Fundamentals Of A Winning Proposal Response
Updated: Sep 12, 2020
“RFPs account for 41% of total sales revenue. They also impact customer retention, which makes up 39% of RFP-sourced revenue.”
If you’re a CEO or a sales director of a B2B IT company, then the above statistic will give you pause.
Based on research conducted by the RFP Response Management Benchmarks and 2020 Trends report, it also notes that “RFPs aren’t going away any time soon: 63% of survey respondents expect to answer more RFPs this year than last year.”
Knowing you’re under pressure to keep churning out more Request for Proposal (RFP) responses, I have five fundamental tips to help you deliver a polished response even when submission timeframes are tight.
Before we get to that, something to keep in mind:
A well-written proposal response doesn’t guarantee you’ll win, but it will certainly stop you from losing the bid if you’re the clear leader. And if you’re in the top three, it can help you jump over the second or first choice.
It is possible to win a deal solely based on how you craft the proposal. While vendors that have a previous relationship with a client often win, or vendors that work with the client to shape the RFP go to first place, I’ve seen these favourites derailed due to a number of issues with the written submission. From not clearly and convincingly articulating how their capabilities will help the client meet business goals, not directly answering questions, to handing over a document filled with generic and irrelevant boilerplate littered with grammatical errors.
Whether you have an 80% or 40% chance of winning, if you’re going to complete a proposal, you might as well give it your best. Because if you deliver a classy proposal response and lose, it’s likely other opportunities with this client will present themselves in the future. The first step is to ask for feedback as to why you lost and their perspective on how you can do better next time. This will help you build trust with them while improving future bid responses for any client.
If you’re losing 50% or more of your proposal submissions, please stop and take stock. Are you merely ambulance chasing? If so, know that this activity drains people’s energy and company profits and decelerates growth.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s the first tip to help you submit a winning proposal response.
No. 1: Read The RFP Cover-To-Cover
Over the years, I’ve collaborated with teams very experienced at completing proposals, yet time and again at least half of them don’t read the RFP cover-to-cover. This is not great when it comes to completing complex proposals with multiple solutions that if combined have the potential to enable the client to leap ahead of their competition, by say, rapidly setting up new operations in a different country. If the beneficial interplay between multiple solutions isn’t shown, it’s hard for the client to connect the dots, and many times it isn’t directly expressed because subject matter experts are not paying enough attention to how their solution fits into a holistic offering.
Even for a less complicated proposal, say a standalone CRM or an ERP solution, it’s essential to read the entire bid to get a feel for the following:
The client’s tone of voice which can clue you into their culture (bold or cautious, ambitious or conservative) or their technology maturity levels.
Appetite for risk, which will impact how you write about risk. Risk is a big issue, and how you choose your words can win or lose you the deal.
Possible pitfalls not written about in your section. The client will assume you’ve read the entire RFP and will assume you’ll address issues or pitfalls for your section.
Subtext: what’s beneath the words. What are they really saying, or not saying? When you read the entire proposal, you get a better handle on this. For example, if they’re very prescriptive in features and capabilities required, they may have a vendor in mind, and it’s not you. And if the client’s terms seem rigid, it may indicate vendors have badly burned them in the past. These are all clues in how you can shape your language and answers.
So, even if time is of the essence, at least do a light read of the entire document. Because you’ll write a better response whether you’re completing the section on your company’s culture and how it aligns to the client’s culture, you’re focussed on delivering the solution scope, or you’re only crafting the executive summary.
No. 2: Pause To Consider Who Will Read And Evaluate The Proposal
Thinking about your audience is No. 2 on my list, though, in my opinion, it’s the most important thing to consider, whether it’s someone in procurement or a CIO, CFO or CEO.
First, if you’re not the salesperson, but you’re helping to put the proposal together, and you don’t know anything about the client, chat with sales even if it’s just 15 minutes to get an understanding of evaluators and decision-makers. You can also do some research if you’re given the names of individuals at the client. Spend a few minutes reviewing their LinkedIn profile and google their name to see what comes up in news articles.
If you don’t know the identity of client evaluators, use your imagination and understanding of roles. For example, if you were a procurement manager, how would you evaluate a vendor? Not sure? Google the typical challenges of procurement managers right now. What if you were the CIO or CEO? What’s the latest research saying about what’s top of mind for these senior leaders in 2020?
Don’t sidestep researching evaluators and decision-makers as it will help you write a better response, one that contextualises your promise of value for each individual or role. I can’t repeat this enough: try hard to get a broader or more profound understanding of decision-makers’ objectives.
What does success look like for each of them if you get it right?
No. 3: Just Answer The Question!
In feedback from clients about proposals, the biggest complaint is that time and again, vendors fail to answer the questions asked. Yes, they insert content next to the question, but frequently the text doesn’t directly answer the question, or worse, it fails to answer it all. Strange but true! And why so many proposals are binned.
A question and answer style response is usually, initially assessed by procurement. So, be respectful of procurement’s time and role by directly and concisely answering questions. Don’t provide extra content not asked for or required by them.
