Learn how to translate your sales conversations directly to paper and write your proposals, letters of understanding and contracts so they’ll always get signed.
Some men have thousands of reasons why they cannot do what they want to, when all they need is one reason why they can.
– Dr. William R. Whitney
It was November of 1996 when Pat (my partner) and I were anxiously awaiting a phone call. We had been in business for only a few months, and had recently made a one-day trip to Chicago to visit the executives at Wisconsin Central Railroad (WC). They were looking for a computer technology company to manage a large system-conversion project – this deal would put us on the map with the rail industry (a very tight-knit group), and we wanted it badly.
After our trip to Chicago, which went better than our wildest dreams, Pat and I had spent about five days creating a proposal that covered every aspect of WC’s system. Actually, “proposal” is putting it lightly, because what we created was a complete system outline that proved we understood the executives’ problems better than any other firm they interviewed. In fact, because we had inside information about the other proposals, we were certain that no one had submitted a better proposal than ours.
Still, while we knew in our heads that this engagement was a lock, our guts were telling us something else, and the anticipation was giving us heartburn like you can’t believe.
Of course, the phone call from WC never came. Instead of accepting our wonderful proposal, WC’s executives used our bid to force their favorite computer technology company to drop its price. And to add insult to injury, they also incorporated several of our ideas into their final system design.
While I was upset at the time, in hindsight, I must thank the WC team for teaching me an important lesson – one of the most timesaving tips I’ve ever found in sales. So, if you’re ready for the secret to never again wasting your time with the submit-a-proposal-and-hope method, pay close attention, because I’m about to share what I learned.
The Secret To Getting All Your Proposals Signed
First, because the word “proposal” has different meanings to different people, I need to clarify it. When I say “proposal,” I mean whatever document your prospect must sign to form an official agreement with you. If you call it something different, like “letter of understanding” or “contract,” that’s fine. But for purposes of this discussion, let’s assume they’re all the same thing.
Most salespeople operate within two sales rules:
Rule 1: A sale is open until it’s closed.
Rule 2: The prospect’s signing on the dotted line is the action that closes the sale.
Four facts must also be considered:
Fact 1: Rule 1 cannot be changed.
Fact 2: Not all prospects will become customers or clients.
Fact 3: As long as prospects have the option to say, “No,” some of them will.
Fact 4: It is more efficient and less stressful to have a prospect say, “No,” before you write a proposal than after.
You know how much I love bottom lines, so let’s look at the bottom line on this issue, and then I’m going to ask you to make a hard choice. The bottom line is that some of your prospects are not going to become customers or clients even when your solution is perfect, and there is absolutely nothing you can do to change that. If you walk through life believing that you can craft a proposal that will change the mind of one of these prospects, then you will forever be stuck in the old set of rules, and a high percentage of your proposals will forever remain unsigned.
While you cannot change the fact that some prospects will never become clients, you can choose to learn about prospects before you waste time writing proposals that won’t be signed.
All you have to do is change Rule 2 above. Instead of the signing of the proposal being the event that closes the sale, use some other event to signify that the deal has been struck. In other words, require that the prospect make the yes/no decision before you write the proposal. That way, writing the proposal becomes the first step in the fulfillment process, instead of the last step in the sales process.
The Hard Choice
Whether you’re willing to take this stand – moving proposal writing into the fulfillment process – is your decision to make, and yours alone. But before you make that decision, you should know both what you’ll gain and what you’ll lose.
First, I’m going to assume that you’ve been practicing a pure collaboration method of selling. So you’ve determined there are no showstoppers and managed the technical influencers. When you’re closing the contractual sale, then, assume this will be the approximate situation:
- There’s a 70 percent likelihood that your prospect will become a client or customer, unless you missed some glaring issue or make a huge mistake when writing the proposal.
