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When It Comes to Closing Deals, Proposal Design Matters

Creating a sales proposal that stands out can be the difference between gaining the client or losing them to a competitor. Although asking what a proposal is may sound pedantic, it can be worthwhile to ask something more pointed: what specific job should it perform? When is a proposal not what’s needed?


What a Proposal Is (and Isn’t) For

True – a proposal conveys your product as an effective solution to your audience. But this definition falls short: a proposal is not simply information. It is a part of a more complex relationship: as much as it can drive home your success, it also depends on being used at the right time, and in the right way.

A successful sale entails a whole series of interactions and a carefully-built relationship with a prospective client.  Used as a tool to convince an unwilling prospect, a proposal is likely to be wasted effort. Worse, a proposal that comes in at the wrong time might even push a potential client away. 

So before starting one, it’s wise to ensure your work will not go to waste. Ensure you’ve laid the groundwork:

  • Have you established a good relationship with the client?
  • Do you understand their needs in a way that would resonate with them?
  • Is your solution actually a good fit for those needs?
  • Are they interested and able to consider your offer?

Until you can answer each of these questions with a confident “yes,” a proposal is likely going to be a faux-pas. Wait until you can say yes – or, if it’s not looking good, cut your losses and move to a more likely prospect.

Then you’re ready to start.


What to include

Once you know the time is right, it’s time to move to the nuts and bolts. It is a good idea at this point to use a template or, at the very least, make an outline.

In any case, a proposal should contain each of the following.

Title Page

First impressions are key. A visually-uncluttered, aesthetic page is the most likely to garner a positive response. This might be easier to achieve using a minimalist template, but you can include tastefully-chosen graphics if desired. 


A cover letter is personal: it addresses someone in the company you’ve been in touch with up to now, opening the way for the proposal. It should graciously acknowledge your previous conversations and the client’s time. Then it should give a sneak-preview of the solution you’ll offer for the client’s needs. It should also introduce the company in brief – keep it to no more than a one-sentence lead-in.

Keep it short: no more than a page, if even that. Find a few examples of how you might format such a letter here.

Executive Summary 

Now your audience broadens. You are introducing your solution to a whole team of people that will be responsible for saying yes or no at the end. The executive summary is meant to sum up what’s to come.

  1. Lead in with a pithy introduction. Introduce the company and what it does, but don’t meander. This is the general team’s first impression of you as a company and what you bring to the table. Make it relevant, like a tailored resume. Focus on the qualifications and work that matter to your client, and use examples, not generalizations. Bullet points might be a good idea, used carefully.
  2. Hit where it hurts. Not in a mean way: but zero in on the client’s pain points. If your initial conversations with your primary contact were well-executed, you established these clearly well beforehand. Now is the time to show your understanding and empathy to the wider team. You are priming your audience to understand why your proposal is relevant at all.
  3. Offer tangible relief. By now you aren’t selling an angle but demonstrating a reality. The reality is that your company’s product or service truly answers the prospective client’s pain points. So take each pain point and give a razor-sharp example of how it will be solved. You’ll flesh the details out later.

Remember – this is a summary. You’ll get into the weeds (and prices) later on. So save overwhelming details for later.

Breakdown of Solutions 

Now is the time for the detailed facts and figures. Cut out all rhetoric and make a visually-clean, clear presentation of your solution: its deliverables, including any relevant options, timetables, and combinations. If you are offering one comprehensive set of services, break them out here in list or infographic format. Show how each will concretely meet a specific need or work toward the total solution.

This is not the time to make a laundry list of everything your company offers. Make sure it feels like a custom-made set of offerings curated just for your client – which it ultimately is.

Also remember that bite-sized sections with a clear focus are most effective. If there’s a lot of information, break it down into subsections.

Configurable Pricing

Don’t cut corners here. By now, the client understands the value, so be honest about pricing. Some suggest starting with your most expensive option and working down from there. But whatever you do, lay it all out clearly – don’t leave any unpleasant surprises for later that could sour a good relationship. Remember, a good product should be worth its price. If this is out of budget and going to be a deal breaker, best to let the client make that decision upfront and avoid dragging things out.

Plan A and B CTA

At this stage, the client is ready to make a decision, so make it easy and to the point. The easier, the better. One option is to have a web-based proposal with an integrated accept button. If you prefer to use a document (such as a PDF), consider using a platform like OnTask that allows for eSignatures and simplified sending and collaboration options.

Also plan for the worst-case scenario: if your best-laid plans have still failed to convince, give the client a plan B such as, “Still have questions? Contact me here.”


Closing Thoughts & Best Practices

We’ve discussed several best practices throughout, but as you plan your proposal, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Be visual: A study by the University of Minnesota showed 43% greater effectiveness for presentations that included visuals. Think photos, yes, but also graphics and infographics to visually display facts and figures.

Be convenient: If your proposal is long, add a Table of Contents after the Cover Letter. When you use a graphic to illustrate key facts and figures, make it clear and easy to read at a glance.

Be reliable: Strategically placed client testimonials and market research throughout will be key to solidifying your reliability. Don’t leave those out, even though they may or may not be devoted to their own section.

Although a stellar proposal isn’t a guarantee you’ll gain the client, in the right context it can go a long way to closing a good deal. Good relationship and research skills can go hand-in-hand with a well-crafted proposal to prove your company’s value. Now it’s time to shine!

Want to learn more about how OnTask can help? Schedule a demo!