Getting Real with Proposals

Recently, I have been involved a process where I was to review proposals for an IT project that would ultimately cost in the 10’s of millions of dollars.  This was truly a view from the other side.

For many years I was involved in the preparing of proposals and now I’m on the other side looking at what other people do to respond to the same sort of thing.  In this case, though, the proposals were for projects vastly larger than those I used to help prepare for the association world.  What really surprised me was the wide variation in quality of the proposals.  Some were done very well while others were simply junk.

Now, you have to understand that having been involved in reading and writing so many of these, I have become a bit jaded.  Over the years, I have become fairly good at reading what is written, analyzing what is said and also what is not said, then considering what would have been said if what was said was true!  Now that’s a mouthful – but true.  Everyone wants to display themselves in the most positive light but often fail just because they try too hard – or simply aren’t particularly truthful!

Here are a few observations for those who are writing these proposals:

  1. Be honest.  Whatever you say will be checked and if your proposal comes off as a little or a lot misleading, you have created a very bad taste in the client’s mouth that won’t go away even if you get the contract.
  2. Assume that there is someone like me reading your proposal who knows how vendors skirt issues and try to make the language such that they can always come back and say “You just didn’t understand what I meant to say.”
  3. If you have a long requirements checklist, be careful to fill it out with a lot of thought and truth.  If I see that the vendor has simply said they can do everything with no modification or customization and no request for clarification, I know this can’t be the case and I consider the vendor untrustworthy.  BTW:  I hate checklists, too.  There is never enough information to answer clearly.  I expect the vendor to need to ask questions.
  4. If you imply that you got a contract from some other entity that supports your qualifications to take this contract, assume that someone will check to make sure that is true.
  5. Talk less about how good you are and more about how you are going to do the project.  Some of these proposals hardly mentioned the project at hand and approached it with “We are so good, we can do anything”.  I want to see that your company is right for the job and is organized in your approach and that you understand the specific work at hand.
  6. The thickness of the proposal doesn’t equate to quality!   Shoveling in reams of boilerplate information that is not relevant to the person reading it doesn’t make the proposal better.  Repeating the same boilerplate multiple times in the same document just makes it all worse.  It just frustrates the very people you want to impress.I recently read a proposal that happened to use Oracle where they copied all of the technical documents on how the Oracle Policy Automation tool along with how all the Oracle Identity and Access Management tools worked.  Oh please!  Be concise; the client will appreciate it more.  If the reader is technical, chances are they will already know this stuff.  If they are non-technical, they won’t understand it anyway.
  7. Follow the structure of the RFP when you are doing the response.  It amazed me that many people going after this big project didn’t.  The best proposals literally copied sections of the RFP followed by their responses to that section.  Then within the response, they provided exactly the information the client asked for.  What a breath of fresh air.
  8. Have a good technical writer proofread your work before you send it.  I can’t tell you how obvious it is when there are grammatical errors in the cover letter and spelling errors within the body of the proposal.  The client will assume your attention to detail on the project will not be better than your attention to the detail in the proposal.
  9. No matter how good a proposal writer you are, be realistic about what projects make sense for your company.  If you are a small company with a small staff and limited experience, you shouldn’t waste your time on a proposal for a very large project outside of your credibility zone.  Use your time more wisely and go after something you have a ghost of a chance to get.
  10. Finally, be realistic on the price and don’t assume that you are the only bidder or that you name alone will warrant enormous differences in price.  Remember that many proposals are scored and cost can be a big element of that.  You may have a great proposal but zero scoring points on cost and lose the deal that way.

Good proposal writing is an art but being truthful will win you more trust than obfuscation of the facts.