Clear thinking

Learn how to improve your proposals and win more business.

Cover letter vs. exec. summary

 February 18, 2020
by Paul Heron

Bidders are often unclear on the difference between a cover letter and an executive summary. In the last two posts, we reviewed common cover letter mistakes and also how to write 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 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. 
  • OPENING: In this post 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?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Writing great cover letters

 February 11, 2020
by Paul Heron

Last week’s post advised avoiding a trite cover letter opening: “Thank you for this opportunity etc.,” followed by self-centred chest pounding. It recommended showing you understand the critical requirements of 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 front runner

Aim to use the cover letter to position your offer as the prospect’s best choice.

Do this by addressing the prospect’s big questions connected to key features of the ideal offer. Use the intel you’ve gathered in your pre-RFP sales discovery. Typical themes include:

  • Technical solution features
  • On-time, on-budget implementation
  • Support capability
  • Total cost of ownership
  • Securing competitive advantage
  • Strategic partnering, 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 competitive advantages. See the examples 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 120 fully equipped, fulltime technicians and guaranteed 4-hour response time?
  • Product roadmap: Who else sponsors annual user forums and offers a 3-year product development roadmap to keep your solution competitive as customer needs and technologies evolve?

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

P.S. Another reason you need know your customer

Strong cover letters (and winning proposals) start with understanding your prospect. Read this post on bid/no-bid decisions to help you decide if you have enough prospect knowledge to bid successfully.


Need help positioning your offer against the competition?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Cover letter blunders

 February 4, 2020
by Paul Heron

Proposals are sales pitches. And successful salespeople know the importance of first impressions. You may make a sale after showing up dishevelled, but the odds are against it—especially when selling a solution that’s important for your prospect's organization.

The cover letter’s job is to create a strong first impression. Here’s what not to do.

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 letter may start 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 customer centred. Who really cares that you’re pleased?

The better 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 reader’s attention—because you’re focused on his or her needs, and you’ve shown you understand the key requirements. 

No chest-thumping please

After the opening, many cover letter writers shift to talking about themselves—how they’re industry leaders, how many units they’ve installed, etc., etc. We’ve seen this stuff go on for paragraphs. And yet who would start bragging like this in a face-to-face conversation?

Leave the chest thumping for the corporate profile. Instead, stay focused on your prospect and the critical factors in the purchase decision. In our next post, we'll show you exactly how to do that.

Next week: Writing a compelling cover letter.


Need help developing powerful, client focused RFP responses?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




When to use passive voice

 January 28, 2020
by Paul Heron

Plain language proposals are convincing, easy to read and easy to score—all good qualities. And a cardinal plain language rule is to avoid the passive voice. Passive voice makes sentences sound weak and their intent less clear.

But, as this post explains, passive voice fulfills an important purpose in certain situations.

What is passive voice?

Voice is a characteristic of verbs, the part of a sentence that contains the action. To design, to build, to operate, to maintain—these are all verbs.

In a passive voice sentence, the individual or entity performing the action (“the actor”) is not required to complete the idea. For example, if you want to state that your service department will handle warranty claims, you could write:

  • All valid warranty claims will be addressed.

The corresponding active voice version might read:

  • Our service department will address all valid warranty claims.

Why is passive voice a bad thing?

Passive voice creates two issues you typically want to avoid in a proposal:

  • If the actor is missing, an evaluator might be confused about who is responsible. Bureaucrats love this vagueness (“Mistakes were made”)—but evaluators reward clarity.
  • As a side effect, overuse of passive voice robs a proposal of energy and conviction.

Style exceptions: Passive voice is acceptable where the actor is:

  • An automated process: For example: Pellets are transferred to the sorting machine.
  • Unknown or irrelevant: For example: The curtain walls were severely damaged.

Use active voice in most situations

Allowing for the exceptions noted above, follow these guidelines:

  • Write RFQ responses in active voice. These are pure sales documents. Detail your team’s make-up and past experience and successes in the strongest possible terms, the better to get shortlisted for the RFP stage.
  • In single-stage RFP responses, use active voice in non-solution narratives (corporate profile, key individual resumes, past projects, etc.). Use passive voice strategically in solution sections (design, build or implement, operate and maintain, etc.). See next section.
  • Use passive voice strategically in RFP responses submitted following shortlisting via RFQ. This type of RFP is almost entirely focused on the proposed solution. See next section.

Strategic use of passive voice

RFP issuers are increasingly including language that gives them the right to make any part of a proposal contractually binding. As a result, the successful proponent has less room to obtain favourable terms in subsequent contract negotiations.

