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The ultimate guide to creating modern sales proposals

Actionable insights on language, content, design, and technology to improve your buyer experience

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Table of contents

    Introduction

    Have you ever seen the Netflix show Nailed It? If not, the basic premise is this: amateur bakers try to recreate complicated baking challenges. At the end of each challenge the bakers show off their work and judges look to see how close they got to the original.

    Generally speaking, they don’t get close. At all. Which is really the point of the show and where the humor comes from (it’s a comedic show). As a viewer, it’s easy to think you would fare better in the competition than some of the more unfortunate participants. However, the reality is that most of us would probably have, at the least, just as tough a time as anyone.

    There’s a simple reason for that: they are trying to make some seriously complicated confections. If anything, the real lesson of Nailed It is: baking is tough. There are lots of steps and details to be mindful of. And if you miss on just one aspect, the whole thing can, literally, come tumbling down.

    The same is true with proposals.

    In order to create a truly impressive, and impactful proposal, that makes a seamless buyer experience, there’s a lot to consider. From the overall content, to how you structure the proposal. You also have to think about the design, and the language you use to engage the viewer. Just as in baking, the details matter. The more you pay attention, the better overall buyer experience you create.

    It may sound like quite the daunting task, but we’re here to help out. To help you get started on your way, and nail your next proposal, we’ve put together this guide. In it we cover what to include in your proposal, ideas for distribution, design basics and how to apply them, language best practices, and tips on automation.

    What to include in your proposal

    Just as a cake has core ingredients, your proposal needs to, too. In this section of the guide we cover the different sections to include in your proposal, along with some best practices. Depending on what content you have at your disposal, you may need to adjust slightly, but should still be able to use the basic outline.

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    Who you are

    When meeting a potential customer in person, you wouldn't dive straight into your sales pitch, so you shouldn’t in your proposal either. Open with a little background on your company. You don’t have to give the entire story, but share a few important pieces like how long you’ve been in business, general services you offer, and any areas of specialty you may have.
    For example, you might mention your company makes help desk software and you focus primarily on small to medium sized companies. Also, if you work a lot within a certain industry, feel free to share that too.
    Also, in most modern deals your prospect is probably also presenting your product internally. Though they may be familiar with all your accolades, their peers, and supervisors, may not be. By including those relevant details, you make their job of promoting your solution internally that much easier.
    Last, make sure this section isn’t too long. Research shows during a sales call it’s best to keep the explanation of your business to two minutes or less. In written form, that’s about 500 words.

    What the problem is

    There’s only one reason anyone gets hired for a job: to solve a problem. In this section of the proposal you need to outline what you perceive the prospects pain points are. You’re giving context as to why you’re sending the proposal in the first place.

    This section is really where you start building trust with the prospect. When you’re able to clearly articulate their problem, it shows you understand their needs, which is important. In fact, only 13% of customers believe a salesperson can understand their needs. So, this section can also serve as an early differentiator for you from the competition.

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    Why you do what you do

    According to author and speaker Simon Sinek, people don't buy what we do they buy why we do what we do. The basic idea being by sharing your motivation you’re more able to create an emotional connection with the prospect, while giving further insight into your organization.

    You shouldn’t list a mission statement or anything that formal, even just a few sentences are fine. This section is also another opportunity to continue building credibility. You could talk about what connects to your product, why you’re so passionate about it, and the success that’s translated to.

    In fact, research shows 71% of consumers prefer to buy from companies aligned with their values. The number is even higher, 83%, for millennials. By showing your “why” you make the decision to buy for your prospect that much easier.

    How you’re going to help

    We’re all familiar with big claims companies make about “changing the world” or “making life better.” Though they sound nice in the moment, a lot of the time they fall short in actually saying how they’re going to accomplish those lofty goals. Don’t make the same mistake.

    List out a few of the services you offer, then shift toward the specific services you think are useful for the prospects specific issue. By personalizing those details you show you’re invested in them and really want to make an impact. It’s also another subtle way to continue building credibility with the prospect.

