If you are using boilerplate, it probably means that you don’t know your customer. I can say this with confidence, because boilerplate assumes what features and benefits matter to the customer. When you know what matters to your customer, you write specifically to it. When you don’t, you make assumptions.
Boilerplate assumes that one customer is just like every other customer. When you send something in writing to a customer that's the same as what you send to every other customer, it's called a brochure and not a proposal. A brochure is something you give a new customer so they can get to know you enough to decide whether they should give you a chance to get to know them. Once you know a customer, communications become personal. Ask your long-time customers to make important decisions based on nothing but an impersonal brochure and see how long you keep them.
A fill-in-the-blanks or push-button proposal is an attempt to give your customers a form letter instead of a brochure. People think of it as a step up from a brochure, but it’s really just an attempt to fool the customer into thinking your brochure is customized to their needs. How well would that approach work on you if you were the customer? Would you stake your career on a purchasing decision based on a vendor’s form letter? If you had to choose between a vendor that sent you a nice brochure vs. a vendor that wrote something describing how their offering would meet your particular needs, which would you choose?
If you know your customer and are writing to their particular needs and how your proposal will be evaluated, boilerplate would just get in the way of what you need to say. It would slow you down instead of speeding things up.
Why boilerplate is dangerous
For a multi-billion dollar company, we reviewed a proposal that emphasized all the wrong stuff --- when the company was founded, the name of its president, how much they had grown, etc. None of it passed the “so what?” test or said the things that mattered to the customer.
We were wondering how it got there until we noticed the pattern. It showed up in a lot of their proposals. That is because it was in their proposal boilerplate file library. It had been there for a long time. The things it emphasized and the mistakes it contained, were the mistakes that small businesses tend to make. It seems the big company had been a little company. Twenty years ago.
The files had been passed down from proposal to proposal, and person to person. They had diligently kept the files up-to-date by putting in the latest names and revenue figures. Dozens of proposal specialists had touched the files. No one realized they should have thrown it out and started over instead of updating the details. Once something enters a re-use library it’s hard to get rid of it.
Working from boilerplate is supposed to save you time because editing is easier than writing. However, the level of effort required to transform a write-up from one with a certain focus or set of goals, benefits, results, keywords, and points of emphasis into another context can easily exceed what it would have taken to write it the way you need it. The danger with boilerplate is that the writer won’t bother and will just update any numbers or key details. The goal should not be to finish quickly, but to win the proposal. Boilerplate that is not edited properly can cost you the bid.
Here are two more articles on related topics for your use and enjoyment:
The Myth of the Push Button Proposal
Boilerplate Alternative: Proposal Cookbooks