Chapter 10: Writing Winning Proposals
You have completed the interview, identified your prospect’s needs and your ability to address them, and now you want to follow up with a proposal. First, some words of comfort. When putting thoughts in writing it is natural to experience what is commonly called “writer’s block.” (If this has ever happened to you, then I am glad to report that you show signs of being human.) I believe salespeople tend to complicate this skill far more than necessary. So, let’s keep it simple.
I want you to become familiar with two types of proposals: (1) the requested proposal — when a company sends out a formal request (an RFP, or request for proposal to bid on their business); and (2) the informal, or “letter” proposal when the prospect asks you to send your response to his needs. The primary difference is that in the formal RFP, you answer the prospect’s specific questions in a format defined by the prospect. You can embellish your answers and suggestions here and there, but the company that issues an RFP is looking for a structured response to a well-defined need. The letter proposal on the other hand is entirely up to you. This can be a one pager or a full 100 pages with attached graphics accompanied by a 3.5 inch disc and instructions on how to download more stuff from your web site.
Either way you go, and I say this with extreme caution, I believe based on my experience that eighty percent of companies requesting a proposal have already made up their mind who they will be working with.
Why? Because people tend to do business with people they like. And if an RFP is the only way a decision-maker gets to know you, well . . . you’ve lost the deal already. But if you initiate the relationship with direct mail, telephone follow up, personal interviews, and live face-to-face communications, the decision to do business with you is being established throughout the process. If I decide to do business with you, the details are not going to get in the way of that decision. We will find ways to deal with the details. If I decide that I do not want to do business with you, having all the details tightly tied up in neat rows on four color graphs will not change my decision.
That being said, you are still going to have to write your share of proposals before your sales career comes to an end. So, get used to the idea and comfortable with the process.
Let’s discuss the letter proposal first.
Writing Letter Proposals
Don’t wait to be asked to submit a letter proposal. Many decision-makers spend most of their day reacting to problems created by others. Simply put, they are too busy putting out fires to acquire and apply the requisite flame retardant to their business.
This presents the perfect opportunity for you to take the initiative and come up with some well-thought out ideas and pass them in front of the decision maker in an easy-to-read, clear and concise letter proposal. You are helping organize his work. (Your thoughtful proposal in effect provides a service to the prospect.) I did just that recently. Here is the story.
I attended a national convention for speakers at significant cost. I had every intention of getting my money’s worth, so I attended every event I could. I was a mad man as I ran from seminar to seminar, to dinner, to workshops. I went up and down every aisle at the trade show and met everyone I could. I was a man on a mission.
Well, on the plane ride home I got to thinking. If I felt this way when spending my money investing in my future, many other people would probably appreciate a chock-a-block schedule at their annual meetings.
Rather than compete with a hundred other public speakers for the 2:30 p.m. workshop slot at my prospect’s conference, I wrote a proposal for a 6:30 a.m. sunrise seminar program. My rationale was to provide the motivated professionals with an opportunity to pick up a few more pointers during the “dead time” of the day.
I had an idea. I put it on paper and I sent it in. I got the job. Back to the letter. The elements of a letter proposal are:
a budget or time line; and
future follow-up programs (optional). Let’s look at one element at a time.
• Element #1: A Need. Hopefully, you’ve had your face-to-face meeting with the prospect and have identified his need. However, if the prospect wasn’t clear as to precisely what he needed, you may want to go the “idea” route rather than the “I know what your problem is and I can fix it” route.
The approach of your proposal is, “Hey, I have an idea,” or “If you’re like everyone else in your industry this is a major concern of yours.”
Element #2: Pin-pointing Objectives — “With this particular need, I envision your objectives to be a, b, c.” Back to our travel agency example. The objectives might be to maximize your company’s travel while decreasing your travel budget by ten percent over the next twelve months. Another objective might be to introduce a form of payment which will maximize your company’s float.
• Element #3: Recommended Methods — “This is how we are going to achieve your specific objectives.” The key to success in this section is to keep
the recommendations focused and easy to read. Use bullet points for each recommendation, with a few words bold faced to capture the idea.
