Winning cover letters

Feb 21, 2021

Create client-focused cover letters that build trust, provide clear client benefits, and connect to your client’s broader goals or vision.

A few months ago, I was invited to present on cover letter writing as part of a (re)skilling program for AEC professionals. Like a lot of presentations this year, mine was virtual and inspired by the COVID-19 work environment. The program was motivated by the fact that many firms, in an effort to stay lean during the uncertainty of COVID, were asking more of their employees. Responsibilities expanded and hiring halted.

Quite suddenly, employees who haven’t had an active role in proposal development in some years were being asked to participate in the planning, writing, and submitting of proposals. The “new normal” is forcing firms to do business differently; and not surprisingly, that business requires proficient writing skills. Perhaps you understand this challenge all too well and want to ensure that even though proposal development may fall outside your typical duties, adapting and pivoting in this new environment is crucial to success.

That’s where I come in. As a proposal management professional, I know that better writing makes for better business. I also understand that the type of writing that makes for good business is not necessarily intuitive, but it can be learned and easily adopted. Moreover, study after study shows that cover letters are the most read part of any proposal. So, if we need to improve our writing skills, cover letter writing is a great place to start.

The cover letter is your first impression. It determines whether an evaluator takes the time to review your proposal or just flips through it before moving on. An effective cover letter can win a project because without it, your proposal doesn’t get read.

First, let’s begin with the easiest ways to blow it.

  • Focusing on ourselves when trying to persuade others. The easiest and most common mistake is to spend the most valuable real estate of the entire proposal – that first page – talking about your firm, its accolades, and general experience. In fact, you should only talk about your firm insofar as you can solve the client’s problem. So, shift the focus to the client, their issues and challenges, and then deliver your solution in terms of the client’s needs.
  • Making it difficult for our readers to find what they need. Readers are raiders. They want to get in and get out. As such, many might closely read only your cover letter. Do not make them go searching for why they should choose your firm. Define the benefits of working with you right there on that first page, making it easy to justify the contract award. Clear, concise writing that answers the question “Why us?” makes it easy on our readers and yields quicker decisions.
  • Appearing uninvested while asking others to trust us. Another way to blow it is with careless, incorrect writing. You may not think a few grammatical mistakes will cost you, but consistent mistakes send the message that you are careless, uninvested, or lazy. On the other hand, a well-edited, error-free document builds trust in your ideas and services. Preferably, a cover letter should be drafted pre-RFP and revised a handful of times over proposal development. At least three different sets of eyes should land on it before it hits the client’s desk.

So, how do we avoid these mistakes? By creating client-focused cover letters that build trust, provide clear client benefits, and connect to our client’s broader goals or vision.

The simplest way to write a compelling cover letter is to follow the Triple Play method.

  1. Client first. Build trust by showing an understanding of the client’s issues, hot buttons, challenges, and purpose. The first section of any cover letter should describe the client’s problem in detail, honing in on the project’s challenges and demonstrating knowledge of the big-picture purpose or long-term goal. You should use one to two paragraphs to do this.
  2. Why us? Next up, sell your firm. Justify the decision to award your firm the contract through thoughtful solutions and specific benefits backed by evidence. Be specific about how you plan to solve the client’s problems and what the client gets by partnering with you. Challenge yourself to answer the following two questions: “What makes us better than the competition?” and “Why should the client believe us?” This is the meat of the cover letter and often takes two to three paragraphs. Consider using bullets to make it easy for the reader to digest the advantages of working with your firm.
  3. Move forward. It’s well known that in shortlist interviews, you conclude by asking for the work. This is the proposal’s version of that. In the final section of the cover letter, connect with the client’s vision and demonstrate a commitment to the bigger picture. You may want to quickly summarize what you offer the client, list next steps for starting the project, and/or describe why the client and project are so important to your firm. Do this in one concluding paragraph.

Compelling cover letters are client-focused, concise, and correct. Your job is to center the client and be specific about how you solve the client’s problems, giving the reader exactly what they need to feel confident in choosing your firm. Whether proposal writing is a new responsibility or part of your typical daily tasks, using the Triple Play method as a template can help you create cover letters that connect with your client and win your firm more work.

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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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.