Sales proposals: The good, the bad and the ugly

Richard Tubb

As an IT Managed Service Provider looks to grow their business, bringing on-board new small business clients is often the highest priority.

By building a strong Marketing plan and consistently following it, you will build a steady stream of incoming leads who are interested in your services.

Once you’ve engaged with a prospect, the next step is often to visit with them to assess their needs.

At the end of that meeting you will hopefully have begun a relationship with a new client, but more typically the answer from the prospect can be “Ok, we’ll be in touch” or “That sounds great. Can you put that in a proposal?”.

Giving the prospect time to mull over their options is fine. You probably aren’t the only IT company they are speaking to. Politely ask them if there is any other information you can provide them with, and set an agreement for follow-up. It’s important to agree a follow-up at a certain date as if the prospect doesn’t want to work with you, they may struggle to understand how to break this news to you – and then keep putting off the “Sorry, you’ve not won the business” call indefinitely, leaving you in limbo.

Prospects can lie, cheat and steal

But the “Can you put that in a proposal?” line is one that many MSPs struggle with. The instinctive response is not to run the risk of annoying the prospect and to agree to write a proposal.

Writing sales proposals takes time and effort on your part. You can automate the process, using tools like QuoteWerks or Quosal, but it’s still using time you’d prefer to use elsewhere.

And what if the prospect saying “Can you put that in a proposal” isn’t as honest a request as it seems?

On many occasions, MSP’s are called in to speak with prospects under the illusion that they are in a fair competition for business. But consider these scenarios:

  • The prospect has an incumbent IT supplier they have no intention of moving from, but want to batter down on price. Your proposal provides the perfect ammunition to do that.
  • The prospect has been asked to get three quotes for IT support. Yours, a competitor of yours and the IT support company run by the bosses nephew. Who do you think will end up winning the business?
  • The employee you’re speaking to has been asked by his or her boss to investigate the potential of a new support contract. They’ve got no idea of costs and want to get some research done. They go back to the boss with your quote and the boss turns a shade of pale before shoving your proposal into a drawer.
  • The prospect knows they have an aging server, but doesn’t know what specification they need to replace it. They don’t want to pay for somebody to spec up the server, but do want it cheap. Your proposal is the perfect “free Consultancy” to approach another cheaper provider with.

In all the above scenarios, the reality is that even though you’re sat in front of the prospect, you’ve got no chance of winning the business.

How to answer the question of a proposal

But what’s the alternative? Well, if you are asked to put together a proposal, then politely ask why they need a proposal.

Often, you’ll get an honest answer. “My boss needs to see it”. In this case, you’re not speaking to the decision maker and so you can politely ask when is a good time for you to sit with the decision-maker to talk.

If the answer comes back that the boss doesn’t have the time to see you then tread very carefully. If he’s not got time to see you, he hasn’t got time to read proposals and he’ll probably just go with the cheapest.

If the answer is “We just need a price” then you’re competing on price, not value, and as you’re not in a race to the bottom you’re unlikely to win. Offer to write a bracket figure (“Well, we’ve worked with other clients similar to you; some we costed between $1500-$3000, and others between $3500-£$7000”) and if pressed, say you’d be happy to schedule a second meeting to discuss the details.

Again, the dishonest prospect is unlikely to agree to this and you’ve saved yourself time.

Other times, the answer to your question might be the evasive, “That’s just the way we work”. To this, your answer should be “Unfortunately we don’t write proposals. Too many times in the past we’ve written a proposal only for the prospect to use it to batter down his existing supplier on price. I’m not saying that’s you, but I hope you understand I need to be careful with my time.” Be brave. If you’ve struck a nerve, you’ll soon see it and have saved yourself time.

When to write a proposal

There are times when writing a proposal is a necessity. Charities and Non-Profit organisations often need to put spending in front of a committee. In this case, you can agree to write a proposal but never, ever, ever simply send the proposal by email.

Always schedule time to hand-deliver the proposal and for you and your contact to run through it. You can help them to understand what you’ve written in your proposal, and how they might best present it to their decision makers.

If the prospect genuinely can’t make time for you to hand-deliver, then schedule time for you to email the proposal across whilst you are chatting on the phone. Again, the goal is to coach the prospect on what they are receiving.

Overcoming “the fear”

Even after reading this article, many MSPs will continue to write proposals.

This is what I call “the fear”.

  • “If I don’t write the sales proposal, I’ll *never* win the work.” I’m sorry, but you were never going to win the work anyway.
  • “The prospect will be put off by my reluctance to write a proposal.” If the prospect is a good fit for you, they’ll understand that your time is valuable and work with you accordingly.
  • “I’m not getting enough leads, so I don’t mind writing proposals”. Stop wasting your time writing proposals and instead concentrate on delivering more good quality leads.

Questioning why you should write a proposal isn’t obtuse or aggressive. It’s valuing your own time as a professional.

By meekly agreeing to provide a proposal when you’ve not explored the real reasons why, you’re agreeing to provide free consultancy for the prospect – incurring the cost of your time with no chance of a reward. That tactic isn’t going to help you grow your business.