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To write better proposals, first learn how to read them like a customer

What does your customer need to see?

In order to win in writing, it’s crucial to be able to read your proposal the same way your customer reads it. The customer doesn’t read a proposal like a book. They probably won't even read parts of it at all! They read it with a purpose or a goal. Maybe more than one. The customer might score your proposal, they might compare it, or they might look for answers to the questions they have. What you put into your proposal should not be based on what you want to say. It should be based on what your customer needs to see. Writing better proposals starts with learning to see through their eyes.

If you look at your proposal like a customer and are honest with yourself, the first truth you run into is that the customer doesn’t want to read your proposal. They only want to look for and find what they need to make their decisions. They do not read it cover to cover. They’d like to fulfill their goals without any of that inconvenient reading stuff. That’s a strong argument in favor of:

  • Using lots of graphics that communicate your message with pictures instead of words
  • Keeping it short
  • Deleting all those unsubstantiated claims, slogans, universal truths, and filler words that make it harder to find the stuff that matters, turn evaluating the proposal into work, and weaken your credibility
  • Making it easy to navigate and find what they are looking for
  • Making it easy to skim

But beyond design, this also impacts what you write and how you write it. You are not writing for yourself. Writing better proposals is about fulfilling someone else's needs. And what the customer needs is to find the information that will help them make decisions like:

See also:
Customer Perspective
  • What do they want?
  • What matters to them?
  • What are their options?
  • What do they prefer?
  • What can they afford?
  • What are the trade-offs?
  • Should they continue reading?
  • What is their best alternative?
  • What do they have to do to get what they want?
  • How do they explain this to their boss?
  • Will they be better off?
  • Is it worth bothering with?

To read your proposal like the customer, you should ask yourself, “If I was the customer…”

  • What would I be looking for?
  • What information would I need?
  • What would I need to get what I want?
  • What would I be willing to consider?
  • What would I need to fill out any forms I may have to complete?
  • What approvals would I need?
  • What would I want to see first?
  • What would add value?
  • What would make this proposal my best alternative?

If you were the customer, you might need...

  • To see that your proposal is compliant with the RFP and fulfills their requirements
  • To fill out their evaluation and procurement forms
  • To score your proposal against their evaluation criteria
  • To get their questions answered, believe they can trust you, and see something they want in your proposal
  • To be able to afford what you are proposing
  • To see what makes this proposal different from the others
  • To decide whether your proposal is their best alternative. If this is a competitive environment, they are comparing what they see in your proposal to what they see in proposals from other vendors. If this is not a competitive environment, they are comparing you to their budget and to doing nothing. 
  • To explain their recommendations to The Powers That Be

What do you see in your proposal?

So when you look at your proposal through the customer’s eyes, do you see what you need? Or do you see what the vendor wanted to say, or worse a bunch of filler and unsubstantiated claims? Is it all about them and how great they are, or does it tell you what you need to know?

The best way to produce a proposal that reads well from the customer’s perspective is to do all of the research and reflect on what the customer needs to see before you start writing. Then you should construct your proposal around that. This is very different from writing narrative that describes your own company and says what you want to say. Selling in writing is different from selling in person. To intentionally deliver the right information in the right sequence, in the right context, and present it from the customer’s perspective requires you to plan what you are going to write so that each and every part of your proposal has specific goals. You need to capture those goals and assess what gets written against how well it achieves them. This is what makes your skills at reading equally, if not more, important than your skills at writing proposals.

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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.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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