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Can your proposals pass the "So what?" test?

Did you just write something that doesn't matter?

You’re pleased to submit your proposal. So what? You care about quality. So what? You’ve got great experience. So what? You’ve got top-in-class, state-of-the-art solutions. So what? You’re fast growing. So what? You’ve won awards. So what?  Why should the customer care?

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Proposal writing tips and techniques

How do you know if you’ve said something the customer cares about? Ask yourself if it passes the “So what?” test. 

People often say things in their proposals that do not pass the “So What?” test. They start their proposals, and often most paragraphs with pleasant and professional sounding sentences full of words that don’t matter to the customer one bit. Of course you “care about quality,” but no one is really believing “quality is your highest priority.” All these sentiments do is add noise and require extra reading. How do you think that makes the evaluator feel about your proposal? 

Do not write a single sentence in your proposal that fails the “So what?” test. For every single sentence in your proposal, ask yourself “So what?” If the sentence leaves that hanging, rewrite it. Never, ever assume that the answer is obvious. Your company has 30 years of experience. So what? What’s the customer getting as a result of all that experience? Why does it matter? What impact will it have? What difference does it make? So what?

It’s a simple thing. And yet even people who have heard about it often forget. It’s a rare proposal that I review that doesn’t have at least one instance of failing the “So what?” test.

Advanced application of the “So what?” test

It's such an easy concept that many people overlook all the ways to use it. You can apply the “So what?” test to more than just your sentences. You are submitting a proposal. So what? Why should anyone except you care? You’ve got an approach, offering, staff, resources, etc. So what? The “So what?” test is about more than just sentence construction. It’s about discovering what it all means and creating a proposal that matters more than just as a way to get contracts that earn money. 

The reason the "So what?" test works so well is that it shifts people from thinking about what to say to the customer into explaining why. "Why" shows insight. The reasons why you do things can be a bigger differentiator than what you do. Do you prefer a vendor that does what they are supposed to, or a vendor that understands why things are supposed to be done that way? Answering "So what?" turns you into the vendor with insight.

If you want to make yourself unpopular, try asking “So what?” at the next meeting you go to where people are talking about bid strategies. A lot of bid strategy suggestions are weak and fail the "So what?" test.  We should bid because we can do the work. So what? We should bid because we have experience. So what?  If you can pass the So what? test, you should bid. If you can't pass the So what? test, then you're not going to win against someone who does pass it.

You can also be a hero by using the “So what?” test to replace all the platitudes with bid strategies that will matter to the customer. A fun homework assignment would be to review the last couple years of proposals and compare the win rates of those with bid strategies that passed the “So what?” test to those that didn’t.

The “So what?” test helps you create a meaningful proposal by seeing things through your customer’s eyes. The simplicity of the “So what?” test betrays some important subtleties. For example, you must ask “So what?as if you were the customer in order to arrive at an answer that matters to the customer. The “So what?” test is really a tool for understanding your customer. Try applying it to what you see in the RFP and you might be able to gain some insight into what matters to the customer beyond the requirements on paper.

One of the more challenging aspects of the “So what?” test is that it can be recursive. Ask and answer. Then ask again. And again. You can do this forever.  Here’s an example:

  • We are committed to keeping risks low. So what?
  • We are committed to keeping risks low in order to prevent problems. So what?
  • We are committed to keeping risks low in order to prevent problems that could increase your costs. Now you’ve said something that matters. But you can still ask “So what?” again.
  • We are committed to keeping risks low in order to prevent problems that could increase your costs so that the project remains within budget.  

The point at which you stop asking “So what?” is when the answer doesn’t matter anymore. Adding “so that the project remains within budget” is pointless if it does not matter to the customer because it is obvious.

It can also cause challenges with page limitations. When you are out of space, you have to prioritize what you add based on what will impact the evaluation criteria the most. The good news is that you can use the “So what?” test to identify beneficial sounding but meaningless sentences that can be dropped completely.
Just don’t start applying the “So what?” test to instructions from your boss or executive mandates. Seriously, this simple test should come with a warning label.

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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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