Have you noticed that at nearly every major accounting conference, there seems to be a session on how to develop effective proposals? It also happens to be one of the topics that we are asked most frequently to offer our advice on. Because this continues to be on the minds of our clients, we wanted to take some time to share our thoughts on the process of developing effective and “winning” proposals.

Proposals are intended to win business for your firm.  But how can you be sure that your proposals are helping, rather than hurting, you in the selling process?

To answer this question, you need to understand a few basic ideas about the sales process in general, where proposals fit into the mix, and some tips for creating proposals that win.  Then, “perfecting” the process (if there is such a thing) will help you standardize, track how well you’re doing, and make adjustments as needed.

  1. Conduct a thorough needs analysis

To write an effective proposal, you first need to understand the specific needs of your prospect, their business, and requirements intimately.  Typically, the sales process will start with an introduction or greeting and then flow to qualification - where you determine whether your service is a fit for your prospect’s business and addresses their specific needs, budget, timing, and decision-making process.  Without this information, it is impossible to generate a winning proposal.

  1. Produce the proposal itself

The proposal stage is where you present your solution – but the proposal is all about the prospect! The goal of a proposal is to share your understanding of your prospect’s objectives and needs and to persuade them that your firm offers the best solution.

Your proposal should include information about:

    • What you know about your prospect’s organization and its needs and goals
    • Your products and/or services, including the difference they will make for the prospect
    • Your approach
    • Your firm and your people
    • Your planned timing and the investments required
  1. Determine the “look” of your proposals

Making a quality impression is important.  That said, your proposal should be something you can easily produce, preferably in-house, with the use of a good printer.  Proposals can run the gamut from full-color, spiral-bound booklets to a stapled black and white version.  Whatever layout you choose, be sure to reflect your firm’s brand identity clearly.

You’ll have to weigh the value of a better-looking proposal against the level of effort and cost it takes to achieve it.  Try to balance a nice-looking proposal that’s simple to use and read, without overextending by using a complex layout you’ll have difficulty producing in a timely fashion or that your prospects will have difficulty navigating or won’t read because of its length.

  1. Create a systemized, repeatable process

Creating “boilerplate” proposals for each type of service or initiative, including your chosen layout, headers and footers, information on your firm, services overviews, and standard pricing, will help aid in expediting the development of proposals and make it easier for administrative staff to assist partners or marketing professionals in creating the proposals.  Then, extra time and care can be given to focusing on communicating your understanding of the client’s situation and objectives and how you are going to solve their challenges and help them achieve their goals.

Be sure to document your entire proposal process, including who develops them, what templates should be developed and used, and how to access them.  Also, identify who should be involved in reviewing and delivering proposals.  Always have someone else inside the firm proof your materials as they’ll help you catch potentially costly mistakes.  Make sure all in your firm are aware of the templates and store them in a central place to avoid incomplete or outdated materials being sent out.

Here are some proposal “dos” and “don’ts” to help you evaluate and enhance your current proposal templates.

Some proposal “dos” include:

    • DO personalize your proposal to the prospect’s point of view and speak in the first person so that your audience is referred to as “you.”
    • DO illustrate why they should choose your firm, including strengths that set your firm apart from others, the difference you’ll make for them and ways (complete with references) you’ve helped others like them.
    • DO use graphics and bullets to break up the narrative of your information.
    • DO include a short executive summary and a table of contents if the proposal is more than six pages.
    • DO have a clear call to action with next steps and a contact person for questions or to proceed.
    • DO track the status of issued proposals in your sales pipeline, even if that is a simple Excel spreadsheet.
    • DO remember that the proposal is about your prospect – their business, their need – not about you!

Avoid these proposal “don’ts:”

    • DON’T overdo the “we’re so great” language.  Keep the focus on the prospect and avoid the temptation to include a lot of company history or too much information about the team proposed for the project.  A brief illustration of your value proposition, why you’re different, and the difference you’ll make is enough.  If you’re concerned you’re not supplying enough detail, offer your prospect the option to gather more information, including lengthier biographies and client case studies, from your firm’s website.
    • DON’T submit a proposal of monstrous proportions!  In general, the longer the proposal, the less likely it is to be read.  Eight to twelve pages should be plenty, although some industries may require less or more, and the length may also be somewhat determined by the amount of information requested in an RFP.
    • DON’T use too many technical terms, jargon, or “fancy” words.  The simpler your proposal is to read, the better.

Next week, we will present the last three steps to Developing Winning Proposals.

In the meantime, consider taking a look at some of your recent proposals. Are there places where you can make some modifications based on our discussion? Do you have some tips of your own to share with others?

Best Regards,

Michelle Baca