For example, if the question is, “Please detail the number of clients that use this solution”, don’t start your answer like this: “Our solution is considered to be the number one solution globally because it seamlessly integrates with all your other applications, has won many awards with over 2,000 customers saying uptake and use among employees is high.” Sounds like a quality answer, but it’s not directly answering the question, and it offers information not asked for in the question!
The better answer is, “The number of clients that use this solution is 2,000 across seven countries and five market sectors”. It’s direct, short, yet implies more: that your solution is highly adaptive as it works across multiple industries and geographies which have unique requirements. Answering like this makes it easy for your procurement evaluator to assess your capabilities effectively.
The best way to tackle a question and answer type of response is to read a question multiple times and circle keywords. Then once you’ve written your answer, review the question again.
Also, as much as possible, be compliant with a client’s request. If they say, “maximum 100 words to answer each question”, don’t complain that you need 2,000 words to sufficiently explain functionality. For many evaluators, this isn’t necessary. They’re looking for capability and evidence of experience.
Why annoy them by handing over a proposal response much longer in length than requested?
Of course, not all RFPs are written in a question and answer style. Future articles will look at free-form proposal responses where the client asks you to craft an essay of sorts on your proposed solution and outline why you think it will help them meet their business and technical objectives. If this type of proposal is staring you in the face right now, try the TEEL method.
No. 4: Customise Source Material
You should have up-to-date source material on your solution or service. If you don’t, it gets challenging. If you’re writing a lot of proposals, 60%-80% of the material or answers should exist as part of a current proposal template, and you only need to adapt it to fit the specific needs of whichever RFP you’re writing. Still, don’t merely copy and paste. Review the source material or boilerplate and using your knowledge and insight of the client reshape or rewrite standard content where appropriate. This shouldn’t take long if you have quality source material on the solution, service, implementation method and support levels. What you need to spend time on is the executive or solution summary which should always be highly customised across every proposal response.
Customising standard processes like implementation method is as simple as weaving the client's name into the narrative. Customising generic benefits is a good idea also because 24/7 security monitoring software and associated support might benefit a government agency a bit differently to say an e-commerce giant. For the former it’s about protecting its sovereignty and the privacy of its citizens, for the latter, it’s protecting their IP and competitive dominance.
If you market and sell single solutions or services that are not overly complex, your first order of business right now is to find out if your proposal templates are up-to-date. If not, get them updated as it will improve your ability to pump out proposals that have a better chance of winning or at least position you as a strong contender.
No. 5: Use More Sales Speak, Less Tech Speak
Sales speak is about using the language of persuasion ethically: that is, you believe in your solution or service, and you do your best to highlight its advantages to the client. No more, no less. Sales speak is also the language of humans – easy to read and understand.
Ethical sales speak doesn’t use over-blown, smoke and mirror gobbledygook like, “delivering speed to value-realisation”, “synthesising intuitive deliverables”, expediting scalable channels”, or strategising frictionless technologies”.
While sales speak is my domain of expertise, I’m always learning how to get better at it, as should you, especially if you have to put together a lot of proposals. If you’re struggling with this and need to catch up fast, below is what I know and have learnt so far.
Quality sales writing conforms to this:
Writes mostly in the active voice. For example, “We will deliver this project within the next six months if your team meets all requirements”, versus, “Project deliverables are estimated at six months pertaining to ABC company meeting its obligations”. The former is straightforward, sets realistic expectations, and is friendly. The latter is passive-aggressive and non-committal, a typical writing style in B2B tech proposals. I wouldn’t recommend it. If your intention is to protect your company from risk, use more nuanced and thoughtful phrasing.
Uses plain English. It’s fine using big words, especially if you’re a wordsmith with sophisticated vocabulary, just be judicious. :) Still, mostly use plain English. Use tech-speak when appropriate, like addressing a technical audience but even then, be cautious not to overdo it. The biggest benefit of using Plain English is that it engenders trust. When your writing is easily understood, consciously or subconsciously, people perceive that you’re standing in front of your words, not hiding behind them. On the other hand, convoluted writing breeds distrust.
Is personal and human: I hate to say it, but sometimes when I read someone’s draft proposal response, it sounds sterile and aloof. Humanise your sales proposal content by substituting your company name with, ‘We’, ‘Our people’ ‘Our team’ and replace the client’s company name with, ‘You’, ‘Your team’.
Fact-checking for accuracy and proof-reading for readability: Even if you have limited time, you need to check the accuracy of your claims, it’s not only morally right, it’s a legal obligation to your company and your client. Proof-reading for readability covers many things, and a few examples include cutting overly long sentences in half, adding sub-headings above large blocks of text and pushing your writing through a spelling and grammar checker because a misplaced comma has been known to cost $5 million dollars.
To summarise, here are the five things you should do if you want to deliver a proposal that positions you as smart, thoughtful and likeable, and your company as professional, sophisticated and empathetic.
1. Read the RFP cover-to-cover
2. Pause to consider who will read the proposal
3. Just answer the question!
4. Customise source material
5. Use more sales speak, less tech speak.
Here’s to your next proposal response landing you a new client or winning you more business from a current client!