ACS Insights

Four secrets for winning proposals

Competing for business is standard practice, but all too often, those of us completing proposals forget the simplest ways to win. Luckily, these four secrets aren’t really a secret; they’re just common sense. The next time you find yourself competing, stop and check your own practices - do they include these four winning steps?

4 Secrets for Winning Proposals

Step One: Know what success looks like

Sometimes we get a request for a proposal and just dive right in with standard answers. While this may be the fastest way to complete the proposal, it’s also the quickest way to cut and paste yourself out of a deal. Stock answers that worked on the last proposal may lack a phrase or nuance that can help you stand out in the next one.

The simplest way to ensure you’re not inadvertently triggering failure is to know what winning looks like through the eyes of your customer. Request a short fact-finding session to confirm the purpose of the project and answer some basic questions, including:

  • What is the problem or gap the proposed solution needs to solve?
  • What are the specific project goals and/or desired outcomes?
  • What are the tangible deliverables?
  • Where are the potential roadblocks or project challenges?
  • What is the budget range and ideal timeframe?
  • Who will be reviewing the proposal?
  • Who will be providing the final approval signature?
  • What other departments, like Legal or HR, will influence the decision?
  • When is the proposal due?

These answers can reveal potential showstoppers for both you and the buyer, so get these off the table first, because otherwise, you risk wasting everyone’s time.

The simplest way to ensure you’re not inadvertently triggering failure is to know what winning looks like through the eyes of your customer.

Step Two: Know the who, what, and why of your audience.

Who? Nothing derails a proposal process like a last minute, backdoor opinion from a third party with a different agenda. If the proposal process must be shared with a broader team for approval, it’s critical to find out who has the budget and the final say. Get them involved as early as possible.

What? Just because you offer a product or service, doesn’t mean that is what your client needs or wants. Focus your proposal on what they tell you they are looking for. If you can add additional value, present additional recommendations that come across as consultative, not pushy. Try to show them exactly what your solution to their requirements cost and avoid ‘bundling in’ all your other recommendations. It helps you stay apples to apples during the budget discussion - put that additional fruit salad on the side, please.

Why? People respond to value creation, not features. Make sure your proposal focuses on the value your solution provides and avoid the temptation to include long bullet point lists of extraneous information. Only include background information when it explains why you can uniquely solve a problem, or you know people who are not close to the project will need the extra context.

Pro-tip: If you have legal review involved, provide a source file they can freely redline, and keep to the structure they require in order to expedite review cycle time. In many cases, organizations require specific language that must appear in the proposal. Be sure to adhere to these requirements and build in necessary sections, notes, etc., where needed.

Step three: Keep it simple and structured.

I know you’re proud of that chart - but is it necessary? We have delivered 35+ page proposals in the past full of diagrams, appendices, and background information. That’s great if an RFP (request for proposal) requires it or when supplementary information is requested like certifications, licenses, team resumes, etc.

However, for most proposals, keeping supplemental details out of the main document gives your reader the freedom to absorb the important information without distractions. While SOWs (statement of work) vary depending on project scope and scale, mind the things you can control. For example, keep an organized approach with consistency in titles, sentence structure and language; it makes for a better read and your reader will love you for it.

Pro-tip: Do not send a draft copy of your proposal - ever.

Step Four: Get more skin in the game.

People who are involved in your process are more likely to want to see you win. Increase alignment between your proposal and your client’s goals and budget by holding a proposal preview session. During that live session, walk the client through a preliminary draft of your proposal and ask for feedback. Find out if you’re hitting all the requirements or inadvertently throwing up any red flags.

This walkthrough gives you an opportunity to level set with project stakeholders, confirm assumptions, clarify final questions, and verify the budget before you send the final version. While this practice is not always possible if you are submitting an unsolicited proposal or a government RFP, it’s appreciated by specific project leaders who have a vested interest in the success of the project.

While a preview session may sound like more work, you’ll gain efficiency with fewer revisions and in many cases, faster acceptance!

At the end of the day, proposals are won or lost based on a buyer's specific experience. If you show the prospective customer that you heard them, you care about their needs, and you want to make this as pleasant as possible - you’re already ahead of the game.


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