Three golden rules for proposal writing September 9, 2015 at 11:11 am

I have been around and about proposal writing for many years. I have seen fabulous successes and devastating failures all attributed to the quality of the written word. And in that time I have learned a few lessons. They seem so obvious to me.  However, whenever I meet up with a new bid team (and sometimes even experienced bid teams who aren’t doing so well), I see the same problems.

I get asked “What did we do wrong?  Our solution was so good no one else could match it.  Yet we were beaten!  Why?”  Generally it is because one, two or most often all three of my “Golden Rules” have been broken.  So I have decided to write them down to see if they can help you too.

Rule 1: It’s all about them, not us

My first Golden Rule is that the bid you are writing is not about you and your wonderful solution.  It is all about the client and how their problems will be overcome.  Your solution is only part of the way that the problems will be dealt with; no matter what you do the client is still going to be involved in how the problem is solved and they just hope that the bits you do will make it easier for them.

Inexperienced bidders often forget that the client needs to be certain that you understand their problem.  If you cannot genuinely show an in depth appreciation of the problems they are addressing and the goals they must achieve, then how can they be sure that your solution will help them?  So, unless you can demonstrate that you understand the issues and the environment that the client has to operate within, how can the client decide that your proposed solution is best?

How do you do this?  Well check for the first word of the first paragraph in each section of your bid for your business or product name.  If you find it, you are writing about you!  You need to make the first paragraph in each section (at a minimum) all about the client, the problems they face and why they are seeking a solution of the nature you are bidding for.  Show real empathy and understanding so that the client can see you are presenting a solution that will help its core business and that you know what the impact of your solution on the core business and the customer’s customers will be.

When you describe your solution, show how the product or service meets a specific need the client has.  Don’t go on about features your product has which will not help them, you will be proving you do not understand their business.  And don’t bother with a section on your business, its history, its awards and its palatial offices, because not only is the client really not interested but it will show you as arrogant, self-serving and shallow.  Only ever give this information if it is asked for specifically, and then give the minimum to comply with the request.

Rule 2: Sell the benefits (obvious, but so rarely done in practice)

A bid is not a technical paper.  It is a communication with important people in the client’s business who are going to make up their minds whether or not to spend their money with you.  They have an obligation to ask the technical questions and they need technical answers only so that the technologists in their business have the chance to veto a solution which cannot work for them in technological terms, e.g. interfaces, data types, etc.

Once the important people know a group of solutions can work, they have to pick the one they want.  They will read the proposal and gloss over the descriptions of the “left handed flomgrommet reducer” which they don’t really understand.  However, they will find their interest kindled if they then read that the left handed flomgrommet reducer has been shown in two other locations to reduce system failure rates by 7% which led to a 3% improvement in overall business profitability.
What they are looking for is a workable solution (the technologists have said this one would work so this has been identified for them) and then a solution which they believe will give them the business benefits they need.  They have laid out some of their needs in the proposal invitation.  Sometimes their needs are not written down.  However, then you have just got to go and find them.  Then you have to match your differentiators (the real ones that truly are different from your competitors) against those needs and prove they will deliver the necessary results by showing the client where it has been done before.

If those important people know your solution will work and see that they will get more and better benefits than any other proposal, you will win the competition.

Rule 3: Know why you will win. (If you don’t know why you will win, how do you expect the client to?)

Early in my career a potential client, who was top of the “important people” list in one of my target companies, was talking to me about a solid technical proposal I had sent to her company.  She asked me what my “Win theme” was.  Being new to this bidding environment I was a bit taken aback but recovered enough to stutter “just giving the best solution!”

She fixed me with a gimlet eye and said “So how do you know you are best, and what does “best” mean to you?”  At this point I descended to a mumbling heap and went off to lick my wounds.  However, the point was not lost on me.  I did not know why I was going to win the competition; I was just firing off the best proposals I could and hoping that they would do the job.  Most often they did not.

I then started to think, not only about why I was going to win, which got me to the same stage as many of my competitors, but how I was going to pass this information on to the client and, even better, quantify it.  Overnight my win rate soared.  However, my work rate went up too.  I still had to come up with the best solution I could conceive.  But I now had to find out who my competitors really were, what they were likely to offer, why my solution was better than theirs any why that difference was important to the client.

Suddenly the solution was only 50% of what I was writing in the bid!  But I had learned a lesson I never forgot, which was if I could not articulate why I was going to win in my proposal, how could I expect the client to understand why I should win?
This is all so blindingly obvious, I know.  But recently the head of the CIPS (Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply) was addressing some suppliers and she made the comment “If you can’t quantify your value don’t be surprised if your customer can’t!”  So clearly most suppliers aren’t doing the blindingly obvious!

Tell your customer why you should win and then quantify the value, and they won’t have to rely on price to for them make their decision.