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7 Tips for Writing Winning Proposals

By Susan Hall

7 Tips for Writing Winning Proposals

Throughout my leadership and consulting career I’ve had the pleasure, and the pain, of reviewing many sales proposals. Some propose solutions for transactional services and products and others for multi year, multi million dollar complex systems. Regardless of the offering, there are common best practices and missteps that can make the difference between whether or not your proposals help you win business.

Assuming you have a quality offering, it’s a good fit for the client, and the price/value relationship is strong, below are seven tips for crafting a winning proposal.

1. Know your customer and show you know them in your proposal.

Most proposals actually fail when the salesperson doesn’t have enough in-depth discovery to position and differentiate their offering in the first place. So start here. Focus on learning and understanding your client’s critical priorities and the impact of your solution on their business. Increase your breadth of information by asking questions that will provide insights into potential blind spots or areas of vulnerability. Uncover the impact of what your offering provides (or doesn’t) as well as the consequences for implementing (or not implementing). Net out this understanding succinctly and professionally in a brief document or Discovery Agreement. Before writing the actual proposal, discuss this document with your customer to ensure that your understanding is accurate, and refine based on their input.

Include this Discovery in your proposal.

2. Don’t make your customer go digging for what’s important to them.

We’ve all seen this proposal – page after page of all the great things we can do for our customers. Skip all the “boiler plate” mumbo jumbo. What the customer really wants to know is “How can you help me given my specific situation?” I remember reviewing one proposal where I read eight full pages of text before getting to the supplier’s recommendation and, most important, how the recommendation helped address that customer’s specific interests and needs. The recommendation was buried in long paragraphs, over two more pages of text. The client told them later in their “post mortem” meeting that they had to use a highlighter to find and note the information that was pertinent to them. Ugh.

Most people are far too busy for extraneous detail, with little innovation, thought or care. Don’t waste their time. Focus on what’s critical to them. Ask yourself: How can we uniquely bring value to this customer, knowing their unique issues? Link your solution to your unique Discovery so they clearly understand the value of what you are recommending and how it will help them. Put this information right up front and center in your proposal. You can follow up with the details later in the proposal. Or better yet, the Appendix.

3. Review in-person with your customer

Schedule time to discuss the proposal with your client, either in person or virtually. Don’t rely on your proposal to do your selling for you. Engage the customer in a dialogue so that you have the opportunity to provide more clarity and clear up any potential misunderstandings. As you go through the proposal you have the opportunity to highlight additional value from your Discovery as it relates to what’s important to the client. You may also gain additional information which allows you to refine your offering if necessary. Leave as little to interpretation as possible.

4. Define clear next steps

Provide a call to action. You need to keep the customer engaged in the dialogue. It amazes me how many salespeople put tens of hours into writing proposals, loft them into cyberspace, and then wait by the computer/phone, expecting the client to call back with a contract. You MUST take leadership of this process and have a clear next step. “I’ll send an invitation to discuss, review and refine the expectations of the proposal.” “When and how should I follow up with you?” “What do you see as our next steps?” This will often prompt a client to suggest on their own what the next steps will be. If they do not respond, have some suggested next steps prepared ahead of time.

5. Write to respect the Communication/Social Style of your customer

  • Is your client a Driver? If so, you should focus on the results and use bullets to keep the information concise, to the point, and focused on measurable impact, results and ROI. Include options so your Driver client has control of choices.
  • Expressive? Again, keep it concise, but appeal to their vision and tap into their enthusiasm. Demonstrate ease of implementation and include testimonials.
  • Amiable? Focus on assurances and guarantees that all impacted team members will see as valuable and that will minimize disruptions to users.
  • Analytical? Minimize risk by detailing a well thought out process to ensure accuracy and quality results and provide statistical evidence and detail.
  • Writing for a team? Make sure your proposal contains all the elements above to appeal to each style. (If you need a refresher on Communication/Social Styles, check out our blog on Building Relationship Versatility.)

6. Proofread

This should go without saying, but most of us have had that heartbeat skipping moment when we spot an error after we’ve hit the “send” button. Worse yet is to see a different client’s name left in the proposal from a misused “cut and paste” from another proposal. After reviewing and reviewing again, over a period of time, our eyes simply don’t see the errors. It helps to read your proposal out loud to yourself first. Definitely have someone you trust proofread your proposal for you.

7. Consider the Cost

Consider this: The cost to prepare a complex proposal is frequently in the range of 1-3% or more of the contract value. At 2%, that’s $100,000 on a $5 Million contract. Several years ago Northrop Grumman bid a multi-hundred-million dollar contract to provide a large system to the Air Force. The Air Force kept withdrawing and resubmitting the RFP over a 4 year period. NG ended up winning the contract, but the cost of the proposal was 10% of contract value, at an estimated cost of $8 Million to Northrop Grumman.

By doing your Discovery, linking your tailored recommendation to this Discovery and engaging your client in an ongoing dialogue, you should see a measurable increase in your win rate.

Published: November 21, 2014


Susan Hall

Vice President - Business Development & Performance Improvement

Susan brings over 20 years of experience working with global markets and organizations, helping them navigate through tough economic challenges while maintaining their margins. Since joining SEG in 1995, she has had the privilege of working with organizations that truly value the development of their employees and recognize the impact their people have on their bottom line results. Susan graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a double major in business management and speech communication. She has also completed course work toward her master's degree at Johns Hopkins University.

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