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Writing better proposals starts with learning to read them like your customers do

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!

Customers read proposals with one or more purposes or goals in mind. The customer might score your proposal, compare it, or 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 your customer's eyes.

Would you want to read your proposal?

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:

See also:
Customer Perspective
  • Using lots of graphics that communicate your message with pictures instead of words
  • Keeping it short
  • Making it easy to skim with headings, call out boxes that tell the reader what they need to know, and other visual clues
  • 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
  • Structuring your proposal to make it easy for them to find what they are looking for
  • Getting to the point.  If there is something they need to know to reach their decision, tell them it first. If they don't need to know it or already know it, leave it out

This goes well beyond design and 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. 

It's not about you...

If you don't know their needs and what they want to see, then why would you send them a proposal? How can you win against someone else who knows their preferences and how they make their decisions? How can you win against someone who knows how the customer will read the proposal and what they need to see in it? Proposal writing starts with knowing what the customer needs to see in the proposal to reach a decision in your favor.

What the customer needs to see in your proposal is information that will help them make decisions like:

  • 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?
  • Why should they continue reading?
  • What is their best alternative?
  • What do they have to do to get what they want?
  • How difficult will it be if they want to move forward with your proposal?
  • How can they explain this to their boss?
  • Will they be better off?
  • Is it worth bothering with?
  • Why shouldn't they do something else?
  • Why shouldn't they just do nothing?

Reading your proposal the way the customer reads your proposal

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?

Then ask yourself what you should put into your proposal to deliver this information, where you should put it, and how you should present it.

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

  • To see that the 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 and justify their recommendations to The Powers That Be within their own organization

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 beneficial sounding but ultimately meaningless unsubstantiated claims? Is it all about the vendor and how great they are, or is it about how great things will be for you, the customer, and 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.

Let's discuss your challenges with preparing proposals and winning new business...

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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.

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

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