A sales proposal is sometimes a mere formality—the customer has already made up his or her mind about whether he or she is going to buy. At other times, a sales proposal makes all the difference. All decision-makers and influencers involved in the purchase will review it. Since you never know for sure if your proposal is a formality, you should craft it as if the sale depended on it. A polished proposal can never be overkill, but one that’s sloppily put together could talk you out of an order. Here are 5 important elements for your sales proposal, to make it persuasive and powerful:

1. An executive summary

Whether your proposal is one page or 20 pages (we’ll talk about length in a minute), always lead with an executive summary. Diving right into the technical aspects of your proposal is tempting, and it will probably appeal to hands-on buyers and influencers. However, the details do not interest some buyers and most high-level influencers, who seek a quick answer to the question: “What’s in it for us?”

Accordingly, the executive summary briefly outlines:
  • A description of the product/service to be purchased
  • The key benefits of the product/service]
  • Why the product/service should be purchased now
  • Mention of any warranties, guarantees, or special terms that apply
  • Some sellers err by putting the executive summary at the end of the proposal rather than making it the lead. Although a summary conclusion is logical enough, the problem is that some customers are so impatient they never make it to the end of the proposal.
2. The appropriate level of detail

Generally, the shorter a proposal is, the better. However, problems arise when sales proposals are too long or too short. If you are too sketchy on details, customers may worry you’re hiding something or a poorly organized company. If you provide excessive detail, customers may worry that your company is the type that will hang them on a technicality if anything goes wrong.

The best tool to pinpoint your proposal’s ideal length is common sense. If you are selling a highly technical, high-value, and/or expensive-to-implement product or service, then your proposal naturally needs to spell out specifications, terms, and warranties in some detail. When selling a commodity, you require less detail. High tech, low tech, or no tech, it’s always wise to avoid industry jargon and acronyms without defining them. Once you complete the proposal, give it thorough editing. A second set of eyes can often shorten most proposals with a thorough examination. Good editing enhances your proposal’s persuasive power by making your message more clear and concise. A helpful editing technique is to read the text aloud or have a voice tool read it back to you; you are more likely to catch missed words and awkward phrases by listening.

3. A reason to buy now

It’s human nature to delay making a decision, especially one that involves spending money. Unless they have a problem they are desperate to solve (which is rarely the case), customers will look for reasons to table your proposal. This is why it’s crucial to give customers a reason to buy now. Sellers often think their product/service value speaks for itself. But even if the proposal conveys that value with the eloquence of Shakespeare, many customers still need the extra nudge of a tangible, tantalizing extra. Here are several “extras” that have been proven to work over and over:

  • A discount of “x dollars” on the initial purchase
  • One free with 10 purchased
  •  Extended billing terms
  • A generous cash discount
  • Free or discounted accessories
  • Extended warranties
  • Additional warranty coverage
  • A free block of hours for consultation, training, or maintenance
  • Free, no-questions-asked return policy

Some sellers fear that such offers will somehow cheapen their brand—but in my experience selling to small businesses up to Fortune 100 companies, these extras are always appreciated and more than occasionally turn a maybe into a yes.

4. An outline of the next steps

A great proposal not only includes extras that make it easy to say yes, but it also includes instructions on how to say yes. Think of your proposal, whether digital or on paper, as a bridge in the sales process. If the customer loves your proposal, he or she shouldn’t have to look anywhere other than at the proposal to take the next step and get the order rolling. Thus, the final page of your proposal might lead with language such as, “When you are ready to proceed, please contact us at (phone number) or (email address).”You can take the closing a step further by essentially turning the proposal into a contract by asking for acceptance and requesting the following information:

  • A signature line noting acceptance of the proposal
  • A check-box list of features/options to be included
  • A check-box to confirm pricing
  • Fields for credit card information
  • Other information necessary to start fulfilling the order

This proposal element is even more effective when you review it in person with the customer—you may be able to walk out of the customer’s office with an order in hand.

5. Easy to read, persuasive design

So far, we’ve talked about the proposal text. The design is just as important—and depending on what you’re selling, it may be more important. A slipshod layout and design deter people from reading your proposal, and even worse, convey a very negative brand image. These are the elements of a strong design:

  • Easy-to-read fonts—avoid Comic Sans and scripts
  • As little variation as possible in font types, size and colour—stick to one format for section headers and one format for the text underneath those headers
  • High contrast—black type on a white background is ideal
  • Short paragraphs with persuasive subheads
  • Bulleted and numbered lists for easy scanning
  • Plenty of white space (conveys expertise and efficiency)
  • High-resolution images and graphical elements
  • Images and graphics used to enhance readability, convey complex ideas or draw attention to key features and benefits
  • In terms of formatting, PDFs are preferable to Word documents, as they are more difficult to alter and yet can be designed to incorporate form completion
  • If digital, easy to read on mobile devices

On this last point, don’t underestimate the need for an easy mobile phone reading. Even in the most traditional B2B industries, customers have been liberated from their desktops and ponder proposals on mobile phones wherever they may be. One final point: Make sure your proposal does not include any bad surprises—any substantive negatives or “fine print” should be discussed with the prospect in advance of sending the proposal. Addressing objections before delivering the proposal often renders the eventual order a foregone conclusion.

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