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11 ways that your proposals sound the same as everyone else's proposal

Just how far below 50% is your win rate?

Recently I talked to a government employee who was transitioning to the private sector. He asked me if I could recommend any particular contractor because they all sound the same. I thought of all the articles I’ve written about good and bad proposal writing habits and the things I see over and over again when I review proposals for companies and realized it’s true. If the problems I see are in most companies' proposals, then to the customer, those companies must all sound the same. 

Thinking about it more, there are reasons why your proposals all sound the same. Some may not apply to you. But I’m betting that some will. Maybe most. Hopefully not all. But possibly. And I doubt there’s a company out there that will not have at least one apply to them. 

Warning: This may not be easy to hear. Sometimes I can be too honest. But every harsh reality I’ve pointed to is an opportunity to beat your competitors who stay where they are.

And if you can’t do anything about them, then at least have a good laugh at yourself and your industry.

Here's why your proposals sound just like everyone else’s proposals:

See also:
Great Proposals
  1. Your proposals are about your company. When the customer says “Describe your company’s…” or “Contractor shall describe its approach to…” you do just that instead of focusing on why the customer asked for that or what the customer hopes to get out of it. If you want to differentiate, make your proposal about the customer. Then whatever you say about your company has to matter to the customer. Describing who you are while sounding beneficial is easy. Showing how you matter to someone else is not so easy. 
  2. You make the same writing mistakes as everyone else. You are pleased to submit, fully committed, understand, brag, and claim all the same way. You even use the same clichés. It’s easy and it passes your proposal reviews because it sounds like all the other proposals. You've developed some bad proposal writing habits. If you want to sound different, try sharing some truth.
  3. You all talk about quality and risk in the same way. You provide the lowest risk and the highest quality without any proof just like everyone else. If that was true you wouldn’t have had any problems on any of your past projects, and yet…  Maybe this one should have been titled that you tell the same lies as everyone else. Try doing something about the risks or improving quality and then proving that you’ll follow through after award. Try focusing on credibility and your approaches to risk and quality may write themselves in a way that is a bit more authentic.
  4. You lack insight and are talking around it just like everyone else. So the RFP came out and you decided to bid it because “you can do the work” and your proposal is responsive to everything in the RFP while trying to sound beneficial. But there’s nothing in there that anyone would look at and say “Wow! I’ve never thought of doing it that way before. That’s going to make a huge difference.” The truth is you just don't have any insightful information to work with and are trying to word around it like you do. Try treating the customer and the opportunity as something that is unique and special. Then offer something that is a perfect match.
  5. You won’t take the risk of saying the wrong thing so you end up saying nothing just like everyone else. Being exceptional requires being different. But if you do something different you might get dinged in a review, or worse. If the proposal loses you might get fired. So you do something normal and completely expected. Try making the entire proposal process revolve around differentiators. Try standing for something better than normal.
  6. Your approaches are good enough. You have achieved RFP compliance. This is important. You may have even eked out a little better than merely compliant here or there. That’s good enough to submit and maybe you’ll win on price. Try raising the bar. There is no good enough. 
  7. Losing is always blamed on price. It’s politically acceptable to lose on price. Every proposal that makes the competitive range and loses will be blamed on price. The truth is you scoped it wrong, your overhead is too fat, or your value is too low. Try being honest about why you lost so that you’ll leave your comfort zone in order to change.
  8. You implement the same best practices. The acceptable ways of doing things are not competitive. Everyone does acceptable. You’ve got to be better. Try taking what’s acceptable and then modifying it to be a better match for this particular customer, their preferences, and their circumstances.
  9. Your management plans are all boring. Most management plans are competent and routine. If your management plan isn’t exciting, you’re just not trying hard enough. Try writing your management plan as if success or failure of the entire project depends on it.
  10. You aim to be a little better than your competitors. You’ve done what the RFP told you to. You’ve done it well. This means that you may have done what you were told to do better than your competitors. And if so, you might win. But you're probably going to lose. How far below 50% is your win rate? And aiming to be just a little better is not much of a long term competitive strategy. You are all writing to the same RFP and trying to be better. Try doing what the RFP requires in ways that are different from what others will bid and matter in ways that are compelling.
  11. When it comes to service proposals, your capabilities are defined by who you can hire. You didn’t get into the service business by assessing the market or trying to disrupt the market. You got there by responding to RFPs that were low hanging fruit and then hiring staff to do the work. Whatever the customer said they wanted in their RFP, you morphed into. You are all hiring from the same labor pool and you all claim staff counts that are true but will have no impact on the next customer because they are all already billable. When someone asks about your capabilities you often start talking about your experience, as if the two are the same. Try focusing on your differentiators other than experience. Those are what can define a company that isn’t defined simply by who it hires. Then turn those differentiators into sustainable ways of operating that are different and use them to produce differentiated capabilities. 

Add it all up and you all sound the same. And not very credible. And there’s no connection between what you’ve said in your proposal and how the project goes. So your customers don’t believe half of what vendors say in their proposals anyway. And the next one they read sounds like more of the same. Is it yours?

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Carl Dickson

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

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

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