After last week’s entry, you might think that people who evaluate sales proposals live a frustrating life. You might be right. But while there are lots of things that annoy an evaluator, there are things that can make even the most jaded evaluator all warm and fuzzy inside—things like high quality, easy-to-evaluate proposals. So this week we’re again looking at our informal poll of commercial and government evaluators, but this time we’re listing out the top ways a proposal can make them happy. Why? Because a happy evaluator is a generous evaluator. Here were the top six:
1. Compliance Matrix
If you were evaluating one of your company’s proposals, wouldn’t you want a simple way to make sure the document is compliant with the Request for Proposal (RFP) requirements? Sure you would! So give one. A well-crafted compliance matrix saves evaluators time, shows them you’ve been thorough, and demonstrates that your proposal is worth looking at in detail. Score!
Here’s the deal: At their most basic, compliance matrices are tables listing each RFP requirement/question, the proposal section where each requirement is addressed, and if/how you’re compliant with the requirement. While formats and levels of detail vary, we suggest a structure with four basic columns: RFP Section, Question/Requirement, Proposal Response Number, and Compliance Notes. If the proposal will be submitted in PDF format, make each proposal response number a link to the corresponding heading in the proposal.
Tip: Maximize the benefit of your compliance matrix by also using it as an internal project planning tool. Here’s how: Add columns to the right of your matrix for Response Notes/Outline, Graphics Needs, Response Author, and Due Date. Use the document throughout the proposal process to organize assignments, track progress, and ensure complete responses. When your proposal is finalized, just strip out these columns and your compliance matrix is done. Easy! Want a template to use? Here’s one!
2. Structure and Navigation
Evaluators like things neat and organized, so use numbered headings in your proposal sections. They allow evaluators to easily skim answers, find key information, and jump to different sections without having to leave breadcrumbs. If done right, they can also highlight important differentiators and content that may have otherwise been overlooked.
Here’s what you do: If numbers and headings were included in the RFP, mirror them in your proposal (in the order requested). If they weren’t included, create some. Use clear, informative headings for each section, answer, and subtopic within each answer. Depending on the length and depth of content, we suggest two or three heading levels and no more than four. Preface each heading with a number indicating its level and sequence. For instance, the first subheading in section 1 would be labeled 1.1, the second 1.2, and so on. Then any subheadings in section 1.1 would be labeled 1.1.1, 1.1.2, and so on. Make sense? Good.
Tip: Improve your subheadings by making them active phrases that emphasize a benefit to the prospect. For example, instead of Account Management Process, try something with a strong verb: Reducing XYZ Company’s Costs with Timely Communication and Issue Resolution. With a few keyboard clicks, your headings can provide navigation and persuasion. Yahtzee!
3. Direct, V-Shaped Answers A proposal is not a novel or term paper; you don’t need an introduction or conclusion for each answer. The reason is that evaluators typically don’t read in a linear way. They jump around looking for specific information, and they want it quickly. So cut to the chase and provide direct, prospect-focused answers, followed by your most important supporting evidence/details. Think of it as a “V” structure—information with the most importance on top, then less below. This structure not only makes the evaluator happy; it also ensures that your key points aren’t buried and overlooked.
Here’s an example: If an RFP asks you to provide your experience serving organizations similar to the prospect, your answer shouldn’t provide three paragraphs of context before indicating your relevant experience. Instead, your first sentence/paragraph should summarize your relevant experience, and then subsequent sentences/paragraphs should provide details of the experience from most to least important.
Tip: Structuring your information in descending order of importance can also be a useful tool for making answers more concise. Think about it: If you outline an answer and list five areas of supporting evidence, you may find that the last area can be deleted. Simple. Now you have a stronger, more succinct answer.
4. An Answer to the “So What?” Question
Evaluators want to quickly find your key points; however, they also want to know why those points matter to them. So make sure your answers are direct, concise, and connect to the prospect’s needs and desired outcomes. Consider the example in No. 3 above: The first sentence/paragraph of the answer should summarize your relevant experience and briefly explain why that experience is important and how it will benefit the prospect. That way the evaluator knows why they should care, which strengthens your differentiators and eases the evaluation process.
Tip: An easy way to determine the true benefits of your differentiators is to play the “so what” game. It goes like this: Start with a differentiator and ask yourself why it matters to the prospect. Keep going until you can’t any longer. Let’s try it with the above example. Your company has a ton of experience serving similarly structured organizations, so your answer opens by saying as much. But so what? Well, that experience means you won’t need as much time to become familiar with the prospect’s operations. But so what? Well, that will save the prospect time and money. Bingo, you’ve hit the true benefit.
5. A Concise, Relevant Executive Summary
Executive summaries are among the most important parts of a proposal, and often the only section read by all evaluators. So why do so many organizations treat them like an afterthought? Or worse, not include them at all? Yikes. Evaluators want an executive summary, but they don’t want it to be a marketing brochure, a long-winded narrative, an introduction to the proposal, a place for trashing your competition, or a section aimed only at senior management.
What evaluators do want to get from an executive summary are a positive impression and a clear, concise explanation of why you’re the best fit. In effect, they want to be conditioned to score high. So give them what they want. Convey an understanding of their real challenges and objectives, and show them why your key differentiators will help them achieve their desired outcomes. Answer the “so what” question, and give them confidence. And while you’re at it, be brief. While the importance of an executive summary may tempt you to use the “more is better” approach, resist it. Otherwise you’ll dilute your message and lose your readers.
Tip: Make the executive summary the first, not last, proposal section you draft. It’ll force you to fully develop your value proposition and top differentiators up front, allowing you to craft more consistent and persuasive proposal sections. Then once your other proposal sections are drafted, flip through them and only read headings, section summaries, and callouts. Does each reinforce the value proposition and one of the differentiators from the executive summary? If they do, chances are you have a powerful, evaluation-friendly document. Nice.
6. Consistency in Language and Content
Evaluators love proposals that are consistent, logical, and straightforward. So don’t confuse or distract them. Some distractions come in the form of inconsistent word usage, such as using multiple terms for the same person, concept, or item. Others come in the form of inconsistent facts or messaging, such as confusing cause–effect relationships or contradictory statements. Still others come in the form of inconsistent formatting or numbering, such as incorrect section numbers or references.
The most common reason for these distractions is the lack of a dedicated editing step in the proposal process. We’re not talking about a quick proofread two hours before the proposal goes final. We’re talking about a focused, process-driven edit of the entire draft. There is no reason to undercut the hard work put into a proposal, so build at least one full day of editing into your schedule (we recommend one day per 50 pages of text). It’s well worth the effort. Really.
Tip (and Shameless Plug Alert): A great way to ensure you have consistent, evaluator-friendly proposal content is by hiring a professional proposal editor, writer, or trainer. You know, like the ones at Freestyle Editorial Services. Contact us today to discuss how we can make your company stand apart from the competition.