In most small firms, sales proposals are the heart and soul of selling. They're also time consuming, though–so when you get the opportunity to write one, you want it to be a winner.

Here are five simple rules to help ensure your proposal generates business, based upon a study of sales proposal success rates conducted by Bidsketch, a start-up that helps companies write them:

1. Write a proposal, not an estimate.

There's a big difference. An estimate provides a price quote and statement of work.  A proposal provides a summary of the client's problems and how you'll help solve them.  An estimate keeps the client focused on the price; a proposal (even though it includes price) keeps the client focused on value they'll receive.

2. Write a persuasive summary.

On the first page, create an executive summary as follows:

  • List the problems the client faces or goals to be achieved
  • Add your recommended solution.
  • Detail the specific (and ideally unique) benefits resulting from your solution.
  • Finally, provide the overall price, followed by a concise statement of how to get the project started.

3. Keep the proposal short.

In general, the shorter the proposal, the better.  The Bidsketch survey discovered that proposals that are less than 5 pages in length are 31% more likely to win business than ones longer than that.

The executive summary should not be more than a single page, and the rest of the contents should just provide support.

4. Make the proposal viewable online.

Allowing clients to view a proposal online shortens the sales cycle, thereby creating revenue more quickly.  The survey discovered that the average time to accept a hard-copy-only proposal was 29 days, compared with only 18 days for proposals provided online.  What's more: Online proposals were 18% more likely to win the deal.

5. Get the proposal to the client quickly.

The survey revealed that the average winning proposal (translation: one that ended in a sale) was sent 2.7 days after it was requested.  By contrast, the average losing proposal didn't reach the client for 3.4 days.

This is one case where the old saying, "strike whilst the iron is hot," really holds true.

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