Proposal Generation Worst Practices: A Sales Rep's Confession

A retrospective analysis of VP Mike Kephart's experience with an antiquated proposal generation process

On average, sales reps spend at least two hours of the day on paperwork (Accenture, “CSO Insights 2015”). That is 10 hours per week.

When I was a rep, I would spend those 10 hours between evenings and Friday mornings, just a few hours here and there in hotel rooms or at the breakfast table. No problem right?

Wrong.

While I may not have complained at the time, I knew that for every hour I spent on paperwork, there was another hour I could not afford to spend on my proposals, an hour that would have gone into developing a more communicative, professional proposal, one that the business’ prospects would have sincerely appreciated.

The fact is: those two hours the average rep spends per day are often spent on low-value, repetitive, time-consuming activities. Applying a better process to remove those two hours does not remove the need for paperwork; it allows reps to add more value with higher-level, customer-centric activities that solidify the sale, increase upselling and cross-selling opportunities, and improve brand perception.

This article lists a series of complaints about a cumbersome proposal generation process, taken from my own experience as a B2B sales rep, showing how this paperwork impeded the success of the corporate strategy.

I will tell you what we did, how it impacted our ability to sell and reduced our competitiveness within the market. I will take you through the full process, noting each Worst Practice as we move from Quote to Proposal.

But there are complaints you cannot fix, and there are complaints that can lead to growth. These Worst Practices are areas where simple solutions can significantly improve a business’ reputation and competitiveness.

I conclude with a list of those best practices, which any sales leader can use to help reps become more productive. These can save your organization’s brand value, not to mention revenues and profitability.

Proposal Generation Worst Practices: A Story of 5 Woes

The kickoff to our proposal generation process was when a client would ask for a quote. This should have been a great moment.

Outside, I would smile, but inside, I would be filled with dread, thinking, “Man, I am going to need to spend all of my Friday morning pulling this quote together,” knowing that this simple request would begin a tenuous chain of events, any small mistake or mishap potentially ruining the opportunity, like a rope bridge over a gaping chasm.

Well that might be overdramatizing things, but I assure you that this honestly reflects my attitude after submitting to this proposal generation process for years. I guarantee if you are a B2B using spreadsheets and word processors, your reps probably feel this way. Let me explain why.  

Spreadsheets Are Inefficient to the Nth Degree

First thing I had to do after kickoff was go onto the iDrive and hope that when I pulled down the Excel spreadsheet template, nobody had made a change to the template. If they had, I would need to waste my time changing the template back.

The template had these highlighted areas, such as customer’s name, company name, date, how many units they wanted to buy, ad nauseum. I would go through and manually input all these essential pieces of information, being careful not to make a typo.

The worst part was that any mistake could cause massive problems later, which is a huge source of stress during a non-value generating step.

Antiquated Price Sheets Reduce Competitiveness While Adding Work

Then I would need to double-check pricing on the most recent pdf of the pricing sheet. Once it was put together, I would email the proposal to my manager for approval.

Approval was needed whenever delivering a quote below list price. In practice, we always needed to decrease from the list price because we had new competitors in the market, but we had not updated our pricing to reflect market trends and stay competitive.

Out-of-Process Approvals Delay Proposal Delivery

So the real process was to send every proposal to the manager for approval, and at a certain percentage point below list, he would need to forward the proposal to his manager, the VP of Sales, for approval. And at a certain level below that, it would need to take another step up to the CFO. Each step in the ladder provided a new opportunity for wasted time, allowing the proposal to cool, the customer talking to competitors in the interim.

Word Processors and Spreadsheets Deliver Unprofessional Proposals

Once all those approvals completed, you would receive a green-light email from your manager. So you would send the document to the client.

Now, keep in mind that this proposal didn’t even look like a professional document - no pictures, no marketing material, just a plain-Jane proposal. It had taken a couple of hours to put together, but most of that time wasn’t adding real value to the customer. I had been doing things like unhighlighting all the areas I had filled in because the document needed to look like a normal document rather than tailoring the proposal to the client, or adding explanations around pricing or value. This whole process delayed our proposals, but despite that delay, we would still deliver an unprofessional proposal.

Static Documentation Gives Your Competitors an Easy Way to Overload Your Reps with Work

Clearly, it wasn’t impressive to the client. Clients thoroughly reviewed the proposal. Inevitably, they would email the proposal back with questions and concerns.

Often our customers would change their questioning because our competitors were getting into their head, planting seeds of doubt about our products. Each Rep was required to elaborate on answers to specific questions individually. No one was taking the time to change the template to reflect the changes in our customers’ questioning. No one uploaded the Q&A to a shared resource. Each sale required us to reinvent the wheel. So our competitors were giving us a lot more work to do, running down our profitability and stealing our customers.

Lessons Learned

Ultimately, while I moved on from that company, I took with me a lot of fundamentals for good proposal generation from a sales operations perspective.

  1. Update proposal templates to adjust to changing market conditions.
  2. Ensure that proposals are professional, helping to sell the product rather than diminishing your organization in the eyes of the customer.
  3. Update pricing and automate approval processes according to market conditions instead of old figures that competition has made pie-in-the-sky numbers.
  4. Create a shared resource where your most talented sales reps can record their answers to client questions, also creating a way for those answers to influence real templates moving forward. 
  5. All of the above are easier to accomplish with CPQ.

If you already have a CPQ or are interested in CPQ, check out our blog on Proposal Generation Best Practices for CPQ.

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