As proposal industry professionals, we strive to make our proposal stand out and show it’s not a canned response. Often, this means we must rely on sales and account teams to provide information about the customer. But, there’s one angle we can take on our own: researching, identifying and incorporating wording the customer uses in branding, materials and communications into the proposal.
Over the years, I’ve developed a “process” to do this. Depending on my role and the project timeline, I may only have a few minutes, or maybe a few days, to devote to it. You can do this research early, even before the RFx drops. Regardless, it adds value.
Tip: Find somewhere to gather the words, phrases and information you think you may be able to use later. Copy and paste into a blank Word document, create a template form or use OneNote. This saves you time later and helps get your creative juices flowing before you even start writing.
Research and Identify
Start with the materials the customer specifically gave you, including all RFx and procurement documents and email communications. Jot down specific wording the customer uses when identifying their challenges, desired outcomes and plans. Does the company have a specific name for this RFx initiative? Make sure you grab that. Do they refer to internal groups with a specific name? Note that. Keep in mind all respondents have access to these materials, so it’s what you look at beyond these that can take your efforts that extra mile.
Next, check out the customer’s website(s). This may seem obvious, but what are you looking for when you read it? Are you looking at the style of their headings? Are you looking at the way they use punctuation? Are you looking to see if they write formally, casually or maybe throw in some puns? Are you thinking—can I use this when I am writing?
Tip: Sometimes only a subdivision of the customer’s business is relevant to the proposal. Make sure you truly know who your customer is before you begin gathering research. I learned this the hard way. I spent a lot of time gathering information on a college, only to learn later the foundation for the college was our customer, and they operated separately, so the foundation had its own mission and goals. The research I had done wasn’t applicable.
Look at the home page. What words do they use in their branding? How do they describe themselves and what they do? Review the “about us” page(s). Look for missions, values, history, key founders, services, community outreach and testimonials.
Pull words, phrases, program names, initiatives and goals. Look for recurring words, themes and styles. Does the customer use the word “heart” a lot? Do they have a consistent style for headings, such as three words separated by periods, or do they all start with the same word? Does the customer have a name for their strategic plan? Does the customer have a specific program name for their sustainability initiative(s)?
Look at press releases, company leadership pages and newsletters. Sometimes you can find quotes from executives that could (even loosely) relate to the goals of the proposal. What’s better than showing the evaluators your solution matches leadership’s vision?
Outside of the customer’s website, search the news. How do others perceive them? Were they sued? Did they just acquire a company? Are there new executives? These can be helpful with positioning.
You can also brainstorm and research words related to the industry/type of business, such as medical, financial, recreation or schools. These can be transferrable to other proposals for similar customers.
During the writing phase, I have my research on one screen, consistently referencing it to see if I can incorporate those words instead of words I would typically use. Sometimes I take a word or phrase and use that as inspiration for a heading or direction. Sometimes I draft the main message and then go back through to “sprinkle” in the customer’s wording.
In standard content, I look for colorful words that aren’t product specific. For a customer in the aviation industry, “flavor” or “orchestra” could potentially be swapped for words affiliated with flying. A proposal page titled “current and future initiatives” can be changed to “Drilling into current and future initiatives” for a customer in the oil industry. The wording in a proposal for a cruise company could say “aboard” instead of “on”. Changes can be subtle. The opportunities are limitless.
Not all teams love this approach. I’ve found it helps to proactively tell your team what and why you are doing it—explain its strategy. Put a comment in the draft indicating the significance of the wording you used.
Other teams love it. I’ve had sales teams join in, helping us think of more applicable wording! It can be really fun.
It’s all about balance. Work in customer and industry wording where you can. Don’t overdo it. Don’t throw it in where it doesn’t make sense or takes away from the win strategy. If you are getting a lot of pushback or questions, maybe it’s not the best approach on that project, and that’s ok!
Incorporating the customer’s wording and writing style shows we’ve done our homework and helps create a relatable, custom proposal.
This is your time to be creative and add value. It can break up the “churn and burn” feel of the proposal world. It reminds us that every word of a proposal is strategic. How will you weave in the customer’s words in your next proposal?
Samantha Senkow, CF APMP, is an RFP Response Team Manager for PNC Capital Advisors. She has 11 years of experience in proposal writing/management, content management and sales support in the financial and technology industries. She was awarded certifications for the APMP Foundation-Level and the CFA Institute Investment Foundations™.