For example, “Our service department will address all valid warranty claims,” could obligate your service department to perform all warranty claims, even if your intent—and industry practice—is that OEMs will do most of the work. This might be an insignificant distinction, until an OEM declares bankruptcy.

For this reason, many companies bidding on large projects have their legal departments scrub responses pre-submission to eliminate unnecessary exposure. Converting commitments from active to passive voice and omitting the actor is one way to do this.

Bottom line

Passive voice comes at a cost—using it makes technical narratives less convincing, potentially reducing their score. But passive voice also offers the prospect of avoiding costly commitments in subsequent contract negotiations, thus enabling a lower price offer.

The key is to understand and manage these trade-offs.


Need help managing your proposals?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Using style guides

 January 21, 2020
by Paul Heron

This month we’ve focused on creating internally consistent proposal documents. This is always a challenge, especially with large proposals written by several content developers or—in the case of joint venture bids—different companies.

Earlier posts examined information architecture, organizing for content consistency and one voicing. Below this macro level, small inconsistencies—for example, in naming conventions, capitalization, use of abbreviations—can also weaken your proposal.

A style guide can minimize this risk.

Style guide contents

The most helpful style guides are few pages—long enough to contain the essentials, and short enough so writers actually read and refer to them. Organize yours under these main sections:

  • Plain language: Ask writers to use active voice, plain language writing free of overly complex sentences, bafflegab, trite phrases, and jargon. Provide a table pairing acceptable and unacceptable phrases common to your industry.
  • Capitalization and punctuation: Specify rules for capitalizing titles (project manager), plans and programs (quality management plan) and working groups (health and safety committee). Explain what, if any, punctuation should follow abbreviations and list items.
  • Naming conventions: Specify acceptable short forms and acronyms (if any) for the issuer, the proponent (or team member names in joint ventures), reference projects, committees, plans, and reports. How should acronyms be introduced in the first instance? Should writers refer to the prospect in the second person (you, your) or only by its proper name? Is first person (we, us) acceptable for the proponent?
  • Abbreviations: How should writers abbreviate weights and measures commonly used in your industry? How should currency amounts be written (CAD$ 5 million or C$ 5m)? Is it OK to use % for percent? Should provinces and states be abbreviated (ON for Ontario)?
  • Language and standards: Specify which dictionary to use—e.g. English (Canadian). Will the proposal use metric or imperial measures?

Build it over time

Don’t expect perfection on your first attempt—but do edit carefully. Style guides, by definition, shouldn’t include errors or inconsistencies.

Create a master style guide and customize it for each project. To simplify version control during a project, we like to give everyone the path to a shared storage location or publish a link that always brings up the current version.

After each project, review and update the master style guide with any new global items.

Expect benefits—but not miracles

Distribute the style guide to everyone producing and editing content—but be realistic in your expectations.

Language skills vary widely across most teams. Some subject matter experts and content developers catch on quickly; others never master even the basics, much less the small stuff. But your editors will now have a clear set of rules to help them build consistent output. 

One thing is certain—however attractive the idea of carefully proofreading a large proposal just before submission, it seldom happens. A much more realistic way of achieving content consistency is to build it into the development process.


Do you need help improving your proposals?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Setting direction for writers

 January 14, 2020
by Paul Heron

When writers set off to generate content without a shared plan, bad things happen. Often early drafts become a meandering description of processes and features with no focus of selling power. In other cases, individual writers make their own assumptions about the team’s win strategy, resulting in confused messaging.

To avoid these issues, adopt the practices below.

1. Communicate strategy at kick-off

Before asking subject matter experts (SMEs) to begin drafting:

Only then, with the leadership aligned on strategy, plan a proposal kick-off meeting that gives content developers clear direction for communicating the strategy in their sections.

2. Provide prompts and planning tools

Most SMEs are not natural writers and will struggle to express their knowledge clearly. Provide direction in the form of prompts for all but the most straightforward questions. Be as specific as the following example:

Maintenance Staff: Describe the maintenance facility staffing plan, including roles and numbers of individuals by shift.

Make a table with roles identified in column A, and use columns across row 1 to identify the shift pattern.
Complete the table with the number of individuals by role for each shift.
Below the table write two or three paragraphs describing our past experience and success with this staffing model, and how we manage cross training, etc. to staff for absences and vacations.

Ask writers to begin by analysing their sections and planning their content using bullet points and review and approve each writer’s section plans before he or she begins to write copy.

Use section storyboards to manage word count in tightly page-constrained proposals, such as RFQ responses, and to build rich visualization into sections.

3. Develop a style guide and bid-specific dictionary

Create a style guide of approved list of proper names, terms and acronyms at the kick-off to promote consistency and avoid excessive last-minute copyediting. Maintain this in a shared, searchable format, so it stays current as you make updates to the original release. Next week we'll post on using style guides.

