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Looking At Your Proposal Thru Your Customer's Eyes

When you are trying to figure out how to approach writing a proposal, put yourself in the shoes of your point of contact, the decision maker, the technical advisors, and the non-technical reader. If there are other stakeholders who play a role in the evaluation, add them to the list.

Love at First Sight?

Think about what you do when you first see a proposal. Do you flip through it? Do you go straight to the Table of Contents and look for something specific? What questions do you have? What are you eager to find out?

Structure your proposal to deliver what they want to know first, and put everything else after that. Try organizing your proposal by what they want to know, what they need to find out before they can move forward, and supporting details that they may or may not even read.

If your point of contact at the customer has prior approval and a personal stake in the outcome of the procurement, then the first thing they look for in your proposal is what they are going to get. If they have to read an introduction about your company, and lots of business-speak fluff before they get to it, then they have to work to find out if your proposal is what they want.

If your point of contact has a personal stake in the outcome, but does not have prior approval, then when they open your proposal, they are thinking, “I hope I can get this approved.” They will only fight that battle if it is really what they want. If they are motivated, they move on to “does it answer all of my questions?”

Obtaining Approval From The Powers That Be

Once your point of contact is satisfied with your proposal, they start trying to figure out how to pitch The Powers That Be. If they find that already thought through in the proposal, you are that much closer to approval. Expect The Powers That Be to have questions, because questioning the spending of money is their job. They might even be looking for reasons to dismiss you. So anticipate the questions, reservations, issues, and sources of reluctance, and provide responses. And make sure the ROI and how they will benefit at the strategic, organizational level is clear.

Each of these types of customers ask “is it what I want, what do I have to do to get it, and can I afford it?” So give it to them. If you can, build your Table of Contents and headings around them so they can find what they are looking for and go straight to it. Don’t hide from uncomfortable issues like pricing. Just make them part of your story so that they have a proper context.

When It's About Beating The Competition

If the bid is competitive, then the customer has to decide why they should select you, as opposed to one of your competitors. They have a choice to make. If your proposal is all about you, then it doesn’t do much to help them make their choice. Tell them what matters. Discuss the trade-offs you considered and why you made the decisions that went into developing your offering. Tell them about the things you didn’t do or consider, and why. But most importantly, make sure they know why your offering, trade-offs and all, is the best.

If the customer thinks they already know you, they want to learn about what you are offering. You may still want to describe yourself, but it’s for when your proposal is passed on to others, and it’s secondary in importance (not the first thing they want to read).

If the customer has never met you or only recently met you, or isn’t sure of your qualifications, then you’ll need to prove your trustworthiness and credibility. If they don’t personally know you, then they may look at you skeptically and expect you to prove yourself. Any unsubstantiated claims will work against you (if the customer already knows you, then they just get in the way). This customer is getting to know you, so how you present yourself matters. It tells a story. If they are just getting to know you, what are they going to conclude from how you present your proposal?

Formal Evaluations

A customer with a formal evaluation process, like a Government buyer, approaches a proposal in a completely different way. Their primary concern is “how do I fill out my evaluation forms?” They have forms that are based on the evaluation criteria in the RFP. When they look at your proposal, they want to find what they need to put on those forms in order to score it. If they have a personal stake in the outcome of the procurement, they may consider whether the proposal delivers what they want separate from the evaluation process.

But it won’t matter unless they can score it that way. What you need to do is to anticipate their forms, which are based on the instructions and evaluation criteria in the RFP. Organize your proposal around them. Build your Table of Contents and headings using the same terminology so they can find the content of your proposal that matches their forms.

Technical or Non-Technical?

If the reader is technical they’ll want to read about the offering, how it works, and how it meets the specifications, and assess whether it will produce the desired results. If the decision maker is technical, then featuresmay decide whether you win. If the decision maker is not technical, then benefits will decide whether you win.

In most cases, your point of contact will be technical, but the final decision maker will not. Thus, compliance with specifications and requirements is often a pass/fail hurdle. While compliance with specifications and requirements may not determine whether you win, it’s necessary to stay in the game, and it doesn’t hurt to win over the technical advisor and turn them into an advocate. But at the finish line, you win because your rationale convinces the Powers That Be that this it's the right move.


If in your proposal you talk only about yourself, only provide the information you want them to have (or is easy to provide), or follow a standard outline, you will be going against the flow of what the customer wants and needs from your proposal. If your proposal assumes that everyone at the customer is the same, speaks with one voice, has one attitude, has one approach, or only one opinion, then your proposal will not meet the needs of all the stakeholders involved in deciding whether it wins. So think about who the stakeholders are, what their roles are, and what they want or need to see in your proposal. Doing this well will give you a competitive advantage and increase your chances of winning.


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By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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