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Just Don’t Do It – 4 Things To Avoid When Writing Your Sales Proposal

Winning is everything.
You must win.
There’s no recognition for second-place.

That’s the drum beat sales personnel keep hearing. Pressure is always high. Targets are astronomical and often times unachievable. Sales efforts are often doomed even before they start. The average sales professional barely lasts 18 months before he is rotated out and a new sales rep is brought in.

But the macho chest-beating about sales continues unchallenged. Sales methodologies that promise amazing results come and go. New types of sales training are offered, and people rush to attend. The experience is novel and fascinating, especially the snacks during the breaks. And yet, things are never any better. Everyone and no one have the perfect sales formula.

What explains this madness and fascination for sales? Everyone seems to know, and no one seems to know.

The salesperson stereotype has been challenged several times. There does not seem to be an ideal sales persona. Some are quiet, some are aggressive. Some constantly follow up, some are conservative. Some make friends across the organization, while some focus their energies on one or two persons. Some are open. Some are secretive. What technique works best? What qualities should a salesperson possess, that might make a success?

We think we know but so do astrologers and tarot card readers.

Nevertheless, what we can say is even if no one truly knows what the secret formula for sales success is, there are a few things to avoid while writing the sales proposal. Of course, sales proposals are written in close consultation with the bid and proposal team, but in any case, it is the salesperson’s responsibility to make sure the document being submitted has the ingredients he thinks ought to be there.

So here are FOUR things to avoid when writing your sales proposals.

1) AVOID talking about yourself excessively

Most organization err in always boasting about themselves in proposals. Strange but true. We are certified, we are fantastic, all the Fortune 100 companies depend completely on us and so on. We think that this is a golden opportunity for us, and we can’t let it go. So, hysterically, we sing the same song in an endless loop, wasting precious time.

Once we start talking about ourselves, we start creating fantasies that we start believing in. Thus, we exaggerate and take creative liberties. From that to plain falsehoods is an easy step.

The only way to avoid going down this rabbit-hole is to shift focus completely. Tell yourself that this sales effort is directed towards making the life of the prospect easier in some way. So, re-orient your story and tone down your own story a little.

Further, even in the placement of your credentials, use judgment. Help the reader understand your solution and then you! Microseconds matter. The longer you delay informing the reader that you understand the underlying business issues and empathize, the more your effort erodes.

2) AVOID being condescending

Strange as that may sound, a lot of sales efforts trip because of over confidence and a feeling of “I know what’s best for you.”

Why does this happen?

First, the price of success. If a salesperson is on a long run of continuous success, it goes to his head. This cannot be helped. We do like success and when we taste it again and again, it feels good. The feedback loop gets strong and now nothing looks insurmountable. That means things start blurring and every opportunity looks like a minor variation of the previous one. And that previous one was won! So how difficult could this new one be?

It is! Each opportunity is different! Some threads may appear to suggest Deja vu; the trap is tempting. But the prospect does not know or care that you sense similarities. And if you say, “Oh! this problem is exactly what I have encountered before; I can fix it easily!” then you have scored a self-goal. No one wants their flavour to be vanilla. Trust diminishes and a more subdued salesperson from your competitor starts looking interesting.

The proposal must never, therefore, speak of the current opportunity as being straightforward and a copy of a prior one that you successfully handled.

3) AVOID price wars

Now this doesn’t sound very new or classy, does it? All frameworks and techniques do indeed stress value and proclaim that price wars are a big mistake. After nodding vigorously, the salesperson again quietly suggests that he can meet or beat the lowest price.

But desperation makes you do unpleasant things. After all the noise about pricing based on value happens, in the proposal and in subsequent presentations and negotiations, it may happen that the client says, “Wonderful but we have an equivalent highly-competitive proposal, which is about 25% lower.”

These words generally provoke an expected response. Is the client bluffing? Are you only an inch away from winning? You may have no idea.

This is an acid test. Should you succumb to the bait? Or should you hold your position, recognizing that the proposal was carefully created to extract the right amount of financial value for you. Even if you decide to yield to temptation and give in to the client’s tough negotiation, remember that you have effectively sealed the dynamics for the future. The client knows that you are malleable and can be brought down in the future on the basis of price alone.

How does this translate to not saying the wrong thing in the written proposal?

Ensure that the tone in which the price is conveyed is firm. Avoid words like “negotiable.” Make sure that the components of the scope are clearly marked, so that the client gets very little elbow room to manoeuvre during negotiation.

4) AVOID huge executive summaries

Many proposal writers and managers do not get what an executive summary is all about. They are affected by the meaning of the word “summary.” They think it’s a summary that gets written after the proposal is written but then put up in the front. They think it’s for an executive who is in a hurry and just needs the facts.


The Executive Summary is a final decision-making artefact. It is intended to showcase that you have understood the business driver behind the original RFP. And even more importantly, it is the salesperson who needs to own it! They need to write down, as best as they can, the essence of what they have understood. Then they ought to hand it over to the solutions team to take it forward.

The proposal may evolve with new inputs. But the core executive summary merely gets polished and sharpened. It is a living document to be read by someone who will sign the Purchase Order and then the cheque. It is not expected that he or she will understand or want to be bothered by technical details. They assume that the due diligence has already been done. Therefore, in a few short and precise sentences, they are looking for a gentle push in making a decision favourable to you.

The mistake we see is the belief that an executive summary needs to somehow reflect the size of the deal (the dollars!) or the size of the proposal (pages!).

That’s not the case at all! A long executive summary exasperates and irritates. A brief one attracts and pleases. What would you prefer?

Sales proposals are a crucial part of the ammunition that a salesperson carries. It augments their efforts. It provides details to back up verbal discussions.

Much like a good proposal, the simple suggestions given above don’t guarantee a win, but they do reduce your chances of a loss.

Vasudev Murthy has more than thirty years of experience across technology, management and training. As a Visiting Faculty at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore since 1997, he taught a popular elective called Elements of Management Consulting. His career has spanned organizations such as NEC America, Deloitte and Touche, AT&T and Wipro Consulting Services. He has authored several books and his book on How Organizations Really Work (Bloomsbury), is considered a must-read for middle-managers. His book, Effective Proposal Writing (Sage) is an often-used reference for those involved in proposal writing and has been translated to Hindi.

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