How should you define proposal success?

If you leave it undefined or up to opinion, you quite literally get what you deserve...

It sounds so obvious that few companies bother to define it. But if you want to maximize your win rate, it’s worth giving some attention. 

You can't intentionally seek proposal success if you're just guessing.
  • Is it a win that defines proposal success? Eventually. But it's not up to you so you can't use it to guide you to success.
  • Is it on time submission? No. A late submission might be a loss, but an on-time submission does not mean you will win.
  • Is it being defect free? No. Free of defects doesn't mean the highest score.
  • Is it RFP compliance. No. Being RFP compliant keeps you from losing. It doesn't make you more competitive than the other companies that are RFP compliant.

Proposal success is also not determined by the amount effort put into it, how bad you want to win, how much you like it, the most experienced person’s opinion, or what the sales lead thinks. 
So just what the heck in the world is it?
If you submit a proposal that to the best of your knowledge reflects all the attributes of a winning proposal, you have done everything you can to achieve success. You just better make sure that the best of your knowledge reflects the way the customer thinks, evaluates, and decides.
The way we like to say it is that what defines proposal success is whether the proposal reflects what it will take to win
It is important to be able to define success. You can't intentionally seek it if you're just guessing.
If you leave "what it will take to win" undefined, or leave it up to opinion, you get what you deserve. Quite literally. If you set your sales process up so that it is driven by opinion, you will not be competitive against companies that put more thought into it than that. If your bid/no bid process, pursuit strategy, offering design, proposal writing, and proposal reviews are all driven by opinion, your win rate will suffer. You may have great staff, but they will lose to the staff at another company who consistently put their energies into determining what it will take to win from the customer’s perspective, instead of basing their proposal on their opinions.

If you pursue proposal quality by holding reviews that are basically subjective opinion-fests, you should take note. You could do so much better.

Instead you should identify the attributes that make up what it will take to win, articulate them as quality criteria, and then assess the quality of your proposal by comparing it to those attributes. To do this, your quality criteria need to be reliable. If they don't accurately reflect what it will take to win, they can actually become counter-productive.
Your pursuit should start by researching what it will take to win. Sales should not just be about having “a relationship” with the customer and finding out whatever you can about the pursuit. Sales should use relationship marketing and intelligence gathering to discover what it will take to win. All the deliverables and progress reviews for the sales process should build toward being able to articulate this in the ways needed to win the proposal. They provide the input you need to create valid proposal quality criteria.

Then you need a review process that ensures your quality criteria are reliable by making sure that:

  • Everyone is on the same page and that how you have defined what it will take to win reflects the best knowledge available throughout your entire organization.
  • The quality criteria themselves are reviewed and approved for use based on what it will take to win. This should include verifying that how you define what it will take to win is based on how the customer will reach their decision, instead of how you think they should reach it.

When you do this, you define proposal success in a way that everyone can use to ensure their role contributes to achieving it. That is something that basing your proposals on best efforts and opinions won’t do for you. 


The MustWin Process is what we created when we decided to throw out tradition and start doing things based on what it will take to win. It's available in PropLIBRARY for subscribers and provides all the tools and techniques needed to not only define proposal success, but also to achieve it.

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Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of and PropLIBRARY.

The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.

In addition, the groups Carl moderates on LinkedIn provide a place for tens of thousands of business development and proposal professionals to discuss best practices and network.

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