- There’s a 10 percent likelihood that your prospect will never become a client or customer, no matter what you put in the proposal. This person – perhaps a tire-kicker, or someone who isn’t opposed to lying to a salesperson to gather information – slipped past your radar.
- There’s a 20 percent likelihood that your prospect is on the fence. He or she either can’t or doesn’t like to make decisions on the spot, or simply prefers to see things in writing before making a choice.
Keep in mind that this prospect won’t be wearing a sign telling you into which category he or she falls. So, if you follow the old rules, you’ll write proposals for every prospect.
What I’m asking you to do is not write the proposal yet. Instead, close the contractual sale on a handshake instead, and write the proposal later. Here’s a simple example of that conversation:
You’ve completed the entire sales process and have summarized everything for the prospect.
You: Is there anything else you can think of that must be part of this deal?
Prospect: Nope. It sounds like you’ve covered everything.
You: Great. What’s next?
Prospect: Can you put this in a proposal for me?
You: Certainly. I can have it on your desk in two days. Are you saying we have a deal?
This is a rubber-meets-the-road question that asks the prospect to make a yes/no decision on the spot. If you add this type of question to the end of your contractual-sale stage, then the following should occur:
- The prospect who was already sold will say, “Sign it.” And when you’re writing the proposal, you’ll know it’s a done deal.
- The prospect who was never going to become a client will hem and haw, thus dodging the question and avoiding a strong commitment.
- The fence-sitter will fall off the fence. This prospect may continue to hem and haw, but when you stand your ground, you’ll offer no choice. At first, you can expect to get an even split between “Yes” and “No” responses from this prospect. With practice, however, you will learn to disqualify the “No” prospect sooner.
Once you stand your ground, here’s how the conversation might go between you and Prospect 2 (who won’t buy but wants the proposal anyway) or Prospect 3 (the fence-sitter):
You: Certainly. Are you saying we have a deal?
Prospect: No, I’m not ready to decide right now. I’d like to see it in writing first.
You: I understand. It will take me a day to write a proposal and get it back to you. After I do that, if the proposal contains everything we discussed, and there are no surprises or mistakes, what will you do?
Prospect: I’ll look it over and let you know.
You: You mean if it’s exactly what we discussed, there’s still a chance you won’t sign it?
Prospect: Well, yes.
You: I’m confused. If we covered everything, and everything we covered is in the proposal, what could be left that would cause you to not sign it?
Prospect: I’ve still got meetings with other vendors and will need to compare what you’re proposing to what they propose, before I make my decision.
You: Okay. Then how about this? After you’re done meeting with the other vendors, if the solution we discussed today is the one you want, you call me and let me know. Then, we’ll go over the deal again, just to make sure nothing has changed, and, once you’re ready to move forward, I’ll write it up. How’s that sound?
Prospect: You mean you’re not willing to write it up now?
You: Correct. I don’t use proposals to close business. I close business on a handshake and then use proposals to document the agreement. That way I never waste time writing a proposal that had no chance of getting signed.
Prospect: But all the other vendors are willing to submit proposals.
You: That is their choice. But I’m not like everyone else.
Prospect: If you’re not willing to write the proposal now, then I don’t want to do business with you at all.
You: I respect your decision. Do you have enough other people to whom you’re talking to find a good solution? Or would you like me to connect you to one or two competitors I know who are willing to write proposals without an agreement to do business?
When you stand your ground with a non-buyer, the conversation may become tense. When that happens, maintain an even keel and never fault the prospect for his or her decision. You have no more right to tell a prospect to do business a certain way than he or she has to tell you to do business a certain way, and doing so will only increase hostility.
To lessen the tension, use statements of fact once you hit an impasse. Notice how your last responses ended in statements, and sort of left the prospect hanging? This happened because the conversation turned from your interviewing the prospect to his or her interviewing you. As the conversation with an “undecided” becomes tense, work to create this transition from interviewer to interviewee, because once that occurs you can begin answering questions with statements of fact about the way you do business.
