Proposal fumble

Nov 15, 2020

When you underestimate the proposal and fail to invest in its development, you risk losing money and wasting business development resources.

In the world of bid management, winning more work calls for relationship building, opportunity qualification, sound positioning, and persuasive proposals. Relationship building is the soul of the long-term investment we call business development. Opportunity qualification eliminates projects with low-win probability. Positioning involves planning and executing a capture strategy for a specific opportunity with the goal of client preference. Done well, these critical elements increase win rates.

Loathed and deserted, but not inconsequential is the proposal itself.

When I began working in AEC, I often heard that winning work happened before the RFP. Industry veterans said this matter-of-factly, and I nodded along, despite holding one tiny qualm. If the proposal didn’t matter, why hire me?

What my time in AEC has revealed isn’t that those seasoned leaders were wrong but that they were only half right. Clients do make decisions and establish preferences before the RFP. But the proposal is not a charade, and it’s time we stop pretending it is. When we underestimate the proposal and fail to invest in its development, we risk losing thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of business development. It’s like hooking the big one and then breaking the line while we reel in, starting a touchdown dance at the 90-yardline.

The proposal must justify the client’s preference. It must confirm the selection. If it fails to do its job, we could not only lose the work and our investment in business development but the client’s trust. After all, a client who tells you exactly what they want but doesn’t see that reflected in your submission will probably regard you as negligent.

If you bid on work for public clients, the stakes increase. Oftentimes, public organizations require formal evaluations that go up the ladder before contracts are awarded. The client’s technical lead cannot simply come to the table and say, “This is the team I like best.”

As such, I help businesses use language to win work because I know that better writing makes for better business. A responsive proposal goes beyond compliance to show an understanding of the client’s underlying needs or concerns. It uses persuasive writing and design to demonstrate how we will help clients achieve their business goals. Usually, I witness AEC firms underestimating and underinvesting in proposals, then calling in an expert far too late on a doomed rescue mission.

Aside from recognizing the critical role proposals play in boosting profits, this is what firms need to know.

  • Your technical staff are trained to write poor proposals. Generally, their skills lie in engineering, mathematics, and science. They are highly logical and detail-oriented problem solvers. Furthermore, they are taught to record and share their solutions and innovations in a report format. This report has a clear structure: background, equipment, approach, results, and conclusion. Consequently, technical staff not only write this way but think this way. The catch? This is the opposite of an effective proposal structure. Proposals are persuasive marketing documents that convey the advantages of a firm’s services to win competitive business. While the proposal does explain and inform, it first and foremost persuades. Its structure looks more like this: conclusion, results, and approach; background and equipment are tacked on at the end, if space allows. Is it any surprise your technical staff fail to produce persuasive, winning proposals? Persuasive writing presents content according to clients’ needs with the most important messages first: the benefits. This is a reversal of the process most technical staff are taught. Firms that invest early in professional proposal services are more likely to submit persuasive bids and increase win rates.
  • Your proposals have the wrong goal. When I’m training proposal coordinators, they are often surprised by my declaration that the goal is not to make the client read the document. This is a hard pill to swallow. Let me put it this way: On top of your full-time responsibilities, do you have the bandwidth to read 10 30-page documents? You don’t, and neither do your clients. Our goal isn’t to make the client read our proposal but to make the client understand our key messages. I call it the 3x3x3 rule. Let’s assume clients will remember three key messages as long as they see them three or more times in the three minutes they’re likely to spend skimming your proposal. Use this rule to steer decisions about content and placement. Challenge your reviewers to spend three minutes or less in a document and tell you what takeaways they were able to glean. Do those takeaways align with your win strategy? If not, you have work to do.
  • Which brings us to the final point: Your proposals are ineffective because they’re not “skimmable.” When my sister was applying to her college internship, I gave her the culmination of my professional wisdom in a single sentence: If you want something from somebody, make it easy for them. Again and again, I read proposals that dare the reader to dig out the core messages, as if a mid-day treasure hunt is just what our clients crave. Effective proposal writing comprises clear, concise, and persuasive content that is easy for the reader to find. In another training exercise, I lead proposal writers through client evaluations, asking participants to locate material an evaluator pulled from the proposal to the scoring sheet. In nearly every case, the client cited content from the first three sentences or a call-out box of a given section. Winning proposals make it easy on evaluators by giving them what they want right away. They employ theme statements, headings and subheadings, call-out boxes, and a compliance matrix to guide and flag the reader. For the audience, this is a gamechanger. If you made my life this easy at the proposal stage, you’re more likely to make it easy during the project itself.

The clearer you make a message, the faster a decision can be made. The more seriously you take proposal development, the more likely you are to increase profits.

Mercedez Thompson finds and shares a firm’s unique stories to connect with clients and build business. She is a proposal manager at Michael Baker International, where she leads capture planning and proposal development for company strategic opportunities. Before entering the AEC industry, Mercedez taught writing at the University of Nevada and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She earned her master’s degree in English from Indiana University and her bachelor’s degree in literature from Ohio State University. You can find her on LinkedIn or her blog at

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