Why your good proposal is going to lose

A good proposal is not good enough to win

A lot of companies do exactly the wrong thing when faced with a must win opportunity. They try to make sure they don’t lose. They give the customer exactly what they ask for in the RFP. They may even make improvements here or there, if they can do it within the boundaries of the instructions. They try to be exactly what the RFP says the customer wants. They never realize that they are setting themselves up to lose.

When your goal is to write a good proposal, here is what you get:

  • A little better on specifications, but not enough to increase your cost
  • A little better by teaming with other companies so you can claim their qualifications even though it won’t impact what the customer actually gets
  • A little better on price by trimming how much you pad your estimates, but not so much that you lose money on the deal
  • A little better on staffing by offering a few more years of experience with no way for the customer to know whether your staff will actually do a better job

The problem is that “a little better” means a little better than what the RFP asked for, and not necessarily a little better than your competitors. You’re counting on them facing the same constraints, and hoping your picks will be “a little better” than theirs. Sometimes you win, but most of the time you lose. Maybe if you win 1 in 3, you can make it up in volume. All you need are more RFPs to respond to. And your job is secure because you didn’t make any mistakes — you followed the instructions precisely.

Your proposal will be good. But you are who I want to bid against, because you are easy to beat. Here is how I’m going to do it:

  • I’m going to win by giving the customer better results. Even if we’re bidding the same thing, I will do a better job of talking about results instead of approaches. Because my results will be explained, the customer will see that I understand them better than all those proposals that simply say “We understand you.” And a better description of the results will also prove that we deliver a better value, as opposed to all those proposals simply saying “We offer the best value.”
  • I’m going to offer things that matter and explain to the customer why they matter.
  • I’m going to offer insight into the trade-offs so they can see why ours is the best approach for them, and not just a little better. And why all other bids have negative trade-offs.
  • Depending on the bid, I’ll either team with no one, or a lot of other companies. I’ll either win with better management or way more resources. It won’t just be your small collection of companies vs. my small collection of companies. I’m not trying to win after a difficult deliberation and detailed comparison. My proposal will be so different that it won’t even be a difficult decision for the customer to make. I’m going to offer a clear choice and then show why our approach is better.
  • I’ll change the rules on the pricing by changing the scope. Forget shaving bill rates by a nickel — I’ll change the number of staff needed by changing the nature of the project. And I won’t do it by giving something up. I’ll do it by giving them something better, just less labor or resource intensive. If the RFP specifies a pricing format that forces me to compare apples to apples, then it’s all about value. I’m going to make sure that the customer can evaluate the value of everything we do that adds value, and I’m going to make sure that there’s a lot of it. When I’m done there will be a clear difference in what they get from us, and the customer will know what it’s worth.
  • I’m going to do a lot more than just fill the hours or give them bodies. I’m going to give them something tangible. I’m going to give my people tools. Procedures. Resources. Access to information. Ways to solve problems. Oversight. Advice. Surge support. The customer is going to know that our people will not show up empty-handed or be on their own. They’ll know we’re all hiring from the same labor pool. But regardless of who shows up, our people will come with an advantage.
  • I’m going to win by showing that we’re much better to work with. We’ll be more responsive, more transparent, easier to oversee, and a better partner. All proven with specific features that can be evaluated as strengths.
  • In a formal, point scored environment I’m not going to try to earn points here and there to outscore you. I’m going to trash the grading curve. I’m going to redefine what strengths and acceptability mean so that all the scoring is done by seeing whether anyone else measures up to my proposal. I am going to win all of the points and not just a few more, because my proposal will make it clear why our approach is the only one that is acceptable.

I love to compete against people who write good proposals. Because my proposal will be extraordinary. While you’re aiming to follow the instructions and be a little better, I’m going to be overwhelming and great. I’ll comply with the instructions too, but I’ll use them as a starting point and not the goal.

A good proposal sometimes wins because the other proposals made mistakes or didn’t rack up quite enough points. A good proposal’s best chance is to win on price, which usually means winning by being less profitable. Because of the bell curve, you can get by like that. A good proposal will beat all the other proposals that aren’t as good.

But unless I totally misread the customer, I’m going to steal away your business. Because I have no fear of losing. Because I will not play it safe and try to just be “a little better.” I am going to submit a great proposal, and good just can’t compete with that.

Do you want to compete with me? If you’re at the kind of company where losing a proposal gets punished and everyone is trying to cover themselves, you won’t be able to do it. But if you are at a company that’s willing to take some risks, think outside the box, and treat creating an extraordinary proposal as an extraordinary investment opportunity, then it’s going to get interesting. The winner will be the one of us that best understands what the customer wants. The winner will be the one that best uses that knowledge to matter more to the customer. I wonder which of us it’s going to be...



Subscribe to PropLIBRARY

Unlock our premium content, including the recipes, forms, checklists, etc. that make it easy to turn our recommendations into winning proposals. 


Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY.

The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.

In addition, the groups Carl moderates on LinkedIn provide a place for tens of thousands of business development and proposal professionals to discuss best practices and network.
Proposal Help Desk
Contact us for assistance
In addition to PropLIBRARY's online resources, we also provide full-service consulting for when you're ready to engage one of our experts.

It all starts with a conversation. You can contact us by clicking the button to send us a message, or by calling 1-800-848-1563.