Guest Article for SmartCEO Magazine – Proposal Design

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You can view it online at SmartCEO’s website. To summarize – the article discusses the importance of sales proposals. In our view they are your last opportunity to reinforce your brand prior to a sales decision. Why skimp? Make sure you have a polished presentation that is as strong as any of your other sales marketing pieces.

Below is the transcription.

Last(ing) Impressions

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I was introduced to a Japanese proverb about a year ago that has made me refocus on a particular area of business. What is interesting is the context in which it was delivered. Perhaps you’re already familiar with it. The proverb – “When you have completed 95% of your journey, you are only halfway there.”

The context in which it was introduced was during a discussion about sales. More specifically, the closing of sales. The friend and client who made the remark is hands down the best sales person I know. He noted the proverb following a remark that most business people as they near the end of the sales process take their foot off the gas and coast the rest of the way. This may seem an obvious mistake to many, but allow me to clarify.

Most, if not all of us, having invested substantial time and money into generating leads to secure the opportunity to submit a proposal, spend a good deal of time in its preparation. We submit it, preferably as part of an in-person presentation. We follow up with phone calls, emails, and a few may even pen a personal note on business stationery (always a good idea).

The moment I am addressing is the moment the proposal is done.

This is very likely the moment of last impression. Your sales efforts for all you’ve done can be undone by a simple oversight – the proverbial “book cover”. In this case it may literally be a book cover. Here’s what needs to be considered – you will be leaving your proposal to be distributed to decision maker’s whom likely weren’t apart of your sales process or who won’t be at the final presentation. How are you addressing them? Your proposal may be your only and last opportunity to make an impression.

I have often heard it said, “we are the Mercedes of our industry” – bearing witness to a poorly formatted proposal document with your average, full-color, cover printed with a logo on it, laser printed and stapled in the corner. Sometimes they’re inserted in a nice corporate folder. This is not “Mercedes”. Hopefully, my point is becoming clear. Why shouldn’t your proposal be as polished as the corporate brochure you use to make a first impression?

It’s packaging! Retailers have been savvy to this forever. Just walk down the aisle of any grocery store. Can you honestly say one bar of soap is better than another. All say they do the same thing. So how does one make the decision? The same is true of a C-level decision maker looking at a set of proposals. If the proposals all offer similar services, solutions, and pricing – the last decision criteria is brand. Which company brings decision confidence? Is it the company whose proposal is laser printed and stapled in the corner or the one that looks polished and professional? People do judge books by their covers.

Perhaps there are outside influences that help to improve your standing but the truth is the proposal is your last best opportunity to reinforce your brand. This is particularly true if you are competing with larger and longer established entities. Your proposal is as much a part of your brand and I argue equal to the lead generating sales materials that got you the opportunity. It’s the second half of the journey.

So what do I recommend? Have your branding agency design and have printed a front and back cover on good heavy cover stock. Repeat any taglines or value statements you include on the covers of your sales materials. Make sure the back cover includes your contact information. I also suggest getting blank shells printed up for the body of the proposal. Keeping the branding minimal to maximize your content area. Don’t use your letterhead. Chances are the logo is too large to be repeated that many times. Use nice paper stock not laser paper. The formatting of the body is important too – nice wide margins and decent line spacing to open up the text and make it more readable. If it looks congested no one will want to read it. To finish you should invest in a good binding machine. I prefer twin-loop wire binding. It is the nicest of the options and you can get the wire in different colors. Black or silver is always safe. I don’t like plastic binding coils – they remind me of menus.

There is some cost associated with this but it doesn’t have to be substantial. Most good printers today also have digital presses that can do short volume runs of just a few hundred and less that will significantly lower costs. Having these few printed items on hand will allow you to quickly assemble your proposal that is well branded, professional, and at the very least put you on equal footing if not ahead of your competition.

As I mentioned before, proposals are as much a part of your brand as anything else. Likely, you’ve already invested in a web site, brochures, tradeshow booths, online advertising, email campaigns, search engine optimization, ad-click campaigns, social media, etc. All of these are important drivers in building your brand and generating leads. So you’ve got the 95% covered. Just don’t take your foot off the gas.

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