15 Sep 2015

What Makes A Winning Sales Proposal?

Salesman Aren't Copywriters, So Don't Let Them Write Your Sales Proposal

If you’re part of a business offering high-value goods or services to other businesses (or, especially, to the public sector) then your sales proposal is your calling card. It is the foundation for your success. You might manufacture the best gizmo in the world, but you’ll never sell a single one without a winning sales proposal.  This is the document that gathers all your sweat and genius and lays it out for your customer’s delectation. It’s the distillation of your brand. It’s an assembly of words that will determine commercial success or abject failure, and no amount of slick selling or desperate pricing will compensate for a sales proposal that misses the mark.

So why are so many sales proposals compiled by people who (let’s be frank about this) will never make a copywriter? You wouldn’t trust your balance sheet to someone who wasn’t good at maths. Yet companies assume their salesmen are writers. It is hardly fair to expect everyone’s skills to extend to thrilling descriptions of your company’s proposition; but it’s even less fair on the customers who have to read the stuff, or on shareholders who struggle to understand why your sales proposals always miss their mark.

But fear not, for assistance is at hand. A few simple rules of sales copywriting can help to turn the turkey into a hummingbird.  

·       Keep it Brief

·       Use short words instead of long ones.

·       Use short sentences instead of long ones

·       Use short paragraphs and avoid big blocks of text

·       Avoid too many adjectives, adverbs or redundant words

·       Try to write and re-write in Plain English

Take a look at this example:

Q: Will the supplier ensure support cover around the clock?

Bad response

By leveraging the significant human resource capability of the organisation in the immediate geographic proximity, Consolidated Camel Corp will ensure the enhanced facility to provide considerable back-up support, utilising projected staff schedules to ensure complete and comprehensive personalised coverage of appropriate support personnel, on a twenty four hour basis for seven days a week commensurate with the objectives elicited in the RFP documentation.

Good response

We have a large staff locally. This means that we will provide support for you with the right skills and the right people, around the clock and at weekends. It means that support will always be immediately available for your users whenever they call.

Hands-up if you have ever read (or written) a proposal section like the ‘bad’ example above. We are all guilty of it. It is more difficult to be clear and concise than it is to be long-winded and confusing. So build this into your planning.

You will find that some of your authors won’t be able to write this way. So employ someone to re-write their work. Call this person the in-house copywriter. He or she will be someone who can write in a clear readable style, and can write fast.

I once did this on an important proposal. Our technical author was struggling to make his prose readable, so I brought in the marketing manager as a copywriter to re-write his laboured sections. At first the technical author was offended. “You can’t do that,” he protested, “she won’t understand the technical details.”

Well, it was an admission of a sort.

Here are some more ways to make it more readable:

Use active instead of passive expressions:


Ongoing research and development processes are expedited exclusively by the Technical Division in Dallas.


The Technical Division in Dallas carries out all our Research and Development

Avoid Ambiguities

Too many proposals are a mess of ambiguities. Perhaps the junior analyst who wrote the section was nervous about committing himself and so that was reflected in his reply which remains stubbornly inscrutable. Perhaps the bidding organisation themselves don’t really understand the answer to the question so they keep it vague.

Look at this example:

Q: The supplier must ensure that the building will resist earthquakes.

A: There are three ways that this can be achieved. The first is through earthquake resistant foundations, and the second is by using flexible girder technology. A third approach is to use dampening for weight bearing structures.

Okay. So which one are you proposing? All three? None of the above? Or are you just showing off? Your proposal has to make it clear what your approach is. Read the responses from your authors carefully and ask yourself if each one makes it wholly clear what your proposition is. Some authors will expand their answers to include fanciful descriptions of capability that is not in scope. Don’t do this. Or if you must, then make it absolutely clear that your response is out of scope.

This is the sort of ambiguous reply I’m talking about:

Q:  The contractor should specify whether the building will be capable of withstanding Nuclear Attack.

