Writing a Sales Proposal that Always Wins

If you have to write a sales proposal, chances are that you’re not the only one who’s been invited to bid. How do you write a sales proposal so good that you’re pretty much guaranteed to be the one that’s chosen?

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In my last article, I went over how all sales is about “pain” — that fundamentally people only buy things because they want their pain to go away. This can be an actual pain — e.g., buying paracetamol for a headache, or it can be a more complex emotional need that worms its way into business procurement. Someone may want to buy a new telephone system for their business because their old one is malfunctioning and customers can’t get through and are taking their business elsewhere.

If you write your sales proposal with the customer’s pain at the centre, you are much, much more likely to win the sale than someone who does not.

I’ve always likened sales to being like psychotherapy. In psychotherapy, counselling, or any form of talking cure, the principle is not that you receive advise from the therapist, rather it works by having your (emotional) pain listened to and reflected back to you. This process is designed to acknowledge the pain — and in doing so it makes it easier for the (therapy) client to deal with.

In a sales context, exactly the same thing applies. The customer will explain their central problem (pain) to the salesperson, and the salesperson works with the customer to explore that pain and the impact that it is having. When the customer is engaging with the salesperson, they likely have an idea in their head as to what solution will fit for them. The salesperson’s job (and this is where sales is not like psychotherapy) is to get the customer to believe that the salesperson’s solution on offer fits the solution in the head of the customer.

(Of course, this process can be invaluable in avoiding situations where the customer is trying to buy something inappropriate to their particular problem. You can head off this heartache at this stage in the sales process and save everyone a lot of heartache.)

The flow of your sales proposal should therefore start with the pain and lead the customer through to your solution, specifically it should follow the “problem, pain, impact, vision, solution” format:

  • Problem — what the customer tells you the problem is,
  • Pain — why the customer feels the problem is a real problem,
  • Impact — reflect back what the customer has told you about how the pain is impacting the business (or them personally, if appropriate),
  • Vision — state a vision-neutral solution to their general problem,
  • Solution — set out what you solution is, and how you will deliver it.

As I’ve said, if you follow this pattern, you are much, much more likely to close the sale than someone who doesn’t use it. By way of an example, I might say this:

You told me that the problem you have is that you are not closing enough sales from your proposals. The pain is that you are putting a lot of work into talking with customers and writing proposals. The impact is that the sales process is too lengthy, complex, and is very hit and miss. Specifically, you told that you are worried that unless you can sort out this problem with closing sales, you may have to stop trading. The vision is that you want to write sales proposals that are more likely to get picked up. We spoke about how my solution to this would be to write sales proposals using the “problem, pain, impact, vision, solution” method, and we spoke about how using this technique makes it more likely your sales proposal will get picked up.

That example is artificial in that you don’t actually write “problem, pain, impact, vision, solution” in the blurb — I’ve just used that for illustration.

What’s not artificial is the use of “we” and “you”. Reflect back to the customer personally — they will be buying, not the business — and make sure you frame the solution as a team effort. “We will solve this problem together, and you’ll benefit in the following ways…”

The impact part of this process is by far the most important, and is the part that separates the adults in the room for the children — I’ve emphasised it in bold in the paragraph above. It is important because is the moment that you use to show the customer that you have fully understood what is going on for them, and fully understand how they need the problem to be solved.

It is critical that your impact blurb is relatively “amped-up” because you have to bring out the pain so that a) the customer is more likely to act, and b) the customer knows that you know what the impact of the pain is. Some of the impact of the pain may be personal — for example, it may be obvious to you that they’ll lose their job if the problem persists. You can reflect this back in person, but of course it is likely to be impolitic to put these details in the proposal.

The second most important part of this is to separate the vision and the solution. It is critical that the vision part is written up in a solution-neutral way. You may believe that you have the best solution for the job, but the customer will not. By leading the impact of the pain into a solution-neutral vision, the customer knows that they have been understood, but at the point because they still frame you as an outside agent to them, they still don’t trust you.

As I’ve said, for me this technique has nearly always won. It fits so well into a solution-selling method where you are able to demonstrate a genuine understanding of the customer’s pain that it tends to engender enough trust and authority that in any “beauty contest” with competitors, you are much more likely to win.

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