4. Set rules for using boilerplate

Some types of content lend themselves to re-use with minor tweaks. Examples include company history, case studies and resumes (where roles are identical from one project to the next).

But discourage writers from cutting-and-pasting proposal content from previous posts instead of focussing on the current prospect’s specific needs. Also discourage copying and pasting from vendor sales sheets. Features should always be explicitly linked to the prospect’s requirements.

Monitor repurposed content carefully for relevance and strategic alignment.

Result: More responsive writers—and more wins

Writers used to aligning themselves behind a defined strategy before starting to write will produce more responsive—and successful—proposals.

Next week: Building proposal style guides



Need help writing more powerful proposals?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Round-up of 2019 posts

 January 7, 2020
by Paul Heron

Welcome to the New Year! 

Are you and your team looking for ways to make 2020 a year of better bid proposals? As a start, we recommend following the links below to our favourite blog posts of 2019.

Making efficient bid/no-bid decisions

Using a process to create alignment on whether to bid saves time needed either to complete the proposal or move on to other priorities. Evaluate your knowledge of the prospect and project, other likely competitors, and your capabilities and strategic factors.

Complex2Clear's free bid/no-bid decision tool makes a great place to begin developing a process that works for you.

Building a strategy

Anyone who follows our posts knows the critical importance of building strategy around the prospect's issues, and then showing responsiveness and positioning your offer against the competition.

If you expect to be responding to RFQs in 2020, be sure to read our posts on showing capability, demonstrating capability to stay aligned and expressing a unified voice across a an RFQ response.

Planning to go informal?

Informal proposals—those solicited outside a formal bid process—offer both seller and buyer a chance to reach agreement on an ideal solution without the effort and expense of a formal bid process.

But don't call in any opportunities that come your way in 2020. Instead, read our posts on informal proposal basics, how to organize your informal proposal, developing informal proposal content and selling to your prospect on the idea of an informal proposal

Proposal management picks

Close management and disciplined reviews are critical to achieving compliance and messaging alignment in large proposal narratives. See these posts on preparing narrative writers, proposal management pre-Red Team, managing a proposal Red Team review and managing in the final stretch to proposal submission.

Disciplined bid win-loss reviews enable learning from your successes and failures. See these posts on how to plan and conduct win-loss interviews, report on the results, and analyse win-loss trends over time.

Want more?

The links above are just a taste of more than 50 posts last year. See Complex2Clear’s blog index to explore the rest of our 2019 (and earlier) posts. And use the form to subscribe to our monthly blog summary for a steady stream of winning ideas.


Need help making 2020 a year of more proposal wins?

Contact Complex2Clear




Photo credit

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




Managing the small stuff

 December 24, 2019
by Paul Heron

Proposal teams typically dive into the narrative and pricing sections of a new opportunity with enthusiasm. But even well managed teams often show less appetite for tackling the more mundane requirements.

The result of this procrastination is several days of nerve-wracking frenzy at the deadline. Pre-submission hours that should be devoted to polishing and packaging the proposal are instead spent (for example) chasing a letter from someone who happens to be on vacation.

Here’s a better way.

Identify items and assign responsibility

When you create your compliance matrix, identify all the RFP requirements that aren’t part of the narrative or pricing. These may be appendix items—but not always. Some RFPs ask for insurance certificates and similar documents as part of a Statement of Qualifications section.

Examples of items in this category include:

  • Financial statements
  • Incorporation certificate
  • Insurance certificate
  • Performance bond
  • Details of projects using a proposed technology
  • Agreement to license a proposed technology
  • Safety and compliance records

Once you’ve identified these items, assign them to someone without heavy narrative and/or pricing responsibilities. A junior bid team member makes an ideal candidate.

Manage priorities based on dependencies

Tackle items that require third party action first. For example, if an overseas patent holder needs to provide a letter agreeing to licence technology, get that request started on Day One.

Some internal documents may also have long lead times. Team resumes sometimes can take time, and each should be checked to see it includes all information required by this RFP.

Monitor and escalate

Make these assigned items part of every team meeting, so the proposal manager can identify and escalate action on any items that appear problematic. Escalation is not necessarily a reflection on the person responsible for the list. It may simply take a more senior person to get action from the information holder.

Cruise to the finish

The benefit of this approach is a team that’s focused and working on high-value work right to the deadline. The result is the strongest possible proposal.


Looking for other ways to work less and win more?
Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Getting the coach's nod

 December 17, 2019
by Paul Heron

Last week’s post described the RFP contender spectrum and the importance of pre-RFP discovery appealing to the economic buyer, technical buyers and user buyers. Large procurement teams often include another member—the coach. Whenever a complex RFP attracts more than a half-dozen proposals, a coach often screens submissions to decide which go to the evaluation team. The rest are out of the game.

