or operations. Unmanaged editing, cutting and pasting within documents can result in inaccuracies and inconsistencies internally and with customers. Documents and files easily travel. When someone leaves your organization, they can take plenty of proprietary information with them.
Proposal generation tools are built into many popular cloud-based CRM and business management systems. While such solutions help with issues like information sharing, content management and document security, they often rely on third-party plugins to facilitate creation or editing of customized elements within the proposal-building interface. For example, editing a cover letter may involve exporting the template to Word, making the changes there and then reimporting it. This process can introduce many of the issues previously mentioned – where the file may exist in multiple iterations, in places where it shouldn’t, providing no centralized control or security. Another common problem with broad-based, highly customizable software tools is that they require a great deal of investment and on-going maintenance, to make their functionality match the needs of your organization’s structure and workflow. Dedicated employees, or outside consultants, have full-time jobs keeping these systems responsive and current.
A third option is to investigate sales software purpose built with experience and insights into your specific industry, the technology you sell and the sales challenges you face. Software that get you 85%-90% to where you want to be without the need for dedicated programmers and custom code development. Then, providing flexible pre-built functionality to easily customize the balance of the interface to meet your specific needs. Look for systems that out-of-the-box have the ability to empower non-technical sales staff to more confidently quote with less assistance from sales engineers. Systems that automate calculations during the creation of estimates, allow document editing and customization, within the software interface while limiting opportunities for misstating terms and conditions, that can lead to unintended liability. When using software with these types of capabilities, you can put more of your resources into improving your sales process and increasing productivity, instead of ongoing technical resources to support the underlying software meant to ease the sales process. Open integration with other business solutions, like lead generation and ERP systems that your organization is considering or already using, is also a plus. Integrated solutions allow use of the best tools for the purpose, while connecting each seamlessly, bridging gaps and saving time and money throughout the organization.
Also, seek out software manufacturers who have a proven track record of continuing to evolve, updating their solution to support evolving technologies, the changing needs of their customers and the markets they serve. You want a solution that is going to continue to grow with you; that will be as current three years from now as it is today.
Ready, Set, Go!
The same Harvard Business Review article that cites the widespread use of sales technology by top sales performers also reports that 84% of top sales people are target-driven; they are highly fixated on achieving goals. That’s why I loved working in sales, and I’m guessing that the rush you get from closing each deal and reaching each new threshold similarly motivates you. If you’re a top sales performer, or striving to become one, make sure that one of your goals is to consistently deliver proposals that make you and your organization proud. The steps presented here are the place to start. They may take some time to implement, but with the right tools and organizational support, the payoff is well worth the journey. They sure worked for me!
Let WeSuite Help You Create Great Proposals
WeSuite is the leading sales management software solution purpose built for technology product and service providers. Built by systems integrators, for systems integrators, we understand the unique challenges in running successful security, IT, electrical or AV sales organizations. Let our comprehensive suite of software tools take you painlessly from contact to contract.
Designed and priced for sales teams of two to two thousand, WeSuite streamlines your workflow, simplifies estimate creation, automates proposals and contract documents, enhances communication, improves reporting accuracy and helps you make smarter, more profitable business decisions.
At WeSuite, we believe that maximizing your technology sales begins with using the right sales technology. Contact us today for a free demonstration!
1. What Separates the Strongest Salespeople from the Weakest, by Steve W. Martin, Harvard Business Review, March 18, 2015