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Bid Proposals | Cover Letter vs. Exec Summary

 March 25, 2014
by Paul Heron

Bid teams often ask us about about the difference between a cover letter and an executive summary. In the last two posts, we showed how to develop a hard-working cover letter—one that does more than simply fill a couple of pages.

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 the key differences.

Cover Letter vs. Executive 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 make a good first impression—to show you understand the buyer’s key requirements and are able to respond. The executive summary’s purpose is to serve as a mini proposal. If a busy decision maker (or lazy evaluator) reads just the executive summary, he or she should be able to grasp all your key selling arguments.
  • 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: Open both by showing you understand. Open the cover letter with your understanding of the specific requirements driving this RFP. Open the executive summary with your understanding of the prospect organization’s vision or strategic purpose. The reasoning behind this difference goes to the content and length of the two documents. The cover letter will focus (see below) on a small number of hot button issues differentiators related to the specific purchase. The executive summary will include all the key points of your offer and how the offer aligns with the prospect company’s strategic priorities.
  • FOCUS: Focus your cover letter on two to four issues and differentiators. In your executive summary, respond to all key requirements and issues, just as the proposal does.
  • CONTENTS: The organization of the two documents is similar. Following the opening (see above) summarize the contents in bullet point paragraphs, then expand on each bullet point. Close the cover letter with next steps. Close the executive summary with your strongest selling argument. Use visualization for each main argument in your executive summary. In the cover letter, be sure to include any required items (see last week’s post).

Can a cover letter ever be 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 no provision is made for a summary or introduction in the issuer’s specified table of contents. In this case the cover letter can run to four or five pages and should include visualizations.

Next Week: How to build powerful executive summaries


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Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 






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