Been asked to submit a proposal? Here’s why being too eager to prepare sales proposals can lead to wasted time and lost sales opportunities.

Proposals have a special place in the mind of many salespeople. They are one of the milestones of the sales process and are often seen as the ‘meat of the dinner’. Being asked by a potential customer to submit a proposal is considered by many to be a major success.

Hours of writing and a few candles later, a proposal is proudly submitted. Excitement, anticipation and anxiety reaches fever pitch while we wait for the outcome to see whether the customer will choose the ‘beef’, ‘lamb’ or ‘fish’ from our proposal.

Then guess what, the request comes back to quote a vegetarian option, (because a competitor has suggested this), and back to work we go, developing a winning proposal for the vegetarian. On a bad day, the customer goes for the pork, and you miss out. On a good day, the customer dines with you.

A better option

Rather than writing your proposal as soon as the client asks what is on the menu and then spending valuable time at the proposal end of the sales cycle, the place to spend your time is doing a good diagnosis and selecting the optimal solution with the client.

This is the real ‘meat’ of developing complex sales. For example, you must spend time understanding how and why ‘beef’ is the best option, then how the client likes their beef cooked!

Don’t let proposals become a substitute for building trust or do the selling for you, whereby you are over-reliant on the proposal to win the deal. Such proposals are easy to pick – they are top heavy in ‘about us’ capability information that seldom gets read.

Since customers don’t buy proposals, (they buy solutions and value), instead build trust through the strength of your diagnosis, and use the proposal to simply confirm all that you have agreed. Your two-page proposal will then offer only the desired option, and is far more likely to be accepted. Done well, this has far more impact than any hefty proposal, both on your customer and your sales results and the long term relationship.

In complex sales, the proposal is not the meat, it is the gravy. It is the part which brings the meal together, rather than the main part of the meal.

Are you sure you know what you’re proposing?

One of the biggest challenges of complex sales is working with customers and buyers who ask you to submit a proposal before you know what you are making a proposal for. Responding to a request for a proposal (“RFP”) or tender so that the client can consider the possible options can be a tough one to deal with.

In this situation, we naturally want to seize the opportunity and get our proposal in early to make an impression. We wonder what the competition is doing. If we do not jump when asked to jump, what will the customer think? Will the competition have a head start on us? Well, they won’t, they will just be wasting their time guessing what the customer wants and hoping that something will get the interest of the buyer. Just like you.

Sure you might get lucky once in a while, but to succeed in complex sales requires much more than a game of chance and numbers. The consequence of over-reliance on the proposal to sell, and submitting too early is that you consume vast amounts of your time and resources preparing a proposal of options, most if not all of which never happen.

The cost to your organisation can be huge. I recall an extreme case for a multi-million dollar project where the senior buyer asked very early on for a proposal of all the possible options to consider.

Well, evaluating all possible options to be able to make a proposal for them would have taken months and cost $$$’s. Instead the next few months were valuably spent jointly figuring out the viable options.

What to do when your customer asks for a proposal too early

To be honest, I find this premature request happens when buyers don’t know what they are buying, or don’t know what the extent of the problem is. Repeated submissions follow as the buyer progressively gets a better understanding of what they are doing. As buyers don’t we feel safer reading proposals in comfort to try and figure it out ourselves rather than risk being sold the wrong thing?

(That’s why we buy so much over the Internet now – isn’t it?).

It is self-defence from the buyer and a symptom of decades of poor seller and poor buyer behaviour working in conflict. If you don’t know exactly what you are proposing and why, then you must ask yourself also whether the buyer knows what they are trying to buy, or even how they will decide?

There are two things you have to do when asked to submit a proposal prematurely:

1) You have to stand your ground

Be firm, and say that in order to submit a proposal upon which they can make an informed decision, you both need to first understand. This requires discipline.

Advise that you can only propose viable solutions that meet all the criteria, and at this stage, the criteria are not defined. Otherwise, you will be wasting your time and their time, and possibly put their business at risk.

Plus, how do you know if you have the resources to provide a solution that will achieve the desired outcome? You could be putting your credibility and reputation at risk too.

2) Maintain the self-esteem of the buyer

You don’t want to appear arrogant, seemingly knowing better. It will damage the trust you have built. Respect the wishes of the client, but suggest an alternative approach that will ensure you are providing accurate information upon which they can make the best possible buying decision.

Submit a proposal without prior agreement of concept and we know what happens– the customer does nothing, decides on price alone, or you submit repeated proposals until someone figures it out!


Paul Newsom is a change agent at Young Enterprise Trust.

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