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9 ways to make proposals cheaper without killing your win rate

Reducing proposal costs at the expense of your win rate is a mathematical disaster

Proposal development should not be treated as an expense to be minimized. It is an investment as part of the cost of sales. When you compare what an increase in win rate does to your revenue, you find that increasing the investment generates a positive return. Decreasing the investment leads to a lower win rate, and what that does to your revenue is create a death spiral. The trick is to lower proposal development costs without lowering your win rate.

A winning proposal is one that is based on what you have discovered about what it will take to win, and is written from the customer’s perspective. Your best chances of winning come from fully customizing the proposal to make everything presented matter to the particular customer it is being submitted to. This makes automating proposal writing, recycling proposal narratives, and fill-in-the-blank templates bad approaches for lowering proposal costs because they lower your chances of winning. Unless your bids are small or you sell commodities, any benefit of lower costs will be less than the loss of revenue from the decrease in win rate. This has been true every time we've run through the numbers with real companies.

A better approach is to reduce the time spent on things other than proposal writing. This is an overly precise way of saying not to waste time. If you watch proposals being produced, you will notice that far more time is spent with hands not on keyboards, than is actually spent writing. That is the time you want to reduce, not the time spent writing since the writing is what delivers the win. Most of this time spent not writing is spent thinking and discussing what should go in the proposal. This can be accelerated with these approaches:

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  • Have the information writers will need. A great deal of time is wasted talking in circles around things that the proposal team doesn’t know about customer preferences, intentions, and how to make trade-offs. If you structure your process, including your pre-proposal process, to deliver this information, you will lower your proposal costs. A failure here impacts not only proposal writing, but proposal reviews as well.
  • Make sure writers know what to do with the information they have. Can your writers take information and present it from the customer’s perspective instead of merely describing it? Do they know how to feature differentiators instead of beneficial-sounding platitudes? Do your writers know how the proposal content will be planned and validated? If you want them to waste less time and make fewer mistakes, they need to know what to do with the information they have. And this means training. But it doesn’t mean generic once-a-year training. It means building performance guidance into the process. And that means having a process and not merely a way of doing things. It means creating an organization that develops the staff you need to achieve a high win rate. There is no alternative to this. Fail to develop staff who know how to prepare winning proposals and the process that supports them in doing it, and you will fail to win.
  • Accelerate through inspiration instead of recycling. Give people a list of questions to accelerate their thinking instead of generic win-rate lowering answers. Bullets that remind people of topics to address are better than paragraphs written for the wrong context. We like to create proposal recipes to provide inspiration and accelerate the thinking process. 
  • Separate proposal writing from offering design. Offering design is something different from proposal writing and trying to do them both at the same time is a big time waster. Have an efficient methodology for designing your offering that doesn’t involve writing and re-writing until you figure out what to offer.
  • Know your bid strategies before you start writing. If your proposal is going to articulate why your proposal is the customer’s best alternative, you need to know what points to make in your proposal before you start writing so that the writing can substantiate them. If your writers are searching for bid strategies and making up themes as they go along, a great deal of time is being spent trying to conceptualize instead of writing. Not only that, but if they have started writing before they can articulate what points to make, there’s a good chance they’ll be tacking on the points at the end instead of writing based on the points to be made. This produces a less competitive proposal.
  • Eliminate rework. Eliminating proposal rework doesn't just mean preventing defects. It means resolving differences of opinion and designing in improvements instead of changing direction in the middle or layering them on at the end. There are three aspects to this:
    • Collaboration and validation instead of break/fix. Waiting for things to break and then fixing them is not the best way to achieve quality. It is far better to design proposal quality in and prevent things from becoming broken. Writing a proposal and reviewing it to see if it is broken and then rewriting it is basing your win rate on a break/fix approach. A better alternative is to validate your decisions (offering design, bid strategies, etc.) before writing to produce a first draft that is correct in its composition. Achieving this requires many small collaborative reviews instead of one big corrective review.
    • Giving detailed instructions to writers lowers the total effort. The better and more detailed the instructions you give your proposal writers regarding what to write, the more likely you are to get that back. See how that works? See how it relates to how thinking takes longer than writing? See how much easier it makes validating the proposal without having to read and rewrite draft after draft? Using Proposal Content Planning to figure out what you should write before you actually write mitigates proposal risks and turns writing into a process of elimination instead of endless write and rewrite cycles. 
    • Focus on what to review instead of how to review it. Instead of organizing reviews around events (usually one big review called a “Red Team”) and only looking at full drafts, try focusing on what needs to be reviewed instead of how you review it. Identify what needs to be validated. If you have a Proposal Content Plan, validating it will be more important than validating the draft. If you are trying to design quality in, then validating individual decisions as they are made can be a major focus. Catching errors early is much better than waiting to see a proposal that “looks ready to deliver” and then deciding it needs to change. Criteria-based reviews give the proposal writers a clear set of expectations for what will be required to pass the review so that they can get it right on the very first attempt.

When you follow these approaches for proposal development, you accelerate the things that take the most time, while eliminating your biggest sources of waste. But the best part is that you lower your costs while preparing a proposal that will beat those that focus on cost reduction by giving potential new customers the same recycled narrative they give to all their customers. 


Author's Note: I always feel relieved when I get to the end of an article like this and I check to see if what I wrote  is consistent with what we've recommended in the past and built into our process, and find that it is consistent. In this case, I'm especially pleased with how the Readiness Reviews, Proposal Content Planning, and Proposal Quality Validation methodologies built into our MustWin Process all support the goals of reducing effort and lowering costs while increasing win rate. You can verify this yourself by looking around PropLIBRARY.


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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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