Learn From Common Mistakes Made When Writing A Proposal

“Learning is either a continuing thing or it is nothing.”— Frank Tyger

This month is about looking back after writing a proposal, sending one, or having one signed (or not) and measuring its success.

Most people gauge their success on whether a business proposal is signed or not, which may or may not be true because certainly part of it is luck. Either way, when a project is finished, it’s a brilliant moment to reflect on how everything went. Today, we’re building on  a month-long discussion on the Bid and Proposal Management LinkedIn forum, where we can discuss the common mistakes you make when writing a proposal.

They asked members: “Throughout your professional experience, what are the most common mistakes made when preparing a business proposal?” Today we will explore their answers, elaborate some of ours, and look for you to give us some of your own!

Wait, who’s our client?

We can’t agree with the first poll response more, as it would’ve been ours too. IT services contractor and president of Proposal Leadership, Inc. John hit the nail on the head, saying “The number one failure is to display a lack of understanding of the customer.” He says your top job as a proposal writer is to make sure you know the answer to what the customer really wants to buy?

If a company gives in-house sales training at all, they are spending their time making sure you know your company, products, business. Sadly, they rarely focus on enforcing and reinforcing the basic practice of sales that even the most seasoned professional so easily takes for granted — namely, focusing on the client. We all love the companies we work for (OK, maybe not all are so lucky,) and we are all convinced of our product or service being the perfect fit for a client’s needs. But how often are we convinced we know those needs? We just can’t say it enough, pair what you have to offer with what you know the client wants. Otherwise, you know what happens when you assume…

Go team, go!

Even with proposal-writing software, we never said writing a proposal would be easy — because it’s not (we just think we can help make it easier.)  We are strong advocates that two (or three or five) heads are better than one, particularly with writing a proposal. Don’t just set the task to the technical writers who do just that — write about technical things. Of course, consult them, but remember that your business proposal is really a sales proposal. It can’t be boring and all techie.

Your job is to bring together a proposal-crafting team that can talk to all the different people who would be involved in the project and then to the client. The project leader should be someone who is confident asking clients direct and indirect questions, good at grammar, and are able to fit all those pieces together in an articulate, succinct, persuasive response to the client needs. Who’s that on your team?

Why are we bidding on this anyway?

Yes, the answer is because you want the project, but WHY do you want the project? Does it suit you? Can you meet the criteria? Do you even have a chance? Please stop wasting your time writing proposals that are impossible to get signed.

As project manager for a UK-based insurance company, Sascha wisely says, you “need to identify the clients key scoring criteria first — if pricing is 70 percent of the assessment, can we/do we want to make a competitive offer? If not, why proceed?” Your time is better spent writing a proposal that can get signed.

Size does matter

You go on and on about how fabulous your company is (which we’re sure it is), but you’re spending too much time writing a proposal about your shiny features and not about the benefits they offer the customer. The purpose of writing a proposal is to distinguish your company from the pack. You, of course, need to state your value and benefit to the customer, but don’t go on for days — keep it down to about two pages.

And don’t go on about the paid-for professional associations your teammates are members of and other superfluous information. Take a page or two to introduce your team, but focus it on previous projects, including smiling head shots when possible because it makes you all look good and breaks up the monotony of text.

Also, instead of taking up pages describing your accomplishments, insert hyperlinks into your web-based proposal so they can see it themselves. If you need a printed version, don’t hesitate to push all the extra stuff to the addendum, so they have it, but it’s supporting, not distracting from your main points.

Heed deadlines!

OK, this one may seem obvious and Procrastination is a land we are all citizens of, but it’s simply vital. British bid and capability statement coordinator Clair warns us that sometimes “Key stakeholders starting their tasks too late, or a delayed ‘go’ bid decision, resulting in a massive yet avoidable panic as the deadline draws near.”

As one of my pithy friends said, “The most important part of any proposal is the due date.” You don’t want to be pulling your hair out and risking carpal tunnel working into the wee hours of the night or, even worse, kicking yourself when you do all that work and just barely miss the cut-off.

Federal IT writer Richard from Baltimore suggests even starting before you know you can bid: “Starting to work on the job before you have the consulting agreement in place and signed.” If you have the time, it’s a great way to practice and, once signed, to deliver on-time. Plus, some say that it can take up to 60 days to prepare a first-class proposal, so you better get a head start!

Plus, let’s be serious, if you don’t take the time to plan out and prepare your proposal right from the start, it will go nowhere in the end.

What are the most common mistakes when writing a proposal that you try to avoid?


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