What makes customers say “yes” to a proposal?

A proposal is a commercial document with only one purpose – to compel a customer to buy from you. Your proposal is not just your offer, which is what they are buying; this comes from a combination of your product/service, credentials, delivery methodology and price. A proposal also needs a strategy that explains why they should buy; what they will value about your offer, and not just what they get.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines strategy as “a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal.” 

All too often, we forget that the goal of a proposal is to win the work – and not to do the work.

This is understandable, because your proposal usually comes in response to a customer briefing, like a competitive tender, that make it look like all you need to do is build an offer that fits the brief. But this is a trap – don’t fall for it.

Without a strategy that is based on customer value, it’s too easy for the customer to say no if they object to any part of your offer, no matter how small.

It’s also impossible to stand out against competitors who may have a slightly different offer.

With the right proposal strategy, however, all roads lead to “yes”. This strategy must be able to be distilled into three core messages that encapsulate your value, are easy to remember, and represent:

  • What the customer most wants,
  • What you can best deliver, and
  • What positions you most favourably against competitors.

At the intersection of what the customer most wants, and what you can best deliver, is preferences – yours and theirs. What do they value the most from a supplier in your line of business? How do you want them to work with you to deliver the best outcome, in the most efficient way?

At the intersection of what you can best deliver, and what positions you best against competitors, is what you need to promote. What is most valuable about your offer, compared to what the customer is looking for? Where can you offer value that others can't?

Finally, at the intersection of what the customer most wants, and what positions you best against competitors, is what you need to combat. Is there something the customer wants, but you can’t do? Can competitors tell a better story than you in some areas? How can you minimise competitors’ strengths and maximise their weaknesses?

The core messages of a proposal strategy are sometimes called “win themes”, but I very deliberately refer to them instead as Purchaser Value Topics.

It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. When we think about what the purchaser will value, our ideas tends to be more creative and generous, and more likely to help us win. Ironically, when we use the language of “win themes”, we encourage insular and self-serving thinking that is based on loss and scarcity.

Creating Purchaser Value Topics for a proposal is like measuring the customer for a custom-fitted suit.

The finished product fits perfectly – making you seem like a Savile Row tailor, while they look like James Bond.

Like any important message, Purchaser Value Topics need to be carefully crafted. They’ll have the most impact if you think in terms of knocking out competitors first, appealing to the customer second, and talking about yourself last:

  1. COMPETITORS – What’s the biggest bang, our knockout punch, the thing they can’t get anywhere else other than from you? This could be an actual product or service, or an insight. Here you’re looking for breakthrough value that changes the conversation, and breaks the boundaries of what they’ll buy so that you emerge as the only winner.
  2. CUSTOMER – What do they value most from a supplier of your type? What are they prepared to spend money on? This could be tangible or intangible and needs to appeal to their known goals or problems.
  3. YOU/YOUR BUSINESS – What are your strongest and best credentials? How does your methodology, approach or experience lower risk or deliver certainty?

One way to win a competitive piece of business at proposal stage is to understand that buyers always want a bit more.

In their head, they’ve already bought what the brief is asking for.

I once worked with a team of architects that won the contract to redesign a significant library building. We were tendering against 35 competitors - six had significant library experience, while our team had never built a library before. What we did have, however, was a huge amount of experience in retail design, including how retail businesses act as social spaces to attract more customers.

The library in question was in the centre of a major town. While the other bidders pitched mostly on their library credentials, our team was the only one talking about how the library’s role as a social space within the community could be re-imagined. This gave us the leverage to have the conversation no one else was having – and ultimately, to win the work.

As I mentioned recently, many of us spend far too little time developing a proposal strategy.

Often this is because we just don’t know how.

In my training workshops, I teach two ways to develop proposal strategy: a Minimum Viable Pitch process, for when you’re working alone and have limited time, and a team-based strategy process, for when you’re working with a group or consortium and need to canvass multiple inputs and more detailed customer and market intelligence.

If you’d like to know more about these processes for developing proposal strategy, drop me a line (robyn@robynhaydon.com) or give me a call (61 3 957 4585).