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Ten biggest proposal mistakes

People in a business meeting, with a man pointing to a chart...with caption: "Ten Biggest Proposal Mistakes"

Writing a compelling proposal takes a lot of time and energy. Don’t waste your investment by making one of these mistakes:

1. Not positioning

Have you worked with the client before? Do you know someone there? Do you understand their needs? If no, consider if submitting a proposal is worth your time. Attend the pre-proposal conference and ask questions. Read publicly available documents. Ideally, develop relationships before the request for proposals (RFP) is submitted so you’ll know what they need.

2. Failing to read and comply with the RFP

First things first. Make a compliance matrix to highlight each RFP requirement and outline how you will respond. Don’t forget submittal requirements, page limits, and specifications for each section. Failing to comply with any of the RFP requirements can get your proposal thrown out before you even make your case.

Woman and man looking at a group of stickies on a glass wall

3. Missing the deadline

Just think of all the time, money, and energy you will waste if you miss the deadline…not to mention a missed opportunity to work with the client. A missed deadline almost always means disqualification. Pad your schedule to make sure you won’t miss the deadline.

4. Failing to follow a schedule

To ensure you avoid #3, stick to a schedule with internal milestones. If you don’t set internal deadlines, you could end up working all-nighters in the last few days, making major mistakes, or forgetting an important RFP element. Include a kickoff meeting, writing deadlines, internal first and final drafts, comment deadlines, and time for production. Appoint someone to be accountable for the schedule.

Woman looking at a stickie on a wall calendar

5. Making it all about you

Let’s drown this classic opener: “CH2M HILL is pleased to submit…”

Do not make your proposal all about you. Don’t even talk about yourself until you’ve outlined what your client needs.

Your client will wade through so many pages of proposals, and many of them will say the same things. ABC Consultants is “uniquely qualified” because of their million years of experience, local knowledge, technical services, etc. Leave most of your qualifications to the project experience and team sections. When you do talk about yourself, relate your experience directly to their needs.

6. Making typos or spelling the client’s name wrong

Don’t embarrass yourself! I have so many memories of misspelled words like missing the letter “o” in “County”). When we rush, we are more prone to make mistakes. Slow down and make sure you plan enough time for thorough quality control. Always use a professional editor to prevent mistakes!

7. Failing to use a proposal manager

A proposal manager manages the proposal process from start to finish. They prepare the compliance matrix, run or cofacilitate the kickoff, make writing assignments, and write most of the qualifications pieces. They make sure the proposal stays on track and alerts the team if things go awry. Often, they also edit and design the proposal.

Using a professional proposal manager enables technical staff to do what they’re best at: figuring out how to best meet the client’s needs (writing the work plan, developing pricing, and working on other technical elements). A rock star proposal manager (who is given proper authority) will save you all kinds of stress!

Businesswoman standing up and leading a meeting

8. Regurgitating the RFP

Although it’s a good idea to use the same terms the RFP uses, never pull whole phrases or sentences from the RFP. The client wants to know how you are the best qualified to meet their needs. Emphasize your company’s unique skills and approaches to explain how you’ll handle each task.

9. Boring your potential client

As a follow-on from #8, take pity on your client. Don’t bore them!

  • Use the active, first-person voice.

  • Break up your text with graphics, bold/italics, headings, pull quotes, and bullets.

  • Remove the formalities and call yourselves by your first names.

  • Don’t use insider jargon or acronyms unknown to the client.

  • Make the language compelling and interesting.

  • If you can say it in fewer words, do it.

  • Use a professional marketer to refresh your content and make it interesting.

  • Make sure you allow enough time in the schedule to do the above.

10. Failing to distinguish yourself and your company

This is your chance to explain how you are different than the others. One of my favorite terms to ask proposal teams is “so what?” Instead of saying “our team has 50 years of experience designing wastewater treatment plants,” explain why that matters. Focus on the benefits you bring, rather than your company’s features.

Let me know if you are ready to take the stress out of proposals...or if you can use help with internal or external communications, marketing, or leadership.

I help professional services firms avoid BORING and boost employee engagement, productivity, and readership. I translate technical, complex, and lackluster language into accessible, dynamic, story-driven text. Get known in your industry through outstanding thought leadership content. Walk your talk through outstanding, effective communications with your employees and clients.

Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business.


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