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    Pricing

    Did you know that almost half of all deals are lost because of budget? Further, nearly six out of 10 prospects actually want to talk about pricing on the first sales call. Both those stats confirm something we all already know: price matters.

    There’s a really simple explanation for that. If they can’t afford you, then there’s really no point in discussing things further. Depending on your business, it’s not always possible to give an exact price. That said, you should be able to provide some sort of pricing information.

    Though pricing is very important for deals, you don’t want to talk about it too early. Research shows you shouldn’t talk about pricing in the first third of a sales call, so leave it for a little later in your proposal too. That way, you can focus on establishing value first.

    Further, if you’re using a tool like Qwilr you’re able to have interactive pricing. Instead of having you manually update deal terms, your prospect is empowered to make their own choices of services. The net effect being a more flexible, and seamless, buyer experience.

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    Trust Indicators

    Testimonials, awards, review site rankings, are all trying to accomplish the same thing: increase the prospects level of trust in you. And it’s not without reason. In fact, a business with a 4 to 4.5 star rating online earns roughly 28% more revenue than one with a 3 to 3.5 star rating.

    We also suggest including these different items multiple times throughout your proposal. You might consider adding a testimonial, or award you won, in the “why do you what you do” section. We also suggest placing one right before your price section, and also right before your accept button.

    Remember, what you’re aiming for is making the choice, and by extension buying experience, as simple as possible. By providing those indicators of trust you help make a stronger case for your product. Social proof is a very powerful tool.

    Accept Button

    Your whole proposal is essentially leading to this one point. Getting the prospect to accept and sign the deal is the primary goal. With that being the case, it’s paramount there’s some amount of thought put into the “accept” portion of your proposal.

    That could come in the form of putting in some sort of testimonial, or other trust-building element, as mentioned above. If possible, Use social proof from other customers in the same industry and role as the one you’re pitching. The more similar, the better.

    If you’re using a PDF, the customer probably has to print the document, sign it, scan it back in, or fax it. However, if you’re using a more modern proposal solution, you should be able to offer the ability to accept deal terms right in the proposal. As with interactive pricing, the benefit is it creates a much smoother buyer experience, which can lead to higher close rates.

    You should also think about other things like the typeface and color of the button (which we’ll cover in the design section of the guide).

    Contact details

    The plain and simple fact is this: some people aren’t going to click “accept.” It’s not the desired outcome, but it’s also not the end of the world. In those cases the next best thing is to have them reach out and continue the conversation. As long as you’re talking, the deal’s still alive.

    With that in mind, it’s good to end with your contact details. You could even add in a slight call to action here. Something like, “have any questions about our proposal? Feel free to contact me at x.” Not only does it offer the ability to continue the conversation, it can further build trust.

    Also, be sure to include multiple contact options. Some people prefer a phone call over email, so you want to empower them to make that choice. If their preferred contact method isn’t offered, it could stop them from reaching out.

    Distributing your proposal

    Present day, you’re probably sending any proposal you have through email. Though that may be, more-or-less, a given, there is one other major consideration.

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    PDF vs. web-based proposals

    One of the biggest considerations there is when sending a proposal is the format you choose. Once upon a time PDFs were more or less the gold-standard. It makes sense. They were a huge improvement over sending paper documents.

    However, as time moved forward, PDFs have had some struggles keeping up with the demands of modern-day business. With that being the case, there’s been a new category of web-based proposals. Web-based proposals are essentially webpages, which means they’re more customizable and have some other options open to them that PDFs don’t.

    Web-based proposals help you meet modern-day buyer expectations by utilizing new technology to make a better overall buyer experience. Below are five ways going web-based could work to your advantage.

    Easy to amend

    Web-based proposals are easy to amend. As any salesperson knows, it’s common for the initial proposal sent, and the one that gets signed to have some differences. With a web-based solution you can make those changes and have them reflected by simply refreshing the page.

    With a PDF you have to make the change, save a new copy of the document, then send that new copy over to your prospect. It’s a number of added steps that makes the process longer, and more cumbersome, for everyone involved. Though that may have worked in the past, the experience doesn’t match up with modern-buyer expectations.