Element #4: Qualifications — Here you tell why you are qualified to take up this much of the prospect’s time. You can go into personnel, your experience in the industry, your experience with similar problems, your success addressing similar problems, etc.
Element #5: Budget and Time Line — Every prospect wants to know “how much?” and “how long?” Keep it short and sweet. Supply a time line along with your fee. For example, “If we can begin the project by the end of the month, the program will be fully functioning by the first week of September. The cost is $10,000.”
Element #6: Follow up Programs — If the nature of the service calls for one or more service follow ups, then propose accordingly. You may wish to convert follow ups into on optional engagement for recurring services (at a fee).
Anything else you want to include should be an attachment. You want the letter proposal to be no more than three pages (unless the prospect’s needs are many and complex). No one will read a term paper. If you have additional ideas not directly associated with your proposal, include these in an attachment on “optional initiatives.”
The Formal Proposal
An RFP is sent to you to solicit your response to specific services or needs the prospect has identified. This proposal takes a little less creativity than the letter proposal because you are primarily “reacting” or “responding” to directives.
RFPs usually request responses in five different areas, although the order and specifics vary with the particular assignment:
(1) specific services required; (2) facilities; (3) staffing and organization; (4) management and control; and (5) administration, billing and payment.
Let’s use an actual RFP for travel services and focus on each section.
Section 1: Specific Services Required — The RFP may ask you to describe your hours of operation, telephone system, how you handle incoming calls, how you input the information with regard to frequent travelers, your VIP profiling system, how you propose to deliver tickets on time, if you have American Express or Diners Club credit card programs and benefits, how you handle last seat availability, how you deal with unused tickets or partially used flight transportation coupons, how you would enforce the company’s travel policy, how you assist with passports, visas, health certificates and other international travel items.
The typical travel service RFP will go into trip planning — how you help pre- plan trips, including airline schedules, airport locations, terminal services, ground transportation, and so on. The RFP may ask how you handle airline reservations and whose computer system you work with. Do you handle hotel/motel reservations? Do you accept commissions from the hotel/motel reservations? Do you call a centralized toll-free number or do you call the properties directly? Do you have special programs with auto rental or limo companies?
You can now clearly see the difference between your letter proposal and a full- blown RFP. You will be asked questions that might appear to be mini-micro management. (Take heart: When multi-millionaire J. W. Woolworth was building what was at the time the world’s tallest skyscraper in New York City he wrote to the architect complaining of a $2.50 phone charge!) Don’t think that every company you deal with will be this microscopic. Our travel agency example is probably a worst case scenario.
Section 2: Facilities — Most travel agencies can’t say a lot about facilities. The prospect usually wants to know how many miles you are located away from his plant to get a comfort level regarding service. In my experience, most people really don’t care where you are as long as the product or service is delivered on time.
Section 3: Staffing and Organization — Most RFPs ask the respondent to identify who will work on their specific account. Some even ask how much you pay your people, to get a feel for whether your workforce is permanent or transient. The RFP will also want you to explain how the designated services fit into your organizational structure.
Section 4: Management and Control — Closely related to organizational structure is how you intend to manage and monitor the quality of products or services your firm provides. How will you handle complaints and resolve problems? How frequently will you monitor the program? Evaluation and feedback systems which insure effective communication should be explained. You’ll want to give the company reassurance about the security of any information you receive that the company would not want made public.
• Section 5: Administration, Billing and Payment — This section always appears in a RFP for travel services. You’ll need to describe your reporting procedures and the reports you plan to deliver to the prospect on a regular basis. How do you plan to handle audits? How long will you retain the company’s records?
Finally, state the cost for your services along with any associated fees or reimbursements (e.g. lost ticket charges, fees connected with visas and foreign itineraries, passports, etc.).
As you can appreciate, you can’t write a formal proposal in an hour or two. A great deal of time and effort is involved. Therefore, I suggest you feel pretty good about your chances of winning the business before agreeing to respond to a RFP. Know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.