Why Your Well Written Sales Proposals Fail

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

(And What You Can Do About It!)

You can hire the best bid team and proposal writers in the world, but they’re only as good as the Intel you give them.

Bid teams will frequently turn themselves inside out coming up with creative designs for proposal responses. Yet, the carefully crafted words and images fail to impress buyers, and your pursuit dies in the ditch.

When it comes to complex deals where it’s not a commodity-type pitch with a race to the bottom, it’s all about the story you tell. And while you can create a compelling story, it will fail if it’s the wrong story.

And it will be the wrong story if you can't adequately do the following:

1. Clearly link your solution to the stated and unstated needs of your buyer

2. Position your company as far better than your competitors

3. Create a strong case for change to eliminate buyer ‘no decision’

And while a sales lead might have insight and thoughts about the above three things, your bid team will still tell the wrong story if knowledge and insight isn't properly shared with them.

Get Knowledge & Insight Out Of People’s Heads

So, what is the best way to share customer and competitor insights so everyone is on the same page and tells the right sales and solution story?

The best way, of course, is to bring key people together and have a brainstorming session, the sooner, the better, at least a few weeks before a Request for Proposal (RFP) drops.

The next question then is, how do you run this meeting so that you strategise a high-value bid in a smart way?

The 11-Point Structure Of A Smart Pursuit Strategy

Well, I’ve got something for you that I prepared earlier. I call it The 11-Point Structure Of A Smart Pursuit Strategy. It’s a visual framework (see image below) you can use to test and deepen customer and competitor insight, so that when you begin to formulate your solution, it will be aligned to the customer’s needs, will position you as the ideal vendor and will help the customer feel confident in moving forward with you.

All you have to do is bring everyone together to whiteboard answers and ideas, and you can do this in person or virtually.

This type of session can take anywhere between half a day or a full day and is worth the effort. Not only will it stimulate creative thinking, it will have your team shape a powerful, customer-focussed, competitive story.

Guide to Strategy Session Questions and Inputs

Why complete the sections the way I’ve numbered them? You don’t have to but here’s why I suggest you do. Always start with the customer, and when you’re completing 1-5 don’t dare think about the customer from the perspective of what you can offer. Instead fully immerse yourself in their world.

Next, focus on your company (6, 7 & 8) and list your capabilities aligned to what you’ve noted about the customer. Then it’s time to assess your competitors in 9 & 10.

Finally, you arrive at 11, to do a deep dive on key stakeholders at the customer, made up of decision-makers and influencers that are either supporters, detractors or are neutral.

The reason I suggest you do this last is that you can reflect on the customer’s overall goals and results from the perspective of different individuals, and you can also review stakeholder’s relationships with each of your competitors.

It’s likely you’ll need to do more work after the session to strengthen your pursuit strategy. So, it’s important to write down action items as you tackle sections 1-11 and allocate a person against each action. This will ensure the meeting isn’t just a brainstorming exercise.

Below, I provide more explanatory notes on each of the areas that make up this strategy framework.

1) Client's Name & Values

Values can refer to the client’s stated values, mission and what they care about, their ethics.

2) What Is The Client’s GOAL?

This refers to the client’s business goal, e.g., acquire new customers, expand product/service lines, move into new markets, improve customer services, cut costs, streamline or centralise operations, be more innovative, better react to customer and market demands, be more nimble and flexible in how they serve their customers or work with suppliers, etc. Note: this has nothing to do with their technical goals!

3) Do A Client SWOT Analysis

To truly test your knowledge and understanding of the client, do a SWOT analysis of their business. What new insights does this unearth? Or what further action will this require you to take?

4. What Could Stop The Client From Moving Forward?

Is the client open to change or stuck in status quo? Do they have an appetite for risk, or are they risk-averse? Is the client in thrive or survive mode? Other issues: poor leadership, toxic culture, current technology and processes not broken; budget constraints.

