Don McNamara

Article Summary:

How and when to submit a pre-proposal versus a complete sales proposal.

Sales Proposals: The Pre-Proposal Proposal

No matter whose sales system you subscribe to and follow, everyone of them has a stage or step where you propose your goods and services to the prospect. Oftentimes, in our anxiousness to be responsive, and because we believe by submitting a proposal we are actually speeding the process along, our thoughts run to a place where we believe we are in a position to final close, not merely trial close.

Early on in my sales career a very street smart sales manager taught me a lesson about proposal submissions and I want to share it with you now.

One day after visiting one of my prospects and returning to the office, I burst into the sales room out of breath and in high spirits. The sales manager could see the excitement and asked what was up. I told him one of the prospects that had been on my prospect list for nine months had asked me to submit a proposal. Of course throughout this period there were continual questions about what the next step would be, its timing and when would the account actually order from us.

Just like you would, I was feeling a fair amount of relief that the account had finally moved to a stage where they were considered a serious prospect. Also, you can imagine the angst felt by carrying a name on the prospect list that appeared to the sales manager as wishful thinking! At least now my posture with the prospect appeared solidified and there was proof the account situation was "read" accurately.

As the sales manager listened intently to my explanation of what happened during the call that motivated the proposal request, his facial expressions indicated he was not as convinced as I that this was the time to present a proposal. His skepticism and lack of enthusiasm was killing me, after all it was I who had first-hand knowledge of the account and the sales situation. Admittedly stubborn and adamant, I wanted to be responsive and he was not encouraging me to submit a proposal. That’s when he enlightened me on the concept of a pre-proposal proposal, the notion that we should take appropriate action depending on the situation while still being responsive to the prospect.

You see, his experience suggested that any prospect sitting on a list as long as this one did, merited a modified set of thinking to proposal submission. He was not anxious to see a huge amount of energy spent creating an elaborate proposal when something less sophisticated would do the job just as well. His view of the situation was radically different than mine about how elaborate the proposal should be. In his mind, my lack of sales experience and street savvy precluded my ability to stand back from the situation long enough to see the entire forest. I was only concentrating on a tree – the tree called proposal creation.

As a sales manager, he could see the situation from a different vantage point. His contention was, before moving to any form of a proposal, we should ask a few questions about the situation first. For example, have all the decision influencers and makers been made fully aware of the interest in the product or service. If not sure, we need to ask those questions before pressing ahead.

  • What is the purpose of the proposal?
    Is it for budgetary purposes? Is it the first, last and only proposal they request of you, or for that matter from any of your competitors? If you are not sure, or if during the course of a long sales process the influencers and decision makers have changed, you had better find out before submitting your proposal.

  • Has enough information been collected about the account through an analysis or survey of present conditions which establish that a real need exists?
    If not, or if a perceived need can be developed, it might be best to back up a step or two and get solid data so that you can make informed recommendations in your proposal.

  • What thoroughness and completeness is required in the proposal at this time?
    Ask yourself if a simple two page letter proposal or hand written quotation is sufficient. Are you sufficiently confident that should a full fledged proposal be created you will be in receipt of an order shortly thereafter.

  • Who will review the proposal?
    If this is for a recommender as opposed to the final decision maker, certainly a slimmed down version might do the trick.

Returning to the story, my sales manager assertively pointed out that based on the information provided, that the timing for a full proposal was not justified. In his judgment a letter proposal was the right thing to do. This made no sense to me; rather I insisted that a multi-tabbed proposal was the right move.

He relented. I created an elaborate proposal. My pride of creation and editorial genius were spread all over it!

Then the day came to present the proposal in person. By the way, you should do this in person whenever geographically possible as it gives you an additional opportunity to qualify, ask questions and get the instinctive sense for the sales opportunity.

The proposal was presented. Guess what the response was that we go ahead and get started by placing the order? Not! It seems after twenty years of owning his own business and listening to his wife plead for a fur coat he decided it was wiser to buy the coat and take that extended vacation they had been talking about.

This news to a sales person is worse than losing to a competitor. This was a no decision; virtually a non-event. After that I never looked at my prospects the same way again. Sure, I’d like to believe all of them are being forthright when asked typical sales qualifying questions. The reality is, unless they are truly the only decision influencer and decision maker, they probably do not know what it will take to move your offering through their company’s decision tree. They may not even know what the decision tree looks like nor how to climb it.

Here is a good rule of thumb before submitting a proposal of any sort. Always determine how far into your sales process you are, and the level of buy-in and commitment the prospect has demonstrated to your product or service. If you are at the introductory phase and your prospect asks for some prices, you can safely assume they need ball-park pricing, if for no other reason than to do some preliminary budgeting. Surely, a full blown proposal would not seem to be in order – at least not yet. If you are more advanced in your sales process the prospect probably needs a more accurate appreciation of costs, terms, conditions and perhaps even contractual issues.

If you have advanced the prospect well down your sales process, completed and received agreement all the way with the required prospects personnel, then it might make sense to provide an elaborate proposal.

Always remember however, that at any point in the proposal submission process document in writing what the prior sales conversations included. It is somewhat risky to introduce new concepts, thinking or data that has not been covered previously. To do so runs the risk of having the prospect come up with a whole series of new questions, and possibly objections since your proposal included information that was new. You’ll have to cover meaning and content through solid communication anyway. So doesn’t it make more sense to cover and clarify subject matter before these become committed to a written document. Incidentally, I prefer short proposals which contain little marketing and sales information in the body. Rather, these can be placed in an addendum section, or at the beginning of an elaborate proposal in an Executive Summary section. The point is spot where you are in the closing sequence and gauge your proposal to the appropriateness of the situation.

Remember, a request for a proposal can be the opportunity to do a pre-proposal proposal where you go over the content, findings of your survey, justification and investment figures, terms, conditions and contractual matters. It provides you a chance to validate previously gathered data as well as validate you and the prospect have not left anything out that may be crucial in the final proposal. Certainly that is the chance to flesh out all is on track with your strategy and the way you have read the account before committing to an elaborate document.

In case you are wondering about the prospect who bought the fur coat for his wife, well he felt badly because he could see the level of effort that was put into the proposal and knew he would have to give me bad news. A simple rough estimate of costs or even a pricing letter would have been sufficient in this sales scenario. Had I understood the pre-proposal concept before the sales campaign, it would have saved me an enormous amount of personal time and energy. It also would have saved the embarrassment when my sales manager asked when we would receive the signed agreement.

Don McNamara CMC is a Certified Management Consultant and sales management consultant, trainer, coach, professional speaker and expert witness. Don has over 30 years sales experience from the field level to executive sales management. For more information and free ezine visit

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