Although the example above had a negative outcome, a positive one is just as likely. Using this method of handling an undecided prospect – making statements of fact – will not only ease the tension, but will often cause a fence-sitter to fall to your side of the fence; he or she will respect you for standing your ground. Perfecting this technique is what will help you eventually reach the 90 percent close rate with prospects that have reached the end of the contractual-sale stage.
Exercise: Make Your Choice
To summarize, the secret to getting your proposal signed is to close the sale verbally, or on a handshake, before you write the proposals, and move the act of writing the proposal out of the sales process and into the fulfillment process. There is, of course, an upside and downside to this:
Upside: As soon as you require a yes/no commitment before writing your proposals, about 80 percent (all of category 1 and half of category 3) will close on the spot. And with practice, you’ll eventually increase that to around 90 percent. At the same time, you will eliminate the frustration and wasted time of writing proposals that don’t get signed.
Downside: At first, it can be incredibly nerve-racking and uncomfortable to stand your ground with prospects who don’t say, “Yes, we have a deal,” because you know in your heart that, if you write the proposals, some of them will get signed.
Your exercise is to answer this question: Are you willing to suffer an uncomfortable learning curve and a few lost sales to ensure that every proposal you write from now on gets signed?
If you are, then start trying it now. But by all means track your actual results. The numbers above are gross estimates designed mostly to illustrate my point. By tracking your actual results you will be able to determine whether this is a good strategy, or not.
If your answer was, “Yes,” then read on, and you’ll learn how to achieve the upside while minimizing the downside, and do so with as little transitional pain as possible. But before we get to that, I need to mention one additional pain you must consider, because, once you’re successful in making the switch, it’s a pain you will occasionally encounter.
When you stand your ground with lifetime non-buyers (the folks who use salespeople as educational resources only), they have a tendency to get a bit angry.
Bottom line: These people are being bullies – they’re demanding that salespeople do things for them, while having no intention of reciprocating. So when you encounter one of these bullies, be prepared to be shown the door quickly. But take solace in knowing you just won one for salespeople everywhere.
Structuring Your Proposals For The Close
Before a prospect will commit, he or she wants to be certain you’ve captured the agreement and are able to communicate it clearly. In fact, this desire is the primary reason most prospects ask for agreements in writing. And most salespeople comply – writing, submitting, then hoping.
But you aren’t going to do this anymore, because you want all your proposals signed, which presents you with a problem: You must still demonstrate to your prospect that you’ve captured the agreement and can communicate it clearly.
The key to giving your prospect what he or she wants is – say it with me – to organize your processes. Bottom line: Your sales process, the order in which you take notes and the structures of your proposals should all follow the same format – demonstrating a highly organized approach that will instill confidence in your prospects.
To demonstrate this concept, I’ll explain my proposal structure as it relates to my sales strategy and the way I take my notes. Of course, if you use a different structure, you’ll need to rearrange your processes based on your own system.
To close sales before you write your proposals, you must do the following:
- Design a proposal outline with headings and subheadings that correspond to your various sales stages and the conversations you have during those stages. Make certain your outline contains everything you and the majority of your prospects want and need in a proposal.
- Design a structured approach to interviewing prospects and taking notes that follows your proposal outline closely. (Conversations are like snowflakes – no two are exactly alike – so your structure may not be exactly the same as your proposal, but it should contain everything in the proposal outline and be structured as closely as possible.)
- Demonstrate your organizational abilities to your prospects during your sales appointments.
Regardless of how you design your interview process, you must ensure that it follows your sales cycle and proposal process closely, and that you can demonstrate this fact to your prospects during your sales conversations. That way, you’ll give your prospects what they want, which is full knowledge that you’ve captured the agreement and are able to communicate it clearly.
