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Four ways to differentiate your proposal when you can’t find any differentiators

You can ALWAYS differentiate. You MUST differentiate to win.

Differentiation is vital. And yet, sometimes people really struggle to find differentiators. For example, when the RFP tells you exactly what to bid, how many to bid, how to structure your pricing, and what the terms and conditions must be, it seems like there isn’t a lot of room to differentiate your offering. But the truth is, you’re just not trying hard enough. You can always differentiate. Here are four approaches to differentiation you can consider when you're struggling:

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  1. Differentiate what your brand represents. Seth Godin posted that great brands are about what they represent and not about what they are. In proposals, we talk about having themes, a message, or a story. But really what we’re doing is establishing a brand. By telling a story that represents something, we give the customer an opportunity to associate with something larger than ourselves or the procurement. This really matters to some people and is why brands often associate with charities and causes. You can also go beyond answering the customer’s questions and provide something that the customer wants to be a part of. To do this, you have to have a real vision of what the procurement is going to do for the customer and paint a picture that is so vivid they can see themselves in it. The challenge with trying to represent something is that it has to be meaningful. You can’t do it by going through the motions. You can’t paint a picture if you have no vision. Most people try to take the personality out of their business correspondence. They worry that the reader may not like something. But in order to represent something the customer wants to be a part of, you’ll have to inject personality into your proposal. You’ll stand a much greater chance of winning because it has personality than you will of losing because it has personality. In fact, since the odds are that none of your competitors’ proposals will have any personality at all, you can count on getting more attention simply because yours does.
  2. Differentiate how you deliver. The customer might be getting the same thing, but if you have a better way of delivering it, you can be the customer’s best alternative. Can you deliver it faster, in more quantity, in less quantity, in better packaging, with more reliability, or in any other way that’s better? When you can’t differentiate what you offer, try differentiating how you will deliver it.
  3. Differentiate through results. If one proposal promises to deliver something, and another credibly promises to achieve the customer’s goals by delivering the same something, the second proposal will appear to deliver far more value. This will be true even though they both deliver the exact same offering. This isn’t about delivering the sizzle instead of the steak, it’s about focusing on delivering nutrition. To differentiate through results, you have to know what results the customer cares about, and credibly link what you will do or deliver to achieving those results. Even though everyone will deliver the same offering that will lead to the same results, your proposal will appear more insightful, offer more value, show more understanding, and better correspond to what the customer actually needs.
  4. Differentiate through trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is not achieved through claims. In fact, unsubstantiated claims work against trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is best demonstrated through results and honesty about the issues and tradeoffs. Since customers will only buy from people they trust, differentiating through trustworthiness can be very effective. If everyone proposes the same offering, the customer may very well pick the one who is the most trustworthy. They will often pick trustworthy over lowest cost. It takes more than just a credible, effective approach for delivery to appear trustworthy. You must address contingencies, risks, trade-offs, and why you made the decisions you made.

Everything can be differentiated. If you can’t find any differentiators for your proposal, you aren’t trying hard enough. Maybe you’ve assumed that because everyone will propose the same thing, that everything else will be the same. Maybe you’ve assumed that since other people could say the same thing, it’s not a differentiator even though it becomes one when they don’t say it. Maybe you’re focused on the offering, when other things that also matter to the customer. Or maybe you are focused on the tangible aspects instead of things that aren’t tangible, but still matter. You can always be different. If you aren't different, then who needs you?

One of the things I love to demonstrate when doing proposal training is that it is entirely possible to differentiate yourself through better proposal writing alone. I prefer to differentiate through having a better offering, but sometimes the RFP does not permit it. To differentiate through proposal writing, you have to recognize that even when the offers are pretty much the same, there are things that still matter. Talking about what matters, when nobody else does, it a great way to be different. It’s the kind of difference that makes you the best selection.

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More information about "Carl Dickson"

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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