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Formalizing the Sale

The first thing we deliver in the final phase of the sale process is the proposal. The proposal is a formal, polished version of the discussion document that we prepared at the end of the Design phase. It is the complete story of the best solution to the customer's problem—what that solution is and how we arrived at it.

The proposal lays out all of the technical specifications of the solution and the contractual details that go into a binding agreement. And, like the discussion document, the proposal summarizes all the findings we have developed thus far in our sales process. It leads the customer step-by-step back over the bridge to change from the solution itself to the decision criteria and outcome expectations to the problem indicators and consequences. This articulation and summary of the chain of decisions also takes into consideration and addresses the critical perspectives of each member of the cast of characters.

The proposal in our sales process is an instrument of confirmation. It is a formal statement of everything that has already been agreed on. It should contain no new information; it should inspire no debate. It is only the formal closing of the sale.

Key Thought No Surprises

Lawyers are taught never to ask a witness a question unless they already know how the witness is going to answer. The same advice holds true for proposals in the enterprise sale: Never put anything in the proposal that the customer has not already agreed to and confirmed. When we surprise our customers with new information in proposals, they will surely surprise us with unexpected, and usually negative, responses.

When we use the word confirmation to describe a proposal in our sales process, we are making an important distinction between it and the typical sales proposal. In conventional sales, the proposal is used as an instrument of consideration. In other words, it is presented to customers so that they may analyze and judge the solution being proposed. That is why the content of most sales proposals is devoted almost exclusively (usually 90 percent or more) to the solution being offered.

Proposals devoted to solutions do not tell the full story of the engagement. They don't explain the customer's problem or why the solution proposed is in the customer's best interest. As a result, they are incomplete and unconvincing and serve mainly to generate objections. The conventional solution-focused proposal is full of pitfalls.

Further, as we discussed earlier in this resource, proposals based almost entirely on the salesperson's offering are largely a waste of time. They all sound alike to the customer, who can't connect their features and benefits to a well-defined problem. Therefore, they unerringly lead customers to decisions based on the lowest common denominator, the price. (They also inhibit the salesperson's ability to differentiate his or her company and offerings.)

Effective proposal writing in enterprise sales is part art and part science, and it is a topic unto itself. Tom Sant's book, Persuasive Business Proposals, provides a great guide. [1] We now provide a few tips specifically for practitioners of the sale process.

Write for the Invisible Decision Maker

Once we had analyzed a proposal prepared by an outsourcing company in the commercial insurance industry. The company was offering to take over control of the management of all of its client's insurance needs, and the client represented a large account, almost 10 times the size of the company's average customer. The service being offered was complex; the proposal, on the other hand, was two pages long. The first page specified the rates per $100 in salary by the job classifications of the client's employees. The second page specified a rebate that would be earned if the client's incurred loss ratio remained below certain levels. That was the entire proposal. Picture yourself as a senior executive at the prospective client who hasn't been part of the engagement to this point but is being asked to approve this sale. Would you green light this expenditure? On what grounds?

Proposals need to be written for the invisible decision maker. Not because there always is one, but because proposals need to tell the entire story of the engagement convincingly and coherently. When we keep this imaginary reader in our minds as we prepare the proposal, we have a constant sounding board for the content. It can guide us to a proposal that is a business report—one that explains a problem, the parameters of a solution, and the solution itself.

Echo the Customer's Voice

When we meet with clients who are interested in our services, we tape the conversations whenever possible and take copious notes when we can't tape. There is no ulterior motive here; we aren't trying to trip up or trap customers. What we are doing is trying to capture the voice of the customer.

All organizations have their own language. There are special phrases and meanings that make sense to and strike chords in the people at work within them. Listen for key phrases and adopt them. Echo this language in your proposal. Customers should not be able to distinguish the proposal from an internal report prepared by someone in their own company.

Enlist the Cast of Characters

The cast of characters is the salesperson's primary source of information throughout the sales process. When the time comes to present the proposal, we can enlist their help once more by asking members of the cast to present selected portions of the proposal themselves.

We can call on them during the presentation, saying, for example, "Bill, this information on page 10 grew out of our discussions. Maybe you want to walk us through it." Hearing a colleague present sends a powerful message of support for the proposal and confirmation for the solution to the rest of the decision team.

"Go for the No" One More Time

When our customers indicate their acceptance of the proposal, it is time to "go for the no" once more. Throughout our sales process, we have indicated our readiness to walk away from the engagement any time that the customer decides that there is no good reason to continue.

What would you say to a friend who has told you that he has made a major decision? You would probably ask, "Are you sure?" We establish ourselves as "best friend" one more time when we ask customers questions such as "Are you sure this solution fulfills your needs? Did we miss anything?" Further, if the customer is not sure about the decision, we find out on the spot (not three days later) and have the opportunity to allay any doubts that still exist.

[1]See Tom Sant's Persuasive Business Proposals for a step-by-step process to help you organize, write, and deliver successful proposals.

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