Building A Strong Proposal: Don’t Hang The Drapes Before You Dig The Foundation

My husband and I are in the planning stages of building an addition to our house. So far we’ve only contracted with an architect to draw up plans, but that isn’t keeping me from thinking about paint colors and window treatments, not to mention having a permanent home for kitchen appliances that shuffle in and out of the garage. Structuring a strong, impactful proposal document isn’t that different from planning an addition.

Our increasingly virtual business world has made in-person sales meetings less likely, so proposals often serve as surrogate interactions with the customer. Proposals must deliver personality and pizzazz along with facts and figures. It’s easy to fall into the trap of prioritizing personality: color schemes, charts and images, animations, and the like. However, retrofitting your pizzazz into your proposal could double or even triple your workload- and take your focus off the value story. In building houses and proposals, you must dig the foundation before you hang the drapes. 

Digging The Foundation: The Customer 

Everything begins and ends with your customer. What are their goals? Their pain points? What is your company’s relationship with the customer, and is this a potential benefit or a stumbling block? What is going on in their industry, and what impacts could these trends have? What are their competitors doing? Digging into the background customer information and competitive intelligence in the beginning will make it easier to customize the proposal to their specific needs and goals.  

Customer-provided information, especially RFP documents, can help you quickly identify key customer stakeholders, goals, and pain points. It also gives you the building parameters: desired number of pages and format, required responses, communication guidelines, submission instructions, and the timeline. The customer may be envisioning a mansion, or they could simply want a shed. With these parameters in mind, you can begin aligning internal stakeholders, subject matter experts, and other resources. You can also determine the project timeline by working backward from the deadline. 

You should also try to put yourself in the shoes of the customer stakeholders reviewing the proposal. What would they be looking for, and what would the potentially see as red flags? A President/CEO will have slightly different priorities than the Chief Financial Officer, and the priorities of both may be different than those presented by other department heads. Sometimes these priorities are complementary (everyone wants a solution that isn’t disruptive to the business); others are competing (the CFO wants to keep costs down, but the VP in Technology prefers a technology solution that requires less maintenance even though it costs more). A strong proposal document outline will take both into account.  

All this fact-finding and speculation establishes the footprint of your proposal structure. The customer requirements define what you need to do; knowledge of the customer defines what you should do; and the timeline (and available resources) defines what you can do. 

Building The Structure: The Four Load-Bearing Walls of Proposal Planning 

Building up from the foundation, the proposal structure depends on four main load-bearing walls: compliance/responsiveness, differentiators, solution, and pricing. Remove a load-bearing wall from your proposal and your response will fall and fail. 

  • Compliance with customer requirements, including RFPs and supplemental requests, is crucial because noncompliance is often grounds for throwing out the proposal. Even if the proposal isn’t thrown out, a company that doesn’t take the time to follow the instructions offers the customer a sneak peek of the service they can expect. (Spoiler alert: it isn’t good.)
  • Differentiators are what set your company and solution apart from your competitors. It’s not enough to say you’re better- you must prove it. Quantifying and qualifying the benefits of working with your company is important because the customer won’t just take your word for it.
  • Solutions must emphasize the benefits for the customer over the features. Now is not the time to wax rhapsodic: write clearly and succinctly.
  • Pricing should always be transparent and tied to value. You’re not just telling your customer what your solution costs, you’re continuing to demonstrate its worth.   

Hanging Drywall: The Value Story 

With the initial framework finished, you’ll have a better idea of how to tell a story that ties everything together. The story should be like drywall: clean, smooth, and consistent throughout the document. Your outline will pull elements from the foundation and the load-bearing walls to show how your company can help the customer resolve its pain points and meet and exceed its goals. Your customer-focus should be evident on every page, from the Executive Summary to the Appendices. 

Measuring For The Drapes 

Now that the value story drywall is in place, you can finally begin measuring for drapes. With a clearer picture of the structure, you can decide what elements fit the narrative, are relevant to the solution, and complement the value messaging carried throughout. For example: 

  • What elements will best fit the story? Would a graph make it easier for the customer to see the quantified benefits of a solution? Would adding a case history or quote from an existing customer make your claims more persuasive? 
  • What will resonate with the stakeholders? Would they appreciate a more interactive proposal experience, or are they more traditional?
  • What no longer makes sense? Carefully consider the color palette and review the preliminary images you’ve sourced. Do they serve, or distract, from your message? 
  • What do you have the time and resources to create? Be honest about your resource limitations. If it takes two weeks to create a graphic and the proposal is due in five days, you need to scratch that idea. Being realistic about what you can deliver is one way to reduce team stress. 

Thoughtful, detailed planning is crucial whether you’re planning a proposal or a house addition. You won’t start out knowing where your air fryer is going to go or whether the awesome .gif will be relevant in the final proposal document, but that’s okay. If you want to build a strong, customer-focused proposal, you need to learn to dig the foundation before you hang the drapes. 


 About the Author

Kate Murphy Schaefer CF APMP, CAPMKate is a proposal writer with over 16 years of experience writing and managing proposals. She is also a published military historian specializing in women’s contributions in wars and revolutions.  Connect with her on Linkedin!

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