7 steps from good to great proposals

Proposal expert Bob Lohfeld offers seven tips to make your proposals better. Hint: It's not about you; it's about the customer.


We all strive to write great proposals and often pat ourselves on the back when our proposals win. Each victory fills us with pride and reassures us that we’re writing great proposals, but that’s not always the case.

Great proposals frequently lose on price, and poorly written proposals win when competition is limited or the bid price is low. Because of this, victory is not always a good indicator of proposal quality.

All great proposals have seven essential attributes, and you can use these attributes to measure the quality of your proposal. Once you make it a practice to measure these attributes, you’ll be surprised at how quickly all of your proposals improve.

To be a great proposal, a proposal must embody the following:

1. Compliant structure – First and foremost, the proposal must be structured to comply exactly with the request for proposals instructions and attachments, thereby making it easy for an evaluator to identify which sections of the proposal correspond to each RFP instruction. All requested topics should be easily found in the proposal outline. Additionally, the proposal outline must provide a place for all information needed to evaluate the proposal. When this information is not requested in the instructions, provide additional sections in the proposal outline so these sections can be mapped easily to the proposal evaluation criteria.

2. Responsive content – Each section of the proposal must fully address what is asked for in the RFP instructions and evaluation criteria. Responsive content must focus on how your company will do the work, not just delineate the work to be done. Sections must address the required topics and not introduce other topics that are not relevant to the subject.

3. Customer focused – The proposal must present your vision of what you are going to do for the customer in a way that makes the customer feel they will be better off with you as their contractor. Place your emphasis on the customer, not you the bidder. Customers always want to read about how the bidder is going to apply its expertise to improve the work and results by providing faster, better, cheaper approaches. They don’t want to read bragging statements about how great the bidder is.

4. Compelling and feature rich – Your solution must be presented in such a way that it has many features that will be evaluated as “proposal strengths.” Features, and their associated benefits, will be scored as strengths because they increase the likelihood of successful mission accomplishment or exceed a contract requirement. Without these features and benefits, a proposal can never be compelling. Be careful to substantiate each feature and its associated benefit with evidence or proof such as providing metrics, quantitative data, etc., otherwise these may be viewed as just fabricated features without any real expected benefit. The proposal must provide a sufficient number of strengths to compel the customer to make the award to your firm.

5. Easy to evaluate – Features of your proposal that you want scored as proposal strengths should be easy to discover by a sleepy evaluator. Showcase these features, tables, and graphics, or use icons so these features stand out from the rest of your proposal. Make it virtually impossible for an evaluator to miss your proposal strengths.

6. Visual communications – The proposal must be attractive, but more importantly, must use visual communications (graphics, tables, icons) to tell your story and present your features that will be scored as strengths. Some evaluators will skim your proposal looking at paragraph headers, tables, and graphics, and they will score your proposal initially on what they see through visual communications. Other evaluators will read text and ignore graphics. A great proposal can be scored by proposal skimmers as well as proposal readers. Use visual communications to bring out the features that will give you a good evaluation score.

7. Well written – The proposal must avoid empty words, be written concisely, convey just what you want the reader to understand, and avoid using the 100+ words that can kill your proposal. (See my article 100 words that kill your proposals.)

For each proposal, I like to evaluate all seven attributes using a red, yellow, green, and blue color score. You can build a simple matrix listing the seven attributes down the left side of the matrix and across the top of the matrix list your normal color reviews (pink team, red team, gold team, etc.). Ask your proposal review team to color score each of the seven attributes when they do their normal color reviews.

When you do this, two things will happen. First, the writers and reviewers will focus on moving proposal quality higher since everyone wants to receive a blue score for each of the seven attributes. You should see a strong trend showing proposal quality improvement as you go through your normal review cycles. Second, you will have a good quantitative measure of the quality of your proposals, and you can correlate proposal quality with your wins to prove that high-quality proposals have a higher win rate.

Everyone knows that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. With a good set of proposal quality measures, you can manage proposal quality and with good proposal quality management, you will see all your proposals and your win rates improve.