If your business has a multi-stage sales process, after you've spent time generating leads, you will likely come to a point towards the end where you produce a proposal for your potential client.
However, no matter how excited the prospective client is you might find that after receiving your proposal they choose to go in another direction and you lose the potential work.
It's not a great feeling is it?
Losing proposals and the subsequent contracts that come with winning them is a deflating blow following all the hard work that goes into producing them.
So what goes wrong and how can you win more proposals? Let's explore some great fixes for 10 common sticking points.
What's in a proposal?
A solid proposal generally covers a few common topics:
- some background research and information on the prospective project and client;
- (perhaps most importantly) details of the work you're proposing to carry out during the project;
- who's involved in the project and what their roles are;
- and costs and investment terms - how much will the work cost? Are there milestone payments? How long is the project going to take?
There are of course a lot of other items that can be included in a proposal and the length of each proposal will differ, both these factors depending on your company's offering and the particular project that's on the line.
One thing's for certain though: proposals take a lot of time and effort and when you lose a proposal that's a whole heap of resources that end up in the reject bin, not to mention the lost potential work from the new client.
Why do we keep losing proposals?
There are a lot of reasons that you can lose a potential client at the proposal stage and some of them are, to some extent, unavoidable.
Here at Red Guerrilla, for example, we pitched for a large ecommerce website redesign and eventually lost out to another firm due to their offering being priced lower than ours. We were confident in our pricing as it reflected the volume and quality of our work, so there wasn't much we could do to alter it.
Most of the time, however, there is a lot you can do to win more proposals.
We've written and sent out a lot of proposals over the years and we've also spent a lot of time analysing them and the results - good and bad - to see what works well and what doesn't.
One of the best ways to find out what hasn't worked is to simply ask the recipient. Honestly, if you approach your prospective client and ask for some genuine feedback on how you could improve, they'll more likely than not give you some solid advice you can take on-board for next time.
By looking at why we win and why we lose, we've found a lot of common stumbling blocks and areas that can be improved, and they're likely to be the very same reasons as yours...
Here's our 10 most common reasons why proposals fail and how you can fix them.
1. You and your client aren't a good match
There's not much explanation needed for this one. Some clients are a great fit, some aren't. In order for your company to work with a new client, they have to be a good fit for both the products and services your company offers as well as from a organisation culture and personality point of view.
Similarly, you're not going to be able to sell services worth £1000's if your client only values them at £100's.
How to fix it
Although it's tempting to get caught up in the excitment of the sales process, stay focussed on discovering what your prospect wants, what they need, and how your company fits in with this. If there's a good fit, move on.
Learn how to figure this out earlier in the sales process and remember, a 'no' is as good as a 'yes' as it allows you to spend your time more productively on other leads who are a better fit.
2. Expectations aren't what the client imagined
You know how you work and how you deliver your services. Your client knows how they like to work, has an idea of what they want and what they expect to happen during the lifetime of a project.
If these two aren't aligned then you're setting yourself if for failure from the start.
How to fix it
Use meetings, phone calls, and any other pre-proposal interaction during the sales process to find out as much about the client as you can and help them learn about you and how you work, and manage their expectations.
Ideally you and your client should be on the same page about topics like:
- budgets and baseline costs;
- how any work is carried out;
- deadlines and delivery dates;
- project and scope changes;
- who's in charge of what and what their responsibilities are.
3. You need to build a rapport
Whilst people like to know what they can expect, they also hire and work with people they know, like, and trust. It's one of the reasons why business networking works well for just about everyone.
Having a series of limited interactions with a potential client and then dumping a giant, wordy proposal on their virtual desk does nothing to help portray your brand or personality, neither does it give them a solid base of trust in you and your abilities.
How to fix it
Learn as much about your client and their needs as you can during the early stages of your engagement with them. Discover all you can about their business and their people.
You'll find that people will prefer to do business with other 'real' people, not 'salesy' types or the uber-professional corporate robots. By addressing their pain points in a language and style they prefer, you'll be set up for success.
4. There's too much friction involved in the proposal process
You've generated a quality lead, worked with them throughout the sales process, discovered all about them, and finally delivered a winning proposal that checks all the boxes and you're sure will be accepted right off the bat.
But there are some problems...
Even if everything else is spot on, there can still be issues around the physical access and delivery of the proposal and some other admin areas that can cause friction.
These are the most frequent complaints we've heard of:
- the proposal was in an incompatible format (a version of MS Word, for example, that's too old or too new);
- it was too big (we keep our proposals to no more than a handful of pages);
- there was confusion over versions following document revisions;
- accepting the proposal was too involved (e.g. printing and physically signing, scanning or faxing to another person, etc.)
How to fix it
At Red Guerrilla, we use an online system to create and deliver all our proposals. It's called Quote Roller and is simply fantastic. We can create proposals online and much more efficiently than we used to, which reduces our workload.
From a client perspective they can view the proposals online, ask any questions they need to right there in the system - enjoying a tracked log of any discussions - and even sign and accept them online too.
Even without a system such as Quote Roller, you can keep things nice and simple for your potential client where possible. For example. keep things centralised by using a free service such as Dropbox to share a current version of a proposal.
Remove as much friction from any part of your sales process and it'll help things glide more smoothly to a win for you and your business.
