When your salespeople submit a proposal, it should always represent the natural culmination of a series of value creating conversations with their potential customer.

The contents should not come as a surprise. The recommendations should reflect an already established set of agreements with the key stakeholders. So why are so many sales proposals so ineffective?

One of the obvious reasons is that they were submitted as a blind response to an unexpected RFP and did not actually reflect any meaningful dialogue with the prospect (I’ve explained why this is so unproductive here).

But a less obvious but unfortunately all-too-common explanation is that the proposal has failed to sell the thing that is almost always most important to the ultimate decision-makers…

What’s the problem?

The missing element is, of course, why the customer needs to solve the problem in the first place. That problem could be an issue or issues that if unresolved would amount to a serious threat to their business.

Or the problem could be an opportunity or opportunities that if missed would seriously harm the organisation’s revenue or profit growth and prevent them from achieving their strategic objectives.

Without a clearly defined and acknowledged problem, there can be no “solution”. And if the need to change is not strong enough, the customer will invariably decide they can stick with the status quo.

Making the case for change

And so, the most important question your proposal needs to answer – and the most important thing your proposal needs to “sell” – is why your prospective customer needs to change at all.

Studies of buying psychology have shown that people and organisations are 2-3 times more likely to decide to take action to avoid a loss as they are in the hope of a gain. The costs of inaction are often more persuasive than the benefits of change.

So your salespeople’s proposals need to emphasise the costs and risks of sticking with the status quo just as strongly as they promote the projected financial benefits of implementing your solution.

Conflicting priorities

This is particularly important in any potentially strategic purchase, because amongst the growing number of stakeholders who are likely to have a say over the decision, you will inevitably find conflicting projects and priorities.

Some of these stakeholders may have other pet initiatives that they feel are more deserving of attention. Many of the most senior stakeholders who only get involved towards the end of the decision process and are unfamiliar with the implications of the problem will be asking “why do we need to do anything at all?”

Competing against the status quo

As I observed my last article, in any high-value discretionary purchase your strongest competition typically comes not from another similar vendor, but from the status quo. And yet so many of the (usually unsuccessful) proposals I’ve reviewed over the years seem to be based on the assumption that the customer is inevitably going to do something, and the only remaining question is whether you or someone else gets their business.

The executive summary of these proposals may make a cursory reference to the customer’s situation, but then typically dive straight in to why the customer should buy their solution from their organisation together with (in some of the better crafted versions) some form of financial justification regarding the potential upside.

But – for the reasons I’ve outlined above – this often isn’t enough, even if your proposed solution has clearly communicated advantages over the customer’s other options. If the case for change isn’t strong enough, the customer will probably conclude that they don’t need to act – at least for the moment.

Getting selected – but not getting bought

There’s very little satisfaction to be gained from your prospective customer thanking you for your hard work and being told that you delivered the best proposal and that they would love to do business with your organisation, but they have decided to put things on hold.

Your salespeople can’t fix this problem by working longer hours in the final few days before they submit their proposal. The seeds of success and failure are sown far earlier in the customer’s decision process.

Discovery is the foundation

This is why top performing salespeople invest so much time in the discovery phase of the sale. It’s why they are not just interested in understanding the customer’s needs, but also in the circumstances that led the customer to identify those needs.

By fully exploring the implications for the organisation, for key departments and for key stakeholders, and by drilling in to the “needs behind the needs”, effective sales people can not only reframe the customer’s sense of what they ought to be looking for, they can also establish early on whether the project appears to be supported by a compelling business case.

Business case is stronger than functional fit

Experienced salespeople know very well that having a good functional fit against the customer’s requirements (even if they have helped to shape them) isn’t enough. It might get them selected, but they could still fail to get the order.

They know that they also need to ensure that the internal business case is strong enough, and that the relative priority and urgency of the problem is high enough to ensure that the project gets the all-important final approval.

Selling the need for change

And – of course – your salespeople need to ensure that the executive summary of their proposal, when finally submitted, sells the need for change every bit as strongly as it sells their organisation and their proposed solution.

Can you say the same about all of your organisation’s sales proposals? It might be worth taking a look at a representative sample of your salespeople’s latest submissions just to make sure…