So you might ask: “Isn’t a cover letter that explains your proposal’s key selling points just an executive summary-lite?”
This post explains how we distinguish between these important opportunities.
Cover letter vs. exec summary
The following comparison assumes your proposal responds to a formal RFP or RFQ. Short and/or informal proposals may have different requirements.
PURPOSE: The cover letter’s job is to get the reader's attention and then position your offer highlighting three or four differentiators while sowing doubt about your competitors' offers. The executive summary’s purpose is more ambitious. It should serve as a mini proposal for the senior decision maker—typically the economic buyer—who may read this section and nothing more. As such, it needs to capture your key selling arguments in non-technical language.
FOCUS: The cover letter focuses on tactical reasons for the purchase; the executive summary ties the purchase to the prospect's strategic goals.
LENGTH: We recommend one or two pages for a cover letter. A typical executive summary is much longer—up to 10 percent of the narrative. Note: If your narrative runs more than 100 pages, consider limiting the summary to about 10 pages to ensure it ends before the reader loses interest. (Separately, your team should take a hard look at any long narrative for opportunities to slim it down, especially if the response is submitted in one volume and/or the evaluation team is small.)
OPENING: Two posts ago we provided a cover letter opening citing the RFP's tactical requirements. Aim higher with the executive summary by showing you understand the prospect organization’s strategic priorities. This demonstrates ability to think at the level of the economic decision maker and senior leadership and to be a strategic partner.
CONTENTS: As described last week, the cover letter cites three or four points of differentiation, and then expands on each. The executive summary uses a similar structure to demonstrate how key aspects of your solution support the prospect’s long-term goals. We’ll provide more detail in next week’s post.
Can a cover letter serve as the executive summary?
Yes. The cover letter can double as an executive summary in very short proposals, or in the case of page-limited proposals where the format doesn’t provide for a summary or introduction. In this case, the cover letter can run to four or five pages and should include visualizations.
Next Week: Developing powerful executive summaries
Does your team struggle to express value in proposals?
Last week’s post argued for avoiding the trite cover letter opening: “Thank you for this opportunity etc.,” followed by self-centred chest pounding—in favour of showing you understand what your prospect seeks to accomplish with the planned purchase.
But a good opening just gets the prospect’s attention. What you say next is crucial. Here’s Part 2 of a successful cover letter.
Become the frontrunner
Use the cover letter to position your offer as the prospect’s best choice.
Do this by addressing big questions connected to the essential ingredients of an ideal solution. Typical question themes include:
Technical solution design
On-time, on-budget implementation
Total cost of ownership
Strategic partnership, future flexibility
Select three or four themes that best differentiate your offer. Then, for each theme, write a lead-in sentence, followed by questions that highlight your strengths. See the example below:
In deciding how best to achieve the important goals for this purchase, we invite you to consider the following:
Support capability: How many proponents can provide truly responsive mobile support over the 5-year contract? Can any match our in-house team of 260 fully equipped, fulltime technicians and guaranteed 4-hour response time?
Close with next steps
In closing, avoid threadbare language such as: “Thanking you again for this opportunity, we look forward blah, blah . . .” Instead, affirm that your proposal meets all the prospect’s requirements, and then do the following, depending on the situation:
For RFP responses, address any formal requirements, such as including the RFP title and number and confirming that the signer is authorized to make the offer
For informal proposals, tell your prospect how long your offer is valid and provide a specific date by which you will follow up
In one page this approach achieves three important goals:
Demonstrates you understand your prospect’s objectives
Connects your strongest selling features to the prospect’s key issues
Creates uncertainty about the strength of competing offers
Proposals are sales documents. And any successful salesperson knows the importance of first impressions. You may make a sale after arriving with soup stains on your shirt, but the odds are against it—especially when selling a solution that’s strategically important for your buyer’s organization.
The cover letter’s job is to create a strong first impression. Here’s how to do it (right)—Part 1.
Two ways not to open
Few people take offense at being thanked. So many bidders play it safe by starting off with: “Thank you for giving XYZ Technologies the opportunity to provide this proposal for . . .”
Here’s the problem: This opening has been done a million times. It’s trite. The reader is going to see you, consciously or subconsciously, as one of the herd. Your proposal may begin to sparkle by paragraph three—but by then you’ve lost any first impression advantage.
Another common opening is “XYZ Technologies is very pleased to provide this proposal for . . .” This opening is equally boring as “Thank you for” and has the added disadvantage of seeming self-centred, rather than client-focused.
Another approach—show you get it
Strategic procurement specialists have told us repeatedly that they begin to pay attention when they see a seller gets it, that he or she really understands the need and is focused on meeting it.
