After working hard for months to cultivate a particular lead, you’re finally blessed with the magic phrase “send me a proposal.” So why is it that these four words elicit more panic and apprehension than joy? The reason probably lies in the realization that the proposal stage is where the sales process often falls apart because we fail to show our prospect the information they desire in a suitable format. A proposal is yet another chance to be eliminated, but with some changes in process, organization and attention to the final product, you too can increase your chance for success.

Where we fail
As an industry, we often spend months generating leads, but fail to invest much effort during the homestretch process — from prospect to contract. Owners often cite that too much boilerplate information stitched together in an obviously rushed manner, or worse yet, documents that talk all about you and not about the prospect, are reasons that the sales process falls apart. Did you fail to answer a question in the RFP? Does the number of times you use the words “we” or “us” outnumber the times you mention your prospect? Too often the proposal has the attitude of a cocky fourth-grader with his arm in the air yelling, pick me, pick me! The key to success can be summarized as writing simply and customizing and personalizing the proposal – with careful attention to ensure that all questions are answered.

When faced with a proposal request, begin with a go/no go process. It is crucial that you evaluate each opportunity in terms of your ability to provide a needed service for the client, provide challenging and rewarding work for your staff, and the opportunity to make money. Don’t forget to review these factors, as well as well how well you know the prospect, the market and if you have the needed experience before kicking your staff in high gear to respond. And, as the old adage states, you must spend money to make money. However, today’s marketing gurus advocate that proposal development should never exceed three percent of the potential win.

Getting Started
After making an informed decision regarding whether or not to respond to the proposal opportunity, begin your response by reading the RFP carefully. Chances are, the prospect wrote it a certain way for a reason, so follow the directions verbatim. If no is RFP available, call for additional requirements. Be wary of those that say – “we just want to see what you come up with” as that same attitude may be the tone of your contract.

Whenever possible, develop a matrix or outline before you start assembling your response. This step will allow you to determine what you need, what you have, and where to go for additional information. If you don’t already have a marketing database in place, create one to maximize efficiency when collecting project information, references, case studies, photography and corporate information for your proposal efforts.

What they Read
First and foremost, your prospect looks for reasons to disqualify you and make their selection process easier. Did you follow the RFP? Was your response too long or too short? Too much boilerplate? Although it should go without saying, clear, concise writing is essential. Too often we are so worried about explaining or making our case that we ramble or include extraneous details, yet fail to really answer the questions listed. When responding to questions directly, answer without hype. Avoid the temptation to add detail. The shorter the answer the better — selection committee members loved one-word answers. For example, if asked if your project manager will attend monthly meetings, simply reply “YES.” And, by all means, do not refer the reader to another section in your proposal to find an answer.

While you should pay careful attention to every word in your proposal, it is probable that the reader will focus on certain areas of your proposal first — the cover letter, executive summary and pricing. As such, the cover letter should be kept to one page and clearly discuss the relationship and ask for the work, while the executive summary should concisely provide a recap of the proposal, to include the pricing. When it comes to the section on pricing, you’ll win points be being upfront and clearly explaining what is included. Further, don’t underestimate the importance of grammar and spelling. Many proposals are reviewed by administrative personnel with a strong background in the English language as the first stage of the elimination process.

What they See
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. But we all know that your prospective clients will judge you by yours. Like it or not, everyone forms first impressions–it’s human nature. And, if your proposals look like an old college term paper and if you are still using the old standard one-inch side margins, stop immediately. The most readable proposals have text running four inches or less across the page with graphics in the side margins or within the text.

Savvy marketers are beginning to pay much more attention to the graphical presentation of their business proposals. Prospective clients facing the prospect of wading through stacks of proposals filled with thousands of words usually welcome efforts designed to make their lives easier. However, the graphics must add meaning and be easily understandable. People look at images before they look at text, so graphics that are confusing, clich?, meaningless, unreadable, or possibly offensive, can quickly raise issues of credibility.

While creativity is applauded in some respects, be wary of using anything but the standard 8.5- by 11-inch size paper or standard binding options as many odd size proposals are hard to file, copy or distribute. Use tabs to separate sections of the proposal and include the question or heading in bold or italics before your response so the reader does not have to refer back to another document.

From Print to Payoff
Finally, before your proposal goes out the door, be sure you have captured that the business is important to your firm. Such a message will be clear if you have researched the prospect and their needs, included real-world examples of similar experience, presented the information in an efficient and interesting way, and shown that you work hard and pay close attention to detail. A proposal that proves that you care about what you do and what you produce sends the message that you will apply the same enthusiasm and expertise to meet their needs.

Should we respond? Not every opportunity is a right one. Review each proposal opportunity in terms of the following factors:

Strategic Issues

  • Does the project meet specific marketing plan goals for profitability?
  • Does the project fall in existing project niches?
  • Are there expanded service opportunities?
  • Does the project aid geographic expansion?
  • Does the project have outstanding public relations value?
  • Does the project offer opportunity for repeat business?
  • Have we devoted time to pre-selling?
  • Do we have experience with this client?
  • Is the client financial position adequate?

Risk Issues

  • Is the contract form known to us at this time?
  • Is the contract language reasonable?
  • Has a risk analysis been conducted?

Competitive Issues

  • Do we have similar project experience?
  • Is a project manager available? Are the necessary personnel resources available to produce quality work?
  • If a known “low-ball” competitor will be in the market, do we have a clear non-price advantage?
  • Experience with other likely team members?

Pricing Issues

  • Is the “real” and anticipated fee fair?
  • Is price the primary selection criteria?
  • Will we be able to be competitive?
  • Is there opportunity for additional fees?