I review many business proposals supposedly written to win new business. Most of them are awful. If you are losing too many proposals, take an honest look at what you are including in your proposals. Here are 5 common mistakes I see all too often in business proposals.

1. You Lead with Your Experience

Decades ago someone created a proposal template that unfortunately many business people still blindly follow. You might fall victim to adding, “What Everyone Explains” or what I call WEE. You start with a company background stating when the company started, how many employees you have, and your qualifications. You share the resumes of key individuals and your company’s mission, vision, and how you recruit. You feel pretty great about yourself when you read it.

Including company background in a proposal would be fantastic if the reader was going to create your Wikipedia page. If you feel you must include that stuff, put it at the end (since most proposal reviewers thankfully won’t get that far).

2. You Brag Early and Often

The second WEE mistake is spending a huge amount of time describing your brilliant solution, your qualifications, and how you managed to attract only the smartest people on the planet to your company. Your people are so smart, in fact, you feel compelled to painstakingly share each detail of your masterful solution. You make it clear your solution is the ONLY option if your client wants to avoid disaster. You make claims that some people might find hard to believe such as: you have never completed a project late, never exceeded a budget, or that every client wants to adopt your team members. You probably end the proposal by saying that your people work hard. Good thing you included that nugget!

3. You Include Your Not-So Proprietary Methodology

Horrible proposals with WEE also include a section about your proprietary methodology – which looks amazingly similar to the methodology your competitors use. It might remind readers of widely taught methods in your industry. Your methodology, however, uses different acronyms and a mnemonic that can only be understood if you speak Swahili (I’m not taking shots at Swahili – no need to send me an email about it).

You mention how your people listen to the customer, and get along well with others. While these would be helpful if you were applying to have your staff accepted into a local kindergarten program, these facts may not tip the scales for your customer making a decision about whether or not to select your proposal.

4. You Show a Complicated Pricing Matrix

My favorite WEE in a bad proposal is a complicated pricing matrix. You know, the kind of pricing that requires the use of a spreadsheet and an abacus to calculate the actual cost. You don’t bother matching costs with the customer’s goals. Instead, you associate prices with your costs. The client will love spending quality time with their colleagues trying to determine what they will spend, and then employ a Tarot card reader to determine if you will have actually solved their problems. (Taking a shot at the Tarot card people – Bring it on!)

5. You Followed Their Template

The request for proposal (RFP) is designed to make everyone look the same. You followed the cardinal rule of WEE: You stuck 100% to the questions asked in the RFP. Congratulations, you have succeeded in commoditizing your business. Commodities can only be differentiated by price. You’ll complain when you lose because someone proposed to do the work for 1.037% less than you.

I know. I get it. Those of you who blindly respond to government RFPs are whining right now that you have to follow their rules. Do you crush the industry standard of less than 5% success on blind RFPs with no personal interaction? Unless you do and have become recognized as the master of being the low bidder, stop responding.

Suggestions to Avoid Disaster

If you are committing more than zero of the above atrocities, then here are some suggestions to improve your proposals. This is just a summary of my suggestions. In next week’s article I will expand on these topics:

1) Sell results not resources. Nobody wants to purchase hours of time. What they want is a solution to their problem. Focus on why the customer cares about the solution than you do describing the people on the project.

2) Share Stories of how you have helped others overcome similar challenges. Focus on their challenge and outcome. The buyer wants to identify with the problem and know about the outcome. They will care less about the “how.”

3) Don’t be afraid to be a Purple Cow. If you have not read Seth Godin’s book with the same title you should buy it, read it, and live it.

If your proposals continue to include “What Everyone Explains” (WEE)… well then, you’re just wasting everyone’s time (especially your own). Stay tuned for next week’s article, you might find it’s worth the wait (Hint – I already wrote it).

It’s Your Turn

What are your favorite horror stories of bad proposals and WEE? I want to spend 20 minutes on the phone with the person who shares the best story (even if it can’t be confirmed as true).

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