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 Case Study
11 March 2010 | ITSM
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How to Write a Winning Sales Proposal
Gartner recommends a three-step process that technology and service providers should follow when writing and organising a sales proposal...

Writing a sales proposal represents an important investment made more stressful by pressures and expectations to win, so Gartner, recommends that marketing leaders at business-to-business (B2B) technology and service providers follow a three-step process when writing and organising the proposal.

“At the end of months, or even years of selling, comes the task of writing the proposal, putting management on notice of a pending award”, said Richard Fouts, research director at Gartner. “There's little room for error, so having a proven, airtight technique in place to get it done — and get it done well — is something every marketer should deliver to the sales force with confidence”.

The proposal process can be quite complex, especially for large providers that have invested heavily in proposal centers. However, Gartner focuses not on the larger proposal process, but the specific effort to write and organise the actual proposal document itself, detailing three critical steps:

Step 1 — Establish a strong proposal theme and supporting story line.

Step 2 — Scope, organise and write a compelling proposal that communicates a sense of urgency without an exaggerated or overly aggressive tone.

Step 3 — Present the proposal to key stakeholders to highlight your commitment to the deal and to communicate the most compelling reasons to buy now, and to buy from you.

“A proposal theme is not unlike the plot in a novel or film”, said Mr. Fouts. “The storyline sets up the prospect’s situation, the impact it’s having on their bottom line – and how you propose to deliver resolution. A confident story shows you've done your homework — that you’ve charted a clear path between the prospects desired outcome and your capabilities.

Gartner said that even when providers are constrained by a rigid request for proposal (RFP) structure, they can look for opportunities to tell a creative story in RFP sections that ask for solution overviews, architectural principles or customer references. “We tell providers to resist the knee-jerk reaction to respond blindly to product functionality, methodologies or other offering-specific capabilities that focus on them — versus the prospect's desired business outcomes. Prospects go to great lengths to tell you their story, and they look to partners to provide a good ending. They’ve set up the conflict, now it’s your job to provide resolution. It’s what a good story is all about – and one that results in a win”.

Gartner provides specific advice to providers that want to get better at developing strong proposal themes and storylines:

•         Above all, keep it simple — Providers should stay focused on the single, most-important thing they want the prospect to remember about their offer. When developing a theme, Gartner advises proposal managers get their team in a room with a white board, generate as many themes as they can, then use a voting technique to start prioritizing ideas. They can also start merging ideas into single themes, then wordsmith them down to a theme they agree on.

•         Exercise constraint —Try not to create a theme that is overly complex. The best themes create a picture of a clear business outcome. Think of a favorite novel or film. There's usually one character people remember, or a single image of why the story is memorable — even years later.

•         Develop your theme with a strong storyline. One way to do this is to use the situation, impact, resolution model (also known as the S.I.R. model) as detailed in the Gartner research report “Marketing Essentials: How to Craft the Perfect Elevator Pitch”. This technique helps providers acknowledge the prospect's situation or pain, the impact this situation is creating — and how providers will turn a challenging situation around. It’s a storytelling model that works consistently well in any situation.

The second step in the process is scoping the proposal. Gartner says that several things compromise the integrity of proposal scope — pressure to get a bid submitted on time, competitive pressures to keep price as low as possible, or an immature scoping process. But scoping errors lead to inaccurate pricing, which leads to poor delivery performance and customer satisfaction issues. Hence, Gartner provides a tool to make sure provider’s cover all their bases to scope the proposal accurately and at a fair price. Advice for how to scope multiple scenarios is also provided. This technique is especially valuable for providers that want to demonstrate flexibility, a buying criteria that Gartner research shows has come to the forefront in many types of IT purchases.

The final step is presenting the proposal. “Our research shows that proposals that are presented to the buying team have a 50 percent higher probability of winning that those that are not presented,” Mr. Fouts said. “If a provider has invested heavily in a proposal effort, it is entitled to a presentation. Because trust is the most important component to winning a big-ticket opportunity, providers need to have face time with the prospect to secure their commitment to the deal. The presentation is also an opportunity to continue sustaining the relationships the account team began during the sales cycle”.

“Every provider wants its proposal to stand out from the others and articulating business outcomes is one of the most obvious ways providers can distinguish themselves from others,” said Fouts. “It’s the business outcome you propose to deliver that provides the inspiration for your proposal theme and storyline. A product-oriented approach, with pages of features, functions and architecture not only puts you in the proposal clutter, it shows you haven’t been listening to what the prospect is trying to change”.

For additional information on the Gartner report “Marketing Essentials: How to Write a Winning Sales Proposal” click on the link.

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