“The Compelling Proposal: Make It Easy for the Customer to Buy From You,” has hit #1 on Amazon in two business categories and is listed as the “Hot Seller” in Selling & Sales Presentations.

Steve Thompson is the author of this book and founder of Value Lifecycle, which helps companies position, propose, negotiate, and close critical deals.

In his book, Steve Thompson explains how we must think in order to create a winning proposal.  It’s all about how to differentiate your solution, help your clients buy, and making sure your proposal hits 5 clear objectives.

The Compelling Proposal: Make it Easy for the Customer to Buy From You!

Why did you decide to write this book?

What really prompted me to write this book… I do consulting and B2B sales, both on the selling side. This is with large organizations that are trying to sell to other companies, but I also consult on the buying side, and this is where companies bring me in and help position and negotiate critical deals with key suppliers, that they want to continue to do business with.

One of the things that my buying clients would ask of me is, they’d ask me to review the proposals that were coming from suppliers. And, you know, after doing that for a little while, it quickly became apparent to me, that not only was this not fun, I really started to detest it because as I’d look at the suppliers proposals, I could already tell you what they were going to say.

Every one of them was world-leading, innovative. If they were in the technology sector, they always mentioned they were in Gartner upper right quadrant. And the whole proposal was about the supplier.

When a customer is reviewing a proposal, they’re trying to make an informed decision. And when you line up each of these proposals, many times, I felt literally, I could just change the name of the company and the logo on it, it would read almost identical. These are all competitors looking for the job.

It was making it really hard for the customer to make an informed decision.

What’s the real purpose of a proposal?

And so, as I often do when I’m involved in these kinds of things, I step back and ask the dumb question, what’s the real purpose of a proposal? What do we want it to accomplish for us?

By asking this question, and as I said, working on the buying side of the equation, I determined that the way it’s been done for many, many years, is not making it easier for a good deal to be done. One that’s good for the seller and good for the buyer.

THAT’s what really prompted me to write this book.

What is the big idea behind the book?

As sellers, we have to understand what it is customers are buying, versus what it is we want them to pay for. And let me explain that. There was a gentleman at Harvard University named Theodore Levitt. He was well ahead of his time. This is back around 1960, and he said:

No one wants to buy a quarter inch drill. They want to buy a quarter inch hole.

‒ Theodore Levitt

And this is really a brilliant insight because what he’s saying is, you’re looking for the outcomes, which are the holes. You’re paying for the drill and the drill bits.

And what I see sellers do is, they confuse the two. They focus on… to use this analogy, the drill and the drill bits they’re trying to get the customer to pay for, and they completely lose sight of, well, why are they even buying it?

You know, what do they want to accomplish? And so, the format of this proposal, which is seven simple slides, that’s all, I’ve had clients who’ve used this on deals of 20,000 to deals well north of $1 billion.

The decision was made on seven simple slides, and they focus on what is it the customer’s trying to achieve? And if you do that first, it makes it much more easy for them to feel like they’re making the right decision.

How can I focus on the client in my proposal?

How about asking the question of your client or potential client, let’s say, right at the outset, and that is, “If you’re going to buy my product or my services, whatever it is I’m selling, what is it you want to be different?

If it’s six months from now and you’ve bought the perfect solution for you, what’s different, and how are we both going to know that it was successful?”

If a company is going to commit to spending money, somebody expects something to change for the better, or you don’t go spend the money, right? Nobody goes out and spends the money, expecting things to be worse.

When you start with that perspective and that conversation, now you’re getting a better idea of what it is they’re trying to accomplish, which then allows you to put together the right package of products and services and things that are going to help them get there.

How can I differentiate myself… appear different in front of the client?

Let me kind of back up and give you what I hear from most of my selling clients. They say, “Look, selling is getting harder and harder. The customers have all this information about our products, our services, customers who have bought from us. They have all of this information about us.”

And I ask them, “Okay, so what’s making it harder?” And they say, “Well, because they have all this information, what am I going to talk about?”