The figure below shows the interview document I take on sales calls (condensed to a single page so I can more easily share it here). After I’ve set a sales appointment, I print a copy of this document on my company letterhead and complete the top portion. When I go on the sales appointment, I take this page with me, but I typically leave it in my portfolio until I’ve completed Section 1 (Objectives), because I know that section by heart and prefer to use a free-format style in the first part of my meeting.
On simple sales calls, in fact, I’ll often do the whole process by heart, and look at the page only at the very end of the meeting, to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
In very complicated sales, however, I refer to this document throughout my entire sales appointment, which demonstrates to my prospects that my sales process is highly organized. For taking notes, I use a standard-sized tablet of lined paper, and, as I go through each section on the interview document, I organize my notes under the same headings.
So throughout my entire sales process, the prospect gets a warm fuzzy that I’m professional and organized, which leads to many more handshake closes.
In Chapter 12 I shared the Honest Selling Sales Cycle pyramid – depicting my approach to the entire sales process. Now that you’ve seen my interview document, let’s tie the two together, so you see how the pieces of the puzzle fit.
Closing The Conceptual Sale
In the conceptual-sale stage of the Pyramid, you have a conversation with the decision-maker during which you discuss business issues. This conversation is depicted in Pyramid Tiers 1 through 4.
- Tier 1: The prospect’s true return on investment (ROI).
- Tier 2: The positives that must be increased and/or the negatives that must be decreased to achieve the ROI.
- Tier 3: The prospect’s terms for these increases, decreases and ROI.
- Tier 4: What you must discuss to learn everything there is to learn about Tier 1 through Tier 3.
Interview Document, Section 1
On the interview document, notice how Section 1 (Objectives) corresponds with Tiers 1 through 4 on the Pyramid, and how Steps A through E are questions designed to learn everything there is to know about what the prospect wants.
To close your conceptual sale, complete Section 1, Steps A through E for every objective the prospect has, then summarize everything back to the prospect – verifying that you’ve captured the problem and are able to communicate it clearly. After your summary, pull out your magic wand.
You: Is there anything you want to add or change before we continue?
Prospect: Nothing I can think of.
You: Before we discuss obstacles and solutions, I’d like to know how serious you are about accomplishing these objectives, so I have a hypothetical question for you.
You: Suppose for a minute that I have magic wand in my pocket. Suppose that, if I waved my wand, every one of your objectives would be magically accomplished. Assuming that my fee for waving the wand was acceptable to you – meaning that you would realize the return on investment you want – would you pay me to wave the wand right now?
Prospect: If the price is right? Sure.
You (humorously): Are you certain about that? I ask, because I happen to own a magic wand.
Prospect: Yes, I’m sure. (Laughing)
If your prospect isn’t laughing just a bit at this point, then you’ve probably already lost the sale. However, if your prospect is chuckling as he or she says, “Yes, I’m sure,” then you just closed your conceptual sale. So, from this moment forward, instead of looking for the close, you’ll be looking for the reason to cancel the agreement you just made.
Stop for a minute and let that sink in. With a short conversation about objectives and a wave of your magic wand, you just changed this conversation from an exploration of whether the sale should be closed to an exploration of whether the sale should be canceled. In other words, you just became your prospect’s collaborator and advocate – and positioned yourself as his or her peer. From this moment onward, you engage in an honest exploration for showstoppers.
If you strive for perfection in any part of your sales cycle, strive for perfection here, because, once you close the conceptual sale, the rest of the process is very forgiving.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to be sure, so let’s quickly examine the rest of the interview document and then wrap this up with an explanation of how to turn this into a proposal – after the handshake close.
Interview Document, Sections 2-5
Now that you’ve become the prospect’s collaborator, it’s time to live up to that role. In both the conceptual and contractual stages of the Honest Selling Sales Cycle, you will cover the questions in all four of these sections on the interview document. In the conceptual stage, you’ll simply be taking notes; whereas, in the contractual stage, you’ll summarize your detailed notes and get a commitment to do business.
