Climbing Mount Audacity

26: Writing winning proposals

Achieving 50%+ proposal-to-sale conversions - Four key questions - Be compliant - Don’t leap, draw - First, the killer schematic - Identify the hot buttons - Ghostwriting - Call out your theme statements - Third-party referencing sells loudest

This blog is the final one in a set of essays concerning how the best professional service companies sell their services (see end of blog for the full listed set). I have applied a deliberate focus to this topic as it really is one of the critical determinants of  company success and, therefore, value. It is all about building a systemic capability cf. reliance on one-or-two idiosyncratically gifted individuals (which equates to an essentially valueless business regardless of historical trading performance). In this concluding piece, I want to share some thoughts on a critical skill for professional service businesses: writing winning proposals.

If you have followed my series closely and made a concerted effort to develop your firm’s selling disciplines, then – hopefully – by now you have no shortage of invitations to propose your services. For the vast majority of professional service propositions, there is then the need to formally present your understanding of the prospect’s requirements, your proposed solution/team/plan and, of course, your commercial offer. At the most informal/light end, this might be a detailed email; at the formal/heavy end, a detailed document or presentation might be required – feeding into a detached, competitive evaluation.

Regardless, the ability to write winning proposals is a critical determinant in the success of any professional service company. Understanding the sales pipeline (and conversion ratios) as you now do, you don’t need to be a an elite mathematician to understand the massive impact made by shifting your proposal success rate (winning proposals / all proposals submitted) from, say, 25% to 50%. Of note, leading professional service companies will be working to a 50%+ success ratio here – based on excellent relationship development (and a robust “do we bid?” qualification process).

Please send me
My free simple proposal template
Free account management pack

Now, this is a massive area – and multiple day courses can be attended – delivered by specialist trainers – so this article seeks just to provide the key tenets and steer you away from the common pitfalls. It will have served its purpose if it just turns your head to the challenge of improving (team-wide) systems and abilities in this critical area (developing templates, bid toolkits, staff training etc).

Writing winning proposals

Fundamentally, a proposal needs to address the four key questions a prospective client has:

  • Do they understand what I need?
  • Do I trust them to deliver?
  • Can I afford them?
  • Can I work with them?

The key messages you should train into your teams – focused on communicating the optimal answers to these questions – are as follows:

Treat each bid like a project in its own right.
For major proposals and bid submissions: have clear owners, plan the development and review schedule and track against this. Aim to finish early (ahead of any set submission date).

Be compliant (when involved in a formal Invitation to Tender process).
Don’t give the client a simple excuse to rule you out. Having often been on the evaluation side of this equation, it is noteworthy how frequently this happens.

Don’t leap straight into writing.
Develop your key themes and differentiators first. Avoid too much ‘our understanding, our approach’ type copy. It can sound pushy and not particularly client-centric.

“If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings, and speak my words.” (Cicero)

Design your key graphics first as these can often give real structure and logic to your case. If you are using Method Grid, then you have the ideal platform on which to develop your delivery solution/methodology first. Regardless of platform, time spent developing a summary killer schematic (your grid – or – any single graphic that singularly illustrates how you will deliver your services) will pay off many times over with respect to providing the logical foundation for your proposal structure.

It has been shown by multiple studies that graphics significantly improve the persuasiveness of your message. Further, such a central schematic serves as the logical entry point for your busy reader; if this summary graphic/structure makes sense, you have set them up perfectly to read the detail that follows.

Identify the prospect’s hot buttons

A prospect’s “hot buttons” are a consolidated set of issues and motivators; say, two to five items at most. Issues are anything 
that concerns or worries the key decision-makers (the proverbial things that keep them awake at night). Motivators are the strategic objectives that the prospect is trying to achieve; say, to improve profits, reduce risk, improve service/product quality etc. All motivators are issues, but not all issues are motivators. Once this core set of hot buttons is identified, state them in the client’s language, not yours. You should then build the executive summary of your proposal around them.


writing winning proposals image 01

Be totally driven by the prospect’s needs (and evaluation criteria)
Writing winning proposals involves asking yourselves these seven questions:

  • What is the client’s (underlying) problem or need?
  • What makes this problem worth solving?
  • What goals must be met in solving this problem?
  • Which of these goals has the highest priority?
  • What (creative) solutions can you offer that will help to solve this problem?
  • What results (based on past experience) are likely to result from each of your proffered options?
  • Comparing these results to the client’s goals, what is your final recommendation?

