Have you ever thought about the time it takes for a prospect to read and evaluate one of your company’s proposals? You should, because it’s a lot. Add in each of your competitors’ submissions, and we’re talking a major effort. So, don’t waste their time with a proposal that makes their job harder. It irritates them, and a frustrated, stressed-out reader does not make for a kind evaluation.
With that in mind, we recently conducted our biennial survey of commercial and government reviewers to learn about their preferences, processes, pet peeves, and propensities. In this two-part blog article, we discuss our findings around pet peeves, namely the ten proposal qualities that most annoy reviewers (spoiler alert: confusing, verbose proposals are bad).
Here are the first five.
A Quick Note Before We Begin: In conjunction with each of our findings, this year we’ve included a corresponding quote from Gary Coover’s Secrets of the Selection Committee, which provides an inside look at the frustrations of proposal reviewers. It is one of the many useful proposal books to hit the market lately, and we recommend picking up a copy.
1. Tiptoeing Around Questions or Requirements
The people tasked with reviewing your proposal—subject matter experts, senior management, procurement personnel, or others—are not dumb. Don’t treat them like it by tiptoeing around a question or requirement.
The scenario usually goes something like this: You get a Request for Proposal (RFP) question that exposes one of your company’s weaknesses, and after muttering a few choice words, you craft an answer vague enough to avoid the issue but relevant enough to be compliant. Sound familiar? Despite your best efforts, reviewers are rarely impressed.
Tip: Give a direct answer up front, then explain why the issue doesn’t prevent your company from being the best fit.
"Do you really think we’re stupid enough to fall for it? We can spot it a mile away…In addition to telling us you’re borderline dishonest, it also tells us you haven’t a clue what you’re talking about. Why would we hire someone like that?”
2. Including an Unrealistic or Incomplete Project Team
In the world of professional services, the quality of your team is the most important factor in meeting client expectations—and reviewers know it. So, the first proposal section reviewers scan (other than your executive summary) is often your team structure and qualifications.
Unfortunately, to avoid the fact that your company may not have the ideal professionals available for every project role, you may choose to omit some and include only the team’s most tenured leaders. Or worse, you include a team of all-star specialists that you know are neither available nor realistic for such a project. Both are big red flags for a reviewer.
Tip: Provide a realistic, complete project team, and highlight how each professional has worked together to deliver similar services and desired outcomes to clients. If taking this approach makes you uneasy, perhaps you should reconsider your team or decision to bid on the opportunity.
“Don’t try to look more impressive by presenting your top personnel regardless of location when you have no intention of actually assigning them to the project if you win it. Show us good people, but only the good people who would actually work on the project.”
3. Emphasizing Irrelevant Experience
In addition to being less than transparent about their team composition, companies often populate their proposals with impressive examples of similar services and outcomes delivered to clients in the same industry as the prospect. Wait, that is good, right? It is, unless none of the examples involved members of the proposed project team.
While experience serving a prospect’s peer organizations is desirable, it is only effective if possessed by your proposed team. And yes, reviewers notice when you preface lists, examples, and references with phrases like “recent clients served by our firm.” So, don’t do it.
Tip: Only highlight recent projects performed by members of your proposed team. And, since the practice of including dated, unrelated experience is so prevalent, be sure to emphasize—both visually and narratively—how each example and project reference connects to your team members.
We recognize that this approach can seem problematic when your team’s recent clients aren’t perfectly aligned with the prospect’s industry, size, etc. However, prospect issues and desired project outcomes (e.g., efficiency, savings) tend to overlap more than one may think. Thus, a detailed project description that highlights these similarities often makes for a surprisingly persuasive narrative.
“It doesn’t matter one bit if your company has a wonderful past history if no one on the current staff worked on those projects…We’re far more interested in the experience of the staff you’re proposing for our project, not corporate history or warm fuzzy memoirs.”
4. Making It All About You
If your company’s name is on a proposal, chances are the content deals primarily with your relevant expertise, approach, and other qualifications. Seems obvious. But, are your proposals only about you? We hope not.
Reviewers don’t care about your qualities, experience, or services; they care about how those things will affect them. So, focus your proposal on your prospect’s needs and desired outcomes, and how your company can help the prospect achieve them. Ditch the excessive boilerplate content, and lead each section and answer with a prospect-focused statement.
Tip: Once you’re done with your initial proposal draft, run a search for your company’s name. Then run a search for the prospect’s name. If your company name appears more than once for every two times your prospect’s name appears, you probably need to focus more on the prospect.
“Lots of ‘we’ ‘we’ ‘we’ all the way home. All about you, nothing about us. Makes us wonder if you know anything about us at all. Or care.”
5. Ignoring Response Requirements
Speaking of poor answer strategies, how about not addressing the RFP questions? Or, addressing each question and requirement, but not in the order or format requested. Bad ideas.
Noncompliance is an easy way to annoy a reviewer and get your proposal booted. We get it, some RFPs are haphazardly assembled, often including questions and requirements unrelated to what is being proposed. It doesn’t matter. Answer their questions, and do it clearly and politely. Otherwise you risk coming across as arrogant or disorganized.
Tip: Reviewers want to compare apples to apples, so let them. Follow the exact RFP instructions for the proposal structure, order, contents, and submission. If you’re confused by any RFP questions or requirements, clarify them with the prospect up front (if permissible).
“We’re desperate to cull the herd. You’ve heard the term ‘non-responsive’? That’s our friend. Not follow explicit instructions? Toss. Leave something out? Toss. Forget to answer a key question? Toss…This is the crucial first test: Can you follow directions?”
Shameless Plug Alert: A great way to ensure you have persuasive, reviewer-friendly proposals is by hiring a professional proposal writer, editor, or trainer. You know, like the ones at Freestyle Editorial Services. Check out our website and contact us today to discuss how we can make your company stand apart from the competition.