Sales Proposal: 5 questions to ask before writing one

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Good sales people spend as much energy at qualifying out sales opportunities as they do looking for deals. Why? Because they recognise that time is their most important resource. They only work on those deals which are likely to close. Here’s a practical guide to finding the five key ingredients to help you determine whether it’s worth writing a sales proposal…

1. What’s the PAIN?

You’re all excited. This prospect could help you grow your business significantly. The time of the meeting arrives, handshakes all round, sit down, pads come out. You nervously launch into your well-practised sales pitch about how great your company is, your history, your passion, and how your product/service offering is better than any of the competition. Ten minutes in, and it doesn’t take a Masters in Psychology to read the prospective client’s body language. Bored. Fidgeting. Frustration. Annoyance..

Aside from the introductions the first thing any good sales person should do is to ask good quality questions and listen. What questions you ask? Well it depends on what you are selling.

Find a generic question which is specific enough that when answered will give you some information relating to the client’s pain that you may be able to solve. Then follow it up with another question which deepens your knowledge of your prospect’s issues. Then another. Resist the temptation to jump straight to your solution (which is no doubt the best thing since sliced bread). And never, ever,  jump straight to your pricing for said solution!

Listening, and further questioning, gets a much better perspective on the client’s PAIN. What are they struggling with, their challenges, their ideal solution? The more you know, the more you can be sure that; a) your offering meets their need (or doesn’t allowing you to qualify out the opportunity); b) any sales proposal/process is tailored to your prospect’s business; and c) you heard and understand what it is your prospect is wanting to achieve.

2. What’s the BUDGET!?

Ask them how much they are willing to spend. Despite its simplicity so few people ask the question, spend a fortune in pre-sales consultancy, days more in writing complex proposals only for the prospect to ignore them, or go with a much cheaper option.

Often times the prospect will not want to say what their budget is for all manner of reasons. Here’s where seasoned sales professionals come up trumps as they find a way to get the answer they need.

Some pointers are;  “How much are you looking to spend..?” and if you are met with a stony face ask “Are we talking about under £20k, £30-40k or over £50k?”, and if the client is still stony add “the reason I ask is I need to know a rough ballpark to be able to tailor our offering to your requirement”.  Normally by this point they’ll give you an indication, and you can move on. If they still refuse to tell you I’ve heard “ I’m sorry but unless I can give my boss a rough figure I won’t be able to get the required level of pre-sales/information together, so by giving me a ballpark you are helping me to help you”..

If the prospect’s budget is way below what you can profitably deliver the required service/product, walk away.
3. What’s the TIMESCALE?​

Mr Johnny New Boy rushes back to the office after a meeting with a prospect.  He tells his boss “ I’ve got a fantastic opportunity and I need every available resource to pull together a detailed proposal. “ At which point his boss would ask; why want’s the PAIN? What’s the BUDGET? What’s the TIMESCALE?

Asking the time-scale is so important. Very often a sales opportunity can be qualified out (as in put on the back burner) because although there is PAIN and a nominal BUDGET there is no need to have the solution by a particular time frame  I.e. it’s a nice to have. It’s rare that nice to have’s (especially in the current financial climate) make it to a firm order.

So ask the question, “When does this need to be purchased/solved/fixed by?”, “What event is driving this need?”.. Knowing the answer will at enable you to prioritise your time effectively and enable more accurate sales forecasting.

4. Who is the DECISION MAKER?​

Internalise the Golden Rule of sales that says, ‘All things being equal, people will do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like and trust.’ -Bob Burg.

At the absolute minimum you need to know who the decision maker is. Secondly, wherever possible, deal directly with the decision maker. Where it’s not possible, find every possible way to communicate directly with them even if it’s only via a CC in an email unless expressly forbidden.

Sales people worth their salt will find a way to ensure they meet with the decision maker even if they’ve delegated the buying process. You’ve heard the maxim “people buy from people” – and decision makers will always favour those they get on with. So find every way you can to meet with and deal directly with the decision maker. Otherwise you may find all your hard work goes down the pan because they ended up buying from their golfing buddy.

If you are unable to get to meet the decision maker, consider qualifying out…


Easy to miss, but equally as important as the others. The smaller the business, the simpler the process is likely to be. But if you are dealing with a larger business they will have a set buying process, and you need to know what it is to be able to sell your offering.

Public sector purchasing gives new meaning to the word process – but you need to ask what it is, and follow it to the letter. Sometimes even the colour of ink on the right colour envelope can make the difference between a sale, and heartbreak.
Large corporates can be similar to public sector too – so it’s crucial you ask the simple questions “What is the process you will be going through to make a decision?” and “do you have a formal procurement process we need to follow, if so can I have a copy?”.

If you believe the process to be overly complex for the time and resources you have, qualify out. Walk away. Concentrate on a deal where you believe you are better suited.


So. Before your next sales meeting, write down the following words at the top of your pad; PAIN, BUDGET, TIMESCALE, DECISION MAKER, PROCESS. Make sure you ask the questions, and listen. Decide at each stage whether to qualify out or in. Only then can you put together a sales proposal. I wish you every sales success!

If you or your team would benefit from some targeted and experiences sales know-how, get in touch.

(Author Mark Bateman, August 2012, Image Mark Bateman)