Perfecting the proposal

For most big B2B companies, all marketing work leads up to one final hurdle: the bid. Proposals are therefore perhaps the most important thing to get right, yet all too often their creation and delivery is left to the last minute and handled outside of the oversight of the marketing function — and as a result they can fail to live up to the standards you’ve worked so hard to build. Here are three ways to make your bids work harder.

1. Be different

Top tip: make your proposal stand out with a memorable message — and a memorable execution.

Every company bidding for the work will be claiming to be all things to all people: the fastest, most reliable, cheapest. Try to think about the angle that you can own. Are you the innovator, the one with the great people, the best value? Another way to look at it: how will the procurement manager describe your bid in one line to the final decision-maker? How will they remember your pitch when it’s sat under a pile of other bids, last thumbed-through twelve coffees and two pizzas ago?

Having a clear message is the first part of standing out. But the document itself can play a role, too. Think of your bid as a massively important and ultra-personalised direct mail. Just mail-merging the prospect’s name isn’t enough to make your bid look tailored; you have to impress and make yourself look like the kinds of people they would want to do business with. Give it visual and tactile impact; spend a little money — after all, this document could win you millions in revenue.

One client told us recently how, when pitching to a soft drink company, he shipped part of the bid’s documentation inside a custom drinks can. When pitching to a pharmaceuticals retailer, he packaged the bid as if in a medicine box. Gimmicky? Of course it is. But remember that procurement people are bored and stressed at this point of the buying cycle — a little creativity on your part will stick in their minds and may even make them smile.

2. Boil it down

Top tip: create a separate executive summary to go along with the proposal, encapsulating the story in brief.

The typical large IT proposal is, by necessity, hundreds of pages long. It needs to be in order to meet the requirements set out in the RFP. After you deliver it, it’s divided up for the relevant sections to be reviewed separately by the lawyers, the procurement staff, the technical experts. It’s complex, filled with technical detail, pricing tables, and specifications. While this kind of detail is important, it does a very poor job of explaining succinctly exactly what the bid is proposing and why it’s the best choice.

So, we recommend that you create a separate, artworked document to be sent with each proposal, painting the big picture and highlighting the key points in the story. As well as being an aide memoir to those who have already read the whole proposal, it can be handed directly to more senior staff when needed — a true executive summary. But remember that the time for breathless promotional copy has passed. Keep the copy punchy, bold, but ultimately clear, accurate and well substantiated. 

3. Pay attention to the detail

Top tip: convey professionalism in every part of your proposal, from proofreading to printing.

You’re bidding for a massive project that’s strategic to your customer’s business. They’re trusting you to write millions of lines of code, kit out entire data centres, even take on the running of entire business processes for them. There are millions of dollars and years of work at stake. So what does it say when the proposal is obviously bolted together from different sources, run off on the office laser printer that’s nearly out of toner, and filled with typos, contradictory stats, out-of-order page numbers and blurry graphics?

Take the time to build a professional looking bid template with clearly defined styles and standards for graphics, references and structure. Involve a copywriter in the document creation — don’t leave the technical staff and bid managers to struggle with it alone. Keep the jargon, particularly internal product acronyms, to the minimum; use conversational and active language; pay attention to structure and flow. Have the proposal and any other accompanying collateral properly proofread before submitting it, and print and bind it professionally. Doing all this may seem like too much of a time investment at the crunch end of the project, but it’s so important. How much time did your business spend on sales, marketing and product development to get to this point?

The end result

We’re all focused on raising awareness, generating leads and supporting the field — let’s remember that without great proposals, all that work is for nothing. Supporting bids may be hard work — in fact, your organisation may not even think it should be part of marketing’s job description. But as we’ve said before, everything is marketing. There are few parts of the sales cycle that are more important to get right, and bids are one activity in which a marketing perspective can really add value.



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