So let’s open with the key strategic requirement our proposal addresses. And let’s do it in a way that’s client-focused, rather than bidder-focused. Here’s an example:
“YourCo has identified the need for point-of-sale technology that accepts all currently available payment methods (including near field), occupies no more than 80 cm2 of counter space and provides software support to integrate new technologies as they emerge.”
Boom—you’ve got the buyer’s attention. He or she knows you understand all the key required features. In the rest of the cover letter you need explain why your proposal is worth reading.
No chest-thumping please
What many bidders do at this point is begin to talk about themselves—how they’re industry leaders, how many units they’ve installed, etc., etc. We’ve seen cover letters that go on like this for paragraphs.
The trick to stay focused on your prospect and the critical factors in the purchase decision.
We’ll show you how in next week’s post.
Need help developing powerful, client focused bid responses?
In his wonderful book, On Writing—A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King describes a bell curve of writing ability. At the high end, two or three sigmas out, stand such titans as Shakespeare and Milton, plus a host of other greats. At the opposite end are those who should find another line of work.
Advice for potentially good writers
Between these two extremes, King believes many writers have potential to move significantly towards the greats. He goes on to prescribe some steps aspiring writers can take to improve.
King published his book in 2000. A decade later, President Obama signed the U.S. Plain Writing Act of 2010, aimed at making communications by Federal agencies easier for the public to understand.
The Act, like all acts, was written by and for lawyers. But the companion Plain Language Guidelines are nothing short of gold for aspiring proposal writers. They hit all the notes we’ve been stressing for years. For example:
• Write the way you speak
• Use the active voice and simplest form of verbs
• Use short, simple words
• Write short, simple sentences and paragraphs
• Use lists, tables and illustrations
• Write separate copy for print and the Web
And they include examples for each guideline.
Won’t make you Shakespeare—or even King
Some writers work magic with language. They’re the Crosbys and LeBrons of their chosen craft. Don’t expect these results from studying and following the guidelines. But do expect to become a much better proposal writer.
Following the guidelines will remove your writing as an obstacle to effective communication. You’ll still need to be strategic, use consistent messaging, stress benefits and understand pain points to produce content that can sell.
Read it aloud
We devoted an earlier blog post to this final bit of advice. It’s a great test of whether the guidelines are having the desired effect. Read anything you’ve written aloud, before hitting SEND or PRINT. (Yes, you really do have to read it aloud.)
If your copy is sound, you won’t run out of breath or stumble on the phrasing. It’s ready. Unleash it on the world! And good luck!
If you follow this blog, you’ll know how important we believe it is to organize and structure content for clarity and reading ease. It all goes back to our mantra: Conserve the bid evaluators’ energy for engaging with your ideas. Don’t burn them out struggling with a proposal that’s hard to follow and understand.
Structure has another purpose
It signals what it’s like to work with your company, particularly how well you organize and manage detail. Here's an example from a recent client project.
One section of the RFP asked proponents to describe their responses to four emergency scenarios, including details of its recovery plan. Each response was limited to one page.
Our client’s subject matter experts (SMEs) had drafted five- or six-paragraph narratives for each emergency. Buried in each narrative were assumptions, steps required, resources needed, time estimates, etc.
Because the scenarios required responses from different divisions of the company, a different SME had drafted each narrative. Not surprisingly, the responses were inconsistent, in both format and the information they contained.
They met the RFP requirement—but weren’t going to impress the evaluators.
Here’s what we recommended—and did
Created a standard format for each scenario
Summarized the scenario in the header
Listed all the assumptions behind the response
Built the action plan into a table with four columns: step number, action, resources and time required, and measures of completion and/or success
Added a notes section below the table for additional information, for example the bidder’s experience and track record resolving similar situations
The power of structure
Formatting the responses created consistency and highlighted gaps in information.
It also sent a powerful message to the RFP evaluators: When confronted with an emergency situation, this bidder immediately begins structuring the information it has, takes steps to learn more if necessary, identifies the resources it needs, and then organizes its action plan into a sequence of logical steps and goes to work. Finally, it has clear measures to identify when the action is complete and successful.
Build templates in advance
In the scenario above, we joined an effort that was already underway. A better approach is to create a simple word table and circulate it to SMEs at kickoff. The SMEs will work more efficiently and produce better, more complete drafts.
Need help getting the most from subject matter experts?
Last week we explained how to set up the Competitive Solutions Matrix (CSM). A CSM helps analyse issues important to the prospect and how your planned response stacks up—and then to develop strategies for stressing competitive advantages and addressing weaknesses.
The outcome is a set of decisions, for example to develop win themes and visualizations—or even to find a stronger subcontractor or component supplier—that will position your offer more favourably with evaluators.
But the CSM is also valuable for another reason—it provides input to help Blue Team Reviewers assess your built-out strategy and affirm (or reverse) the initial decision to bid.
