There’s always a nervous wait after you submit an important proposal. Will the customer ‘get it’? Will they like it? Have you made any horrible mistakes?
No matter how many boxes you tick, or how much the customer likes you, they’re still going to have to justify buying from you to someone else.
So one of the most important things you can do in your proposal is to help the customer to on-sell you to the people they will also need to convince.
Therefore, the key messages of your proposal must be so clear that anyone can explain them – even someone who doesn’t understand what you do, doesn’t have time to read the proposal in detail, and is distracted with other things at the time they read it. (Sounds like most customers to me).
In many organisations, there are a lot of complex processes that sit around the review of large bids and competitive tenders. These are important to achieve compliance and maximise evaluation score, and they can't be done at the last minute.
But what happens when you get to the end? How can you make sure that your proposal is the one that stands out and makes it to the top of the pile?
The best way to make sure your messages are coming through strongly enough is to get someone to give you feedback before you need to ship your proposal.
However, getting useful feedback isn’t easy, and the process is filled with potential land mines because we often have relationships with the people we are seeking feedback from.
For example, if you ask your partner, "Does my bum look big in this?" the correct answer is, of course, "No." It's the only answer that has the least chance of providing offence and of damaging the relationship, even if it isn’t entirely true.
Georgia Murch, author of Fixing Feedback, says there are four types of feedback, and not all of them are helpful:
- Praise is a personal, favourable judgment; it’s general and vague, and doesn’t encourage discussion. Praise is focused on the person, and based on opinions and feelings. Examples are “You did a great job!”, “Well done on that proposal”, or “Thanks so much for doing that”.
- Positive constructive feedback is information specific, issue focused and based on observation. It explains why you did a good job, why the proposal was good or why you are grateful for someone doing something. You now know what you can do next time to replicate this behaviour.
- Negative constructive feedback is also objective, specific and non-judgmental, but this time it’s about what needs to improve. To be constructive, it’s not accusing, and focuses on outcomes - what you need to do better, or less of, and what you need to work on.
- Criticism is a personal, unfavourable judgment based on feelings and opinions. It has no examples, no specifics and is rude and unhelpful.
Murch says criticism is often laced with the phrase “I'm just being honest” as an excuse to verbally assassinate someone. “No one likes you. Just being honest”. "This proposal is terrible. Just being honest".
How to get constructive pre-submission feedback on your proposal
The ultimate judge of a proposal is the customer. But you can do a test run of their likely reaction first, by getting pre-submission feedback from an ‘unreasonable friend’.
An unreasonable friend is someone who wants to see you succeed, and is prepared to give you constructive feedback – both positive and negative. (As Oscar Wilde said, “True friends stab you in the front”).
It’s best if your unreasonable friend has never seen the proposal before.
Give it to them, with instructions to read it as if they were the customer. Reassure them that you’re simply after their reaction; you’re not asking for editing or proofreading, or for detailed written feedback.
Once they have read it, ask them a single question:
“Can you give me three reasons why you would choose us, based on reading this proposal?"
If they can, that’s great. Your job is done.
If they can’t, ask them to name the three things they most recall from reading the proposal.
You’ll discover where your proposal is too heavy on the technical details, at the expense of the key commercial messages you really want the buyer to remember – and you’ll know exactly where you need to improve.