Sales proposals are essentially paperwork. And next-to-no-one likes paperwork.
But terms, numbers, promises, guarantees, specs and all the other details need to be spelled out and agreed upon – especially in big or complex deals.
So if salespeople must do the proposal, they might as well kick butt doing it.
The best way: Approach sales proposals as a strategic tool to close the sale faster, instead of a final administrative task to get to the sale.
Let’s get down to what a sales proposal should be and how to make it more effective at convincing prospects to sign.
The elements of an effective sales proposal
Sales proposals outline what you offer, who you are, results prospects can expect and how much it will cost.
Like any other marketing or sales communication today, sales proposals don’t need to be long or complicated. But they must be concise and thorough. Proposals need to reflect that salespeople listened to prospects’ needs and desires and are committed to building a relationship.
“To establish trust, provide a short story of your company, mission and vision. Use your experience, testimonials and industry accolades whenever possible,” says Michael Tracy, Founder of Sales Journey. “Make it easy for your prospect to trust you. Don’t turn them into an investigator.”
Here are 11 important elements of a sales proposal (which don’t need to be served up in this order):
- Customer testimonial. This quote from an existing customer who is similarly situated as the prospect should be about results your solution has provided. (Keep a library of quotes approved by customers handy.) Just a sentence or two to grab attention early (if not first) in the proposal. You might even include one in the beginning and end.
- Issue statement. A sales proposal is more about prospects and their problems, less about you. Salespeople want to put the problem summary early in the proposal. Include quantifiable and emotional details prospects shared and/or you researched. Show you understand their challenges before you introduce a solution.
- Your summary. By the time salespeople offer proposals, prospects should know a bit about them and their organization. Still, you’ll want to share a brief company history, relevant clients, awards and recognition. Because the proposal should be focused on prospects, your summary can be plugged in at the end just as well as the beginning.
- Scope of work preview. In two or three sentences, salespeople can preview or hint to the service approach they will take to solve the issue or the product that will fill the need – and the results expected. You can include details about trials and demos.
- Scope of work detail. Once you’ve teased the work, the proposal can get into the details of the solution such as how it meets exact needs prospects shared, scheduling, time frames and deadlines. Salespeople want to set clear expectations on what will happen and when, plus on what prospects might need to do to make the solution and relationship a success.
- Deliverables. Here’s where salespeople want to bullet point details on the tangible items that will be delivered, or exact timing of services delivered. It serves as a strong visual of what customers get for their investment.
- Investment details. Give the pricing details for their solution. Avoid the words “price” and “cost” in this area so prospects are subtly reminded that they’re getting a valuable benefit for their money and think less about the cash. Depending on your industry or type of sale, you might itemize (which gives the option of removing items if buyers balk) or offer more than one investment package.
- Return on investment statement. Investment details are better backed by ROI specifics because prospects often only see “cost” in a sales proposal. Spell out the degree your solution will save money, make money, save time or improve efficiency.
- Case study. Share a brief story on a customer who had success with the solution you’ve suggested. Just a few sentences that include a quantifiable result. Bonus: Offer to connect prospects with the case study hero.
- Call to action statement. Here’s where you ask prospects to take action, explaining what will happen next. Ask them to approve specs, commit to a day or time for a demo or trial to start or sign an agreement.
- Thank-you statement. Don’t close a proposal without thanking prospects for time, attention, and the opportunity to make a proposal.
Biggest mistakes when creating sales proposals
Even when salespeople include all the right elements in a proposal, there’s plenty that goes wrong in sales proposals every day.
Here are 10 mistakes you want to avoid:
- Creating a sales proposal that shouldn’t be created. Some salespeople forge ahead with proposals for prospects who clearly aren’t serious yet, don’t have the budget or authority to make the purchase or aren’t realistically potential clients.
- Lacking a strategy. Each sales proposal needs a theme or strategy that makes it clear why prospects should choose you. Focus on the benefit that best answers prospects’ problems – perhaps speed, design, expertise, innovation, partnership.
- Lack of structure. In an attempt to hit every element of effective proposals, salespeople might forget about structuring, putting one slide after another without a natural cadence. It needs to make sense to move from one topic to the next.
- A hasty solution. Salespeople want to avoid offering a solution (and proposal) until they can show they fully understand prospects’ problems and objectives. Otherwise, prospects won’t ever be convinced the solution is right.
- Vagueness. Trying to avoid giving away too much information or solutions in a proposal, salespeople sometimes end up giving too little detail. A vague proposal can leave buyers unsure the salesperson can do the job.
- Excessiveness. On the flip side, salespeople sometimes overstate their expertise and/or their product’s capabilities. Too many superlatives – “best-in-class,” “undisputed leader,” “unequaled” or “top of the line” – should be avoided unless there’s data or awards to back them.
