The 4 Words You Don’t Want To Hear – By Chris Lytle

“Send me a proposal.”

Those are the four words you don’t want to hear. You have now lengthened the selling cycle and you have another two or three hours’ work ahead of you. That’s if you write your own proposals. If you work for a larger company where proposals have to come out of some marketing department or sales secretary, then you have an even longer wait until the proposal is ready to take back (or send over) to the prospect.

I have come to dread those four words instead of look forward to them.

Too many salespeople hear those four words and think they are a buying signal. I hear them and think, “Boy, I must have done a lousy job of demonstrating what this can do if he wants it in writing.”

Asking for something in writing is almost a conditioned response for a buyer. You can react to the request by dutifully going back and writing a proposal or you can ask a few more questions.

Here’s a real conversation I had with a prospect who was thinking about buying some sales training.

“Send me a proposal,” he said.

“When you say ‘proposal’ what would you like it to have in it?

“I just need you to document what you are going to deliver and how much it costs?”

“Is it a document you need to take to your CFO to get a check cut or do you need it fto help you to do some more selling internally?”

“No, just to take to our CFO.”

“Then you really need an invoice with numbers of participants, pricing and terms, right?

“That will work.”

“When would you like it dated for implementation.”

“A week from now when we get into Q3.”

“Done. Thank you for the order.”

“I’m looking forward to working with you, Chris.”


It’s not always that easy, but we do make selling a lot harder than it has to be by offering to jump through more hoops in order to get the sale. Can you see how asking just a few more questions clarifies things? Here are some other questions to ask when you hear those four words you don’t want to hear:

  • What would a good proposal look like for you?
  • What format is easiest to work with?
  • How long would you want it to be?
  • What don’t you need in a proposal
  • What points do you want clarified?
  • Do you want my fancy folder or down and dirty so you can have it quick?
  • What happens once you have the proposal in hand?
  • Should this more like an invoice or are we starting from scratch?


Okay, I worked the invoice back into those questions. Here’s what I know for sure: Your proposals are most likely too long.

I know because most of us equate length with thoroughness. And thoroughness means long, boring presentations.

A Canadian magazine publisher asked me to conduct focus groups for their advertisers. More than forty people participated over the course of a day. We sat around a table with a recorder on and I asked questions about the salespeople’s proposals and whether or not they were on target.

“What does good look like in a written proposal?” I asked.

The consensus was conciseness is good. “Edit” and “summarize” were words that came up. “Cut to the chase” came up a lot too.

Go back and check the length of the last few proposals you have made. How long did it take you to get to the point? If your customers demanded a one page proposal, what vital information would make the cut? What words and what sections could you eliminate?

T.S. Eliot wrote, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so  I wrote a long one instead.”  It takes time to edit yourself.

Time-starved prospects might see your brevity as a positive point of difference. And your proposal will get read while longer ones clog virtual and physical inboxes.

But don’t take my word for that. Ask your own prospects and customers the question I asked the Canadian buyers: “What does good look like to you in a written proposal from a salesperson?