Are some proposals just lucky? Are some selling propositions simply better arguments?
Or (the favorite excuse of the less successful proposal writers and salespeople) are your prices just too high?
If you want to win, you simply need to follow one simple law: present the prospect with the benefits that are most important to him/her in the order that is most important to him/her. When you ignore this law, you’re praying to win the deal by luck, by false pretenses or – most commonly – because everyone else’s proposal is worse than yours.
Sometimes you have the chance to speak to the prospect directly before you submit your proposal. If so, then so much the better; just ask what’s important to him/her.
However, with the government or when you’re engaging in direct sales, you can’t ask about what’s important ahead of time. You should still try to work out what’s important to this prospect, but you also need to get the prospect’s attention and interest to get the opportunity to do that.
So what should you emphasize in the meantime to get the prospect’s attention? If you watch successful sales, you can identify the selling arguments that are most persuasive in general. These are the 10 Commandments of Proposal Writing:
Here’s an example to show how it works in the real world:
When I was in college, I worked for one sizzling summer in Arizona for a small company in an office park, where we conducted focus groups and survey research. One day, a water bottle delivery salesman came by.
Now, this was a service that I, as an employee, would have liked. As it was, my boss’ water bottle system was to have one of the employees drive over with the empty jugs to the water refill machine at a nearby Mexican grocery store. When I found out that the bottles didn’t get rinsed or sterilized between uses, I stopped using them. Other employees felt the same.
This was, however, a cheap system. And my boss was the very definition of a price buyer. He was also a price seller. He was convinced that it was all about price. So if price was going to work on anyone, it was going to work on him.
The salesman gave my boss his card and a brochure. My boss looked at them and said he wasn’t interested and he already had a system. But, he asked, how much was the service?
The salesman gave him an answer and a price. He argued that the price was excellent and, for the price, the delivery service was a good investment.
You could almost hear the buzzer go off. No sale. My boss wasn’t interested. Thank you anyway. The salesman left.
A few weeks later, a competing water delivery company salesman stopped by. He didn’t try to force a business card or tri-fold brochure on my boss. I have no idea if he even had them.
Instead, his first words were about how my boss could increase his profits with a better water system. He gave a case study about an employee getting into a car accident while refilling water on company time and the costs in time, stress and insurance premiums that came with it. He gave another case study about improved employee morale and improved convenience for him. And he gave some evidence about the bacterial count when you refill bottles yourself versus using a convenient service.
My boss – ever a price buyer – asked the price. The water salesman responded, “Well, it depends on which service you order. But no matter which one you order, you can be sure that the water will be clean, the bottles will be sterilized, and the service will be convenient and professional – that’s why we deliver water for Home Depot, Sears and over 500 other local companies.” Likewise, he emphasized how my boss would benefit from his company’s excellent on-time reputation and management focus on quality.
Finally, he addressed price. Given all the benefits of the service that he’d already discussed, the price seemed perfectly reasonable – even to my boss. The salesman got the order (and I finally got to quench my thirst again).
The same principles apply to proposals. There are more mediocre proposals being submitted today than ever. This results from more companies than ever using Request for Proposals and the fact that, despite this, few companies bother to institute any training on how to win them. Add to this that the salespeople themselves write many proposals, and that there are more mediocre salespeople than ever – mostly because the industry churns through a 30 percent turnover every single year.
Considering that the same principles that win in proposals are the same that win in direct sales, there is no more pressing need in business than for training to improve the quality of salespeople and their business proposals.
Why the urgency? This is because, like the losing water salesman, poor salespeople use price as the crutch on which to rest their sales pitches. And when low price doesn’t win the deal, they rely on price again – in the form of a special discount or “one time” price concession.
When that one fails, the salesperson will use a bizarre set of bad practices, such as asking for the sale as a favor (“because I need just one more to win the competition”), or personal relationships, whining or just plain trying to bully the prospect into a sale.
But, even when you know nothing about the individual prospect, you know that these are very poorly converting strategies. You also know that there are other selling arguments that win much more consistently.
Finally, you know that price should be the very last approach to winning a sale. A salesperson must practice his poker face and not give away his hunger for a big order – if the salesperson will just cut the price a little more. The buyer will see that desperate look and exploit it.
Likewise, the sales manager needs to be able to stand firm, even while listening to a pleading salesperson on the phone or reading a frantic email about how “I can sell 10,000 if we can just cut the price 15 percent. Let me know ASAP!”
No, no, no. If you don’t know anything about the prospect (which is about as bad an idea as there is) and, instead of finding out, you need to present your proposition anyway, this is the order to do it. Here are the 10 commandments of proposal writing and selling:
- Opportunity. By definition, it is the chance to make money, to be the first into a new market, to dominate an industry. Anyone who is in a position to be making buying decisions feels this call. A sale is an opportunity for the buyer. The salesperson is just the means to get there.
- Profitability. What would you care about if you were making the buying decision on your own proposition? What would be your concern? If your concern is something other than making the profits that will keep you in business, it’s hard to see how you’re going to be staying in business.
- Quality. How much would you pay for something that you knew was going to fall apart in a few seconds? Not only would you pay nothing, but also you’d have to be paid to take it. All products have the hassle factor in them; therefore higher quality will always be a selling point because it always reduces the hassle factor.
- Service. Two types of service are critical – your consultative recommendation service beforethe sale and your customer service afterthe sale. Both are critical. The prospect will judge your commitment and ability to perform the second kind of service based on the way you perform the first. Honest, well thought out recommendations will always trump in-it-for-myself selling.
- Name recognition. The simplest and easiest way to make a decision is “Do I recognize the brand?” If you do, you buy it. If you don’t, you don’t. This is why so much advertising is simply brand awareness advertising.
- Reputation. The reputation of the organization follows closely after mere recognition. Let’s say you recognize two brands – Apple and Dell. On their own, both would be fine. Up against each other, though, reputation will carry the day. Apple has a reputation for an excellent user experience, while most people couldn’t say much about the reputation of Dell one way or the other. This is the value of corporate goodwill.
After these six, we’re starting to get into the “Why bother?” stage. But if those don’t work, keep on trying. Use your salesmanship skills, whether in your proposal or in your direct sales. If you have direct connections, use those at this point. References are a great way to gain attention even if they won’t close the sale.
- Salesmanship. Salesmanship is still important. We all know plenty of salespeople who can close plenty of deals on the strength of personality.
- Personal relationships. When you see a salesperson whining or complaining or asking for personal favors like the water salesman, it’s usually a mistaken attempt to capitalize in relationship before a relationship has been established.
- References. Having a trusted intermediary put in a good word can open doors, but rarely close sales.
That’s nine. And what have we not mentioned? Price. The simple truth is if you haven’t made the sale on any of the other nine factors, a selling proposition based on price isn’t going to change anything. If a prospect doesn’t want your product at a fair, honest price, then you need to go back and work on how you deliver the first commandments again.
- Price. This is certainly a requirement, but last in any good proposal or sale. Price is not a reason to buy. Price is the cost of getting all the benefits that arethe reasons to buy. It is not an argument in itself.
You need to sell more. For the sake of your business, your job, and your family, you have to be successful in more deals.
Chris Sant helps firms maximize market share and increase profitability. These strategies and techniques increased his Fortune 500 clients’ win rates by an average of 39 percent. Chris has trained professionals in America, Europe, India and China on using these proven techniques. He is the first and only speaker in the history of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals to be invited to give three separate talks as a first-time presenter. He is a graduate of Stanford Law School and alumni of Simpson Thacher, one of the world’s five most prestigious law firms. For more on Chris visit ChrisSant.com.