Delivery of the sales proposal is the most critical phase of the selling cycle. If a solution does not adequately address the customer’s pains and needs, the most likely reason for losing the sale will be a poorly executed proposal presentation.
TV legal dramas typically reach their climaxes during the portion of the trial where the prosecution and defense make their final arguments before the jury. Like the juries of TV fiction, buyers will be looking for anything that helps them make up their minds about your product as a solution to their needs.
Oddly, sales training does not seem to include a lot of content related to proposal techniques or practices. This is unfortunate because, in far too many cases, the best product or solution ends up coming in second because of a poorly executed presentation of sales proposals.
Common Reasons for Failed Sales Proposals
Bob Kantlin, author of “Customer-Driven Sales Proposals Can Give You the Winning Edge,” details the common reasons for failed sales proposals. In his article, Kantlin states the overarching reason for most proposal failures is due to the proposal being written from the seller’s perspective.
The customer and the customer’s pain points must be the focus of a proposal message.
I think this is an accurate statement. The customer and the customer’s pain points must be the focus of a proposal message. Proposals that focus on the product, the selling company or entertaining content will lose to proposals that reinforce customers’ perceptions that sellers understand their needs.
Good products will beat great products when presented in the context of a well-executed proposal. Great products will come in second to lesser offerings when the sales proposal presentation is mishandled.
Seven Sales Proposal Sins
Let’s take a look at seven common reasons why proposals fail.
1. Presenter/Audience Misalignment
It is critical that the concerns of all interested parties are addressed during the proposal.
Too many presenters focus their presentations, logic and messaging with a small portion of the decision-makers attending the presentation. It is critical that the concerns of all interested parties are addressed during the proposal.
If the audience is comprised mainly of C-suite executives and a sales presentation is tightly focused on end-user issues, such as ease of use or convenience, the salesperson may lose the mindshare battle for the executives. They want to hear about things such as ROI and total cost of ownership.
This can be avoided by requesting a list of the people attending the proposal presentation or asking contacts who will be represented in the proposal audience. Even if this is not available, the salesperson should strive to present a balanced proposal offering that benefits all interested parties.
2. Overemphasizing Features
Product features are important, but when the proposal is exclusively built around a feature list, the buyer response will frequently be confusion or boredom.
Successful sales proposals start with a list of buyer objectives, a corresponding list of mitigating solutions or benefits and finally a list of corresponding features that deliver those benefits.
Before buyers can see a product as a solution, they must see the seller truly understands their needs and pains. The seller needs to accurately articulate those issues to gain the buyer’s confidence. Once that is accomplished, benefits and features can be linked to each need or pain point as the mitigating agent.
3. Disparaging the Competition
This is a trap that is easy to fall into. Spending time listing the shortcomings of a competitive offering or relating tales of failure experienced by others at the hands of your competitors is a sure way to lose an audience.
As tempting as it is to pile on and add to the customer’s disappointment regarding the current solution, this can easily backfire.
In many cases, the seller will be attempting to displace an incumbent vendor that has stumbled. As tempting as it is to pile on and add to the customer’s disappointment regarding the current solution, this can easily backfire. Why? Someone in the audience could have been involved in selecting that vendor.
There is nothing wrong with explaining specifically how a product will overcome the established shortcomings of an incumbent product, but it should be done without attacking the competitor or belittling the competitor’s product.
The more effort spent on details related to how a product will address the customer’s pain points, the more likely the message will resonate with and appeal to the customer.
4. Minimizing or Trivializing the Severity or Complexity of the Challenge Addressed
Nothing is more condescending, irritating or demeaning to customers than being told their problems are small, easily fixed or otherwise minimized. I’ve seen vendors so filled with self-confidence that smugness oozed from their pores.
When sales reps tell customers they’ve fixed these things “a million times,“ their issues are “no big deal,” or their needs are common, they are devaluing their own products. These sales reps are effectively saying to the customer, “You are stupid, or you would have fixed this yourself.”
If the fix is that simple, how can you charge so much for it?
Oversimplification is every bit as dishonest as overcomplicating and overcharging for a solution. Salespeople should take time to fully explain the issues involved and demonstrate they have a full understanding of the customer’s problems. The customer will be more receptive to hearing how the solution mitigates the pain points.
5. Overemphasizing ROI and the Financial Case for the Solution
If sales were only about numbers, sales reps would be out of jobs. Many people have stakes in the solution the salesperson is proposing. Sales reps should not spend so much time on proving an eight-month payback that benefits to end-users, customers and other stakeholders are ignored.
The money is important, the payback is important, but buyers are investing in solutions. Customers need to see how a solution will fulfill its promise. They need to have confidence that the solution will work and benefit them personally.
6. Appearing Overconfident
Sales is, to some great degree, a confidence game. No one buys anything from sales reps who fumble and stumble through presentations, unsure of themselves, their products or their customers’ needs.
Equally off-putting are sales reps who act like the proposal presentation is the only thing between them and tee time. Impatience, arrogance and dismissiveness are all transmitted at high volume when sales reps adopt the posture of having this one all sown up.
Some reps need to decorate themselves with all manner of expensive items in an effort to project the look of success. For example, $3,000 suits, diamond encrusted watches, $1,000 fountain pens and multi-carat matching cuff links all are intended to project a look of success. However, for most folks, these items connote extravagance, waste and poor decision-making.
Some customers will be intimidated; some customers will be disgusted. Very few customers will be impressed. No one will think a salesperson projecting those types of decorations will have a clue about their real issues, let alone an ounce of empathy about their problems.
7. Ignoring Customer Questions or Objections
Salespeople can’t sell if they don’t listen. A sales rep who glosses over a customer’s questions, doubts or objections, will lose a customer’s confidence. Even worse, a sales rep who ignores and has to address customers questions and concerns later may face devastating consequences.
A salesperson must fully and completely address any objection or request for clarification.
Proposal time is when all of the cards are showing. A salesperson must fully and completely address any objection or request for clarification.
Sales reps who promise to take care of “this or that” once a deal is signed are not likely to be believed. It may not seem fair for the customer to bring up some issue that was previously not addressed, but it happens.
Salespeople must enter proposal presentations prepared to address the unexpected.
Technology Can Automate Sales Proposal Generation
CPQ solutions offer a great deal to sellers who are trying to establish consistent, effective proposal practices within their organizations. Formats, proof statements, user stories and references are all automatically maintained and brought into the proposal when it is generated.
Visual branding of sales proposals is consistent and aligned with Marketing’s requirements. Best of all, the “creativity” associated with out-of-control PowerPoint presentations and other over-the-top features are minimized by enforcing standardized proposals.
At the same time, the sales rep maintains responsibility for pacing, directing and executing the message delivery within the proposal process.
Sales Proposals Can Make or Break Success
Proposals should be fun, but they should also be taken seriously. Sales proposals are the make or break point; they are the final round and where sales success or failure is determined.