How to write sales proposals that get a big fat YES!

If you really want to inspire, motivate and persuade with your sales proposals then try following the 10 valuable principles. Use them to up your win rate, and make proposal writing less of a drag.

How to write winning sales proposals

Persuading people to do business with you is tricky isn’t it? It’s harder still when you’re not in the room, and you’re relying on a written proposal or bid to secure a piece of work. How can you write persuasive sales documents like these that make working with you feel the best way forward? What do you need to say to make potential clients say ‘YES’?

Over the years (originally as a sales person and now as a business owner) I’ve discovered that the proposals, bids and formal tenders that get a resounding YES share the same attributes, and they’re very different from the ‘hard sell’ approach that you might think you need to take.

If you really want to inspire, motivate and persuade with your sales proposals then follow the 10 valuable principles below. They’ll up your win rate, and definitely make proposal writing less of a drag. Mastering the art of writing valuable, customer-focused sales proposals gives you an approach and process to follow which will cut the time you spend wondering whether you’re on track.

First, put yourself in your potential customer’s shoes

One temptation is to dive in and just start to write. The interest they’ve shown in your business is the green light to tell them how marvellous you are. Wow them with your USPs. The louder you shout the more likely you’ll win. Right?

The other temptation is to cut and paste everything you wrote for the last similar proposal, with a quick change of name to top and tail the document. No point spending too long before you know you’re getting paid. Right?

Neither over-effusive selling or sausage factory production line proposals are the best approach to take. As ever, the best place to start is to put yourself in a potential customer’s shoes. What do they really want to get from your proposal?

What potential customers want is no different from what you want when you’re looking to buy. When someone pitches to you, what do you want to know? And how do you want to feel?

Here’s my list of requirements. Anything I’ve missed?

Questions I want answered when evaluating any sales proposal:

  • Do they understand our business challenge, my personal challenge?
  • Can they help – do they have the capability?
  • Do they want to help? Do they have our best interests at heart?
  • How will they get us from A to B?
  • What results will we see?
  • What are they like to work with?
  • What are they all about? Does this match our requirements?
  • Why would they be the best choice for us?

These big customer questions frame the valuable proposal principles. They’re designed to ensure you answer the questions your potential client really wants to know, and make your offer feel like one they can’t possibly refuse.

Ten writing rules for winning sales proposals

1. Make your proposal customer-focused and relevant

Do the research, understand what matters to your customer, and tailor your proposal to his or her needs. Empathise and put their needs front and centre when writing the proposal (more ‘you’ than ‘we’). Think and approach it from the prospective client’s perspective. Sounds counter intuitive, but even when it comes to bids and proposals, valuable principles apply. Remember:

“Nobody cares about your products and services (except you). What people care about are themselves and solving their problems.” David Meerman Scott

If you think of a proposal of an opportunity to show how you can help and not as how you can sell you’ll be in the right frame of mind to write words that strike the right note.

2. Start with the context

Begin with the ‘why?’ before explaining the’ how?’ and the ‘what?’ Set the scene up front by playing back the customer’s challenge and opportunity first, and relating all subsequent messages and details in the proposal to their particular situation.

3. Tell a clear story

Be clear on the big, differentiating message and story you want to tell through the proposal. These take into account your customer’s real needs (which you’ve uncovered in prior conversations), your company’s brand story and USPs over the competition. Know what you want your proposal to be remembered for and get this message across clearly. Reframe your selling points and explain how they make a difference to that customer – why each point matters to them.

4. Talk about outcomes and value

Paint the picture of the desired future state, focusing on the difference you’ll make. Set out the after effects of working together, not just a brain dump of the features of your service. A throwing mud against wall approach can be tempting ‘we do this, and this, and this, and this’ but that’s not what a potential customer wants to know. They want to know what will be different and better in their business if they choose to get you on board. Apply the ‘So what?’ test to the points you’re making – why should the customer care?

