A great proposal (or RFP – request for proposal) can be decisive in winning work, while a poor one may permanently hinder your chances. The informal nature of proposals can lead to laziness. However there are certain things required of you and strategies you can use to distinguish your proposal from your competitors.
Proposals are not about you – so stop talking about yourself
We are exaggerating slightly here but it’s a point worth making. Sure, you need to communicate your capability and experience in your proposal and you will be dedicating a lot of pages to these purposes. We assume you are well prepared to put this content together. But this information is expected of you and, in any case, will be present in every single proposal your customer will read.
The information that will really grab the attention of your audience – and which will set you apart from the competition – are the benefits of your solution. Clients tend to care most about what they will be getting and how it benefits them, so you need to address this directly. This is the ‘What’s In It For Me?’… the juicy stuff that makes readers sit up and take notice.
Highlighting the benefits of your solution is a top priority in a proposal and it’s best done with your customer’s needs, goals and fears in mind.
Customer insights are important – so tailor you solution to them
Think about your customer. Why are they requesting a proposal for services or products? What do they need? What are their aspirations? What are their pain points – eg trouble they’ve had in the past or fears of poor service?
Now think about the great benefits of your solution and address these needs, aspirations and fears directly based on what you have to offer. Do this and you will be talking directly to your customer with words they value.
Also remember that what worked for previous clients may not necessarily be best for your next one. Instead of relying on answers that worked last time, find a blend of outstanding practices and innovative solutions that fit your client’s needs.
Don’t assume your reader understands the benefits of your solution
Don’t assume your reader will connect the dots and understand how the various features of your solution will contribute to benefits for them. It’s your job to do make this clear for them so don’t be afraid to repeat benefits throughout, relating them to the various sections of your proposal.
Are you promising better quality than the competition? Then weave this promise through your history/experience, qualifications, training, low staff turnover, procedures, audits, facilities and so on. In your executive summary, state that these factors will contribute to service quality that exceeds that provided by the competition. Then whenever you mention these things later on, refer back to the quality theme to reinforce the message.
Talk about benefits in your executive summary. Bold them throughout your proposal. Include examples of benefits as pull out quotes. Use them in headings. Don’t feel like you are overdoing it.
Quantify and substantiate or risk being ignored
Quantify results the client can expect from doing business with you – this is concrete information that the client will value.
Remember that making false, exaggerated or simply unsubstantiated claims is often a ticket to the recycling bin. Making claims about what you will deliver is one thing, but backing it up with evidence is the real kicker. Think about case studies, testimonials, statistics, sales data, awards, achievements and so on.
The same goes for ‘motherhood statements’ – generic claims about capability or deliverables that are not backed up with proof. For example, ‘High quality service’, ‘We’ll ensure great outcomes’ or ‘We’re the most efficient in the market’. If a reader sees too many of these empty claims there is a good chance their eyes will glaze over and you’ll be hard pressed to prove anything to them.
Write an executive summary
The executive summary should be much more than a summary of your document. It’s your first and best opportunity to put forward the benefits of your solution and how this will meet the needs of the reader.
Remember that your proposal is about your customer – not you – so get straight into explaining the benefits of your solution. Also state clearly that you understand what the reader’s goals and/or problems are, and make a clear case as to why your solution is their best answer.
Do not focus on yourself too much in the executive summary – remember the importance of talking about benefits. For example, commencing with, “We’ve been in business since 1994…” is a sure way to lose the reader’s interest.
Instead, start off by saying, “XYZ client stands to benefit in a number of ways by engaging ABC company for its <service>.” Not only are you mentioning the client first – therefore making it clear you value them – but you will immediately gain their attention.
Use diagrams and photos to demonstrate ideas
You may hope that the power of your ideas in words will cut through to the reader and compel them to act. The truth is they may not even read your document in full and may skip over lengthy sections of text.
Want to ensure your great ideas are seen and understood? Display them in diagrams. Any text that explains a process, steps or is linked to some other information can potentially be displayed in diagram form. It’s best if you can engage the skills of a graphic designer to create attractive and consistent diagrams that stand off the page. However, if all you have is the ‘Smart Art’ function in Microsoft Word, then use it.
Highlight your key personnel and include resumes
Pick the three or four key personnel that will be involved with the client or which your company relies on to deliver its solution. Include a biography in the proposal and also include resumes as appendices. Tailor these resumes to the proposal – this is not a job application after all. Don’t simply copy and paste the resume each person used when joining your company – create an attractive resume template and use this for each person, including a photo in the top corner (make each photo consistent, on a white background).
In your resumes, take the time to highlight each person’s suitability for this particular assignment. For example, use a ‘Suitability Summary’, including related qualifications and work experience. Keep it brief – the reader will not be so interested in the detailed role requirements of past jobs; rather the company, job and industry.
Don’t settle for a boring layout
Remember that part of your job in a proposal is to stand out from your competition. In a perfect world each proposal would be judged purely on the text, but this is not always the case. Have a designer put your proposal into a professional document layout incorporating your logo and brand colours (if they exist). At the very least you will appear more professional and you will stand out from other proposals that have been put together in Word.
Be detailed but concise
Include everything you need to but keep it brief. You don’t need to describe the entire history o your company or the fine details of every product or service. Present the information that is important and which will help the client make a decision.
Include a cover letter
This is different from an executive summary and gives you the opportunity to introduce yourself personally to the client, thank them for the opportunity and tell them why your submitting a proposal. It is not essential but it’s a nice touch.
Review and review again
You won’t get a second chance so make sure your propose is correct – nothing looks worse than typos, poor English or incorrect figures.