7 things to exclude from your next proposal

Proposal writing is a necessary part of the professional services world. As the final link between lead and conversion, it is a process that at times is painful and unpleasant, fraught with high tension and heartache, especially if jobs are on the line.

Knowing this, firms seem to make few meaningful attempts to truly master the task of preparing winning proposals. From my experience, here is my list of 7 things you want to leave out of your next proposal.

Leave me out #1 – Chest beating

There have been times I’ve worked on proposals and wondered if I’m actually working with gorillas in the mist, such is the volume of “it’s all about me” that gets written.

Writing proposals like this means the client has to wade through what is frequently a mountain of spurious marketing material before they can get to the real guts of what’s on offer. If the client does make it that far before losing interest, their assessment of your proposition will be tarnished by a perception that you love talking about yourself; an absolute no go zone if you want to win work.

While credentials should be presented, there is a place for them and a way of doing it. Leave the generic material to appendices and if you must include case studies in the body of the document, make them relevant and real for your client.

Leave me out #2 – Lack of inspiration

Following closely behind #1, a lack of inspiration tells the reader (your prospective client!) that you don’t really care enough to give your very best; that you haven’t taken the time to “get them” and what they need.

I had one boss make the analogy that business development is like dating, so proposals are a kind of professional love note (it’s called a tender for a reason).

You really want to show you care by demonstrating you have truly heard their issues (possible though not ideal, even if no conversations have taken place in the pre-tender phase). You want to get your smartest business heads together to devise a strategy that gets the team and your client excited about what you have to offer….and get that down on paper.

Leave me out #3 – Repetition

Another boss had a name for those times that high volumes of proposals had to be run out the door. He called it the “sausage machine” and that’s exactly what it was. The team pumped out proposals regurgitating the same tired information, with little to no thought about what would be most appealing or interesting to the reader.

A process driven approach to preparing proposals is a valid concept, with templates and standard content providing ways for reducing the length of time and amount of effort required for preparing a quality document.

Keep in mind though, the process should also include some way by which consideration can be given to crafting a truly compelling proposition for the client. This could be as simple as a one hour session with those likely to deliver the work or a half hour phone call to more senior / experienced professionals in the business. Often these people welcome the opportunity to contribute and can make the difference between an average submission and something that hits the mark.

Leave me out #4 – Over commitment

Over committing is the professional services equivalent of a used car salesperson who promises the earth, but in doing so, gives the distinct impression that what you’ll get is more like a falling star.

This is most damaging when your reader is technically astute and knows that your budget, schedule or approach have no way of being achieved without heavenly intervention. Not only does this detract from your professional credibility, it diminishes trust; a fundamental for any business relationship. Just don’t go there.

Leave me out #5 – Technical arrogance

In his book How Clients Choose, David Maister makes this point beautifully.

The fact that a client has a need for external consultant assistance means that at some level they are exposing themselves and their business, and in doing so, revealing parts of the organisation that are not usually market facing. It can be confronting to a client if you bombard them with the technical majesty of your solution.

Maister suggests that technical professionals get too focused on technical matters and overlook what he calls “the essential relationship nature of professional transactions”. He goes on to say that technical skills are critical, “but only a necessary condition for success, not a sufficient one”. Alleluia!

Save your technical arrogance for the neighbourhood barbecue or football sidelines. Love and understanding is what your client needs.

Leave me out #6 – Bad spelling, grammar and technical solutions

In the rush to meet deadlines, it’s very easy to leave next to no time for revision and refinement. Presentation is not everything, but it does go a very long way to creating a perception that you mean business.

Wherever possible, have others complete proposal reviews. In some organisations, there might be the luxury of having two or more people involved in this process; perhaps marketing, technical leads and management can get involved. In smaller businesses, this might be a single person. At one place we called this guy the Red Pen Man. A technical whizz, he could also be relied upon to find any typos or questionable statements that could jeopardise the presentation of the pitch.

Leave me out #7 – The Fluff

Fluff is not to be confused with real, tangible and targeted evidence that demonstrates you and your team know what they’re doing. This kind of proof (case studies, statistics, testimonials, media coverage) demonstrates you’re the real deal.

What doesn’t cut it is over use of terms that say very little and mean even less. Trite and empty words don’t tell your story; they lack dept and authenticity and convey nothing of who you are to the reader.

So what about you? If you’re a buyer, are there things in a proposal that turn you off? If you’re on the selling side, what do you think are must haves for every submission you make? Share your thoughts. I’d love to hear them.

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