Success Keys for Proposal Automation

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In today's economy, sales people have to write more proposals, and better proposals, than ever before. As the industry has become more competitive and complex, customers have become both more confused and more demanding. As a result, they are likely to listen to a presentation, nod their heads, and mutter those dreaded words, "Sounds good! Why don't you put that in writing for me?"

Why Do Customers Want Proposals?

Writing proposals is about as much fun as having your teeth drilled. And reading them isn't a whole lot better. So why do customers ask for them?

One motivation is that the customer wants to compare offers from various vendors to make sure they buy the highest value solution based on your differentiators and value proposition. At a simpler level, they may just want to compare prices, clarify complex information, and gather information so that the "decision team" can review it. And let's face it, sometimes they just want to slow down the sales process and they figure that asking for a proposal will keep the sales rep busy for a few weeks.

Whatever the customer's motivation, the fact is that proposal writing has become a common requirement for closing business throughout the entire business world. Today, people who sell everything from waste collection services to complex information technology have to create client-centered, persuasive proposals.

What's the best solution, you may ask? Proposal automation software. By using proposal automation software, you create consistent, winning proposals in minutes.

Success Keys for Proposal Automation

If you're thinking about automating your proposal process, here are ten critical success keys that result in successful implementations. If you're not thinking about it ... well, maybe you should.

1. Must have an easy, intuitive user interface

Software that's hard to use becomes "shelfware." Nobody wants to use a tool that makes the job harder. And most sales people won't read the manual, either. So it has to be really easy to use. Software with different interfaces for different functions, such as document building, content editing, administration, and so on, is neither intuitive nor easy. Research indicates that a wizard-like design works best.

2. Must have at least a 7:1 value ratio

Barton Goldenberg, president of ISM, Inc., a customer relationship management (CRM) consulting firm, claims that as many as 50 percent of implementation failures are directly attributable to user resistance. Why would a user resist using new technology? Because there's not enough value. Goldenberg suggests that a sales person has to get back seven times more value than the effort put into using a tool, or that user will never use the tool again. A proposal automation system has to deliver an immediate return on investment (ROI) in terms of increased wins and time savings so that the rep will return to it with enthusiasm.

3. Must draw on the sales person's strength—knowledge of the client

Sales people understand their deals. If they have any experience at all, they know to uncover the customer's needs and determine what the customer's goals are. Great. Let the sales person use that knowledge to build a better proposal. Make it easy for them to put their customer insights into the executive summary and cover letter.

4. Must minimize the sales person's weakness—writing skills

Most sales people don't enjoy writing and a lot of them don't do it very well. A good proposal automation tool should eliminate as much writing as possible. Even in a proposal center, minimizing the labor-intensive task of searching and retrieving reusable content so that proposal specialists can spend more time editing and positioning the content will deliver a big win.

5. Must incorporate sound sales and marketing methodology in the proposal itself

Garbage in, garbage out. We've all heard that clich. It's certainly true with proposal automation software. If your current content is weak, automating the process just enables you to produce weak proposals a lot faster. A system that incorporates best practices or that links with your sales process will deliver better results.

6. Must produce a persuasive, customized proposal

Slamming together big chunks of boilerplate creates a generic, self-centered proposal. Some proposal automation systems have a chunk of text labeled "executive summary." Hello?! How can one executive summary fit every proposal? That's only possible if the executive summary focuses exclusively on us and our products, not the customers and their needs.

7. Must be easy to update and maintain

Hey, life goes on. Things change. That includes your business. So you need a proposal automation system that's easy to update and configure without using outside programming language, like Visual Basic. If it's hard to maintain, you probably won't do it, and that means within a few months you won't be using it, either.

8. Must facilitate team collaboration

On larger opportunities, especially when there's an request for proposal (RFP) involved, you need to work as a team. That means everybody pitching in, answering the questions, and contributing, all at the same time. (Can you think of any successful basketball, football, soccer, or baseball team that only send one player into the game at a time?) If the proposal automation system doesn't allow people to work together, it's not a tool, it's a toy.

9. Must integrate with a variety of applications you already own

Your proposal system should work with your standard word processing and presentation software, such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, and not require anything proprietary. It should also connect to your existing CRM system to retrieve the customer information and write a record of the proposal back to the history.

10. Must be configurable and scalable for enterprise use

You need a proposal automation system that can support your current sales and proposal methodology. It needs to be easily configurable to adapt to your business. It needs to support and manage security permissions for large groups of users. And it needs to be easily accessible via your corporate intranet.

About the Author

Tom Sant, founder of The Sant Corporation and author of Persuasive Business Proposals, is internationally recognized as an expert on proposal writing. Sant's website is

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