If it’s so obvious that your proposal should describe your strengths and downplay your weaknesses, why do so many proposals do such a poor job of proposal writing? This article was written after spending a day discussing that with a customer who evaluates proposals. I love testing my assumptions and learning everything I can about the customer's perspective from an actual customer.
The customer I spent the day talking to worked in the Federal Government. But this topic is one of those that applies equally to commercial proposals. Clearly the Federal proposal evaluation process is strange and mechanical compared to the way companies evaluate proposals. But it’s precisely that level of methodical detail that enables us to see the issue more clearly. Both markets can get something out of it.
An RFP issued by the Federal Government has written evaluation criteria. They’ll break down the proposal into sections or volumes and provide the criteria for each one. Here is an example:
- To get an “Exceptional” rating, the proposed approach must reflect numerous strengths and no weaknesses.
- To get a “Good” rating, the proposed approach must reflect multiple strengths and only a few minor weaknesses.
- To get an “Acceptable” rating, the proposed approach must have strengths and may have some weaknesses.
- To get an “Unacceptable” rating, the proposed approach must have either multiple weaknesses or one or more major weaknesses.
Winning with a formal evaluation based on criteria like these becomes a mechanical process of stacking up strengths and weaknesses. You should design your offering so that the evaluator finds those strengths in your proposal. You should anticipate the evaluation forms so that the evaluator can copy and paste your descriptions of your strengths right onto their forms.
The only hard part is knowing how to articulate your proposal strengths.
If you just do this the way you normally would, you will probably lose to someone who understands the definitions and the way the terms are used in the RFP.
For example, if your approach fulfills all of the requirements of the RFP, you might think this is a proposal strength. But you would be wrong. Complying with the RFP is a minimum requirement. It is not a strength. A proposal strength has to represent value to the customer beyond the requirement. Being qualified is also not a strength.
But you can turn your qualifications into strengths. All you have to do is show how they differentiate your offering and explain how the customer benefits from it. Simply explaining why you do something can turn it into a strength, if the reason benefits the customer. Every trade-off decision is a potential strength.
Every feature of your offering is probably not a strength, if it merely meets the requirement. However, if you do something the customer requires in a way that is innovative or designed to be better, then the reason why it is better makes it a strength. Proposal writing is not about describing things like your approach, or listing all your features in the hopes that the customer will pick some out and call them "strengths." Proposal writing is about describing things in such a way that they fulfill the customer’s definition of being a strength.
To win the evaluation, each section of the proposal should be worded to present as many strengths as possible. You can accomplish this simply by calling out your differentiators and explaining why your approach delivers better benefits than what as required. It works best if you design your layout to feature these statements through typography, formatting emphasis, text boxes, etc.
So now let’s talk about weaknesses. Weaknesses are not ways in which other proposals are better. Weaknesses are non-compliance. If you are not as good as another provider, the evaluator doesn’t score that as a weakness (your competitor will just have more strengths than you do). But if you fail to meet an RFP requirement, then you have a weakness. While you might think of weaknesses as ways in which your offering is insufficient or fails to meet the customer’s needs, when those needs are defined by the RFP, weaknesses are ways in which your offering fails to meet the RFP requirements.
But there’s an even easier way to look at weaknesses. Weaknesses are no-bid indicators and not something you need to write away or hide. If you look at the evaluation criteria above, the winner probably is not going to have any weaknesses. If you are truly non-compliant, your proposal may not get evaluated at all. You can’t explain away the fact that you don’t meet the requirements, or find some clever way to hide it. Weaknesses are a quick way to get an “Unacceptable” rating.
So if you are in the game, you won't have any weaknesses. If you are in the game, you will be fully compliant and then it is all about stacking up strengths. This means that if you want to win, you should no-bid everything where you have weaknesses (even if you have already started the proposal and feel invested) and make your proposal process about presenting your strengths.
You can even plan what you need to write in a section by listing your strengths in a way that shows how they differentiate you and benefit the customer. Then the rest of the writing becomes much easier. But more importantly, your chances of winning go way up.
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 email@example.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.