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7 Golden Rules for a Winning Proposal

By Michel Theriault |

Writing successful proposals should be easy. You know your business and simply answer the questions your client asks in their RFP . Unfortunately, translating your capabilities into something the client can appreciate and evaluate is harder than it seems.

You're proposals will be more successful if you take a more strategic approach, customize your proposal to meet your client's specific needs and follow these simple 7 Golden Rules:

1. Follow instructions.
Whether they are complicated and involved or relatively simple, following instructions precisely to satisfy the client and avoiding being disqualified. This includes submitting mandatory requirements in the form specified, using their format if requested, maintaining the same order when answering the questions, sticking to their page count, font size, margins and even labeling and packaging your proposal properly. In addition to respecting the client and showing that you can follow instructions, some of these requirements have a reason, even if you don't know what it is.

2. Know what they want to hear.
While the RFP introductions, bidders meetings and even the questions will give you information about the client and their requirements, you need to go further and do some research to understand their deeper issues, hot buttons and concerns. Talk to them before the RFP comes out, then find past employees and look the company and the client up on the Internet to understand them better. Then, when you answer the questions, you know what to emphasize and can focus on their problems, issues and interests. Your client will appreciate that you understand their specific issues, since all clients feel they are unique.

3. Have a great solution.
Every proposal is looking for a solution, whether it's clear or not. Understand what the need is, develop your solution to meet the need and then describe it with details and evidence that proves you can help them. This gets more attention than assuming what their needs are and proposing a canned solution that they can get from anyone. Include the details and nuances that will clearly differentiate your solution from your competition and have your clients believing that you understand their needs better than anyone else.

4. Answer the questions.
Your clients usually ask questions for a reason. First, make sure you understand the question completely and what the reason is. If you aren't sure how to answer, ask them. You may hesitate asking your client for clarification, but you run a bigger risk if you assume what the question means and are wrong. If the question is multi-part, be sure to answer each part separately so they can clearly see your answer. Start with your direct answer without beating around the bush or adding caveats and conditions. If you need to add background or explanation, add it in the middle and then repeat your answer in summary to make sure it's what they remember.

5. Keep the sales pitch to a dull roar.
Your potential clients are sophisticated buyers and aren't just reading your proposal, they are reading your competition's as well. If you spend too much time with the sales pitch while your competition is proving themselves with details, evidence and examples, you will come up short. Too much selling sounds like fluff and the client will gloss over it and may even miss the important parts of your proposal. Instead, skip the fluff and sell your benefits and convince them with details and examples that prove you can do the job, not just talk about it. In other words, provide them with the steak, not just the sizzle.

6. Get your point across.
Even your best efforts developing content, details and information won't be very useful if it isn't easy to see or understand. Don't include information, examples or other writing that doesn't directly support your message and get your point across, otherwise it will end up burying the important information. Based on what's important to the client, eliminate the unnecessary material and emphasize the important information. Instead of writing only in the traditional paragraph format, change your structure to shorten the paragraphs and include more visual cues that focus attention on what matters. Use more headings to point the reader towards your important material and make them meaningful instead of a one word heading. Use more bullet points and lists to condense and simplify the information for the client. Include sidebars and boxes with key information to attract their attention. Use graphics carefully to support and illustrate your points, not just to fill space or add visual appeal. Add some white space and shorten your paragraphs with fewer words, simpler sentences and action oriented language.

7. Make it easy for evaluators.
The real reason for writing your proposal is to influence the evaluators and get a higher score than your competition. Take this into consideration at every stage and carefully follow the evaluation scoring matrix and evaluation criteria so every answer you give helps evaluators find the information they need to evaluate you. Make it easy for them by focusing attention on things that influence the evaluation, structure it in the same order as the scoring matrix and even provide a summary at the end that re-emphasizes how you match the requirements and meet the evaluation criteria. When reviewing your draft proposal, review it with the evaluation matrix and criteria in hand to do your own evaluation and ensure you cover what's important. Don't make them search for the answers they need. If the evaluation criterion isn't provided, assess what might be important to the client and use that as your guide.

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