How a proposal beginner can beat the proposal professionals

You don’t have to be a proposal specialist to win. In fact, a non-specialist can easily beat a specialist. All you need to do is have a better understanding of your customer’s needs and preferences. That is more important than your proposal writing skills. Far more important.

If you do a good job at gaining an information advantage regarding the customer’s needs and preferences, you can often win, even though you did a mediocre job of putting it in writing. But if you don’t have an information advantage, then you better do a great job on the proposal. And even then you’ll be at a disadvantage compared to someone whose offering will meet the customer’s needs better because they understand them better.

The sweet spot is to have an information advantage and a great proposal. But that’s actually rare. Even for the specialists with lots of resources at their disposal. The specialists usually start off by complaining that they don’t have the information they need to work with. That’s why you have an opportunity to beat them. If you’re not a proposal specialist with a lot of experience, then you have to beat them by being more insightful about the customer, the opportunity, and the competitive environment. Play to your strengths.

Your challenge is to gain an information advantage and then build a proposal around it. If you’re starting late, such as after the RFP has been released, the deck is already stacked against you. If you don't have a relationship with the customer before the RFP is released and can’t quickly develop an information advantage, you should consider not bidding.

If you think you have a shot because the customer asked you to submit a proposal, then start asking questions. Lots of questions. If you can’t translate your customer relationship into an information advantage, then it’s a shallow relationship, and the opportunity may not be real either. If you think the customer likes you, the way to measure it is by how well you can turn it into an information advantage. If you think they like you, but they won’t share or discuss any insights about what they really need, then it doesn’t translate into any competitive advantage. In fact, anyone else who does have that insight has the competitive advantage over you.

If you can gain the insight required to make it worth bidding, then it’s time to think about the proposal. If there is a written RFP with a formal evaluation process, it will drive the structure of the proposal. If there is no written RFP or if the evaluation is informal, then Don’t just start writing. In each section, you will have multiple goals, and you can’t anticipate them all until you’ve mapped them out. If you have a written RFP, you follow the outline suggested by the customer and tailor it for each evaluation according to their evaluation process. If the RFP is not organized according to a point by point or question and answer structure, you will probably need to cross-reference all of the RFP requirements to the sections of the proposal where they will be addressed. If there is no RFP then you should organize it according to how you anticipate the customer will make their decision.

See also:
Customer's perspective

Once you have the organization you need to think about all the things that should go into each section, like:

When there is a written RFP with a formal evaluation, compliance with all of the customer’s requirements can be extremely important. Use their terminology and not your own. When the customer publishes written evaluation criteria, proposals are not read, they are scored. So carefully consider their evaluation criteria, and make sure that your response scores the maximum points.

Everything you write should be put into the context of the customer and the competitive environment. Even if you do the same thing for every customer, you should position what you do differently. The things you do can have multiple results and benefits. For example, is the result of automation an improvement in speed, quality, or efficiency? Your proposal should reflect the customer’s preferences and how you want to position yourself against the competition.

In addition, everything you write about should reflect the customer’s perspective and not your own. The easiest way to achieve this is to make every single sentence about what the customer is going to get out of whatever qualification, approach, or item you are writing about. You should avoid describing things, even when the RFP asks you to, and instead show the results of things. If you are starting most of your sentences with your company name, “we,” or “our,” you are probably writing about yourself instead of writing about what matters to the customer. If you are making bold, unsubstantiated claims like they do on television commercials, you probably aren’t writing from the customer’s perspective. Think about what the customer needs to hear in order to make their decision. That’s what you should focus on.

When you write from the customer’s perspective and show insight about them and their requirements, what the customer reads will show how your offering is the best alternative for achieving the results they are looking for. Customers pay less attention to style than they do to picking the proposal that looks like it will give them what they want. That’s why your best chance for beating the competition is to start with an information advantage.


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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. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, 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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