The Vendor Comparison Matrix (VCM) is designed to help Blue Team Reviewers score your proposal strategy against likely competitors’ offers.
Setting up a Vendor Comparison Matrix
Open an Excel worksheet and create the column headers below:
Max points available
Competitor 1 score
Competitor 2 score
Competitor 3 score
Use the RFP to complete rows for the first four columns. Use as many rows as necessary to reflect the granularity in the RFP requirements and scoring system.
You can also complete the issues column—or leave that for the reviewers.
Completing and discussing the VCM
Circulate the fully developed and documented strategy (including the CSM) and the partially completed VCM to Blue Team Reviewers. Ask them to use the strategy, plus their understanding of the prospect, market and likely competitive offerings, to complete the matrix.
Be sure each key team member—e.g. capture manager, project manager and proposal manager—completes a VCM for comparison with the Blue Team consensus.
Facilitate a meeting of the reviewers to discuss their VCMs. Focus on scores that vary widely from one reviewer to another, and on areas where reviewers consider your offer weak. Brainstorm ways to strengthen the offer, and seek consensus on whether to proceed to proposal development.
The value of quantification
Having individuals commit to scores for RFP subsections makes subjective feelings about the offer more concrete and provides a starting point for discussion. Absolute scores are not important—the key is to uncover how reviewers believe your solution stacks up.
Committing to scores also provides a benchmark for post award win-loss reviews and analysis.
The CSM lets you match your solution against each identified prospect need and issue, and then compare your response to competitors’ offerings for each item. The exercise helps pinpoint strengths and weaknesses and inform decisions on how to address them in the proposal.
How to set up a competitive solutions matrix
Open an Excel worksheet and create the column headers below:
Issue: Identifies a specific strategic driver or need, concern, desire or preference expressed by the prospect. Each issue will become a row in the matrix.
Requirement: Describes specifically what the client requires. What’s the ideal response from the client’s point of view?
Available solution: How does your planned solution address the issue?
Gap: What is the gap (positive or negative) between the requirement and your solution? Quantify the gap whenever possible.
Competitor No. 1 Solution: How does your closest competitor address the issue? If you have two or more close competitors, add a column for each. Include any competitors who typically bid low. Highlight competitors with an advantage in addressing this specific issue. In each case identify the gap in the same way as for the previous column.
Differentiators: Identify your advantage/disadvantage relative to highlighted competitors. Include any offsetting factors.
Strategy: How will you address disadvantages and leverage advantages? Options range from stressing advantages to redesigning your solution.
Action: Who needs to do what and when to act on the strategy?
Tips for completing the matrix
Group issues by each main RFP section or, if you develop the matrix during sales discovery, by sections that align with a typical statement of work. Don’t make the mistake of focusing only on the technical solution—RFP issuers usually have important issues around transition (implementation), after sales service, etc.
Because issue identification is a brainstorming exercise demanding a different kind of thinking than issue analysis, populate the first column with as many issues as possible, and then work across the row to analyse each issue.
Make a special effort to use quantifiable criteria for requirements, solutions and gaps, so you can measure the success of any actions you decide to take.
Start building your matrix as early as possible
The ideal time to develop this matrix is pre-RFP. During the needs analysis phase, your prospect can freely express all issues and opinions, including about vendor preferences. This is one of the key benefits of focused pre-RFP pursuit and discovery.
Armed with this matrix, you can build a stronger proposal strategy, including win themes and value propositions. At the proposal kickoff meeting, you’ll be able to inform and align content developers around the main messages likely to convince evaluators of each section.
With this clear direction, they’ll work more efficiently and turn out stronger content.
A senior leader at one of our client companies evidently believed more is more. During proposal reviews, he pushed to include every imaginable feature and benefit, sacrificing page margins, type size and graphics to stay within the page count.
Despite (or, more likely, because of) this leader’s efforts, his team’s proposals never achieved their win rate potential.
Many proposals are page-limited, which, combined with restrictions on minimum font size and margins, penalizes low-value content. But even responses without page limits benefit from restraint.
The last thing an evaluator wants is more words to read and paragraphs to score. What each wants is to find the right information in the right place. If you don’t believe us, ask one.
Here’s how to strike the right balance.
Start with a clear strategy
The situation above reflects a flawed strategy process and a leader who was not involved early on—but reserved the right to have his way in final drafts.
Avoid this situation by developing proposal strategy as soon as you decide to bid and have selected the response team. Use it to map information about the prospect’s strategic needs and issues into the bid proposal plan. Decide which aspects of your offer are unique and which are not.
With this information, conduct a blue team review to get all decision makers aligned on your plan—including the features, benefits and value propositions around which to build your proposal.
