Canadian Consulting Engineer

Proposal Writing Choose Your Battles

March 1, 2013
By By Tara Landes, Bellrock

If the heady anticipation of the next Request for Proposal you will respond to is what gets you out of bed in the morning, you can stop reading this article now. However, if the thought of writing an RFP evokes a feeling somewhere between...

If the heady anticipation of the next Request for Proposal you will respond to is what gets you out of bed in the morning, you can stop reading this article now. However, if the thought of writing an RFP evokes a feeling somewhere between irritation and passionate hate, keep reading. If you are following all of the best practices I’m about to describe and still having that kind of reaction, then I’ll buy you lunch to find out why.

Having spent the better part of a decade helping engineering firms improve their business development systems, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most egregious training gap that universities perpetuate is in not preparing graduates to create proposals. They simply do not teach them the essential writing skills they need to win more business. This gap in the curriculum seems odd, because any practicing engineer knows that whether writing an RFP or responding to one, concise, efficiently composed and relevant responses are a successful consultant’s stock-in-trade.

The lack of attention to the process of winning work continues throughout most professionals’ careers. After all, no-one becomes an engineer because they love writing proposals. Nevertheless, those who excel at proposal writing prove themselves invaluable to the companies they work for and are more likely to accelerate through the partner track. Moreover, companies that give the technical skills of business development the same importance as the technical skills of engineering … well, they are unstoppable.

Is your firm using the following essential proposal tactics?

The “Go/No Go” Process

“Go/No Go” is a well trodden concept in the consulting world, and for our purposes is the method a company uses to decide whether a given RFP is worth the effort and resources required to respond. At Bellrock, when we evaluate RFP opportunities for engineering firms, the Go/No Go process is one of the first things we assess.

First thing on the agenda is to use a standard series of questions about the prospect. Your gut instinct should be the final test applied to the analysis of any opportunity — never the first.

A typical Go/No Go tool uses 10-15 questions. If the opportunity scores less than about 70%, the engineering firm knows they are unlikely to win the work, and will not invest the time writing a proposal.

The questions might include:

Q. Have we worked with the potential client before?

If the prospective client or project is familiar, the bid can be customized to the specific needs of the decision makers involved. You have the advantage of knowing if the project lead prefers to receive detailed written reports that he can customize and forward along to his boss, or whether he is the hands-on type who wants to participate in the planning and decision-making at each step.

Q. Do we know their decision-making processes?

Do not mistake this as simply learning whether they use a one or two envelope system. What do you know about how the actual evaluation process works? For example, will each member on the evaluation committee score:

– each and every proposal in its entirety;

– some of the proposals but not all; or

– each proposal will be divided by section, i.e. evaluator #1 scores all of the section 1’s, evaluator #2 evaluates all of the section 2’s, etc?

Q. Is there a unique selling proposition our firm can offer to stand out from the competition?

The simplest way to differentiate your firm is to employ the foremost technical expert in the relevant field, but since only one company can have that advantage, another unique proposition might involve providing local or unique staffing capabilities, offering superior project management or communication processes, or presenting a new twist on the solution the organization is looking for. Whatever your unique selling proposition is, it must be legitimately one-of-a-kind and easy to prove in the written proposal.

The “No Go” process improvement plan

Some RFPs are decided as “No Gos” because the opportunity was not attractive. Other opportunities are highly interesting, but the firm has little chance of winning. In the latter case, the best run companies take a few minutes to determine what they can do to improve their chances the next time around and develop a strategic plan for improvement. It may mean attracting a leading technical expert — which can be expensive. It is more likely that a firm will want to further develop its relationship with the prospective client to improve their chance of proceeding with a proposal next time.

Juniors on the proposal team

Many companies mistakenly assign proposal writing responsibility to senior staff — after all, they have the most connections and the most experience. However, writing the first draft of a proposal is usually a time consuming task that does not require the dedication of the company’s most experienced (and expensive) minds. The best companies use their senior talent only at the end of the proposal writing process. It is simpler and faster to edit a proposal than to write one from scratch.

Liberal and automated use of boilerplate

Usually half a proposal you write is made up of CVs and information about past projects. Ninety per cent of this content is standard boilerplate, and if the information is kept well organized administrative staff can quickly and easily pull it for a proposal. Companies typically use keywords to categorize their past projects. Some use technical categories (type of project, date, size). Other companies are client-focused, using keywords typically found in the RFP itself, such as examples of being on time or on budget, creating a unique design, demonstrating efficient project management, using local staff, etc. References and testimonials are also cross-referenced in the database, so those relevant to the RFP can be liberally scattered throughout the proposal.

Custom cover letters and executive

summaries — every time

These two documents make up your proposal’s first impression. It is critical that they speak specifically to the client’s requests and concerns. Woe to the company that thinks these two documents are unnecessary because they are not explicitly requested. Almost as egregious an error is using this first impression to talk about your own company instead of talking about the client and their specific requests.

A great cover letter is as unique as the opportunity it is addressing. This is not the time for boilerplate. A terrible cover letter reads something like this:

“We greatly appreciate the opportunity to bid on this <insert project name>. <insert verbatim project description from the RFP thinking this “proves” you understand their needs>. Our company has been in business for <number of years> and is the foremost in the market. With our unmatched ability to bring projects in on time, on budget and with the utmost quality, we are confident that we can offer exactly what you seek. We look forward to discussing this opportunity with you further. Thank you again for the opportunity.”

If I were in the evaluator’s shoes, I’d file a proposal with that cover letter in the round bin without bothering to read the content. The service provider clearly has not taken anything but the most cursory glance at what I asked for, and I can only imagine how that would translate into the quality of the actual work.

As long as the economy remains turbulent, everyone can use a refresher on best practices for writing proposals. Whether you are a recent graduate or a grizzled veteran, see how you measure up against the checklist of proposal writing tactics in the sidebar on p. 35. Do you use them consistently? Do they work? We have found that companies ignore these tactics at their peril, while those who use them spend less time writing proposals, win inter
esting, profitable projects more often and attract higher caliber talent.cce

Tara Landes is the President of Bellrock, a boutique management consulting firm, based in Vancouver that specializes in training engineers to enjoy being sales people. E-mail,


Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories