When I sit down to review a proposal, I often find myself making the same recommendations and corrections that I have made on hundreds of other proposals. When I present the results of my review, sometimes the proposal writers are embarrassed and I like to point out how common these problems are. They appear in all proposals, including those by the largest, most successful firms. By learning how to catch these mistakes and fix them, you can ensure that your proposals are much better than the average seen by the typical evaluator.
Mistake #1: Not Being RFP Compliant
It’s pretty basic, but if you haven’t complied with the RFP instructions and other requirements, the customer may not read any further. Some customers specifically look for non-com*liance so they can throw out proposals and make their evaluation easier. So look at what you have written and ask yourself if your followed the instructions and whether you can find the response to every RFP requirement in your proposal. If you can’t find it, then you are not compliant. Sometimes all you need to do to fix it is to add the keywords used by the customer in the RFP to your proposal.
Mistake #2: Merely Complying With the RFP
Does your proposal offer something that the customer will want more than any competing offer? When you describe your offering, are you merely fulfilling the RFP requirements, or are you providing them with something better than the competition? What differentiates your offering? RFP compliance is so important that some companies obsess on it to the point where that's all they achieve. Other companies incorrectly assume that exceeding the RFP requirements has to increase the cost of your offering. When your proposal is merely compliant, what you are really doing is competing on nothing but price.
Mistake #3: Not Optimizing Against the Evaluation Criteria
If you are writing a proposal in response to a written RFP with a formal evaluation process, ask yourself how the customer is going to score your bid. Will your proposal achieve the maximum score possible? If not, you may need to add to your proposal, change the terminology, or change your points of emphasis so that they are better aligned with the evaluation criteria.
Mistake #4: Failing to Pass the “So What?” Test
When the customer reads “we are pleased to submit” or “our company was founded in 19xx," will the customer say “so what?” Look at everything you have written, and ask what the customer gets out of it. If the customer doesn't get anything out of it, then why should they care? If it doesn't pass the "So What?" test, re-write it until it matters.
Mistake #5: Not Saying Why the Customer Should Select You
Does what you have written clearly articulate why the customer should select you? The RFP evaluator must look at competing proposals and select the best one. Does your proposal say why they should select you?
Mistake #6: Not Thinking About What It Will Take to Win
Does the proposal achieve what is necessary to win? What do you have to do or achieve in writing in order to win the proposal? Ask yourself whether the proposal you have written achieves those things. This should be your primary measure of the quality of your proposal.
Mistake #7: Making It All About You
Is it all about you or is it all about the customer? If every sentence starts with “We” or the name of your company, that's a good sign that you’re writing about yourself. Instead you should talk about the results, what the customer will get out of what you are offering, and how it will benefit or impact the customer. When you talk to a salesperson, you don’t want him to talk about himself, you want him to talk about how the purchase will impact you. This is true even when you have to talk about your qualifications. It’s not your experience that matters, it’s about how your experience will result in something beneficial to the customer. So make sure that everything you have written is about what the customer wants to hear, and not about you or what you want to say.
Mistake #8: Stating a Universal Truth
Does it state a universal truth before presenting your approach? For example, does it say something like “Quality is absolutely vital to success. Therefore we…” or “According to the Council of Accepted Experts, quality is vital.” Writers, especially those with technical backgrounds, sometimes like to put their claims in context or appeal to some accepted authority before they start writing. Often, they never get around to saying what they'll actually do or deliver, for example, how they'll deliver quality. Instead of stating some universal truth that applies equally to your competitors as it does to you, you should be showing that your approach delivers what you say is so important. It is much better to say “Our approach delivers the quality that is vital to success by...” or “Our approach implements the recommendations of the Council of Accepted Experts by…”
Mistake #9: Not Owning the Result
People often write in terms of things “happening” instead of saying things like “our approach delivers.” You should take ownership of the results when you work on a project. Instead of “if you select us, we’ll do the work, and you’ll get the results” you should say “if you select us you will benefit from the results we deliver” or “if you select us the results we deliver will have the following benefits for you…” The benefits to the customer are benefits that you provide. It’s not bragging or ego. In proposal writing it’s logical and necessary to show the link between your offering and the results. It’s also not the way a lot of people normally write. You should review what you have written to see if you can rewrite any of the results so that you can take ownership of them.
Mistake #10: Building to the Finish
People want their claims to be credible. So they often carefully craft a proof that shows how each item leads up to their conclusion, which they deliver at the end. This is the exact reverse of the way you should write your proposals. People evaluating proposals do not want to have to read or puzzle through the whole thing to figure out what you are saying about your offering. Instead, you should tell them the conclusion you want them to reach first, then provide the supporting points that substantiate that conclusion. When reading your proposal, they should see a statement about the result or benefit you will offer them followed by how it will be achieved or delivered. Otherwise, they have no reason to keep reading.