The 6 Basic Elements of Winning Proposals
Our company provides government contracting support and we often get the same request, “help us increase our win rate”. My initial response, “show me a couple of your recent proposals and I will detail where you are missing key win opportunities”. Well-thought-out and strategically developed proposals will have the same overarching characteristics — they are compliant, responsive, compelling, and customer-focused. Further, they present a solution that aligns with the evaluation criteria — and they are aesthetically appealing. Here are the six basic elements on which your team should focus if you want to compete and win.
The proposal manager should prepare the proposal structure that follows the proposal (RFP) instructions (section L) and the evaluation criteria (section M). You may be thinking, “obviously, proposal management basics”, but in our experience some proposal managers decide to use their own methodology or an outline from a previous RFP they believe is similar. This is somewhat understandable, as many proposal managers have multiple proposals working at the same time and feel compelled to find time saving tactics. However, if this approach is used it is likely that specific requirements called out in the RFP will not make it to the proposal outline and compliance matrix.
Our team always recommends getting back to basics. The government provides a clear roadmap of their expectations for the proposal format and requirements to be addressed in the RFP. When the government does this, they expect companies to use it. The easiest way to lose points during the evaluation is to follow your own path and ignore the government instructions or not address all the requirements or evaluation criteria. Make sure your proposal managers are following the government instructions and check and re-check the proposal prior to submission. This will ensure a compliant product and keep you in the competition.
The next element of successful proposals is being responsive. This may sound like being compliant, and they are associated, but there are significant differences between the two. For a proposal to be responsive, the content of each proposal section must respond exactly to each topic as listed in the RFP. The section headings should correspond to the RFP instructions, and the associated discussion for that section should be consistent with the headings. This may seem very straight-forward and almost intuitive, but we have reviewed client’s drafted proposals and found several sections where the content of the section did not match the section heading or the requirements listed in the RFP.
We find this generally occurs for two reasons, 1) the section text was copied and pasted from previous proposals or 2) the writers were not sure how to address the topic to meet the requirements. To the naïve writer, many of the RFP sections sound alike. After all, if the RFP asks for a QA Plan and the proposal discusses a Configuration Management Plan, those are basically the same, right? The answer is no, and the government team requesting the service or product will mark the section with a zero and label it as “non-responsive”.
Once the proposal team has developed a compliant outline with responsive content, it is time to focus on proposal language. Most companies can generate a proposal that is compliant, but we find there are very few that can create content that is also compelling. By this term we mean that your content is crafted in such a way as to convince or persuade the reader that your concepts and ideas are exceptional and will provide value to the customer. If a proposal team has prepared appropriately for the solicitation, there should be many features in the proposal that demonstrate a high likelihood of contract success, and elements that exceed solicitation requirements. It’s not sufficient to make statements about company performance or quality claims about solution features without substantiating with real evidence. Clearly identified features with relevant and substantiated benefits, presented persuasively, provide the basis for selecting one bidder’s proposal over another.
Winning proposals will not only deliver the technical and contract management approach in response to the RFP but will also provide features and benefits that differentiate their company from the other offerors and provide a compelling basis for selection.
Writing proposal content is not the time to put forward company focused marketing materials, instead proposals should be customer focused. A customer-focused proposal discusses “how” your company proposes to do the work and the benefits the customer will receive from selecting your bid. If the proposal is simply centered around how good the company treats their people and how outstanding their company processes are, then the proposal is company-focused, at best. Company-focused proposals often cause evaluators to lose interest, whereas customer-focused proposals speak directly to the evaluators, maintaining their interests and therefore achieving a scorer higher. If the proposal team did their background research on the government organization, they should know the hot-button issues and write content to show how their approach will address each one.
Government evaluators are looking for real solutions that bring value, benefit, and respond to their difficult to solve issues. Avoid using phrase such as, "best of the best" or "world class," and instead, bring your best approach and clearly describe how and why, in a customer-focused way, it is the best solution to the government’s request.
Easy to Evaluate
Many of our clients have not previously thought about creating a proposal for ease of evaluation. They assume if you simply follow a well-developed compliance outline and put responsive material under each header, the evaluator can easily read all the text and grade your proposal. Our clients sometimes forget that evaluators may have multiple proposals to score and may be supporting more than one RFP. Due to these time constraints, evaluators typically use a system to assist them quickly navigate the review. Generally, they will start by building an evaluation checklist based on the criteria in section M of the RFP. The next step is to review the proposal to find the information that addresses the topics in the evaluation checklist. In short suspense cases, they search for only what they need to find to evaluate the proposal and write up their evaluation results. So, how do you create a proposal to help the evaluator, and yourself? The use of call-out boxes, pull quotes, feature/benefit tables, section headings and other techniques help draw the evaluator’s attention to the appropriate information. Evaluators will often say, if they can’t find it, they can’t score it. Winning proposals are structured so the key evaluation points are easy to find and evaluate.
Why should your team consider proposal appearance? The old adage, “you don’t have a second chance to make a first impression” comes to mind when trying to answer this question. Proposal appearance can have an enormous impact on the evaluators’ initial perception regarding the quality of the content. Boring and common place designs and layouts can signal that a mundane, not well-developed proposal awaits. A proposal that is attractive, interesting in appearance, professionally designed, and easier to read will impart a sense of confidence that the offeror has submitted a well-developed and compelling approach. Your proposal team should develop a consistent document style, appropriate color pallet, paragraph labeling and numbering scheme traceable to the RFP, and an appropriate mix of text and supporting graphics. Include graphics that are consistently positioned on the page, using wrap around text to break up standard paragraphs and save space. Graphics should convey a specific message with the appropriate level of detail.
Our recommendation: reduce the amount of text, build in white space, incorporate graphics, and other interest elements to summarize your points and that will walk the evaluator through the “story” you are trying to tell and to a high rating for your proposal.
Rita Simmons, Ph.D., is the founder and lead consultant of Novelle, where she provides business and research consulting to companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Simmons leverages her drive for innovation and excellence along with her extensive executive and military experience to help companies grow their business, drive revenue, and achieve strategic goals. When you’re ready to take your business to the next level, contact Dr. Simmons at email@example.com or connect with her on LinkedIn.