    Advanced analytics

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    No matter what business sector you work in, it’s almost guaranteed that analytics have become an integral part of your approach. Proposals should be no different. With certain web-based solutions, like Qwilr, you’re able to get deeper insights through advanced analytics.

    For example, you can be notified when your proposal is viewed. You can also see where the viewer has spent the most time, or any links they’ve clicked. That information can give you further insight into where your prospect is at mentally, and also give you a good place to start from for any follow-up communication.

    Faster payments

    Think about almost any modern buying experience there is. Almost all of them are optimized around making the buying process faster. The biggest example I can think of is Amazon and their “one-click ordering.” In fact, 70% of online shopping carts are abandoned if the buyer needs to create an account to complete the purchase.

    With the above in mind, it becomes clear the biggest advantage of a web-based proposal is being able to take payment right in the same document. You don’t have to worry about sending an additional invoice and waiting for that to process.

    One of the best things you can do is create a frictionless buyer experience. When you combine what used to be multiple documents into one, you achieve that.

    Richer content

    With a web-based proposal you’re also able to include other online elements that aren’t easy, or sometimes even possible, to include in a PDF. For example, in a web-based proposal you’re able to include video and images to make your proposal stand out. You’re also able to include other web-based content like forms.

    Responsive design

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    Along with being able to create better looking proposals, they also perform better across devices when web-based as opposed to a PDF, which is important to creating the best buyer experience possible. Based on our own data, at least 15% of all proposals are viewed on a mobile device.

    Though it is possible to view a PDF on a tablet or phone, it’s not what they were designed for. With that being the case, the viewer needs to zoom in and scroll around in order to read the text. Whereas a web-based proposal automatically adjusts in size to be easily viewable on any device.

    Designing your proposal

    To some, design may seem superfluous. Something that’s nice to have, but not totally needed. Though standard intuition may point you to that conclusion, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

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    Introduction to design

    McKinsey did a five year study across multiple industries, in multiple countries, and found design-driven companies outperform the competition consistently. In some cases they outperformed non-design focused companies 2:1. All that’s to say, investing in design is well-worth your time.

    In this section we cover why design is important to making the best buyer experience, as well as give an overview of some design principles and some ways you could consider including them in your document.

    Color theory

    Did you know people generally decide whether or not they like a product within 90 seconds? Even more shocking, 90% of that decision is based solely on color. It’s one of the many reasons being deliberate in your color choices matter.

    To be candid, entire books are written on color theory, so we’ll only be able to scratch the surface here. The hope is to provide some basics as a jumping-off point. The first of which is something you’ve probably seen before: the color wheel.

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    The color wheel shows the three main groups of colors.

    — Primary
    — Secondary
    — Tertiary

    Primary colors, as you may remember, are red, yellow, and blue. Secondary colors are colors made by mixing primary colors, like orange, green, and purple. Last, there are tertiary colors, which are colors made by mixing primary and secondary colors.

    Outside of being aesthetically pleasing, different colors help you better communicate certain feelings or moods. For example, warm colors (red, yellow, orange) are more commonly associated with passion, vibrancy, and enthusiasm. They demand the viewers attention and can be great to use when you want a certain item to really stand out.

    Whereas cool colors (bule, green, purple) tend to be more calming and evoke ideas of nature, relaxation, or luxury. Cool colors tend to be more reserved when compared to warm colors. They can be a good option for an early part of a pitch to ease the viewer in.

    Last, there are neutrals. These are beiges, browns, blacks, and whites. These colors are often associated with a more modern, or professional aesthetic. Black, whites, and grays, tend to go with most colors, so they work well for backgrounds and text. Browns and beiges aren’t quite as versatile but can work well as background colors.

    Choosing a font

    Similar to color, your font serves both a visual and practical function. You want to choose something that fits your overall design aesthetic, but it also needs to be readable to effectively communicate with the viewer.

    To start, there are two broad categories: serif and sans serif. Times New Roman is a serif font, whereas Helvetica is a sans serif font. Essentially, serif fonts (pictured on the left below) are a bit more ornate, and sans serif (pictured on the right) are more minimal.

    Though there is plenty to think about when choosing fonts, there are three main considerations we see:

    — Branding
    — Legibility
    — Usage

    Branding

    With branding consistency is key. Part of staying consistent means making sure every element of your design language supports a common theme. For example, if you have a minimal, modern aesthetic, you probably want to go with a sans serif font, as that’s what fits best.

    However, if you’re going for a more classic look, you might consider a serif font. No matter the case, you need to be sure the font you choose is in line with other branding elements and the overall aesthetic.

    Legibility

    There are some design elements that are purely visual. Font is not one of them (except for on the off chance you’re not intending for the viewer to actually read the text). Simply, if the viewer isn’t able to read the text, then it’s a failure.

    Consider the weight (how thick the lines are) and color of your font choice to ensure good readability. You should also see how readable your choice is at different sizes, as it’s very possible people will view your proposal on a variety of screen sizes.

    Usage

    Though there aren’t any hard and fast rules, it does appear some fonts are best suited for certain scenarios. For example, some studies have shown serif fonts are easier to read for longer form content. It’s why books and newspapers are often printed with serif fonts.

    However, things like headlines can benefit from a sans serif font. For design purposes, it’s completely acceptable to use multiple fonts. However, you do need to make sure they’re not too similar, and shouldn’t use more than two in one proposal.

    You can also utilize things like bolding, and italicizing text to create some more visual contrast. If you want some more guidance on pairing fonts, this tool is a useful resource.

    Visual hierarchy

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    We’re all familiar with the idea of “the fine print.” Generally, it’s where any adverse detail of a product is listed, typically in much smaller text than the rest. What they’re utilizing is visual hierarchy.

    Very basically, visual hierarchy is the practice of placing different visual elements to signal their importance. There are a few different ways designers may signal hierarchy. First, as the above example points out is size. Designers also utilize things like color, texture, alignment, contrast, and repetition, to create visual hierarchy.

    When creating a proposal you can use these different elements to make sure core parts of your messaging stand out. For example, you might decide to bold your key differentiators, or put the text for those items in a different color than the rest.

    Another very important place to employ the ideas of visual hierarchy is for your accept button. We don’t suggest making it giant, but it should stand out and be easily identifiable.

    If a few additional seconds can make a difference in whether or not someone chooses to view a webpage, then it’s more than reasonable to imagine that making the accept button easier to find, and execute, could have an impact, too.

    Multimedia and visual elements

    Most of us are familiar with the concept of the “visual aide.” It’s a supplemental item meant to further enhance any information being shared. Sometimes visual aides come in the form of graphs and charts, and more recently things like explainer videos.

    There’s a reason people use them: they’re effective. In fact, 65% of people are visual learners. Though you probably won’t do an entire proposal as a video (though that would certainly be novel) you should integrate different multimedia elements to further engage your viewer.

    We should note, if you’re using a more conventional PDF proposal, you will most-likely be limited in the multimedia elements you’re able to include. To get the full benefit, a web-based solution is your best option.

    Images

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    Adding pictures is probably the easiest place to start. Many companies have some team pictures, or something similar, which can be a great place to start. If that’s not an option, royalty-free image libraries like Pexels and Unsplash can be great resources.

    Two other things to keep in mind when selecting images are their quality and composition. Any image you use should be at least 1200px wide, anything less may degrade on larger screens. Also, try to use pictures that feature people’s faces. Research consistently shows social media posts using images containing faces routinely have higher engagement, as much as 38% more.

    Video

    According to Google, 70% of all YouTube viewers watch videos for help with a problem. Two big reasons for that are we retain far more information from watching a video when compared to reading text, and it’s a lower-effort option when compared to reading.

    In fact, 62% of consumers watch a product video prior to making a purchase. Further, one study found 84% of consumers were convinced to buy a product after watching a video about it. Combining all those findings makes it clear including video in your proposal is a no-brainer.

    Though creating a video does take a little more time than sourcing an image from an online library, the increased impact is well worth it if you’re able to do it. Even a simple Loom recording, or something similar, could help you stand out from the rest.