And then, as content development progresses, conduct a red team review to test alignment with strategy—not to jam in irrelevant or off-strategy information
Place information correctly
On bid requests of any size, individual evaluators take lead responsibility for reviewing one or more sections across all bids. Often evaluators will specific expertise will handle similar sections across all responses.
To level the field and make their work easier, most evaluation teams use pre-determined scoring guidelines based on the RFP scoring system and the issuer’s priorities.
Given these facts, you can see why placing information correctly is critical. A great argument in the wrong place may not get read or scored. If you believe the argument belongs in two sections, state it in full in the prime location and include a summary in the secondary section. Do not rely on the evaluator to track down cross-references.
Identify information with the RFP item it addresses
Explicitly connect information with the RFP requirement it addresses. Do not assume the evaluator will make the connection if it is not spelled out. Use your section or subsection summary paragraph to reference the requirement and/or hot button issue and link it to your solution.
Engage your leaders in strategy and follow these simple rules—and you’ll improve your win rate.
Need help developing successful response strategies?
RFQs and RFPs for large projects often require reference projects demonstrating the capabilities of the proponent and key individuals proposed to manage project responsibilities. Many issuers limit the number of reference projects.
Selecting reference projects inevitably involves trade offs, since proponent strive to include projects similar to the one under procurement—and that also showcase the work of its proposed key individuals.
Select projects as part of strategy making
If possible, select reference projects before kicking off content development. This lets the team begin work on on project sheets, and also lets resume writers give prominence to each key individual’s involvement in reference projects.
Selecting reference projects early also guides narrative writing, since it’s good practice to cite only designated reference projects as examples when making a case for the proponent’s strengths and experience.
Setting up reference projects
Use a meatball chart to select reference projects. Devote a row to each reference project candidate, and then use columns to identify project characteristics (type, value, rural or urban, unique constraints, etc.). Set up the RFP project as the first row and use its main features to decide which characteristics to choose.
Next, add a column for each J-V member and individual on your proposed team. If individuals perform more than one role, you can use different symbols to indicate whether the role on the reference project candidate is or isn’t the same as proposed for the RFP project.
Once you’ve populated the intersecting cells, you’ll have a clearer picture of which candidates offer the best combination of resource overlap and desired characteristics.
Managing additions and deletions
Few things are more nerve-racking to a large proposal team than integrating late changes that ripple through the entire document. But reference projects can change if a consortium member drops out, or a key person becomes unavailable, or for other reasons.
The selection matrix helps identify the impact on selected projects and provide a start in selecting other candidates. Following a proposal style guide that includes long and short form project names will make it easy to find all mentions of the now-deleted project(s).
Early planning pays off
The reference project matrix is one more example of how upfront planning makes the sprint to submission more bearable—and results in persuasive and flawless proposals.
One of our clients was determined to put a winning effort into an upcoming RFP response. The issuer was a government agency, and the opportunity promised to be both large and profitable. Given the agency’s record, the RFP would include a tight response deadline and a complex scope of work.
Their question: What could their team do in advance of receiving the RFP?
But what if the RFP will be a repeat of the last one?
In this case, our client noticed the agency had issued virtually the same RFP every three years. It expected minor updates, but believed 95% would remain unchanged. The team was able to develop and polish a 90% complete response—before the RFP was issued.
This is not an unusual situation. Governments especially often issue largely unchanged RFPs for contract renewals.
How to leverage the expectation of repeat RFPs
Make a practice of keeping a file RFPs for all competitions you bid on, or considered but decided to no-bid.
If you don’t have RFPs for current and previous contract periods, request them from the issuing agencies. The issuers should comply, since these are public documents. MERX, the Canadian tendering site, makes expired RFP documents available to registered users.
Although it takes more effort, you can also use a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. Both the United States and Canada have FOI legislation covering federal, state (or provincial) and municipal governments and most agencies. While you’re at it, request a copy of the current incumbent’s (winning) proposal.
If last two RFPs are highly similar, you’ll be in a good position to develop a complete and responsive proposal on your schedule, instead of within the RFP timeframe.
Be sure to start with a bid/no-bid decision, just as if the opportunity were live. As input, learn how well the incumbent is performing.
Risks and downsides
Pursuing this direction does pose some challenges:
It can be hard to motivate your team to complete a proposal without a hard deadline
Your hard work may be second-guessed when the actual RFP arrives—even if its requirements haven’t changed—just because there’s more time available
Your draft will need major surgery if this is the year the client rethinks its RFP. This becomes more likely if the prospect’s leadership changes, or if one or more disruptive technologies became available during the current contract
BOTTOM LINE: Time is the number one constraint for all teams developing large bid proposals. If an upcoming RFP looks like a repeat, this approach can provide relief.