Proposals are often the least favorite parts of the sales process for many people – partially because they are a pain, and partially because they’re a mystery.
There have probably been countless times you’ve sent out a proposal and the prospect is never to be heard from again. It’s happened to all of us, and it never gets less confusing and frustrating.
As a manager for a team that sells RFP software for sales teams and procurement teams, we’ve found out what causes buyers to give sales the silent treatment post-proposal. Our findings are based on feedback from dozens of exasperated proposal evaluators who are just as over the RFP process as you are.
Why your prospect hates your proposal
The challenges buyers and procurement managers face when evaluating proposals boils down to five common themes. Luckily, they’re easily fixed if you know what you’re looking for. So if your win-rate is low and you don’t know why, here’s what may have gone wrong.
1. You didn’t follow instructions
Following instructions is proposal 101. However, it’s shocking how often procurement professionals lament the chaos that results from sales reps going rogue on the proposal. Of course, the consequences of failing to follow directions vary from one RFP to another. At best, it’s a mild annoyance to the evaluator, but at worst they throw out your proposal without even reading it.
So why does this happen so often when it can result in immediate disqualification? Speaking from experience, in a high-volume sales position, it’s easy to become complacent. When you receive a new RFP, you may initially be excited about the opportunity. However, as you start to read the background and requirements, which sound eerily similar to other RFPs, your eyes glaze, and habit takes over.
In a fast-paced environment, as you manage a dozen competing priorities, carefully reading and checking RFP requirements may seem like a waste of time. But if you skip it, that may be exactly what you’re communicating to the prospect: that their business is a waste of your time. An inability or unwillingness to follow simple instructions creates an impression of carelessness, arrogance, and disregard. Needless to say, it’s not a good look.
Consider the most common reasons for proposal disqualification: late submission, incorrect format, exceeded the page limit, or an incomplete proposal. Now imagine explaining to your boss that you lost an opportunity because you weren’t paying attention and one or two verbose responses from subject matter experts (SMEs) pushed your proposal over the page limit.
For the most part, procurement managers do their best to make RFPs as concise as possible. So if they took the time to include specific instructions, it’s important to them. Don’t ignore it.
2. It’s boring
No matter what you sell, we all know that your proposal isn’t going to be as gripping as the latest Stephen King novel. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be more memorable and engaging than the competition.
Put yourself in the procurement manager’s shoes. Typically, they are already six to eight weeks into this project, and they’re reviewing proposals from no less than three potential vendors. Often, it adds up to hundreds of pages packed full of data points to be evaluated and compared. In this situation, less is more. And brevity is a rare kindness.
So when the RFP asks how they can get in touch to solve a problem, don’t spend two pages detailing CRM technology, providing staff bios, and discussing your company’s customer service philosophy. Instead, provide two or three sentences of overview, a bullet-pointed list of available resources, and a link to more information if they want it.
In addition, if you’re asked to provide data, consider using charts and graphics to better illustrate points of differentiation or key statistics. This proposal from FedEx provides a great example of how much more interesting graphics are over raw data.
Make your responses short and punchy so they get the information they need and don’t have time to get bored. Ask yourself these three questions about the information in each of your responses:
- Is this relevant? Make sure the information directly addresses their specific needs. If you’re using a content library to build your proposal, this becomes particularly important. Don’t let information intended for another customer slip into your proposal.
- Is it necessary? If you choose to elaborate on a particular topic, make sure it serves your purpose. For example, calling out differentiators and providing proof points adds value, but explaining the detailed background of your process probably doesn’t.
- Is it timely? Does your customer need this information right now, or can it wait until you’re further into the sales process?
Asking yourself these questions helps you trim your answers and edit input from SMEs. Always challenge yourself to say what you need to using as few words as possible. Procurement managers and evaluators will thank you for it.
3. It’s ugly
If you ask a procurement professional about their most memorable proposals, generally, you’ll hear about the impressively professional or the spectacularly ugly. While we all wish it was only what’s inside that counts when it comes to proposals, looks matter.
Most salespeople tend to be more focused on pricing strategies and content than the proposal’s visual appeal. But when you’re neck and neck with your competitors, a proposal that is attractive, easy to read, and professional makes a lasting impression. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s not worth your time because the evaluator probably won’t notice or care – they will and they do.
First, check your company’s brand book. It defines the company’s style including guidelines for grammar, capitalization, tone, and more. If you can write in a standard style to start with, it will save you a ton of time in reviews. When a longer response is required, use short sentences and paragraphs, bullet points, and distinct headers to improve readability.
Again, the proposal from FedEx offers a good example of the impact a well-composed proposal can have. Notice how the company embraces brand colors, eye-catching headers, and scannable formatting to make the proposal look professional and approachable.
Over the years of creating proposals, working with marketing teams and graphic designers, we’ve picked up a few quick proposal format tips. By far, the fastest most impactful tip is to check for consistency. So before you send your proposal, check it over for consistent:
- Product terminology
- Font type and size
If your proposal looks different from one page to the next, it can be a distraction to your evaluator. It takes 10 minutes to do this check, so even when your deadline is fast approaching, don’t skip it.
4. You made it all about you
Making your proposal client-centric is not a new concept. A quick Google search yields dozens of articles exploring the importance of focusing on the customer. Unfortunately, it’s still surprisingly common to hear buyers say that many of the proposals they receive leave them uncertain of exactly how the seller plans to solve their problem.
Naturally, as sales professionals, we spend most of the day focused on our company and what we sell. We spend hours dedicated to coming up with new pitches, finding angles to beat the competition, and exploring the benefits of every feature. Honestly, being able to talk confidently about our company and offering is not only a skill but also a habit.
Effective proposals require a shift in mindset. The prospect wants to know how you’re going to solve their problem. That’s really their only concern, so make it yours too. Section by section, review your proposal and consider if the information addresses the customer’s need, helps them meet their goals, or accomplishes their ideal outcome. If not, rewrite it to reinforce what’s in it for them.
5. You didn’t do your homework
By the time you make it to the proposal stage of the sales process, the prospect expects you to be able to speak their language. If you try to fake it, they’ll know and they won’t appreciate that you wasted their time.
More and more, buyers are adopting strategic sourcing practices. They are looking for vendors who want to build a long-term partnership and have a deep understanding of their business needs. As a result, the stakes are high, and more than a single transaction may depend on your proposal being accurate and relevant.
I recently spoke with a procurement manager discussing their RFP challenges. Their employee benefits company issued a lucrative RFP to a handful of vendors. Naturally, they had expected to field a few follow up questions, but were shocked to hear nothing but crickets. Consequently, when the proposals came back, several included information that didn’t make sense for their company, and one didn’t even meet the stated minimum requirements. To say they were frustrated would be an understatement.
Buyers are seeking collaboration, so always ask questions. Not only will you continue to build your rapport, but you’ll quickly discover if you’re a fit, potentially saving your team from wasting time responding to unwinnable RFPs.
Ultimately, RFPs and proposals are likely going to be a permanent part of sales. Ideally, the future of the RFP process is more collaborative and transparent, eliminating the element of mystery that exists in proposals today. But, in the meantime, make the best of it and only send proposals your prospect will love by following instructions, keeping it interesting, making it look good, focusing on them and doing the work.