5. What RESULT Is The Client Looking For?

Result is different from goals and refers to outcomes—the ROI of investing in change, like new technology. E.g., The goal might be to “improve customer services”, and the result of that might be “more revenue and competitive muscle”.

6. Our Goal?

Your goal has to be more nuanced than “winning the business/pursuit/proposal”. For example, do you want to unseat the incumbent? Get your foot in the door with a smaller piece of work? Enter a new industry? Hold on to a current client?

7. Our Capabilities?

This is not about your technical solution. Instead, focus on your know-how, vertical industry experience and insight, innovative approach, product or service specialisation, or history providing this service. Also, experienced experts or your qualified delivery leaders. Even well-established methods especially if you can prove they minimise risk while allowing for fast uptake of new processes with minimal business disruption.

8. How Do We Prove Capability?

It’s essential to strategise evidence as early as possible because finding proof points can take a lot of time, and you may need to approach customers for fresh testimonials or get their permission to be a reference. You can never have enough proof on capability including analyst rankings (Gartner’s Magic Quadrant) or creating a simulation of how your solution delivers results (if your technology product or service is new and you only have a few customers right now).

9. Competitors, And Their Strengths And Weaknesses

It’s important to have a solid understanding of your main competitors as this will inform how you will position your product or service to the client. E.g., If you’re aware that your competitor is cheap upfront, but they’re known to add costs later on and are expensive, you can highlight your transparent pricing and that it won’t change. It’s important you never directly attack your competitor’s business or their credibility. It may even be that at this strategy session, you’ll come up with the idea to partner with a competitor as this strengthens both your chances to win some slice of the customer’s business.

10. Competitor Capability And Credentials

Are your main competitors close to key decision-makers at the customer? Are they entrenched in that organisation or only have a small footprint? Are they strong in that vertical industry with a prestigious client list? How well respected are they by analysts? What’s their reputation as a tech vendor generally? What Intel do we have about their key executives, especially in sales, i.e. What can we learn about them from their LinkedIn profile or published news articles?

11. Stakeholders And How To Win Them Over

You should already have some understanding of who is for you, who is against you, and which parties are neutral at the customer prior to the strategy session. You can, of course, test this, but don’t spend too much time on it. Instead spend most of your time brainstorming how to neutralise detractors, turn neutral parties into supporters and how to convert supporters into raving fans (or how to get them to become your internal coach and spokesperson). Conducting this exercise can be tricky if you’re doing a pursuit strategy late in the game when the Request For Proposal (RFP) has dropped. The best you can do then is to strategise how you can neutralise detractors.

Get The Timing & The Purpose Right

Yes, timing is everything. It’s best to do this type of pursuit strategy session long before an RFP is released, but it won’t hurt your chances either if you do it when the RFP arrives. You’ll still be better off because you’re putting in the time to deliberate on the best approach to position your company to tell the best story, one most aligned to meeting the customer’s needs.

And stay away from solutioning and getting technical when conducting the pursuit strategy session. The purpose is to align our smart ideas to solving the customer's problems or helping them achieve their business goals. Use the outputs from this session to inform your solution strategy, which you can do next. Use the outputs of this session also to inform and guide how you write your executive summary story, your proposal response story and any face-to-face presentations throughout the sales pursuit process.


Telling the right story is so crucial.

Telling the right story can even help you get away with sloppy writing and mediocre proposal design.

Sadly, many proposals don’t tell the right story and are also grammar car crashes. That’s one way to earn the contempt of your potential customer and be viewed as incompetent and unprofessional.

But you’re not like that, of course. Your problem is getting to the bottom of what the customer wants, needs and desires and also figuring out what’s going on with the competition so you can beat them or join them.

So, figure this out on paper, on a wall, virtual or real, or on a napkin, but write it down and do it together with a team.

A well-thought-out approach sets you up for success! Whereas lack of strategic thinking means your sales proposal will look like a random collection of half-baked ideas that land nowhere, except in the customer’s bin.

PS: Download a PDF copy of the pursuit strategy framework with guided notes here.