When you step back and think about it, the most important question any buyer has is, “Who really understands me and what I’m trying to accomplish?” And they can’t Google an answer to that. This only comes through human interaction.

So, if you truly want to differentiate yourself, that’s what you’re after is, you want to understand them. You want to understand what they are trying to accomplish or help them see that maybe they’re aiming low, they could accomplish a lot more if they took a little different tact.

THAT is true differentiation. Too often, people try to look at features as a differentiation, but in this day and age, I don’t care if it’s technology or a service, you may have that unique feature, function, whatever, for a very short period of time. But, if it’s good, it’s going to quickly get copied and you no longer have that as a point of differentiation.

What’s an example – a success story – from applying your methodology?

Let me give you an example of a sales rep, she was a client of mine. She had only one opportunity in her sales pipeline. So, we put together seven simple slides. She got the key decision makers together, and by the way, these slides are not designed to be a presentation, they’re designed to generate a dialogue. And we went through each slide.

The first one is: here are the outcomes that we believe are important to you, what you’re trying to accomplish. Is this list right, or did we miss something? And the three key decision makers acknowledged those were the right things.

The next slide is: okay, if these are your outcomes, then here are going to be the key elements of our deal, the products and services you’re going to see in our offer, and how each one of these connects to and supports the outcomes. And by the way, this is a step that’s missed in selling all the time.

And then, she presented the customer with options, and this is a critical part of this process. Going in with just one offer and hoping and praying that it carries the day, is a huge risk. And then, she stood back and said, “Which one of these is most attractive to you?”

What she’s doing is allowing the customer to participate in buying, as opposed to us selling to them. And the new CIO stood up and said, “Well,” he goes, “I’m most interested in option number two because these three applications are the commitment my organization has made to the rest of the business.”

And as I coached her, her next question was, “How could that offer be improved?” And he went down the list and he said, “Well, I want a customer success manager assigned half-time onsite, versus offsite. And she goes, “No problem. We can do that. The price will change a little bit. What else?”

What was happening here was, the negotiation was occurring, but it didn’t feel like a negotiation. And what was happening on the customer side was, they were being invited in to help construct the best deal for them. And in essence, what happens is, it became their deal. One they are highly motivated to close. And by the way, she closed this deal in four days because it was the customer’s deal, not our deal.

What will a reader get out of your book?

There’s a couple of things I hope they get out of it. One is, I am going to provide them with the seven simple slides, and they can download off of my website, a template for that, if they choose to use PowerPoint. You can use the same structure, by the way, in a written proposal.

So many salespeople treat the proposal as, what I’ll call, a check box exercise. “I’m at this point in my selling motion or sales cycle, and I need to give them a proposal.” And so, what I try to distill it down to is, there’s really five objectives that you have for a proposal:

1. You want to reinforce trust

A prospective customer will trust you not because of what you know about your products and services, but what you know about them.

2. Ensure that we’re setting up the right negotiation

You could be the best negotiator in the world, but if you’re having the wrong negotiation, you won’t get the outcomes that you’re looking for.

3. Establish credibility

Many people will confuse credibility with trust. They’re very similar, but in this context, think of it this way. Trust is what you know about the customer and what they’re trying to accomplish. Credibility is when you can establish that you have produced similar results for other customers, meaning you’ve been there and done that, if you will.

4. Manage uncertainty

Today, in B2B sales, and I’ve seen the research over the last few years, on average, there’s over seven buying influencers or decision makers on a customer side. And all of these people aren’t aligned, and they all don’t have the same agenda. And yet, we’re only doing one deal.

In many cases, we can’t even get in front of all these people. So, there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty that we’ve got to manage. And if we just put one offer on the table, we can’t effectively manage it.

5. Make it easy for the customer to buy

The final objective of a proposal is, we want to make it easy for the customer to buy and feel they’re making the right choice, and at the same time, to be able to sell internally, if need be.

So, really, what I’m trying to do, in short, is elevate this thing called the lowly proposal, to something that could be truly a strategic tool that can help you close a lot bigger deals and close them a lot faster.