    Audio

    Over the last couple of years it seems you can hardly go more than a few days without being recommended a podcast. Their popularity, along with audio books, has increased significantly in recent years.

    Audio formats are usually easier for someone to consume because they’re more convenient and can be done while doing other tasks. Though it’s not something you see often in proposals, it could be an interesting add to do an audio version.

    Comprehension rates between reading and listening are similar. Also, the novelty of it could help you further stand out in the prospect’s mind. It could also make it easier for your prospect to consume the content in your proposal, making it an easier buying experience.

    Miscellaneous content

    Pictures, video, and audio are kind of the “big three” multimedia formats you could include. There are also things like online forms, gifs, and other items you could include as well. However, it is important to know not all proposals are able to utilize these different forms of content.

    A tool like Qwilr is able to since it’s web-based. So, be sure you’re checking to make sure your proposal software can support these different items before getting too far in the creation process.

    Personalization

    Did you know that two people can search the same term in Google and get completely different results? If you’re curious to test it out, run the experiment with you and a friend. Most of the time the results are similar, but in some cases vary drastically.

    The reason for the difference is based on the information Google knows about you, and your friend, it makes decisions on what’s most relevant to you when you perform a search. Really what it’s doing is personalizing your search results.

    Over the last few years the focus on personalization has increased dramatically. In fact, 72% of buyers expect B2B companies to personalize communication to them. So, wouldn’t it stand to reason you need to do the same with your sales proposals?

    How to personalize

    There are a ton of potential items in a proposal you could adjust to make it more relevant to your prospect. However, depending on the number of proposals you send hyper-peronalizing each proposal may not be possible.

    Since most companies have a few verticals they focus on, one place to start is by making industry-specific templates. For example, say you mainly focus on marketing agencies, software companies, and construction companies. Your first step would be to make proposal templates for each of those segments.

    You could switch out testimonials, and images to better suit each industry. You may also consider including some different industry-specific terms in each to show you’re an insider. By having the basic template for each industry it frees up time to later further personalize each proposal to the specific client.

    After getting your templates set, for individual proposals you should be sure to address them directly to your prospect. You could also include a specific quote for the services you’ve already talked about with the prospect, along with an additional quote including one or two other services you think could be helpful for their overall goals.

    Realistically, it’s about being thoughtful. You want to show the prospect you’re invested in them as a client and don’t see them as just another deal. When you take the time to personalize your sales proposals, you do just that.

    Language best practices

    Did you know over 40% of salespeople said their phone is the most effective sales tool they have? Outside of there being some new-age, deal-closing, phone we’re unaware of, what the stat really tells us is how powerful direct communication with a prospect is.

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    Framing

    We’re all familiar with the “glass half empty / half full” saying. It’s used to, in theory, determine how naturally positive or negative someone is. Really, it’s a test of someone’s mindset.

    Though the glass test realistically only tells so much, there is a lesson in there. It shows the power of choice. We have the option to choose a more positive, or negative view. They both have their place, but it is a choice we make.

    Framing is based on the same idea. It comes down to being cognizant of the language you’re using and being intentional about the words you choose. A common example regularly used is replacing “I have to” with “I get to.” One primes you to think of something as a burden and the other as a privilege.

    Positive vs negative isn’t the only application of framing. The language you choose can also create urgency, or a feeling of excitement. Framing is an act of being thoughtful about the words you’re using in order to support the overall tone and emotional content of your message.

    Linguistic relativity

    Have you ever considered how much the words we use, or the words available to us affect our worldview? There’s actually an academic field of study that’s concerned with just that. It’s called linguistic relativity (sometimes referred to as the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis).

    The very basic idea is that the language we use directly affects how we perceive the world around us. Generally, academics are more concerned about languages as a whole. For example, how speaking Latin vs. Swahili could change your perception of the world. However, recently others expanded the field of study and started questioning how the specific words we use can have an impact.

    Though it may sound a little far-fetched, there is some weight to the idea. For example, research done by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and communications professor Mark Robert Waldman found the words we use have an impact on our brains.