And, don’t fall into the traps of seeking to be all things to all people or of making loud claims (‘world class’ etc) that cannot be corroborated with evidence. Quantify benefits whenever possible.

Undertake a competitor analysis early in the process
Writing winning proposals requires an examination of what really differentiates you from the competition – as concerns the client’s requirement. Use the proposal to emphasise your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses. Bake these in throughout the whole proposal. You can also ‘ghost write’ to highlight competitor weakness and/or downplay competitor strengths. For example, ‘ … whilst larger agencies may be able to point to regional offices, we believe this comes with the overhead of a more fragmented, disconnected service.

Develop a clear, aesthetically pleasing document
Winning proposals focus on the prospect’s key issues and are built around a small number of themes that truly differentiate you. Use these theme statements to structure and signpost your document. Proposal authors are typically guilty of overwrought documents with too many words, too few graphics and not enough white space. Don’t follow the herd here.

A great way to do this is with call-out boxes (or theme statements). Theme statements are crisp assertions which, placed prominently within a proposal, tell readers why they should select you, and not your competition – backed up by corroborating detail in the text.  In essence, they are single-sentence distillations of your value proposition. The prospect client knows what she wants – or thinks she wants – so convince her that you can solve his problem better than anyone else. The most powerful themes contain unique discriminators; for that reason it is worth taking the time to make sure that the proposal puts across the strongest possible message in a consistent way.

“[Client ABC] will [achieve/improve XYX] by [date, amount, %] by working with us, as a result of [discriminating features]. ”

Use a logical process to write these theme statements.

writing winning proposals image 02

The most powerful theme statements are emphasised visually to distinguish them from the body of the text. When creating them use this questions as a litmus test: could your competition plausibly make the same claim?  If so, refine it until it is unique to you, otherwise it will just sound like platitudinous marketing froth.

A summary to writing winning proposals

writing winning proposals image 03

Throughout, apply the prospect test
Imagine you are the prospective client with only ten minutes to assimilate the bid. Have you made it easy for them?

Figure: Characteristics of a good proposal

Finally, do not forget the importance of third-party reference selling; that is, potential clients will always want to know where you have worked successfully before. You should – therefore – invest time and effort in capturing high-quality qualifications (‘quals’) in a consistent way on all your key engagements. These can then be used in proposals, sales literature and on your website (always check your client is happy with this, of course). You can begin this process as soon as an engagement starts as opposed to relying on your memory months after it has ended. in the fullness of time, you will need an engagement catalogue so that all of your sales team (hopefully now everyone in the firm!) always has easy access to the most appropriate client qualification/testimonial for their particular dialogue. Not only does this help in proposal writing, it also reminds everyone of the most apt success stories to reference in those critical, initial meetings.

Please send me
My free simple proposal template
Free account management pack

So there you have it; hopefully a few useful steers towards writing winning proposals and improving your company’s proposal success rate (which you are measuring aren’t you!?).

The full earlier set of articles in this thread on selling professional services:

Blog 10 > Building a firm-wide sales capability

Blog 11 > The difference between marketing and selling

Blog 12 > Developing a winning sales attitude

Blog 13 > Developing sales communication skills

Blog 14 > To hunt or to farm? Getting the balance right

Blog 15 > Building your first sales pipeline

Blog 16 > Tracking sales opportunities

Blog 17 > Elevator Pitch: How to rise to the top

Blog 18 > Mastering the sales call

Blog 19 > Mastering the sales meeting

Blog 20 > Sales Qualification

Blog 22 > Account Management

Blog 25 > Sector development – or – how to go to market!

So, what’s next?

Next week, I have a book review for you (why checklists matter). The occasional review of relevant professional resources (books, blogs, podcasts etc) is another aspect I aim to pepper into the Climbing Mount Audacity Series. First up, a really thought-provoking book I have read in recent weeks and keen to share.

Hopefully, you’ll join us on this journey. It’s totally free, and you don’t have to be a Method Grid customer (though you’re more than welcome to sign up for a free trial here).

We’ll be releasing a new post each week. To get each post emailed to you as soon as it’s published, sign up for the Climbing Mount Audacity mailing list below.

Climbing Mount Audacity…
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We're sharing everything we know about how to build an awesome professional service firm (and enjoy the journey en route!) PLUS travel updates, reflections on our stumbles and general musings on our Method Grid journey.

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