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Stinky Sales Collateral 101

March 29, 2009

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Sales people get to do a lot of pitching in their professional careers but rarely have the privilege of being the umpire or even spectating in the bleachers with a Budweiser and a hot dog. Within our own internal sale teams we probably only observe our colleagues pass through the sales cycle once a year while hung-over at a management-sanctioned training seminar. There are unwritten rules of corporate etiquette, don’t look around in the restroom – don’t ask to watch another man selling.

As such we leave ourselves open to complacency and a slew of sales-related faux pas. In this article we’ll explore the essentials of preparing the sales materials itself saving the complexities of successfully pitching for a later blog post.

First-off: volume of material. Based on past experience there is a bell curve that plots the probability of closing a deal against the size of the proposal. As the document swells in page count the likelihood of closing initially increases, it then reaches some optimum level of tree destruction before finally plummeting into “Jimmy Cricket! Did I really just spend the weekend writing that?”

Proposals are like mortgage applications, the decision maker expects a certain volume of material and only gets out the rubber stamp ready once it “looks about the right size” regardless of how much documentation is actually read. It’s good to know there’s a big, detailed-laden proposal hiding in the storage closet when the boss may ask someday “how the hell did we get landed with this crappy vendor”. Beyond a certain number of pages however, we probably haven’t got a clue what the client is looking for and are just dumping onto to printer paper in the hope that something will stick.

The next element to consider is what will actually get read and to this I submit the following:

  • That complex, acronym-ridden solution chart on page 5 that no one is quite sure about
  • Pricing
  • References to our current clients
  • Any scope assumptions shoved in at the last minute

It’s a lot easier to produce a strong client document when we know how it will be digested: skimmed through with occasional stops on dollar signs and imagery. From this we can deduce a couple of useful guides (not quite good enough to be “sales rules of thumb” but sufficient to be “pinky finger tipsters”).

Firstly the visual summary of our solution is quite possibly the most important element of our document and warrants the greatest level of prep time. If you can’t draw a basic flow chart in PowerPoint, find a buddy who can.

Secondly, the investment section needs to communicate the elements of our solution considering a busy executive-type who may not have read the rest of the document.

Referencing current client relationships is a tricky one. Everyone wants to see a reassuring list of shiny client logos representing the customers who placed an order and lived to tell the tale. But equally, no prospective client wants to imagine their company’s brand splattered all over your future sales collateral. People, make your mind up. In reality we have to walk a fine line between trumpeting our past corporate conquests while exhibiting some level of commitment to the confidentiality agreement that we signed up to (God Bless those folks in corporate procurement… where would we be without them.)

Finally, be aware of those scope assumptions compiled at the end of our writing stint, usually thrown together when we’re tired and “just trying to get the bloody thing out the door”. In reality they warrant careful review as they’ll be the one thing we’ll be quizzed on at the sales pitch meeting.

And of course, don’t forget to proof the document before it lands in the clients’ inbox. Making typos are the digital equivalent of excessive perspiration, we all do it but there are easy ways to prevent it. Sales proposals are not usually properly edited: peers in sales rarely have the attention span / motivation to properly proof a document and senior management doesn’t get much further than the investment page. If we have a colleague who lives to spot grammatical errors we should count out blessings and graciously accept any red ink that gets dished out. Still at the end of the grind, sales is responsible for the quality of sales documentation regardless of how many helping hands have touched it: always check your work one last time before hitting send.

To finish let’s consider formatting. Formatting rocks and is worth learning how to do quickly and appropriately. If we can’t button a shirt we probably shouldn’t be sat in an office, equally if we can’t format a document we shouldn’t be anywhere near a client.

All companies follow some visual template standards in their client documentation. Many hours and possibly thousands of dollars were spent developing it (or at least cribbing ideas from some else). Follow it. Do not reinvent the wheel every time you prepare sales material.

Still as we cut and paste, formatting errors inevitably get introduced and it’s often a lot easier to start with unformatted text. Elements to look out for include:

  • Consistent use of the fonts
  • Appropriate font height
  • Systematic line and paragraph spacing
  • Heading colors and font weights

And the big one that everyone messes up: copying images from previous sales proposals and the internet. Always check your images have maintained their proportion and haven’t been stretched beyond 100% or they’ll look crappy once they’re printed. (Just right click the image in your document, select [Format Picture > Size] then check that the Height and Width percentage are equal and less than 100 %.)

In summary, sales collateral is lot like a retail store: the intangible look and feel is just as important as the actual goods that sit on the shelves. Stick with Casa Armani by keeping your wares simple and well lit for maximum action at the cash desk.

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