Five Elements of Winning Sales Proposals

May 16, 2019
Consistency is one of the keys to ensuring your sales team’s long-term success

What turns a good sales proposal into a great one? As a former sales executive who played a key role in building a $50 million international technology integration business, I have seen just how much power a beautifully crafted proposal can have on closing a deal.

There are many methods to improve the impression a proposal leaves and increase the likelihood that yours will be chosen as the winner – here are five key elements to creating great sales proposals:

1. Looks matter. Remember that people do judge a book by its cover, and appearances do count. To increase the proposal’s attractiveness, make sure that graphical design and fonts are clean, modern and attractive. Use high-quality paper and be sure that the documents are neatly bound.

All logos, graphs and photos should be crisp and high resolution. On digital versions, ensure the file format is common for ease of review and sharing.

Protect or remove pricing calculations that may be easily “decoded” and check the document for previously used customer names and information not relevant to the proposal. Make sure that text and images have not become blurry or pixelated during the creation of the PDF or digital format.

Customize the cover of each proposal to show the prospect or customer how much the unique opportunity to work with them is valued. Include the customer’s name, project name, proposal title, and ideally, a relevant graphic or photo. This is in addition to your own company’s information, proposal identifier, logo, date and a confidentiality clause.

The proposal can be made more personal with a letter from you that communicates a full understanding of the customer, their project goals and particular pain points. Also, in the case of the latter, that you have a specific solution to address their specific needs.

The inclusion of an “About Us” section can make your potential customer feel personally connected to your organization and introduce key players who will be involved with the project. Not only should this section highlight expertise and corporate philosophy, but it should provide a window into corporate culture and explore what makes your company unique. It should concisely describe the customer experience it can provide. This is best done as a graphic, video, or in another format that is engaging, memorable and easy to digest.

Your marketing team should collaborate on these first sections of the proposal; however, if the proposal is so straightforward that this type of opening section is overkill, be sure to at least include an executive summary of three to four sentences and an image that uniquely represents your organizational culture.

2. Be consistent. There should be consistency in how all proposals represent your organization and its brand. This can be achieved by adhering to the same branding standards used in other marketing communications – including colors, logos, logo placement, fonts, mission statements, boilerplate copy, taglines and other standardized content. The focus on consistency and branding must extend beyond the proposal, as most customers will also look at your company website, your LinkedIn profile and other online resources.

Templates should be created for all key proposal elements to ensure consistency not only in appearance but also in messaging. A library of templates such as “About Us,” “Scope of Work,” “Timelines,” “Products and Services,” and “Terms and Conditions” should be maintained and be available for salespeople to access, and guidelines should be provided to them on how and when each are used.

Many organizations are now automating the creation of proposals by using sales management software, leaving key areas such as the cover letter, executive summary and scope of services for customization by their sales teams. This approach not only ensures brand consistency, it also protects legal terms and conditions and saves valuable time for salespeople.

3. Know your audience. The individuals you deal with as you scope out a project are probably just a few of the many who will review your company and proposal, as well as make the decision to purchase. Their understanding of what needs to be solved, and their priorities with respect to the solution, may be different from other stakeholders.

It is important to ask questions that illuminate the big picture from more than one perspective. This makes certain that the proposal both resonates with everyone involved in the final choice of a solution provider and is part of your overall sales strategy.

One of the best ways to make sure the proposed solution aligns with the customer’s needs, priorities and vision is to include them in the brainstorming and creative process. If you work together to generate ideas, when those same ideas appear in the proposal, there are already advocates on the client side.

4. The budget. Understanding the customer’s budget is critical. Keep in mind, a budget is not just a number – understanding the full facts from the beginning will prevent wasting time on a proposal that will be categorically dismissed due to price. This also allows for the development of pricing and payment options that the customer will find the most palatable, while keeping the project profitable from your perspective.

If you are presenting several possibilities, lead with the one you would most prefer the customer choose. By proposal time, you and your customer advocates should be on the same page regarding pricing and the presentation of solutions.

Of course, sometimes the customer will not be able to afford a sufficient solution, no matter how much tinkering has been done on the price and solution offer. In these cases, it is better to walk away before the proposal stage – instead of offering a compromised solution that will ultimately leave them unhappy and tarnish your reputation; or generate so little profitable revenue for your organization that it just is not worth it.

Salespeople often wrestle with how much pricing detail to provide in their proposals. Some prospects require line-item detail, but unless it is absolutely necessary, most integrators shy away from this out of concern that a quick Google search will encourage direct price shopping. Keep in mind that what really differentiates your company is your services and their associated labor.

If you can convince your customer of the value of the entire solution, which may include engineering, installation, integration, configuration, training and support, there is much less opportunity for direct price comparisons to be meaningful. Further, if you can offer technology solutions that, by design, require less labor to install and maintain, that is a win-win for everyone.

Sometimes, for a highly coveted project, it’s difficult to move the needle enough just by adjusting margins on materials and labor must also be trimmed. As a general rule, it is best to quote a reduced hourly rate rather than to underestimate the actual labor hours a job will entail.

5. Software solutions. When it comes to proposal generation, there are many software options. Unlike accounting software, which is defined by a standard set of rules and laws for how businesses must manage their finances, there is a much greater variation in how sales teams approach the job of selling – even within the category of systems integrators and technology sales and service providers.

The software used to create proposals must flexibly accommodate the structure of your sales organization, the roles that individuals play, how they approach creating estimates, how commissions are structured, and other issues.

Almost all sales organizations can benefit from features such as automated workflows, approval thresholds and automated commission calculation, but only if management can control how those items behave for individual system users with their own specific responsibilities and permissions.

Proposal generation tools are built into many popular cloud-based CRM and business management systems. While such solutions help with issues such as information sharing, content management and document security, they often rely on third-party plugins to facilitate the creation or editing of customized elements within the proposal-building interface.

Another common problem with broad-based, highly customizable software tools is that they require a great deal of investment and ongoing maintenance to make their functionality match the needs of your organization’s structure and workflow.

Investigate purpose-built sales software that has a track record with your specific industry, the technology you sell, and the sales challenges you face – software that gets you to 85-90 percent of where you want to be without the need for dedicated programmers and custom code development. It must offer flexible, prebuilt functionality to easily customize the balance of the interface to meet your specifics.

Look for systems that can empower non-technical sales staff to more confidently quote with less assistance from sales engineers, as well as systems that automate calculations during the creation of estimates and enable document editing and customization within the software interface while limiting the chances of misstated terms and conditions that lead to unintended liability.

Other business solutions, such as lead generation and ERP systems, are also a plus. Integrated solutions provide the best tools for the purpose while connecting each seamlessly, bridging gaps and saving time and money throughout the organization.

Tracy Larson is president of WeSuite, a developer of sales management software for commercial security integrators. Request more information about the company at