Most of the questions in these sections are self-explanatory, but a few require a bit of extra information:
Section 3, Step B – Whom else are you considering?
You’ve determined the objectives and obstacles, and learned why the prospect needs outside help. Now you must learn who your competition is – or whether you have competition at all. Salespeople the world over resist asking this question, because they know that prospects resist answering it. But, as collaborator, you want to help the prospect find the best solution, so don’t hesitate to ask this question.
Section 3, Step C – Why are you considering me?
Asking this question at this point is critical, because it will tell you whether you’ve missed something, such as letting a tire-kicker get past your radar, and clue you into the prospect’s key reasons for wanting you to help him accomplish his objectives. Often the prospect will tell you things specific to you or your company that the competition can’t duplicate – such as, “I originally asked you in, because Joe said you did great work. Now that I’ve gotten to know you, I think you’ll get along great with my team.”
Section 4, Steps A-D – Process, Joint Accountabilities, Timing And Financial Terms
Even in the conceptual sale, prospects will often want you to explain at least the basics of how you’ll help them accomplish their objectives, so be prepared to answer these questions. However, if you have a multi-meeting sales cycle, then, in the earlier meetings, try to keep your descriptions as basic as you can, and don’t get into details until the technical- and contractual-sale stages.
Section 5, Steps A-B – Signatory, Influencers
These two questions are designed to find the true decision-makers and influencers – the people who can and may kill your deal, if you don’t get the chance to explain your products or services to them yourself. Assuming the prospect isn’t the only decision-maker involved, get the others’ names, then ask, “When you and I are finished, if it looks like my company is the right one to help you accomplish these objectives, I’ll need to talk to these people briefly – either one-on-one or as a group. Are you willing to set that up?” If your prospect balks, stand your ground: “My reason for wanting to talk to them is simple: They may have questions about my services that only I am qualified to answer. If you aren’t willing to set that up, then we just found our showstopper.”
Remember, the best way to handle conflicting agendas is to make statements of fact and then shut up, so you become the interviewee, instead of the interviewer. By doing this, you let the prospect overcome his or her own objection, instead of creating sales resistance by trying to overcome it on your own.
Technical And Contractual Sales
The technical-sale stage is really nothing more than your summarization of what you learned in the conceptual sale, followed by an exploration of the technical team’s problems and obstacles, so you can report back to the decision-maker in the contractual-sale stage. Use your notes from the conceptual stage for your exploration during the technical stage, covering the same basic material. But, unlike showing your organizational prowess to the decision-maker in the conceptual stage, don’t reveal your notes, details, concepts, etc., to the technicians. You want to position yourself as the decision-maker’s peer, and decision-makers rarely share their secrets with the hired help.
The contractual-sale stage becomes an executive-level review of everything in your notes. Go over any questions that must be revisited. If your prospect requires it, cover Section 4 (Your Proposed Solution) of the interview document in more detail. Double-check whether anything in Section 5 (Finalizing The Agreement) has changed.
Provided everything is as it should be, follow the questioning guidelines I explained earlier in this chapter until you ask, “Are you saying we have a deal?”
Writing Your Proposals
To ensure that your proposals don’t raise unnecessary flags, structure them the same way you did your sales cycle and your interview document, as well as the way you did in your actual conversations. Start with a summary of the key issues, such as ROI and increases or decreases that you covered in Section 1 of your interview document. If appropriate (this will depend on what you learned), add something in the summary that pertains to the obstacles that have been or will be overcome. For instance, if you can’t accomplish your objective until the prospect closes a merger deal or opens a new division, include that in your summary.
The figure above shows the proposal structure I use (headings and subheadings). It starts the same as a standard business letter, with a one-sentence opening that states why I’m submitting the proposal and highlights the primary ROI I’ve been hired to help the prospect achieve. After that, I have four main sections:
- Situation Summary
- Achieving The Objectives
A situation summary should be no fewer than four sections, and no longer than a single page. The opening of your situation summary should “hit the prospect between the eyes” with the major pain you will eliminate, and the result of not eliminating that pain. (It’s rare that this happens, but if the purpose of the sale is to increase a positive only, then state that instead.)
