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You Don't Win Proposals By Focusing On Not Losing

We have reviewed hundreds of proposals, from companies large and small, in an amazing variety of industries. Most of them are… well… a bit… ordinary. They describe the company submitting the proposal. They use business-speak. They’d rather use a lot of words that don’t say anything that matters than risk standing out. They are plain, boring, and safe. And they are easy to beat.

Most of the proposals we see are written by people who are focused on not losing. They talk about wanting to win, but the things they do are all defensive.  Their top priorities are being compliant with the RFP requirements and submitting a proposal that is free of errors. Since there’s never enough time to work on a proposal, when they set those as their top goals they rarely achieve anything else. The worst outcome they can imagine is having a proposal rejected because of a mistake and being the one blamed for it.

Most corporate cultures reward safety and maintaining the status quo. Most companies that depend on winning proposals fall into the same routine. If a proposal does not win, but no one is to blame, then life goes on. And enough of them do win that people get to keep their jobs, since almost every other company does things the same way. It’s a safe, predictable routine that people can feel secure about. It’s only when enough of them aren’t being won that things get ugly. But that possibility only reinforces the notion that it’s important to keep the proposals free of errors and keep yourself free of blame. Some companies will never be able to raise their win rates above a certain level because their corporate culture is self-defeating.

Most of the proposals we see are descriptive. They drone on and on about the company submitting them. The result is a proposal that sounds like someone talking about themselves and taking all day to do it. That’s not what the customer wants.

These proposals include lots of facts and plenty of words, just in case the customer might care about some of them. It’s as if instead of thinking about what the customer does want, people find it instinctively easier to put everything in there somewhere and leave it up to the customer to find what they want. The assumption is that if they find something they want, you will win. But that assumption is wrong. The customer will never find what they want in a proposal like that.  In spite of all those words, a proposal like that is not about what the customer wants and the customer will know it.

To write about what the customer wants, you have to take a position regarding what matters. You can’t be everything to everybody. If you put everything in your proposal, then the customer will see that you're not focused on what they want, even if you somehow get lucky and manage to say something about it.

You are better off putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and writing about what you would want if you were them. Write about it so passionately that you stand out. If it doesn’t feel uncomfortable, you’re not trying hard enough. You may be wrong. But if you are afraid of taking the chance, your proposal will be ordinary and you will lose to someone whose proposal is not ordinary.

If you want the customer to recognize you as extraordinary, you must at all costs not sound ordinary. To achieve this, you must put more effort into being exceptional than you put into being free of errors. You must say something that isn't neutral and speak to the customer in a voice that is not neutral. A perfectly error-free proposal is a major achievement, but it will lose to an extraordinary proposal that talks directly to what the customer wants and boldly says what really matters.

Another way that companies focus on not losing is by making compliance their first priority. You might need to achieve compliance in order to avoid having your proposal rejected, but it’s not what the proposal should be about. Compliance is necessary to get the customer’s attention, but it’s not what matters to them. It’s just opens the door.

Go ahead and try to eliminate all the errors in your proposals. Just do it after you address what matters to the customer. Most folks get it backwards. They achieve compliance and eliminate errors and then run out of time. Instead, make it your first priority to focus on what matters to the customer and being sufficiently compliant to not get thrown out. Then if you have any time left you can focus on eliminating the errors.

You will not win by being better at being ordinary. Luckily, most of your competitors are aiming for better compliance, being perfectly qualified, and being completely free of errors. Your proposal can be merely compliant, sufficiently qualified, and contain some hardly noticeable errors and yet it will win if it focuses instead on what really matters about your offering, the kind of results you can deliver, and what you will do to help the customer achieve their goals. Make writing about things that matter and writing from the customer’s perspective your first priority, and not what gets sacrificed when you run out of time. shows you step-by-step what to do to prepare an extraordinary proposal

Our process shows you how to build a proposal that is based on what it will take to win

Click here to find out more >>>>


You can also visit our group on LinkedIn where we have open discussions on winning proposals

Finally, here are links to some other articles we've written on related topics: Enjoy!


By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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