The top ten proposal mistakes
I frequently read Proposals from existing and potential suppliers as their response to Requests for Proposals or Prices – RFP from my client companies.
These RFP are deliberately drafted to be as straightforward and uncomplicated as possible. So, they should represent a simple golden opportunity for suppliers to present their company and its products or services in the best possible light to an interested audience.
This is an invitation to sell, which should be any company’s dream. Many respond to the invitation very well, and present a compelling business case for their offering. There are more who respond in a way which makes their sales message difficult to understand, and a struggle to decipher. So what are the top ten most common mistakes that suppliers make when responding to an invitation to prepare a proposal? I’ve listed here the ones I see most often.
1. Not reading the invitation or brief
This one is so obvious; but it’s still a constant surprise when I see proposals which clearly show the author has not read the brief fully. I even know of one supplier who told me they had submitted a very low price without even opening the invitation.
2. Not answering specific questions in the brief.
If the brief contains particular questions, such as: “What is your annual widget manufacturing capacity?” the answer is clearly something we’d be like to know. So, without answers to those sorts of questions, it’s hard to assess what the supplier is offering. It also suggests the supplier is not interested in the customer’s needs.
Before contacting a group of particular suppliers, we will have done our research. We’ll already know a fair amount about the supplier company, so that’s why we usually say that any standard presentations may be of interest, but are unlikely to be specific enough to answer what we’d like to know. Despite that, some suppliers still insist on providing twenty pages of standard corporate PowerPoint containing information we already knew.
This can be a challenging one for some to overcome. It’s the “We’ve always done it this way” approach to proposals and presentations. That may be a good approach in some circumstances, but these circumstances are ones of change, so it’s important to be flexible and think of new ways of presenting as well as new ways of engaging customers in business. If there are ten proposals to choose from, you need to stand out, so try a break with tradition.
5. Leaving it to the night before
I’ve found that business people tend to fall into two groups: those who use a to-do list, prioritise their tasks, and allow the right amount of time for important tasks (such as selling to a potential new customer); and those who leave everything to the last possible minute. The latter group usually lose more proposals than they win.
6. Leaving the last client’s name or logo on the proposal
We all have templates or formats we’ve used in the past, and it makes sense to re-use something which has time and effort invested in it. But when I see proposals which still contain logos or references to the last customer the template was used for, it simply says that the supplier has not taken enough time and care over the proposal.
7. Thinking about the proposal from your own perspective only
Most proposals I see concentrate heavily on the view of the author and their company. They begin with long explanations of what they do, how they organise their business, and what process they will apply in providing their xyz service to us. That’s important and relevant, but not as important as how the customer views the world, and what they think they should receive. It’s much better to read a proposal which begins with a well-researched and presented summary of the customer and their needs. Which brings me on to….
8. Not thinking about the customer
If you’re writing a proposal for a C-Level (Chief-anything) Executive at a potential new customer, the Chief has presented to you a business opportunity and a courtesy. The RFP will contain a description of the customer’s business and their needs. But that should simply be a starter for you to write your own research-based summary of the customer’s industry, business, needs, and fit with what you offer. Beginning your proposal by simply writing about what your company does is unlikely to be as persuasive as demonstrating your understanding of someone else’s business.
9. Forgetting the basics
There are some things which seem so obvious, we can often take them for granted, and expect them as a given in any potentially valuable proposal or sales presentation. These are the simple aspects which everyone writing proposals should get right, but it’s very surprising how many don’t. I group them into two straightforward categories: form and content. The content describes what you’re offering, and needs to be clear, simple and short, but with references to separate detail if needed. The form is how your proposal is written and presented, and must have correct grammar, spelling and punctuation, and be set out in a presentation style which is easy to follow. The simple courtesy of thanking the Chief for the opportunity is also something to be encouraged.
10. Not going the innovative mile
In any RFP there will be some standard requirements, questions, and formats. The document will include all of the usual needs for the product or service the customer would like to buy. But, we also always encourage suppliers to suggest new ideas or approaches to a product, a service, or account management which we may not have thought of. Demonstrating that a supplier has spent time and effort thinking about how they can help improve a customer’s business is always a great way to stand out.