What coaches look for

The coach is all about compliance and process. He or she will sift through proposals to ensure bidders have addressed all compliance items, completed all sections, followed the “Instructions to Bidders," and aligned with the RFP structure. Some coaches will even skim key sections for readability and clarity.

Keep the coach happy

To make sure the proposal you've spent weeks (or months) preparing gets evaluated, do the following:

  • Include a compliance matrix: If you’ve used a compliance matrix to manage your bid (as we advise), include it as an appendix. That gets you off to a good start with the coach.
  • Follow the Instructions to Bidders: Make a checklist and ensure you fulfill all items, including the formatting and delivery instructions.
  • Emphasize the right things: Most RFPs include scoring criteria. Allocate section page counts to align with the points weighting in the RFP.
  • Structure your response: Use an ATOC to organize your proposal and include a table of contents. Use strong heads and subheads to guide readers.
  • Back claims with facts: Ensure the coach can pick any section at random—Past Performance, Relevant Experience and/or Proposed Solution—and find specific proof for your claims.
  • Write clearly: Use plain language and keep responses brief. A coach won’t want to expose evaluators to overly complex and/or rambling content.

Rookies beware

Coaches may waive minor oversights by established providers to keep them in the running.

But most bidders don´t get special treatment. Especially if you are new to an industry or much smaller than your competitors, be sure to satisfy the coach. One way to do this is to have a coach of your own. That’s a role an outside resource, such as Complex2Clear, can fill.


Need help with an important bid proposal?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




The RFP contender spectrum

 December 10, 2019
by Paul Heron

Regular readers know how strongly we believe in making a fast bid/no-bid decision and then developing a detailed strategy before beginning to write content.

But your chances of success depend even more on what you do before the RFP is issued.

The contender spectrum

Winners of most large contracts have worked with the issuer for months—and often years—before the RFP hits the street. They’ve become trusted advisors and preferred candidates to win the contract. Below this status, other bidders fall along a spectrum, depending on their relationship with the prospect.

This creates a pecking order of RFP contenders as follows:

  • RFP shaper: The prospect considers you a friend and trusted advisor, invites your input and is actively helping you win the contract. He or she invites you to comment on the draft RFP—or, ideally, to write key sections.
  • Inner circle: The prospect sees you as a trusted advisor and proactively shares information, but can’t or won’t favour you over others. You know the economic buyer and several other evaluators and influencers, and you understand their strategic and hot button issues.
  • Well-respected: The prospect knows and respects your company and business developer(s), but doesn’t consider you superior to other candidates. You need to ask the right questions to uncover strategic and hot button issues—and even then the prospect may not always be candid.
  • Rest of the pack: The prospect doesn’t know your company and has likely never met your business developers or senior executives. You have little or no inside knowledge of the prospect’s issues and may have only learned of the RFP post-release.
  • Disliked: From direct experience or by reputation, the prospect has a negative impression of your company. Evaluators will—consciously or not—tend to underscore your technical narrative to lessen your chances.

Our experience

Large private sector contracts often go to an RFP shaper. Many public sector procurements are monitored by fairness watchdogs—but even those decisions often go to companies with close client relationships, if only because inside knowledge enables them to tailor an offer that meets all the issuer’s needs at a price that isn’t inflated to protect against unknowns.

Inner circle and well-respected contenders round out the field of likely winners or close runners-up. The rest of the pack and disliked contenders are long shots at best.


If you and your team are making a bid/no-bid decision and strategy on the basis of hunches and assumptions, rather than facts, you are not in the top three categories and are unlikely to win. This may seem self-evident, but we still receive regular calls for proposal assistance from companies in this position.

If the prospect knows and respects you, it’s worth trying to learn if a competitor has the inside track. You may still decide to bid, especially in two-envelope systems—in which case your best bet is likely a “skinny” offer with a correspondingly low price.

What to do

If you are chasing RFPs for large contracts with companies you don’t know, consider investing in and carefully managing pre-RFP discovery. Meanwhile, take advantage of our free bid/no-bid decision tool and bid proposal strategy processes, so you are clear-eyed about your chances.


Need help positioning your company for large RFP wins?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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






CalendarBlog Index


Stay current



Sign up for our monthly blog summary

No spam promise

We hate it when we sign up for a newsletter and suddenly get several emails a week. So we won't do that to you. You'll get our newsletter—period.

Get monthly summaries?:*
Privacy Policy: Complex2Clear will not use your name and contact information for any purpose other than to respond to your request and to advise you of important updates. We will not sell or give your information to any third party.
Top of page