5. Give the customer a map

Show the detail of how you will get from murky #1 to beautiful #2. Include a simple timeline, showing key deliverables, who’s doing what, and when. Setting out the process of how you will work together will make it easier for the client to visualise you getting the job done. A visual representation of your process – a map, or a timeline – is a good way to reassure potential clients that you’re capable of leading them to the desired place.

6. Get the tone of voice right (helping over selling)

To guide your tone voice operate by the help don’t sell, show don’t tell, talk don’t yell mantra:

  • Help don’t sell: A focus on proving how you help solve the customer’s problems (rather than just a list of your attributes).
  • Show don’t tell: Demonstrating expertise and value – through client stories and valuable content (not just saying how great you are).
  • Talk don’t yell: And a down to earth, jargon-free, conversational and very human writing style (a professional proposal doesn’t have to mean corporate and stuffy in tone).

7. Give ideas away for free

Prove your expertise by freely sharing your ideas as part of the proposal.

Raid your resource library and serve up links to the best and most relevant content (articles, research, blog posts, guides, models) to back up your proposed approach and help your prospects think differently. Be generous with your knowledge, and give the reader a new way of looking at the problem they want to solve. (Just to be clear, we’re not talking about doing the work here before you’ve landed the contract. Don’t spend time solving all the detailed specifics of their problem, rather demonstrate your approach and the aspects of your thinking that would be genuinely helpful.)

Content that connects

8. Commit to quality design

Designers rejoice! How your proposal looks is as important as the content.

Really great proposals need good design and high quality production to connect with the audience and make an impact. Style it to attract and focus the attention of the time-pressed reader. Pay attention to formatting. Make your words easy to read and a pleasure to look at.

Eye-catching visuals that get the message across quickly in a memorable way will really help too.

9. Appeal to the heart as well as head

People don’t buy on logic alone. In fact, they usually buy on emotion and then use logic to justify their decision.

The language and tone of your proposal appeals to their hearts as well as their heads. In explaining what you do you tell the bigger story of your business and its purpose, explain what your company stands for as well as what it does. Don’t be afraid to show your personality as a business in the design and wording of your proposal. Get some warmth into the proposal and you will stand out.

10. Set out a clear next step

Don’t leave them hanging. End your proposal by confirming what the next steps are and who will be in contact when. A very important principle (for all communications) and often missed.

Apply these winning principles to your next proposal

Use these 10 principles as a checklist for your next sales proposal:

Is it customer-focused and relevant enough? Have we set out the context clearly at the start? Is the big story evident throughout? Backed up by valuable content? Clear next step?

Apply this customer-focused approach to help you create kick-arse sales proposals that inspire, win hearts, minds and more of the right work.

The very best of luck. Do let me know how you get on.

Other ideas you might like:

The principles behind great sales proposals reflect the principles that underlie all great communication:

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  1. Ben Wheeler

    Sonja, a very useful post, thank you. I wrote a sales proposal yesterday and found your post today! I think I captured some of your tips but kick myself for not including more of my own helpful content. I like your ‘so what?’ test and the emphasis on emotion. I think that as more of us are operating under own own names or brands we’ve developed, we have the opportunity to allow our personal ‘why’ to shine – without the need to include the corporate ‘shouty stuff’ that actually turns clients off.

  2. Sonja Jefferson

    Hello Ben. Lovely comment – thank you and glad it’s helpful. I like that focus on your personal ‘why’. That’s important.

    We can always learn to do these better. I screwed up last week and based on this I think there is an 11th point too – Get to the point, fast! I was pulled up by a new client for not getting there quick enough in my proposal to him. He’s senior level and busy and wanted the main points crystal clear upfront. I’d forgotten to do that and buried them. Doh! Luckily got through but I will remember that next time!

    Good luck with all you’re doing.


  3. Riley

    Thanks a lot for this article Sonja. I wrote a sales proposal just this afternoon, a few hours before reading this. The prospect wants to meet to discuss it further so I’ll definitely be using this tips to close the deal.

    Thanks again!

    • VC

      The best of luck with it Riley. I’ve found these points a useful guide for all forms of communication – whether that’s a pitch, a presentation, an article or even when writing a book. Really hope they help you too – do let me know. Regards, Sonja


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