How to Write a Winning Proposal: Expert Advice

Last Updated Sep 24, 2010 2:44 PM EDT

A recent post that contained a sales proposal checklist resulted in a comment from frequent Sales Machine contributor Neil Licht that's so useful, I've edited it and bumped it up to a full post. Here it is:
  • Q: What's the best way to get rid of a sales person?
  • A: Ask him to write a proposal.
The truth is that sales professionals rush out to write a proposal because they think it's a good way to win the business. But in most cases, it's just a waste of time.

Before you even think of writing a proposal, you need to know the price point, what the customer values, whether there's money available. And that's the minimum.

Beyond that, you'd better take a good hard look at the RFP. Many RFPs are "front loaded" so that they're actually just a specification that both the decidion maker and your competitor have already agreed upon. When you read the RFP, look for the following:

  • Exact recipe language that comes from the competitor's literature (but with the brand names removed).
  • Strong statements like "no substitutes" or "no alternatives" scattered throughout the document.
  • Short lead times for answer the RFP in order to make it more difficult for other vendors.
If you find these elements, it's probably too late for you to win the business. In fact, as a general rule, if you didn't write the RFP yourself, you are probably too late.

But let's suppose that you think you've actually got a chance to win the business. Maybe you've got a history with that customer, or you're entirely certain your offering is massively stronger. Here's what you do:

  • STEP #1: Confirm that it's a real RFP. Read the RFP carefully. If a competitor has already locked it down, it should be pretty obvious. If not, it will describe a real and non-partisan problem or need with some half-formed ideas about a solution. If so, then you can go to the next step,
  • STEP #2: Confirm that there's a budget. Sometimes people write RFPs simply to test the waters. In many cases, the RFP writer may hope that funds will be made available if the proposals make an iron-clad case. But, sadly, that almost never works, so if there's no budget, it's probably not a real RFP. If there is a budget, though, you can go to the next step.
  • STEP #3: Confirm that there is an owner. Sometimes companies will have a budget for something but lack the "will" to move the project forward and actually spend the money and manage the implementation. If there's not an owner -- somebody who really cares -- then your proposal will probably go nowhere. If there is an owner, though, you can move to the next step.
  • STEP #4: Confirm that it's a priority. If so, the RFP will identify a real need and have some form of calculating ROI, so that the impact of the project can be assessed. Without these elements, it's highly likelyt that the RFP is simply a "fishing expedition" for some "free consulting"... from you.
  • STEP #5: Determine the decision-making process. If you write the proposal and throw it into the "black hole" of the customer's organization, there's a high likelihood it will simply disappear into the void. You'll need to be able to "work the system" in order to make your proposal a real contender.
  • STEP #6: Confirm that they're open to alternatives. Even if the RFP seems "independent", chances are a competitor was involved somewhere in the writing process. So don't bother to bid without first contacting the requestor and getting a firm assurance that they're willing to review and consider an alternative approach.
If you skip any of these steps, or can't get them completely, DON'T WRITE THE PROPOSAL BECAUSE YOU ARE WASTING YOUR TIME.

Next time, do the right thing and get into the customer account before they write the RFP -- and then write the RFP. Then you're the one with the inside track.

For more on proposal writing see: