Write a successful sales proposal

By Brad Douglas, Shipley Associates

Winning business in today's competitive market often requires some type of written proposal. When a customer requests or demands a proposal, the heat is on to produce a high-quality sales document.

Successful proposals are:

  • Customer focused
  • Responsive
  • Easy to evaluate

Proposals must be customer focused

Every salesperson believes his or her approach to selling is customer focused. Few, however, really understand what customer focus means.

To ensure that your proposal is focused on the customer, follow these guidelines:

  • Clearly cite the customer's buying vision for your solution.
  • Address your customer's hot buttons and issues, and provide clear solutions for each.
  • Cite your customer's name throughout the proposal more frequently than your organization's name.
  • Mention your customer before you mention your organization in paragraphs and sentences.
  • Focus on customer benefits rather than your solution's features.
  • Illustrate how your organization differs from and is better than the competition.

Too many proposals focus on the person or company that is presenting the proposal rather than on the customer. Customers need to know that they have been heard and understood, and the proposal should reflect this understanding.

Proposals must be customer responsive

Customers expect you to be responsive to the requirements that they have given you, whether those requirements were provided verbally or documented in a request for proposal (RFP).

Organize your proposal for your customer     There are only two acceptable ways to organize your proposal: Organize it exactly as your customer requested, or organize it in the order that's most important to your customer. Organizing your proposal in any other way indicates a lack of responsiveness to your customer.

Focus on customer benefits     As you respond to customer requirements, you should always focus your response on customer benefits, not on the features of your solution. If you are writing a simple question-and-answer proposal, being responsive means presenting the questions or requests in the proposal, followed by your benefits-driven answers or responses. Customers should never have to search for your response.

When creating a larger, more complex proposal with multiple sections, you can set up a response matrix — a simple table that details how your proposal responds to specific customer requirements and issues. In this matrix, indicate where in the proposal you respond to each customer requirement. The matrix also helps the proposal readers and evaluators during the review process.

Proposals must be easy to read and evaluate

Proposal evaluators are busy people. They don't have time to search your proposal for answers to their issues and hot buttons. After you've created a proposal that is customer focused and responsive, use these guidelines to make your proposal easy to read and evaluate:

  • Limit paragraph length     Lengthy paragraphs, with more than 10 lines, appear text-heavy to the reader. You should generally limit paragraphs to 10 lines.
  • Use 10-point to 12-point font size     Fonts that are smaller than 10 points or larger than 12 points cause the reader to wonder why you chose that particular font size. Stay within the range of 10 to 12 points unless directed otherwise by the customer.
  • Use section headings as theme statements     Many proposal evaluators skim proposals. Use proposal section headings that are informative, yet easily scanned. These headings can also work as theme statements to support your solution.
  • Use visuals and graphics     Winning proposals tell a story and provide proof that your solution is the best one. Graphics add an element of credibility for the evaluator. Effective proposal graphics can include lists, charts, graphs, photographs, diagrams, and sketches. All graphics and visuals should include a descriptive caption to support the message. Use the 10-second rule for visuals — the reader should be able to understand the message in 10 seconds or less.
  • Use white space and emphasis techniques     Heavy, dense text is difficult to read and tires the reader. Leave white space in your proposal between paragraphs, lists, and sections. Use bold text for strong emphasis rather than use underlined or italicized text, which has a softer emphasis.
  • Create a style sheet for proposals     Creating and following a proposal style sheet can provide consistency in the appearance of your organization's proposals. Using a style sheet can make developing proposals easier and quicker. A style sheet helps promote consistency in font size, page layout, body text, and graphics, and it can also help you be more customer focused and responsive.

When you write a proposal, remember that you are creating the proposal for the readers, not yourself. Make it easy for them. Organize your proposal with customer focus and responsiveness in mind, and develop your message for ease of evaluation. Your proposal will be rated not just on what you say but also on how you say it.

ShowTips for winning proposals


  • Show customer focus by using the customer's language.
  • Follow your customer's organization and requirements.
  • Address every customer requirement and issue.
  • Align your sales strategy with your proposal strategy.
  • Use effective page layout and emphasis techniques.
  • Use active voice and short, coherent sentences.
  • Substantiate all claims you make in your proposal.
  • Focus on benefits first and then on product or service features.


  • Assume you know all your customer's requirements or issues. Ask!
  • Force readers to search for information.
  • Do a technical data dump and call it a proposal.
  • Force readers to interpret your message.

Win sales by using thoughtful proposals

Your proposal is a sales document, not a technical document. You need to demonstrate your credibility, understanding, and customer focus in every proposal that you present to your customer, whether the proposal is an official written proposal, a letter proposal, or a presentation. When you incorporate customer focus, responsiveness, and ease of evaluation into your proposals, you will win more business and gain customer confidence.

About the author     Brad Douglas is vice president of sales and marketing with Shipley Associates, a professional services company focusing on sales and business development consulting, training, and process improvement.

Applies to:
Word 2003