A: Megabuild Corps has considerable experience of building constructions underground, including a structure designed for the US military that can withstand a Nuclear Attack of 40 megatons within four miles.

What the author wants to do here is to brag about past contracts, but he also wants to be vague about any commitment to actually design this project to withstand nuclear attack because it would double the cost. But what does the customer think? Is this a commitment or not?

If you must brag (and sometimes you must) then a better answer would be:

A:  Megabuild Corps has considerable experience of building constructions underground, including a structure designed for the US military that can withstand a Nuclear Attack of 40 megatons within four miles. However we are not proposing to design the airport project to those standards because the design would be impractical and to do so would compromise the cost.

If you can resist bragging altogether then:

A: No. The proposal does not include this level of engineering

Format your responses clearly. 

Here are two ways it might look – a bad way and a good way.

The bad response

Provision of viewing lines will be enabled to ensure the maximum radius of view capability in circumstances where stadium design permits, which permit includes all planned seating excluding occlusion from all radii with the exception of proximate seating in rows J25 and J26 where occlusion of the radius is effected by broadcast installation.

The good response


Q: The stadium design must allow the whole audience an uninterrupted view of the entire pitch.

A: The stadium will provide an uninterrupted view to 65,024 seats. However, eleven (11) seats in rows J25 and J26 will have their view partially obscured by the broadcasting equipment.

Compliance Summary

Partially compliant (99.98%)


On completion

This type of response format is very powerful and very helpful to the customer. In particular:

·       The Table format pulls the whole response together.

·       The Numbering makes cross referencing possible.

·       The Title makes it easy for the reader to find the section they want if they can’t remember the section number.

·       Repeating the original requirement does make the document much longer, but it saves your reader from having to refer back to the original question as they read.

·       The short response is straightforward. It puts your commitment in bold type. It often simply repeats the requirement as a statement of compliance.

·       The compliance statement helps your reader to score your responses and saves them from having to read the whole document (which, lets face it, they will never actually do) – or having to guess your scores.

·       The Timescale helps your customer to understand just when you expect to be compliant.

·       Author’s Initials helps you and your reader to identify who contributed each section.

Re-Write, and Proof-Read

Once you have the whole proposal in dozens of documents, farm it out for proof-reading. You can, of course, employ a professional copywriter or proof-reader.  Consider doing this. You might not notice misplaced apostrophe’s (like that one). But someone in your customer’s organisation surely will, and they could take a dim view of your company because of it.  If you haven’t used a professional copywriter to help build the proposal, then now is the time to bring one in. You wouldn’t use an amateur photographer for your wedding. So don’t use an amateur writer for your sales proposal. Words matter. Take this seriously.

Pictures Pictures Pictures

The more illustrations you include, the better the proposal. But pictures have to be professional and useful. So you will need a graphic artist on the bid team. Get your authors to submit drawings in pencil and ask your graphic artist to convert these into a consistent style of graphic. Professional illustrations will make your proposal stand out. They will give it extra credibility. They will impress. They will enhance your brand.

The Management Summary

The Management Summary is where you summarise your proposal for the customer’s managers who are too darn lazy to read the whole thing. It isn’t a catch-all chapter for you to use to include stuff you couldn’t find a place for anywhere else. It isn’t where you relate your company history. The management summary needs to be short, punchy, well illustrated (obviously), and it needs to summarise the key reasons why you deserve to win this procurement.

And yet, despite this obvious rule, too many Management Summaries read like a rejected Tolstoy manuscript. So here is an Exercise for your Bid. Try to summarise your proposal in less than 300 words. You won’t be showing this to the customer – but this should concentrate your collective minds into distilling the real essence of your value proposition. Now decide how long you want your real Management Summary to be. Five pages is a good guide. Six is okay. Ten is too long. Refer back to the 300 word exercise, and try to copy the brief points and summarised benefits you used there.

And that is it. You should be as proud of your sales proposal as you are of your product. When you dispatch it to your customer, you should be confident of striking gold. There is satisfaction to be earned from sending out a good sales proposal. Good luck.