Proactive Proposals

Proactive proposals are submitted without a formal customer request. Vendors can use proactive proposals to address unmet customer needs and achieve other sales objectives.

Introduction

A proactive proposal is generated after an informal discussion with a customer, such as a sales visit or phone call, during which an unmet customer requirement is discovered. More precisely, while a proactive proposal is not formally solicited, key influencers are interested and ideally become “coaches,” advising as you prepare your proposal.

Proactive proposals might be disguised as white papers, analyses, studies, or recommendations. The focus and organization of proactive proposals is similar to letter proposals or executive summaries within formally solicited proposals. Other terms for a proactive proposal are unsolicited proposal, sales proposal, commercial proposal, and sales letter.

Best Practices

1. Confirm customer interest in your solution.

Preparing and submitting an unsolicited proposal has about the same probability of success as a mass or bulk mailing—near zero. However, a proactive proposal might be a best practice under the following conditions:

  • One or more individuals in the customer organization have expressed interest in such a proposal, especially a proposal from your organization
  • You have identified and ideally confirmed this customer’s hot-button issues and the value of addressing those issues to their organization, influencers, and decisionmakers
  • You have a solution that they will likely value
  • The immediate value of obtaining a prompt solution outweighs the cost of soliciting solutions from others and the potential savings resulting from a competition
  • This customer’s purchasing guidelines permit awards without a competition
  • Your proactive proposal is likely to improve your win probability on subsequent bid

2. Determine your objective and design your proposal around achieving it.

Your overarching objective is to advance a sale. But to develop the most effective proactive proposal possible, you must define your objective more precisely. Do you want to convince this customer to agree to a subsequent meeting? To influence their purchasing process? To issue or not issue a bid request? To enter negotiations without further competition? To issue a purchase order? Your specific objective will determine how you approach the development of your proactive proposal.

If your objective is to persuade this customer to forgo competitive bidding, then focus on the opportunity cost of delayed implementation. If your objective is to persuade this customer to meet, then proposing a complete solution is premature.

3. Organize according to the customer’s hot-button issues, without customer direction.

Aristotle noted three elements of persuasive arguments: logos, ethos, and pathos. Similarly, address these fundamental elements of persuasive writing in your proactive proposals:

  • What is the potential benefit to their organization? (Logos, the logical element)
  • Do they understand our organization and services? (Ethos, the emotional element)
  • Can I trust them? (Pathos, the reputation and proof element)

Consider two organizational patterns:

  • If your customer contact requests a particular proposal organization, however informal, then clarify and comply. Ignoring their request projects a noncompliant, arrogant tone.
  • If the customer does not request a particular organization, structure your proposal in four parts:

I. Summarize your proposal. Begin with a summary theme statement. Link your objective to the benefit to their organization and the most important discriminating feature(s) of your solution. They might consider acquiring your services if the perceived value of your services/products exceeds the cost of those services/products. Limit your summary to between five and 10 percent of the entire document.

II. Preview the organization of your proactive proposal. Since customers care about their hot-button issues or motivators, organize your proposal in the order of importance of their hot buttons. Use the customer’s words or phrasing when naming hot-button issues. This preview can take the form of an introduction or informal table of contents.

III. Explain your solution in the body of your proposal. Align each of the major elements of your solution against one of the hot-button issues. Once complete, you should have described your entire solution. If an aspect of your solution does not align with, support, or contribute to addressing one of the customer’s hot-button issues, consider eliminating that aspect of your solution.

If you introduced three hot-button issues in step two, then address those same three issues in the same order. Repeat the exact wording of each hot-button issue in subheadings. If you state them as informative headings, revise your introduction accordingly.

The solution you propose should be brief but comprehensive. Confirm you have described the following aspects of your solution, if pertinent:

  • What services and products will you deliver?
  • Who will direct and manage the delivery? Who is responsible?
  • What is the delivery schedule?
  • What is the cost, both in total and the timing?
  • What evidence can you offer to support your claims?
  • What are the risks and how will they be managed?

IV. Close with a short summary. Then, proactively suggest the next step. Limit your summary to the following elements:

  • Benefits the customer will enjoy if they accept your recommendations or solution
  • The cost, in positive contrast to the benefits, if permitted by prevailing procurement rules or customs, and if not previously cited
  • The next realistically achievable step. Avoid trite phrases such as please do not hesitate to call. Rather, offer to call, meet, or negotiate; suggest a time, date, or location; and then keep your promise

4. Use graphics with action captions to differentiate your proposal.

Graphics are one of the most effective and efficient ways to convey persuasive information. Effective graphics convey facts and emotion, which are important elements of persuasion. Considering the informally solicited nature of most proactive proposals, busy readers will scan and then read further if something captures their interest. Appealing graphics with clear action captions are more memorable than prose.

Strive to explain why your proposition should be selected using both text and visuals. Avoid repeating visual information in body text. For example, when presenting the delivery team organization in a chart, avoid noting obvious reporting relationships in body text or the action caption. Instead, explain why a relationship exists, perhaps linked to relevant experience.

Include an action caption with every graphic. Action captions interpret or explain graphics. They are composed of three parts:

  • Figure number
  • Informative heading
  • Complete sentence(s) explaining the relevance of the graphic to the evaluator, linking benefits to features

5. Limit attached or appended materials.

Attached information dilutes your message and discourages readers confronting what appears to be a large document. Appended materials of limited interest waste your preparation time and your customer’s reading time.

Instead, list additional materials that are available and explain how they can be viewed or obtained. Customers increasingly research potential solutions, vendors, and trends via multiple channels. In fact, they may prefer to learn about your solution from a source other than your organization’s professional sales representative.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

  • Submitting proactive proposals as an excuse to avoid preparing compliant proposals that follow bid-request instructions
  • Submitting seller-focused documents, little more than slightly customized sales brochures
  • Using proactive proposals as an excuse to submit descriptions of every service and product you offer
  • Submitting proactive proposals as a best practice justified by your organization’s preferred sales discipline

Summary

  • Confirm a customer’s interest before determining whether to prepare and submit a proactive proposal.
  • Limit your proposal to the content necessary to advance this sale.
  • Adopt a customer-focused document organization, either as requested or according to the customer’s hot-button issues.
  • Use graphics with action captions to convey persuasive information efficiently and effectively.
  • If content does not directly support of your objective, eliminate it, either reserving it for a subsequent client request or noting where customers can access supporting material at their convenience.

Terms to Know

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