This article first appeared in Steve Hall’s LinkedIn blog, here

Proposals are a fact of life in high value B2B sales.

In an ideal world a proposal should simply summarise what you’ve already agreed with a potential customer. You should already have met all the relevant stakeholders and decision makers and shown you thoroughly understood what they are trying to achieve and why.

You should have agreed that your solution will meet their requirements. You should have proven you can deliver what they need, built the necessary relationships, agreed on terms, price, deadlines, etc.

In this ideal world the proposal is merely a formality that confirms those agreements and a written record to make sure both sides are on the same page.

In an ideal world a proposal should simply summarise what you’ve already agreed with a potential customer.

Unfortunately in the real world sales people often rely on proposals to persuade and to differentiate their solution from competitors – particularly when they haven’t been able to access the ultimate executive decision makers.

This presents a problem. Because people jump to conclusions when they read things. They skip sentences, sometimes entire paragraphs. They get impatient with long winded sentences. They read things through a screen of their existing assumptions and prejudices. Even when a proposal is written in short, easy to understand words and short concise sentences – like this paragraph – they often get things wrong.

And most proposals are much harder to understand and use much longer words and sentences than this.

It’s hard enough to persuade someone when you’re talking face to face, when you can ask if you’re being understood and you can correct false assumptions and hasty conclusions. Without such feedback it’s doubly difficult. And you have no control over how closely or carefully someone will read your proposal.

(Of course, the best solution to this is to make sure you do get to the key decision makers – which is what I specialise in, but that’s another story).

So often your proposal becomes a critical part of the sales process. And by far the most important part of any proposal is the Executive Summary.

The purpose of an Executive Summary

Many people think an Executive Summary should summarise the content of a proposal. They are wrong – it’s the other way around. A proposal should expand upon and support the points in the Executive Summary.

It’s highly likely that the people who make the ultimate decision – senior executives – will only read the Executive Summary. They will leave the detail to others. So it’s critical – particularly if you have to rely on the proposal to sway them in your favour – that it is compelling and written from their perspective.

Before or after?

Should you write the Executive Summary before the rest of the proposal or afterwards? I asked that question in a LinkedIn post and received a lot of answers. Most said before, some said after.

One or two said what I believe is the most effective way. Write the Executive Summary first, then write (or assemble) the rest of the proposal to support the Executive Summary, then review the Executive Summary and make changes if necessary depending on what you’ve discovered as you write the rest.

Things to remember

It is very difficult to write persuasively unless you understand these basic principles:

  • Many people skim, skip sentences, and generally don’t read that carefully
  • It is amazingly easy to misunderstand what you read even when you’re trying to understand
  • People are very quick to jump to the wrong conclusion, based on their view of the world, their preconceptions and their prejudices
  • It is not your prospect’s responsibility to make sure they understand what you mean – it’s yours.

So your Executive Summary needs to be easy to read. It needs to be written in simple, plain English. It should avoid jargon and technical terms (unless it’is the prospect’s own jargon).

Ideally you should use short, easy to understand (and therefore harder to misunderstand) words and short sentences. It needs to be logically constructed and “flow” from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.

How long should it be? Some people say no longer than a page – I disagree, Sometimes you can’t get everything into a page and be effective, but as a general rule shorter is better. My guiding philosophy is “as short as possible, as long as necessary“.

My guiding philosophy is “as short as possible, as long as necessary “.

Whenever I write an Executive Summary I ALWAYS review it and cut out extraneous words. I look for fancy words like “extraneous” and replace them with simpler ones like “unnecessary”. I look at every sentence that contains “and” to see if I can break it down into two shorter sentences.

Because my objective isn’t to prove what a good writer I am, to show off how intelligent I am or to emulate Marcel Proust.

My objective is to communicate a compelling message that persuades – by keeping it simple, easy to read, easy to understand and totally relevant to the prospect.

Structure

I try to use the same basic structure although of course, as with anything else, it depends on the circumstances. Here it is.

  • The current situation
  • What the prospect wants to achieve and why
  • The benefits of going ahead
  • The consequences of not going ahead
  • A statement that we can help them
  • Risk minimisation and proof

I’ll go into each of those in a while but first I want to emphasise what I never include in an Executive Summary – details of the product or service. Why? Because executives aren’t interested in your product or service, they are interested in the end result.

Such details should be included in the body of the proposal of course. But senior executives usually don’t care HOW it works, they care about WHAT it does for them and how they can keep their risk to a minimum.

Objective

Whenever I write anything I ask myself two questions:

1.    Who is my audience?

2.    What do I want them to think and/or do as a result of reading this?

With an Executive Summary my audience is – surprise, surprise – one or more executives. And I want them to think “these people really understand what we need – I want to work with them.

I am not trying to sell in an Executive Summary. I am trying to get them to think “That’s right. That’s what we are trying to achieve. I want those results. I don’t want to keep doing what we have been doing. These people understand me. And they seem to be believable. I’ll get my guys to check their credentials and make sure it’s all kosher but these seem to be the ones we want.

