Tom Sant on the Four Steps to Write a Winning Business Proposal

Author Tom SantThe following is a guest post by Tom Sant, author of Persuasive Business Proposals: Writing to Win More Customers, Clients, and Contracts, 3rd Edition about writing a “killer” business proposal and executive summary.

A client recently shared a great story about one of their sales proposals.  They had just won a major contract with the FBI.  At the debriefing, the FBI’s contracting officer said, “Your executive summary was so good, we knew we were going to give you this award by the time we got to page two.  In fact, it was so good, I took it home and read it to my husband so that he’ll understand what we’re doing.

Wow!  That’s the kind of “killer” executive  summary and business proposal we all want to write.  But what’s the secret?  In my experience, there are four best practices that separate the great from the grubby:

1. First, organize the executive summary persuasively.
  That means presenting your content in the following order:

  • Needs:  demonstrate that you understand the client’s business and the key issues or problems
  • Outcomes:  focus on the results they want to achieve by addressing the needs or solving the problems.
  • Solution:  recommend a solution that will solve the problems and deliver the results
  • Evidence:  provide proof that you can deliver that solution on time and on budget

When people are making decisions, that is the order in which they want to see your content.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of executive summaries start out with a focus on the vendor—the company’s history or its capabilities.  Those are death moves.

2. Second, make sure your content is client centered.
To do that, you must be able to answer seven questions.  (If you can’t answer them, either go back and talk to the prospect more or strongly consider a No Bid.  You don’t know enough to write a winning executive summary.)  Here are the seven questions:

  • What is the customer’s problem, need, issue or opportunity?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What outcomes does the client want to achieve?
  • Which outcome matters the most?
  • What solutions can we offer?
  • Which one is the best fit?
  • What differentiates us from others who may be bidding on this opportunity?

3. Third, offer a compelling value proposition. 
Look at the answer to question four: what outcome matters the most to the client?  That’s the basis for your value proposition.  Essentially you are making the prospect a promise: You will get more of the results you desire the most if you choose us.  Then you quantify how much more and you back that promise up by referencing your differentiators and your proof.  You can do all of that in a short paragraph, but if you leave out a value proposition completely, as most executive summaries do, you are telling the buyer that what you are offering is a commodity and that they should  by it from whichever supplier is cheapest.

4. Fourth, write clearly.
Too often proposal writers lapse into four pseudo-languages that simply do not communicate.  I call these pseudo-languages Fluff, Guff, Geek and Weasel.

  • Fluff is the use of undefined, grandiose words and phrases:  world class, best of breed, state of the art, seamless, robust.  None of that means anything.
  • Guff is the use of impenetrable language—long, convoluted sentences; jargon and acronyms; overly complicated vocabulary—in an attempt to show the customer how smart we are.
  • Geek is the use of language that is inappropriate for the audience.  It’s too technical or too specialized.  Unfortunately, people often forget that their product and service names mean nothing outside of the company.  They’re just another form of undefined jargon.
  • Weasel is language that seems to squirm out of making any affirmative statements at all:  would, could, might, may, up to, virtual, and so on.  Sometimes these words are appropriate, but when we start using Weasel words all the time, the create doubt in the decision maker’s mind.

Focus  on those four best practices and you too can write an executive summary that’s so good your customer takes it home to read to the family over dinner!

Dr. Tom Sant, with Hyde Park Partners, is the author of Persuasive Business Proposals 3rd edition ( 2012), The Giants of Sales and The Language of Success.  The author of more than $30 billion in winning proposals, he has worked with companies around the world to improve their success rate.  His clients include Microsoft, Dell, HSBC, Wells Fargo, Thomson Reuters, BAE Systems, DHL and many others.  Tom was named one of the top 10 sales trainers in the world by Selling Power magazine


2 responses to “Tom Sant on the Four Steps to Write a Winning Business Proposal

  1. What a great story! Every business owner would love to write a proposal with that kind of impact. It’s like the holy grail. Your points about what makes a good proposal are all very good and well taken, although it would have been nice to get some more detail on that specific proposal. Exactly how did your client combine all those elements so effectively? Still, this was a great post on best practices.

  2. This is the best advice on writing a business proposal. The NOSE formula works for Opportunity as well. The acronym won’t be as elegant.

    Making sure the content is client-centered is a useful checklist in your sales methodology, whichever one you are using.

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