5. The proposal took too long to produce
You're super busy, but so is everyone these days and they hate waiting. Our internal rule in the Red Guerrilla offices to ensure we have a fully-fledged proposal to a prospective client within 5 working days, sooner if we can.
How to fix it
The aim here to to both manage some expectations by giving them a physical, realistic date - i.e. if you know you're going to have a document over to the client in 3 days, tell them that, rather then something vague such as 'next week'. - and stick to it!
The key is to keep up the momentum of the sales process whilst allowing yourself enough time to knock out a killer proposal that hits all the right marks.
6. There's too much emphasis on cost rather than value
While closely linked, there is a big difference between 'cost' and 'value'. 'Cost' is a much easier concept to understand as it is the physical outlay for a product or service.
Value on the other hand is a largely a measure of the monetary worth of something, as abstract as that sounds.
As an example, a strong, fully-managed inbound marketing package can cost between £1500 - £3000 per month. However, if it brings in £10,000 of additional revenue per month for a client, then that's the real value of the service.
How to fix it
You absolutely have to mention the physical costs and investment needed to engage your products and services at some point in the process, preferably early on as this ties into points 1 and 2 about making a good match and setting expectations.
However, although mentioning prices and costings is important, you should place more emphasis on the value that your services deliver and that your client should expect to receive.
Sure, your contract might cost £50,000, but if it nets your client £200,000 in revenue, then that's all value and should be shouted about loudly and frequently!
7. There are no pricing options or room to manoeuvre
People like to have some element of choice in their decision making process. Every decision has a choice, of course, but if the choice is 'I can use company X or not', then obviously there is a chance for them to choose 'not'.
Another point to consider is that your client has read through the proposal and decided that they like some elements, not others, or that they don't need parts of it at all.
How to fix it
Introduce some pricing options to your proposals. A good place to start is to offer three options and call them something like 'Premium', 'Pro', and 'Standard' and alter the features and offering of each option inline with the cost.
Now your client has more options than just 'yes' and 'no'; they can have a more comprehensive choice to suit their needs and there is actual science behind this approach that means a lot of people will choose the middle option.
8. Start with the bells and whistles, then pair them back
There is a great deal of psychology involved in buying and selling; following on from the pricing options in point 7, you can introduce a really simple change to the way you set these out to alter the perception of the client in a process known as 'loss aversion'.
How to fix it
When setting out your pricing options, instead of starting with the least amount of features for the lowest cost (e.g. the 'standard' option) and adding things on, start with the highest-cost option (e.g. 'premium') and trim features back as you move along the line.
The thinking on the client end should move from 'these features will cost me more' to 'oh, I don't get the features I need with the Standard package'.
9. Focus on benefits not features
In the same way that 'cost' and 'value' are closely related, but very different, so it is with 'benefits' and 'features'.
We attend a lot of networking groups around the Yorkshire region - where we're based - and we come across a familiar pattern with new members' elevator pitches. Their pitches tend to list out a number of things that they do, which are features, whereas more experienced members might have changed their pitches to talk about how what they do helps their clients, which are benefits.
It's a subtle difference sometimes, but consider the following example of a feature:
"I run jewellery-making courses in the local area"
Now that's fine, but a better way of approaching it might be like this:
"I teach people to make beautiful, hand-made jewellery which is perfect for giving to loved ones as gifts"
How to fix it
By making some simple syntax changes to your wording can reap huge rewards in terms of proposal wins. Focus on what your client gets, how your client will benefit, instead of what you're going to do.
You'll start to see that your clients appreciate the focus on solving their problems with tangible deliverables rather than talking about your solutions (in the nicest possible way of course).
10. Giving up too soon
Deciding on which coffee to buy is generally a quick thing. Choosing which company should handle your £100,000 project on the other hand is not a short and simple process.
Depending on the size of the project and investment needed to move ahead with it, you have to consider that your proposal isn't going to be accepted (or sometimes even looked at!) overnight.
That said, it's not enough to just wing a proposal off to your potential client and then leave it with them. There is still a lot of nurturing that needs to be done.
How to fix it
While there is no easy way to gauge how long a client will take to decide on a proposal - it could be weeks, it could be months - make sure that you have a good follow-up process in place to help a client out and nurture them towards a closed sale.
Send them a proposal and then follow up at a frequency that feels right for them, check in to see if you can answer any questions, and offer any help that might move the decision process along.
10 steps to proposal nirvana
With our top 10 ways to improve your proposals I'm confident that you'll be able to put some of them into practice and start pumping out proposals that delight your new clients and get more contracts in the bag.
Here's our 10 ways to improve your proposals in summary:
- Ensure you and your potential client are a good fit to work together
- Manage and set expectations - make sure you're both on the same page!
- Build a good, solid rapport with your client
- Remove as much friction from the proposal process as possible
- Set a proposal delivery date, keep it short (within a week), and stick to it!
- Focus more on value and less on cost
- Offer different pricing options for differnt situations
- Start with a fully-featured pricing package and remove features rather than starting with less and adding more
- Highlight the benefits of your products and services rather than their features
- Don't give up too early on your proposal - send your proposal and then follow up with your client and offer your help
Don't forget to question everything, analyse the results, ask questions, and go win more proposals!