- Too technical. Salespeople are supposed to be industry experts – and some might use a sales proposal to prove it, stuffing it with jargon and technical language. But most buying decisions are made by committee, whose members aren’t all versed in the industry. Spell out technical terms. Avoid jargon. Use common language.
- Grammar and spelling errors. Buyers will assume a salesperson who allows grammar and spelling errors in a proposal is unprofessional. Get proofreaders. Check and doublecheck before giving proposals to buyers.
- Inconsistencies. Language and formatting need to be as precise as the grammar and spelling. Inconsistencies in headings, margins, fonts, spacing and references are unprofessional.
- Boilerplates. Buyers know a tired, overused boilerplate proposal when they see it. Generic benefits are boring. Unpersuasive language looks lazy.
Best practices for creating sales proposals
Mistakes aside and avoided, these 11 best practices will keep salespeople on track to build winning sales proposals.
- Think twice. Before salespeople sit down to create a sales proposal, they want to uncover these five critical pieces of information so the proposal is spot-on. The buyer’s:
- problems and specific pain points
- timelines and deadlines
- decision-making process, and
- goals and expectations.
- Limit it. Most sales proposals in traditional electronic or paper form should be one or two pages. A slide deck should be about 10 or 11 slides – each devoted to the essential elements listed above. Complex deals and sales that have specific Request for Proposal (RFP) requirements will likely need to be longer.
- Add an executive summary. If your proposal is longer than a few pages, add an executive summary. A concise, bullet-pointed summary will make the decision to read it thoroughly – and ultimately buy – easier for busy decision-makers.
- Imagine the checklist. Buyers always compare proposals. “Assume that the person who will evaluate your proposal will use a checklist to see how many needs your company can satisfy. Even though you will never see this checklist, you must answer the RFP so that the prospect can check as many boxes as possible,” says Tracy.
- Separate price from product or service options. If price sits next right next to the solutions you propose, prospects will focus on the cost rather than the investment or overall project.
- Consider pricing options. This isn’t a tip for everyone, but some pros have more success getting proposals approved by offering a range of prices. A reasonable offer looks even more reasonable when it’s offered in comparison to a higher ticket.
- Hold off on “about you.” Many experts agree: Postponing the business introduction and details about your company until the end is more effective than putting it at the beginning. Decision-makers likely already know a lot about your organization – and if they don’t, they’ll Google it anyway.
- Write well; edit better. Write simply, then cut excess words and ideas ruthlessly. Recognize that white space is your friend: Lists, short paragraphs and bullet points help buyers focus. But remember: Just because it’s a jargon-free, simple-language document doesn’t mean it has to be dry. Use headlines, relevant statistics, a few vivid adjectives and action verbs to create before and after images in prospects’ minds.
- Make it shareable and accessible. Most deals are decided by committee. Every proposal needs to be easy to share and reviewed by a group. Also, recognize that because a variety of people will read proposals, they will be read on a variety of devices. Your proposals need to be easily read on everything from a mobile phone to a printed 8×11 piece of paper.
- Make it actionable. The ultimate call to action is agreement to close the sale. Make that easier by including the ability to sign an agreement immediately – whether it’s electronically through your sales software, on a smart device or an actual piece of paper.
- Schedule follow up. Salespeople don’t want to leave proposal follow-up to chance. When you hand over a proposal, confirm a date and time to follow up to clarify details, answer questions and talk about the next steps.
So many sales proposals, so many templates
Once you know what to put in a sales proposal, templates make it easy to pull together a winner quickly and efficiently. Plus, you can repurpose some you’ve created for new proposals for similarly situated prospects (just make sure you avoid the huge mistake of failing to delete the original prospect’s information from the new prospect’s proposal!)
“Customize through elimination,” says Tracy. “This will save you hours and maybe your sanity!”
Many templates are accessible through your sales software, CRM or SaaS systems.
Salespeople can also find several free, easy-to-access sales proposal templates here:
- Google Docs offers a variety of templates, or you can create and share your own within your sales group.
- Apple Pages allows you to use, build and/or collaborate on proposals.
- Microsoft Word offers dozens of business templates that can be used as the sales proposal or part of it.
Many sales professionals swear by proposal apps that don’t come free, but are fast, accurate and automated. Here are a few of the top-rated templates:
- Qwirl lets you save sections of reusable documents to use as you build new proposals.
- Proposify has tools for more advanced and detailed page layouts.
- Nusii allows you to create a domain, track proposals and get online signatures among other features.
- PandaDoc lets salespeople create custom proposals quickly and immediately track them.
- WebMerge helps create proposals from existing files, then automates and streamlines the process.