Writing Proposals – avoiding common pitfalls

Every advisory business has to write proposals at some point in order to persuade clients to buy from them. Proposal writing is both an art and a science. It’s easy to follow a simple formula for the headings, sub headings and how the argument to persuade the prospect to buy from you. But this is often spoiled by poor use of English. Additionally, the ‘art’ part of the written document is to include subtle sales messages to reinforce the view that you are the best possible supplier for this job.

I have just finished working with a client on how they can improve some aspects of their proposal writing: Here is a list of general points relating to proposal documents that you may find useful.

1. Avoid jargon and catch phrases. E.g. “something this business must turn around”…. literally this means nothing because a business can’t turn round. And “From the ground up”. And “We have been through the current website”. Have you? Or do you mean “We have reviewed the current website”? Check what you are writing isn’t ludicrous when taken literally. (A classic from a chartered surveyor client “The client cannot move premises because they are locked into their current office.” What he meant was that they had a lease commitment that they could not break which acted like a lock-in! But it made me laugh.

2. Americanisms are unnecessary in the UK. [I particularly hate their ability to turn nouns into verbs e.g. to schedule a date – urgh!]. Microsoft defaults to American English. Change your set-up. And beware Powerpoint’s spell checker. In early versions it was not possible to turn on a UK English dictionary. Rationalize, reorganize, utilize are all words that are frequently used. BUT, if the client is American, it may be appropriate to customize the document to their language expectations. Labor and Harbor are other common words.

3.  Phrases such as “We would…” and “We can….” sound conditional.  It is rather better if you want to appear like a larger business to say “My Company will”, “My Company recommends….”. Treat the company as a SINGULAR not a plural entity. Imagine there is a man called My Company as you proof read text and that you are describing what he does. Similarly the client is also singular. “Shell wants a campaign” not “Shell want a campaign”.

4. A word on apostrophes. These are for possessive nouns (Rebecca’s book) and not for plurals (user’s, PDF’s). Beware using when talking about decades: 30s and 40s these do not have apostrophes. An easy check is to write the number out as a word – thirties has no apostrophe and so the numeral won’t either.

5. Short sentences have greater impact.

6. Capital letters for proper nouns. E.g. the Government (but better still, specify which country’s Government)

7. Try to avoid words like ‘etc’ and ‘and so on’. Either complete the list of things you are using as an exemplar or finish off the sentence properly. E.g. “We will visit the marketing department, sales team, admin support desk, Chairman’s office etc” and replace it with “ we will visit the marketing department, sales team, admin support desk and all the other departments who will use the website.” Or just write out the full list of departments you will visit.

8. Positive sounding language. This is a personal sales tip that I’ve used time and again. Write the proposal as if the client has already agreed to work with you. Replace “we would do…..” to “we will….” and it all sounds so much more confident.

9. ‘Name drop’ your clients’ names into the text to prove your experience.

10. Create a “Reasons for working with My Company” section. Set out clearly what you can offer that will give the prospective client reassurance and confidence in order to buy from you.

11. And a thought on a possible additional section entitled “How we judge success” or “How you will know that the job has been successful”. I find that most clients who buy in expert services are doing so because they are less expert than you in your area of specialism. This means that they may be less able to judge the importance of your listed suggestions. Therefore making it easy for them to understand a new concept and what it does and how they can justify buying it in an un-patronising way is a particular knack that the best proposals do well.

12. Making a strong point and emphasising possible pitfalls is also important because it demonstrates your expertise. Take the sentence “It is also important to maintain standards such as usability and accessibility which can be corrupted as a website grows”. Do you think the pitfall of those standards slipping is better presented in this re-working? “It is also important to maintain standards such as usability and accessibility because these risk becoming corrupted as a website grows.”

And, to end, I suggest you take two proposals your company wrote a year ago and re-read them carefully.  How well did you do?

(Did you spot my spelling in point 2 about Americanisms?)

Golden Questions

A “Golden Question” is one in which the answer tells you more than the question itself would imply.

Useful for research, discovery and us biz dev types who need to quickly assess new prospects and whether they will buy from us.

I learnt about it from Don Peppers who integrated it into his CRM method (Identify:Differentiate:Interact and learn: Customise).  His classic was to find out whether a customer had a high propensity to buy premium brand pet food.  The question was “Do you buy your pet a christmas present?”.  Neat, isn’t it?  Those who do, are more likely to lavish spend on their animals than those who don’t.  Simple.
And so how have I used it with my clients?  They are mainly working in B2B areas and so the question set needs revising depending on your particular positioning and needs.

#1 Digital Agency selling high end technology back-end services

Julian wanted to be able to find out whether a prospect wanted a simple web site or one with higher functionality.  Working with him, I developed two questions to help him quickly filter people:

Question 1: What was the date of your first website?

Question 2: How many times since then have you re-launched or substantially revised it?

Why does this work? With the first quesiton, he can tell if your company is an early adopter or late arrival for the new web technologies.   And with the second, he can assess your likely sophistication as a web user for marketing.  Each time you re-launch a website the functionality is improved. Relaunching every 2 years means you are more likley to be interested in moving to leading edge features.

So, how does your company stack up against his questions?

#2 Agency working with start-up web businesses

These lads want to be able to find out how far down the road you are to getting your website functional.  THey also need to find out the degree of technological sophistication of the person they are talking to.  Pitching yourself too “techy” and you’ll quickly lose the interest of a punter but being too simplistic has the same effect.  Similarly their services vary depending on the stage of the business and how close to launch the start-up business is.

Question 1: Have you got your requirements document written?

Question 2: Are you happy with your user numbers?

The first establishes business stage and sophistication and the second devines the success of the marketing support put into an already functioning site.

Now what golden questions are right for your business?  Can you use them to shorten your prospecting time frame and more quickly find prospects who have the potential to become customers?