As business people, we place too much emphasis on writing proposals when building relationships with potential clients.  Contrary to popular opinion, proposals are not always a step towards winning business.  Without following the proper process, they can hinder success.  Here are a few ways to prevent this happening.

1.         Don’t write them!

Businesses often write proposals when they don’t need to.  Sometimes, they offer to write them even without being asked for one.  When advising my clients, I describe sending a proposal too early in the relationship building process as being akin to proposing marriage after one or two dates.

Just like dating, you need to spend time getting to know this potential business partner, scope out a vision of your working lives together, understand where you have shared values, agree finances and then summarise what you have agreed in a document, if required.

My clients have often fed back that agreeing to receive a proposal is not necessarily an indication of interest.  “It might be us saying yes just to get rid of you!”

 2.         Talk about them more than you talk about you

Ever been on a date where all the other person did was talk about themselves?  How did it make you feel?  Like your needs didn’t matter, right?  Talking about yourself from the outset of your proposal is not selling.  Focus on what the client has told you is the issue and then outline the solution you have agreed together.  If you don’t have a lot of this information, you probably haven’t spent long enough getting to know them and run the risk of rushing in with incorrect plans of how you are going to help them.

Knowing more about them means you can also avoid padding out this information by telling them things they already know about themselves – “You are the leading FMCG company in Europe.  You have 20 factories in the UK and operate in 20 territories worldwide”.  If you include this type of information, link it to something material in terms of their objectives or issues.  For example, use statements like “You are intending on keeping your market leading position by…” “You are looking to expand from 20 territories into 25 by the end of 2015 by…”

3.         Be yourself, but be different

It is important to be yourself, but make sure you are different from your competition.  Sounds obvious, but this is often the biggest challenge my clients face.  Get to know your competition (research, networking) and you will be able to articulate how your proposition is different.  If you can’t, how do you expect any potential client to know why their money is better spent with you over your competitors?  I hear the following phrase a lot: “We’re all very similar and offer similar things.”  Then maybe it’s not the right market for you!

We sometimes think we are demonstrating eagerness to work with a particular organisation by pasting their logo all over our documents.  If you are a food manufacturing company, you can guarantee many of the proposals you receive will have pictures of the fruit aisle at the supermarket.  This is a lazy way of building a relationship.  Use your own identity and branding to reinforce what your company is about.  Your target clients know what their logo looks like and simply copying and pasting it into your document doesn’t increase your chances of winning the work.  You’re better off using the proposal to reinforce what they have learned about your brand throughout your relationship building process.

 4.         Answer the question

It seems obvious, but so many responses to formal tenders I read do not answer the question the client is asking.  Keep your answers succinct.  No one likes writing cumbersome documents and even fewer people like reading them.  Don’t let your insecurity make you verbose.  If you don’t have enough information, ask for it.  If the client won’t give it to you, this could be a sign they are not serious about awarding you the business.

Don’t start talking about the other services you provide if it’s not relevant to their needs.  When you win the work, you will have time to sell additional services.

When talking about yourself, do the points you’re making pass the “so what?” test.  If you state you have 15 years’ experience in graphic design, ask yourself “why is this important?”.  Does 15 years’ experience make you better than an agency that is 5 years old, but is successfully working with all your targets and has won double the amount of awards and accolades for its work?

 5.         Know your audience.

Do you know all of the people who will be reading the proposal?  If you don’t know whose nose the document is ending up under, you will not be able to address each individual’s needs.  This will also help you find the right voice for your document.  The HR Director will inevitably respond differently to the Finance Director to certain language and content.  For example, a Finance Director might be looking for more data than qualitative information.

If your proposal is going to a decision-maker that you haven’t met, you are making it harder for yourself to win the work.  It is sometimes better to make the brave decision to say no to writing a proposal until you’ve met or spoken with that person.  If the client has a genuine need, they will give you access so you can help them.  It is much harder to create a joint vision of how you will work together on paper than it is face-to-face.

 For further advice on proposals and pitches or a second opinion on what you are proposing to a client get in touch with me at or call 07737 345418.

Image courtesy of pakorn /

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