That’s why the Executive Summary needs to be all about them and not about you.

Sections

The current situation

In this part I talk about the prospect, what they do, what the current situation is and the challenges they face.

Why am I telling them what they already know? Isn’t that obvious?

Yes, but I want them to know that I understand them, that I have listened, done my research and that I “get” them. In this section I often use their own words, on the principle that “If I say something you may question it but if you say it you believe it.” By using their own words and talking about them, not me, I make myself more believable.

What the prospect want to achieve and why

This is semi-obvious. Often a prospect will tell you what they want but not necessarily why. But every prospect has an underlying business reason – often several – and those are the things executives care about.

If you sell AI solutions technical people may ask about machine learning and algorithms and such. But no company buys AI for the sake of having AI – they buy it for business reasons. Part of a salesperson’s job is to uncover these reasons then feed them back to the prospect.

Again, this section is all about the prospect and what they want and need.

The benefits of going ahead

In this section you list the benefits of going ahead – NOT of choosing you but of choosing someone. Your biggest competitor isn’t another vendor. It’s inertia – doing nothing – or alternative use of funds – spending the money on something else.

Here you’re saying “If you go ahead with this project you’ll get all of these wonderful benefits.” Your objective is to make them realise all the great things they will get when they go ahead (because sometimes there will be significant additional benefits they won’t have thought of)

The consequences of not going ahead

This is the flip side of benefits. What happens if they do nothing. Will things get worse? Will it be more expensive to fix if they delay? Will costs or risks become unacceptable?

Often prospects (and sales people) don’t think of this aspect but it can be very powerful.

All senior executives consider risk when looking at a big investment. But they don’t always consider the risk of not going ahead. This is where you can highlight that risk – ideally using their own words.

A statement we can help them

OK, we’ve shown we understand their situation, know the potential upside and the downside of doing nothing. Now is when we say we can help them.

We don’t have to (nor should we) say HOW it works. The details go in the body of the proposal. But we should say we can do it and ideally give examples of where we’ve done it before and the results other, similar customers achieved.

Risk minimisation and proof

All executives consider risk (or should) when considering a major purchase. So let’s get it out there. Talk about the potential risks and how you can help minimise it, how you take as much of the burden of risk off them as possible.

A key component of risk minimisation is experience – have you done this before, have you worked with similar companies and issues?

You don’t need to go into great detail, that can go in the body of the proposal. Just stick to the basics. You can see how it’s done in the example.

Very brief example

I had planned to use a real life example but for reasons of confidentiality I can’t. So here is a superficial example.

The current situation, what the customer wants to achieve and why

(Please note – I made this all up so don’t ready anything into it other than that it is an example)

XYZ company is an Australian retailer with 440 stores. The advent of online retailing has had a significant impact on its revenue, which had dropped by 45% over the past four years. The share price has dropped from a high of $4.50 to a current $1.30.

XYZ has developed its own online presence but after 2 years online sales only represent 15% of sales. XYZ’s objective is to increase this to 30% of sales within 12 months.

In order to achieve this you are looking for a consultancy to develop a strategy that will dramatically boost online and in-store sales, increase profitability and reverse the decline in your share price.

The benefits of going ahead

A turnaround strategy of this kind needs to be delivered quickly, particularly with the recent introduction of Amazon into the Australian market. It needs to be implemented quickly and effectively to maximise return and minimise risk.

As a result of developing and implementing a successful strategy within 6 months XYZ company can expect not only to boost online sales by a minimum of 30% but to significantly increase foot traffic into your existing stores, increase basket size and reduce holding costs, thereby increasing profit by over 50%.

When that occurs and the market sees the impact of a succesful strategy your share price is likely to double and approach the highs of two years ago.

The consequences of not going ahead

However time is of the essence. Amazon is establishing its presence in Australia and investing heavily in technology and advertising. This needs to be combated rapidly in order to avoid Amazon cornering the market.

There is also the prospect of increasing competition from other Australian stores and specialty overseas retailers. Even with rapid strategy development and efficient roll out the results won’t begin to show for 6 months. With your AGM scheduled for June this presents a challenging but achievable timeframe – if a decision is made quickly.

A statement we can help them, risk minimisation & proof

PQR consulting has already identified potential strategies to help you achieve your targets. Our lead consultant has more than 15 years experience in developing and deploying turnaround strategies for major retailers

We helped SPC company to increase online sales by 45% in 12 months; FRR to double online subscribers within 6 months and HHG increase overall sales by 25%.

Our risk minimisation approach ties our remuneration to your results and ensures we will work night and day to help you achieve your goals.

The body of this proposal sets out our methodology and recommended approach in detail. It includes references from our successful customers and profiles of our team.

Summary

OK, I know that’s not a realistic example but you get the idea. Make it about them, show you understand what they want and why, get them nodding and thinking “that’s right”, show the benefits of going ahead, the risks of doing nothing, tell them you can help them, give brief examples and show how you minimise their risk.

Everything is situation dependent so these aren’t immutable rules.

But they are (in my totally biased opinion) a damned good beginning.