How Making Proposals Easy to Score Will Improve Your Win Rate

Six weeks ago, I had the pleasure of presenting a webinar dissecting six key tactics to help improve your win rate. These tactics include:

  • Applying a thorough strategy in the opportunities pursued
  • Starting pursuits earlier to gain an understanding of the customer and competitive landscape
  • Documenting the intelligence gained from the business development and capture stages
  • Applying rigor in the bid decision process
  • Making your proposals easy to score
  • Conducting lessons learned so you can understand where you are doing well and where you need to improve

In this week’s article, I do a deep dive into one of those critical tactics: making your proposals easy to score.

Understanding Proposal Evaluation

Before we can really understand how to make proposals easier to score, we have to understand how proposals are being evaluated. The first thing to understand is that proposals are typically first reviewed for compliance with the requirements as outlined in the proposal instructions. Next, the proposals are scored based on the evaluation criteria. Customers frequently assign strengths, weaknesses, and deficiencies to back up their scores. To receive an “Exceptional” score, your strengths have to outweigh any weaknesses, and no major deficiencies can be present. When using this scoring method, a deficiency is typically defined as a material failure of a proposal to meet a customer requirement or a combination of significant weaknesses in a proposal that increases the risk of unsuccessful contract performance to an unacceptable level. A weakness is defined as a flaw in the proposal that increases the risk of unsuccessful contract performance. And significant strengths are defined as aspects of an offeror's proposal that have merit or that exceed specified performance or capability requirements in a way that will be advantageous to the customer during contract performance. In our proposals, we want to minimize any weaknesses and deficiencies and maximize our strengths and significant strengths.

Organize Content So It’s Easy to Score

Understanding that proposals are scored, it makes good sense that when we’re writing proposals, we need to present the information in a way that is easy for evaluators to score. Most evaluators do not volunteer for the job and do not particularly enjoy it. It takes time away from their regular job, so they want to get it over with as quickly as possible. Therefore, we should aim to make the evaluator’s job as easy as possible. To make your sections easy to score, structure your response to the proposal instructions and the evaluation criteria. Next map in other requirements, as required (e.g., elements of the statement of work). To facilitate evaluation, consider including relevant RFP references in your section heading titles; this helps evaluators understand the logic of your organization and map your responses back to their evaluation scoresheet.

Use RFP Language

When writing proposals, you should also strive to use the language in the RFP to make the evaluation easier. For example, if the RFP asks for a Program Manager, you should use the title, Program Manager, not Project Manager. You should also strive to use the customer’s terminology and lexicon in our proposal to gain the customer’s confidence. By knowing your customer and speaking their language, you demonstrate that we understand them, and you begin to establish trust. What’s more, your customer evaluators often do key word searches to find what’s important to them in your proposals. To support them in this endeavor, you should make sure all sections include key words from the instructions, evaluation criteria, and the statement of work.

Theme Statements

Another way to help evaluators to score you higher is to include theme statements or strength statements consistently throughout your response. Theme statements set the stage for the section and grab the evaluator’s attention because they address an issue that is important to them. The ideal theme statement not only presents a solution feature that addresses a customer hot button, it also articulates clear, quantified benefits. I recommend including a theme statement for every first-level section and second-level subsection and formatting those themes to stand out from the rest of the text. If you theme effectively, the theme statements will show up as identified strengths in the evaluation debrief from the customer.

Callout Boxes

Another way to arm evaluators with the ammunition they need to give you a high score is to use callout boxes to help your major proof points stand out. Be sure that your proof points not only highlight quantified metrics, but make sure to provide the “so what?” statement as well. For example, it’s not enough simply to state: “We have used our proven staffing process to staff programs with 3-, 7- and 14-day turnaround times, including the MNOP program, where we staffed 15 FTEs in two weeks.” Ask yourself, “So what? What does this mean for my customer?” This might prompt you to add, “Leveraging this staffing process, we provide Customer ABC with low-risk task order start-up and delivery for large, small, short-term, and long-term requirements.”

Feature Benefit Tables

Feature and benefit tables are another great way to help evaluators find proposal strengths. Similar to theme statements, feature and benefit tables highlight major solution features—that ideally address customer hot buttons—and articulate clear, quantified benefits. Typically, customers want things cheaper, faster, and/or better, which we might express as low cost, low risk, high quality, efficient, and/or effective. Use feature and benefit tables in each major section introduction to highlight the key elements of your approach. This could be every first-level section for shorter proposals, but it may be extended to each second-level subsection for longer proposals.

Articulate Benefits Throughout

As touched on previously, benefits tell the customer why they should care about our solution or its features; they articulate the “so what?” But, it’s critical to remember that benefits should be things that the customer cares about. For example, if the customer doesn’t care whether the transition is completed in three weeks or six weeks, then expedited timeline is not a benefit to that customer. It’s also critical to remember that benefits should be highlighted throughout the proposal narrative. It’s not enough for benefits to show up in theme statements, callout boxes, and feature benefit tables—these benefits need to be articulated and reinforced throughout the proposal narrative as well.

Make the Response About the Customer

Another critical way to score higher is to make sure you are focusing on the customer. Two key signs that your proposal writing lacks customer perspective include: (1) the proposal mentions your company or team name more than the customer’s name; (2) the proposal is about your company’s offer instead of the solution and benefits the customer will receive. A great proposal is about the customer and the benefits they receive from the proposed solution.

One of the easiest ways to make our proposal content more customer focused is to put them first—literally. Instead of saying, “Team ABC’s solution delivers a low-risk transition,” flip the construction and write, “Customer A receives a low-risk transition with our comprehensive transition approach.” The two sentences convey the same overall message, but by putting the customer first in the sentence, we shift the focus onto what the customer is receiving rather than what we are delivering.

Another easy way to make your proposal content more customer focused is to use the customer’s name more frequently than your company or team name. To validate whether you are doing so, you can try this quick test: hit Ctrl-F and search for the number of times you mention your company and/or team name; then search for the number of times you mention the customer’s name. You should aim to mention the customer’s name more times than yours. If you find that you have mentioned the customer far less frequently, you should revise our text to focus more on the customer and the benefits they will receive by choosing your solution.


Final Thoughts

In this world of bids and proposals, we all certainly want to win more. However, there are so many factors that impact a company’s probability of win, and a number of things throughout the opportunity lifecycle can impact a company’s chances of winning (both positively and negatively). Although the capture phase has the greatest potential to positively impact your chances of winning, you can certainly take steps to help your proposals score higher during the proposal writing stage. These actions include organizing content so it’s easy to score; using RFP language, theme statements, callout boxes, and feature and benefits tables; articulating benefits throughout the response; and making the response about the customer. These critical components during the writing phase can go a long way in facilitating the evaluation process and increasing your overall score—and a higher score can easily translate to a higher probability of win!



Written by Ashley Kayes

Senior Proposal Consultant, AOC Key Solutions, Inc. (KSI)



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