After air, water, food and shelter human beings have a strong desire to exert control over all aspects of their lives. Rethinking The Sales Cycle (McGraw-Hill) shares our views of how buying is in a state of flux. The Internet and social networking allows buyers to go further into buying cycles without talking to salespeople that may try to influence or control them. Buyers determining needs before talking with sellers is a trend whose momentum is growing. It has many implications for how a seller’s role must change moving forward to align with empowered buyers.

While many of these changes are in motion and lessen a seller’s ability to influence a buyer’s requirements, a self-inflicted loss of control occurs when proposals are issued prematurely. After a buyer receives a proposal, it’s amazing how their response times to seller calls or emails goes from minutes to days. Much of that is due to the fact that buyers know why the seller is calling (he or she wants to ask if they are going to buy). Buyers either don’t want to be pressured or have decided not to buy and are avoiding the timing of delivering bad news.

I believe a trait that superior sellers exhibit that sets them apart from others is patience. Early in sales or buying cycles patience means developing buyer needs well before any discussion about the seller’s offering. It is a welcome change for most buyers to talk about their situation and requirements before learning about the seller’s offering. Later in a sales cycle, superior sellers exhibit patience by waiting to issue proposals until the buyer(s) are ready to buy.

The underlying reason sellers propose prematurely is they view proposals as selling vehicles (a “quote and hope” strategy). I couldn’t disagree with this logic more strongly.

Imagine that a decision maker whom the seller has never met receives a copy of this “selling vehicle.” He or she is unlikely to read all the verbiage from cover to cover. Even if they started with the intention of doing so, most would soon lose their resolve as they realized most of the words and content have little relevance for them. At some point they would merely go to the last tab, find the price and think whatever number they saw was too high. This should not come as a shock to anyone because the buyer has no idea of the potential value of the offering being proposed.

An alternative is to involve the buying committee in deciding whether or not they want a proposal and if so, when they want it. To do this, we suggest after an initial call in which the seller can develop a buyer’s needs into a vision of how their offering could be used to improve business results that they qualify that buyer as a Champion. This means that person will give them access to other members of the buying committee. In each call on other titles, the seller would attempt to develop each need into a vision and quantify value. After all calls are completed, the seller could summarize the value and ask if there is consensus to continue in evaluating the offering being considered.

If a positive response is made, the following steps can be taken:

1. Ask questions to learn about the buying process of the committee.

2. Learn an approximate time the committee would like to see a written recommendation.

3. Provide a draft copy of the steps leading to the issuance of a proposal.

4. Get buy-in from the committee to use the roadmap you negotiated with them.

The next question to be answered is: What is the purpose of a proposal? I hope you agree it is not to sell. In my opinion a proposal should serve as a decision vehicle. By that I mean it should contain the information needed for the committee to make a buying decision. This information could include pricing, implementation plans, professional services, cost versus benefit, etc. In thinking back to control, however, won’t buyers appreciate learning these details during the sales cycle rather than waiting until the end? For this reason, I suggest a proposal should summarize the discussions between the seller and buyers. Rather than wait until the proposal, information (pricing, implementation, etc.) should be shared along the way.

If done properly, there should be no new information in the proposal. Unless it is a very complicated recommendation, I like to see a maximum of 10-15 pages. If you are compelled to include standard brochures and literature, please put them in a tab after the custom pages that you write. When you think about it, including information that they buyer has already seen should minimize questions and make it easier to ask for the business.

One final thought: How often have you closed business without a formal proposal? If you could meet the decision maker late in the buying cycle who had an understanding of the price and value of what was being offered it is possible the decision could be finalized without a formal proposal?

Proposals take time to write and often compromise a seller’s control of an opportunity. One way to minimize these issues is to be sure you are issuing proposals after all of the necessary selling has been done and to be sure an executive could be expected to read the custom content.

Rethinking the Sales Cycle