Never shy away from stating, in clear and hard-line terms, exactly what the prospect wants you to help him or her achieve, because decision-makers like dealing with people who understand and can articulate bottom lines without pulling punches. Using Joe’s canning plant example from Chapter 12:
[Prospect’s] canning plant is “bleeding” at the rate of $100,000 per month. Your internal development team is working on creating a new system, but that will take six months and has left no one to handle day-to-day IT issues.
Due to the lack of support, key plant executives are complaining loudly to everyone who will listen, which reflects poorly on you and your team. If this situation isn’t remedied quickly, you’re afraid the key executives may leave the company, and possibly force the plant into bankruptcy, which would represent a huge financial loss.
The second section should be a high-level summary of the primary objectives, results and measurements of success. If you must, break each objective into a single paragraph, but don’t get too detailed yet:
To avoid the potential loss, you must find a highly skilled programmer and database expert who can keep the plant executives happy by “putting out fires” and “creating quick-wins.” We discussed options for making this happen, and agreed that what you need is someone proficient in many languages and platforms, so he can adapt to whatever he encounters. We also agreed that his only role would be to satisfy the plant executives, so their opinions of his work will be the only measure of our success.
The third section should summarize the major transitional pain and predicted future pain:
Because of the sizable learning curve, during the first four to six weeks, your executives might yell a bit louder and your losses might actually increase. This is unavoidable, so we will minimize the complaints and losses by managing the executives’ expectations and by working hard to overcome the learning curve quickly. Additionally, your executives are likely to be so pleased with some of the new systems we design that you may have to incorporate them into your new system once it’s installed, which will result in an increase in modification costs later on.
The final section of the situation summary should confirm why the prospect chose you. Use the prospect’s words, not yours, but feel free to toot your own horn. Don’t exaggerate or use any marketing superfluff:
After telling you about Pat’s skills, you decided that he was the perfect person for this new role, because he has the wide range of skills needed to get this complicated job done right, and because he’s worked in this type of environment on numerous occasions and has gotten nothing but glowing reviews from his clients.
Keep your situation summary at a very high level, and try not to let it be longer than one page. This will demonstrate your understanding of the situation and your ability to communicate the concepts quickly and correctly.
In much greater detail, and for each objective, explain the specific results that will be produced, the way you’ll measure success, the transitional pain and the future pain success may cause. (In Joe’s example, I was able to completely skip this section, because the objective was so simple – to keep his plant executives happy and off his back!)
Achieving The Objectives
For each desired objective, describe the process you’ll use to achieve the objective. Then explain your and your client’s responsibilities and accountabilities, set the timing, and quote the fee or cost. If different objectives have different payment terms, include payment terms for each. If not, put the payment terms in the execution section of your proposal.
End your proposal with a description of everything not previously stated about payment terms. Two things I always add are:
- “Either your payment according to the fee schedule outlined herein or your signature on this document will signify acceptance of the terms and conditions of this proposal.” (Some executives can authorize payment but can’t sign a contract. This lets them skip the approval process.)
- “Once accepted, this project cannot be canceled unless both parties agree.” (For example, you don’t want your sale getting canceled if the executive who bought from you gets fired before you get started.)
Last, include a signature section that allows both companies’ authorized decision-makers to sign and date the agreement.
The [Your Name Here] Sales System: Proposals
To get all your proposals signed, remember two key things:
- Organize your entire process so your prospects will have enough confidence to make a commitment without your having to write the proposal.
- Don’t write a proposal without that commitment.
If you remember and apply what you’ve learned in this chapter, and in Chapter 12 on the Honest Selling Sales Cycle, you will never again write a proposal that doesn’t get signed, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming the top producer you seek to become.