We’ve all taken proposal classes. Read books and blogs on how to write proposals. Yet, we as an industry continue to make major faux pas in the pursuit of client work. How does this happen? Oftentimes we’re on short deadlines, we reuse old proposals, or we just plain let our egos get in the way.
Let's review 5 major proposal blunders and discuss what can be done.
- Incorrect client name
Sounds crazy, right? How could anyone do this? It happens all the time. Consider this true story: A structural engineering firm in a major metropolitan city pursues a multi-asset, multi- year project with a municipal client. Let's call them 'City of Bolton.' You spend weeks pulling the proposal and quals package together. One week later, you have an almost identical proposal due to another municipal client. Let's call them 'City of Stow.' How do you make both deadlines? Simple, you reuse the materials. Change the name of the client and the assets. Do a simple search and replace, and you're done.
Except, you forgot about the cover letter. It's a separate document. The cover letter is tailored (or should be) to each client. In the cover letter, you talk about specific issues with that municipality's assets. You forget to do a search and replace. Throughout the cover letter, you refer to the City of Bolton, when you should be talking about Stow!
The client, no dummy, gets it. Last week Bolton had an identical RFP due. But, you're out. You might have been the best firm for the job, but he’ll never get past your cover letter. That was your first deliverable, and you blew it. How can he trust you?
Moral: Have someone who is not involved in the project proofread the proposal. This could be your secretary, office manager, or even a technician. You just need a clean, unbiased eye. They will raise the question, "Hey, isn't this going to Stow?"
- Not following the RFP
Surprisingly, this blunder happens all the time. We think – there’s so much great stuff to say about our stellar firm - the page limitation can't apply to us. The client wants numbered tabs, but really ours are prettier. The client wants a 3-ring binder, 3 copies, and a version on disk. Our wire-bound version is classier. We’ll just give them that one and a disk. They can make their own copies. The client asked for a detailed budget, but there’s no time, and truly it’s not necessary. We don't have to answer all the questions, the client knows us. We've worked for the client before; this is our job. We’re the one to beat. So we think.
Clients are busy people. There’s often a team on the client's side reviewing proposals. They don't all know you. They need to sort through, and shortlist 20, 30 or more proposals as quickly as possible. How do they do that? They follow the RFP and weed out anyone who didn't.
Moral: Follow the instructions if you want to make it to round 2!
- Limiting response to just the RFP
The firm that answers every question in the RFP to a T, but fails to include details that differentiate themselves also loses. A similar approach is to submit all your canned answers that you use in every other response. You may make it through the first round, but maybe not the second, because you haven’t stood out from the pack.
This is your opportunity to prove that you’ve been listening to the client. You understand their real needs, maybe those not spelled out in the RFP. There’s a reason you’ve been meeting with them and getting to know them for years. Here’s your opportunity to show it! You understand why they’re moving forward at this time and on this schedule. How can you help them? What obstacles haven’t they considered that you can solve? Make it easy for the client to want you and ultimately select you. Set yourself apart.
Moral: Use your knowledge of the client and their industry and cater your approach to match their true needs.
- It’s all about ME
We know your firm is great. You have 20+ years of experience, you’ve worked with healthcare clients before, and you’re super. So you think. Me me me doesn’t work with teenagers nor will it prevail when pursuing a project/client. Starting with a cover letter that spews how great your firm is and never referencing the client or their project is a huge proposal turn off.
Take this true first sentence:
Thank you for the opportunity to submit our qualifications. Firm ABX has 20 years of healthcare experience, we’ve won awards for years, and our staff is the best. We….
Then the package moves on to 100s of pages of your past projects, awards, and thought-provoking, well-educated staff. You’ve put the client to sleep. And you’ve bored thm before they got through the first few pages. If you’re so impressed with yourself, will you ever listen to them? Will you really partner with them or just tell them how much you know and how right you are?How many We, I, and Ours did you use and, how often did you name the client and their project? If there’s an imbalance, fix it now.
Moral: Make this about the client and their project. This isn’t about you. It’s about winning the job.
- Forgetting the “So What?” test
Why are you the best choice for the project? You may have a ton of relevant experience but have you tied it back to the client and their project? Does your proposal scream “So What”? How will working with your firm make the client’s life easier? How will the end result be better by working with you vs. your competition? What sets you apart from the competition? What is your differentiator? Is it your people? How? Is it your process? Why? How does your approach make you a better choice? This is what the client wants to hear in order to make a decision. They need to believe that you understand their problems before they do and you’ve solved them before.
Moral: After every sentence you write about your firm, ask yourself “So What?” Then, answer that question. Tie your experience back to making the client’s life easier and their project better.
The overriding theme of these blunders, which are so simple to fix, is forgetting about the client’s needs. We’ve spent years building relationships. We finally have an opportunity at a real project and we blow it by losing focus. We get so wrapped up in our greatness; we miss the goal of winning the project. What happened to: We listen. We partner with clients. We Collaborate. So often we wax poetic on our websites and brochures, but then it's quickly forgotten when we're doing proposals. Blunder no more. Take the time to proofread, follow directions, differentiate your firm, keep the focus on the client, and always remember why you’re in the game in the first place – to win more work!
Anne Crowe Kroger, FSMPS, MBA, CPSM has over 25 years of marketing and business development experience in the AEC industry. She has been a speaker, teacher, mentor, writer and coach on topics ranging from relationship building to improving firm and personal productivity. Anne is an SMPS Fellow and holds an MBA with high honors from Northeastern University. She lives in Boston and roots for the Red Sox.