Last month I was fortunate enough to spend some time talking with Tom Sant, world's top expert on proposal writing.  This post contains his update on  proposal-writing trends, along with other guidance he's given me in the past.

1. Understand the concept

A proposal is a sales tool not an information packet. The purpose of the proposal is to make a persuasive case that leads to a sale. To win the business, your proposal must overcome the following hurdles:

  1. Do I know who this is? If this is the first time the customer has heard of you, your proposal will be thrown out.
  2. Is this proposal compliant?  If the customer provided a template for the proposal, proposals that don't follow that template will be thrown out.
  3. Does this proposal make sense?  If the executive summary does not define the problem correctly or propose a reasonable solution, the proposal will be thrown out.
  4. Does the solution provide value? Of the proposals that met the minimum as defined above, the one that wins will be the one that provides the most value.

The remaining steps provide a method for creating a proposal that overcomes all four hurdles.

2. Research the customer.

The proposal will not win if you fail to uncover the customer's true decision criteria and decision-makers. These may be quite different from the criteria and decision-makers defined in a Request For Proposal (RFP).

You must therefore research the customer--preferably be interviewing people in the various groups involved in the decision--to understand what's really going on.

Please note that different groups will likely have different "takes" on what's needed and will use different terms to describe the situation.  If your proposal will be evaluated by both engineers and accountants, for instance, you'll need to understand both, and be able to communicate with both.

3. Lay the appropriate groundwork.

Your proposal will be thrown out unless you've done marketing and sales activities that establish recognition in the mind of the decision-maker. There are two ways to do this:

Create a public presence. This consists of advertising, social networking, public relations, sponsoring conferences, sending speakers to conferences, publishing newsletters, and so forth.

Create a personal presence. This consists of establishing recognition through sales calls, customer meetings, emails, notes, texts, and phone calls.

4. Brainstorm your approach.

Now that you've done your research and laid the groundwork, brainstorm the client's situation and your own approach to helping them. Use these questions to get the discussion started:

  • What is the customer's problem or issue?
  • Why is this problem important to them?
  • What parts of the business are affected by this problem?
  • What corporate goals are not being achieved due to this problem?
  • How will the customer measure the success of the solution?
  • Of these success measures, which is most important to them?
  • What, precisely, will we propose?
  • How will we do this work?
  • What proof can we offer that we are qualified and competent?
  • What quantitative promise (value proposition) are we willing to make?
  • How can we demonstrate that the value we propose to offer is credible?

5. Write the executive summary.

Contrary to popular belief, the executive summary is NOT a summary of the contents of the proposal. It is a summary of the basic issues, the proposed solution, and the promised results. Effective executive summaries are structured like this:

  1. Problem, need, or goal.
  2. Expected outcome.
  3. Solution overview.
  4. Call to action.

6. Write the body of the proposal.

The body contains detailed explanations of how you will do the work, the people involved, your prior successful experience you have in this area, previous customers you've help on similar projects, and evidence of your core competency and financial stability.

In many cases, the customer will have already defined the structure of the proposal or provided a template.  If so, follow that structure exactly.  According to Sant, decisions are usually made based on the executive summary, but failing to follow a template automatically disqualifies you, regardless.

7. Mercilessly edit the whole thing.

Appearance is as important as content.  There should be no obvious grammatical errors and an absolute minimum of typographical errors.  If boilerplate (standardized material from other proposals) is included, it must be carefully customized to match the customer's own situation.

Be extremely careful to edit any passages that might contain the names of other companies for which the boilerplate was used in the past.  Many proposals have been thrown out simply because the proposal-writer left the name of one of the customer's competitors in a paragraph lifted from an old proposal.

If you're serious about a proposal, I highly recommend that, in addition to doing your own in-house editing, you hire an independent copyeditor to go over the entire proposal.  I use Pure-Text, but I'm sure there are other services that are almost as good.