Most companies do a good job of making their proposals compliant with the RFP. Only occasionally do they lapse into writing in passive voice or making unsubstantiated claims. A lot of them write directly to the evaluation criteria. In fact, most proposals that we see don’t have many mistakes. But most of them are lousy proposals.
When I’m reviewing a proposal for someone, I never put it quite that way. I believe in making constructive suggestions rather than simply being critical. Proposal morale is a delicate thing. I don’t want people getting defensive, taking it personally, or losing hope. But between you and me, most of them are pretty bad.
The reason I inwardly groan when I review most proposals is because I see yet another example of a company that has fallen into a bad habit with their proposal writing. You see, it is completely possible to prepare a flawless proposal that is a bad proposal. The reason it's bad is that it's not written from the customer’s perspective. But the reason it’s not written from the customer’s perspective is that the writer fell into the bad habit of being descriptive.
Most companies write proposals that describe themselves. They describe their qualifications instead of writing about why those qualifications matter to the customer. They aren’t competitive because their approach to winning is to do the best job they can of describing their own qualifications. They think they will win if their description is the best, so they do everything they can to improve their own description.
They don’t do competitive assessments, they don’t articulate why the customer should select them (as opposed to their competitors), and they don’t put what they are writing in the context of what matters to the customer. The reason they don’t is that it’s easy to be descriptive. It’s easy to write from your own point of view.
Besides, the customer asked for your qualifications and your writers have been told that RFP compliance is super important. So they are complying. The only problem is that the customer doesn’t really want your qualifications. Oh sure, they asked for them. But what they really want is your offering. They want results. The customer doesn’t know how to assess whether or not you will deliver them, so they ask about your qualifications. A good proposal would explain how your qualifications will deliver the results they are looking for. But most proposals simply describe the qualifications.
Most proposals sound like someone talking about themselves. If the writer read it out loud, they’d sound rude. Plus they end up being a real snooze-fest. Who wants to read all that descriptive detail, let alone listen to you talk about yourself? On the other hand, if you put it into a context that matters to the reader, suddenly they show interest. It’s the context that they care about and not so much the details.
We like to focus on things — things like whether you address the benefit to the customer, whether you start every sentence with “we” or “our,” whether you talk about results, etc. I’ve done a lot of proposal training to teach people all of the right “things” to do. But the one thing that can really make a difference is to get out of the habit of being descriptive. If you break that habit, then everything else just sort of falls into place. You don’t have to think about a long list of “things” you're supposed to do. If you just stop being descriptive and start writing in the context of why it matters, you’ll do all the right “things” without even thinking about it.
Habits are hard to break. It’s not so difficult to do the right thing as it is to remember to do the right thing. You fall into old habits when you stop thinking about what you're doing. And it’s really easy to do that when writing. But it’s worth the effort, because most customers will overlook a few flaws if you what you have written is about something that matters to them. And you’ll be able to beat all the other proposals, even the ones that do a flawless job of describing themselves.
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