    “There’s a lot of evidence to show that negative words and negative emotions are detrimental to the brain, while positive words and positive emotions are beneficial.” said Dr. Newberg.

    Out of the textbook, into the real world

    Theory is great but being able to put ideas into practice is where the rubber really meets the road. With that in mind, here are three tips you can implement for your proposals.

    1. Be positive

    Through the use of framing, or similar linguistic devices, you’re able to set the tone for your interactions. By using positive language, you’ll help make prospects more comfortable and more willing to engage with you.

    One great piece of advice Dr. Newberg offers is that for any one negative comment we make, have three positive things to say about the same. The practice helps create balance and keeps things from slipping toward the negative

    You can also replace words like “cheap” with “economical” or “expensive” and “premium.” It’s common for companies to name tiers of products in this manner, but it’s not always reflected in our day-to-day language.

    I would also like to mention, there are some common replacement words I see suggested that you should avoid. Things like “inexpensive” or “foolproof” seem harmless, but our brains end up focusing on the negative part of each word (expensive/ fool). So, do your best to find terms that don’t contain negatives when replacing.

    2. Be Direct

    As a writer, I know all too well the allure of adding in tons of flowery words to make something sound more exciting, or interesting, than it is. Though that can work sometimes, more often than not, all you’re doing is adding noise around your core message.

    When you’re direct, you’re better able to express thoughts, opinions, and points of view. Being clear in your message helps build trust with prospects, which is crucial for closing deals.

    Consider having someone else proofread each section of the proposal you’re sending and ask what their main takeaway was. If it doesn’t match your intention, ask what confused them or signaled their understanding. People may interpret messages differently, however it’s still a useful insight to have.

    3. Be Brief

    There are a few ways you can ensure brevity. One way is to use fewer words. And the first words you should cut are modifiers. Adverbs (words used to modify a verb, or adjective ie “they walked smoothly to the car.”) are specifically troublesome, so try and avoid them when possible.

    Also, try to speak only one or two sentences at a time. Realistically, we can only hold on to about 30 seconds of information at a time. As that pertains to the written word, it means you should split sections into chunks of about 75-100 words.

    Following up on your proposal

    Seldom few proposals get signed without any sort of follow-up. In fact, 80% of deals need five follow-ups to close. So, having a plan in place of how you’ll continue the conversation is paramount to your success.

    As mentioned above, tools like Qwilr offer the ability to gain deeper insights through analytics which can serve as a great starting place for your follow-up efforts. For example, if the proposal hasn’t been viewed at all yet, by sending a reminder email you can get back to being top-of-mind for the prospect.

    Using data of what sections they’ve spent most time viewing, you could craft a message geared toward those areas. For example, if you notice they’re spending lots of time on the pricing section you could send a message asking if they have any questions about pricing, or even consider offering a time-sensitive discount, or service offer, to get them across the line.

    Another consideration is how soon you should follow-up with your prospect. Though there aren’t any hard and fast rules, it’s most common to wait at least three days to follow-up. That said, if you want to wait a couple days longer, it shouldn’t be an issue.

    Really, what you need to make sure of is that your message is relevant to the prospect. Be sure the message is personalized to them, and also that there’s a clear reason you’re following up. As long as both those are clear, you’ll be on the right path.

    Continued success

    In order to nail your proposal, you need to consider all the parts that make up the whole. What you include, the design choices you make, how you personalize, language you utilize, and your distribution efforts all play a part in making a great proposal.

    With increased competition and limited attention of prospects, you need to be sure you’re making the most of every interaction you have. Though you may not always think of it this way, the proposal stage is really a transition point for you and your prospect.

    Based on how they respond to your proposal they’ll either become a customer, or they won’t. When you start to see the stakes for what they truly are, it becomes even clearer why you need to invest time and thought into your proposals to make the best buyer experience possible.

    When you do not only are creating a tool that continues to serve you well into the future, you’re also making sure you get the best outcomes in the present. So, invest the time, mind the details, and stay focused. We promise you’ll be glad you did.

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