For today's savvy owners or members of a design team, a firm handshake or a number scribbled on a napkin no longer suffices as a proposal. Today, beyond building relationships, you have to assemble a document that conveys your expertise, experience, and professionalism in a custom manner for each project. In fact, a recent survey of owners indicates that often at the proposal stage a sales process falls apart. It's no wonder that after you've worked hard for months to cultivate a particular lead, the magic phrase “send me a proposal” can elicit more panic and apprehension than joy. Many contractors haven't secured work that should rightfully be theirs based on expertise and experience because they have failed to assemble a suitable proposal. However, with some changes in process and organization, plus a little extra attention to the final product, you can increase your chance for success.

Where we fail

As an industry, we often spend months generating leads but fail to invest much effort during the homestretch—from prospect to contract. Often too much boilerplate information stitched together in an obviously rushed manner, or worse yet, documents that talk all about you and not about the prospect, are reasons that the sales process falls apart. Did you fail to answer a question in the RFP? Do the words we or us outnumber the times you mention your prospect?

Besides information that is too self-centered, proposals are often irrelevant, according to the study. Owners are becoming savvier, though. In the past, proposals may have been approved by your key contact; today they are commonly run through a committee of stakeholders that may or may not know anything about your company and experience, let alone the construction industry.

The key to success, however, is as simple as writing clearly and personalizing the proposal—with careful attention to ensure that all questions are answered.

For instance, one of the country's biggest concrete firms recently drafted a proposal for a school board. It was quick to point out its experience on high-profile office buildings in New York City and some of the nation's best known stadiums but failed to show any relevant education projects in rural areas. Although certainly capable of performing the work, the firm's failure to respond to the RFP with the information requested made its proposal appear arrogant. The “little guy” ended up getting the job simply because he responded with a custom proposal that clearly displayed relevant expertise and experience. Even more important—he showed a genuine interest in the owner's project.

Go or no go

The first step in responding to a proposal is not assembling information but rather deciding whether you should respond at all. The go/no go process is frequently overlooked. It is crucial that you evaluate each opportunity in terms of your ability to provide a needed service for the client, to provide challenging and rewarding work for your staff, and to make a profit. Other factors to consider:

  • whether the proposed project meets your specific marketing goals for profitability
  • whether the project falls into an existing project niche
  • if there are expanded service opportunities, or even
  • if the project aids geographic expansion or has outstanding public relations value.

Other key areas to review include:

  • how much time you devoted to pre-selling
  • your experience with the client
  • contract issues
  • similar project experience
  • availability of your team members
  • experience with other likely team members, and
  • the anticipated fee.

Also be sure to understand how proposals are being reviewed, the primary selection criteria, the makeup of the selection committee, and the anticipated schedule.

Often, even though logic tells you to decline to submit a proposal, the project promises future work, repeat business, or some other intrinsic value that makes the process worthwhile. Sometimes you may even know that the project is a sure thing for a different company, but it may still be beneficial for you to get your information in front of the owner. In such cases, should you decide to submit, be sure to balance your response with the anticipated outcome, and keep your expectations in mind. And, as the old adage states, “You must spend money to make money.” However, today's marketing gurus advocate that the cost of proposal development should never exceed 3% of the potential win.

Getting started

After making an informed decision on whether to propose, begin by reading the RFP carefully. The prospect wrote it a certain way for a reason, so follow the directions verbatim. If no RFP is available, call for additional requirements. Be wary of those who say “we just want to see what you come up with.” That same attitude may be the tone of your contract.