Mike Parkinson


5 silver bullets for winning proposals

Trust is the bedrock for anything you do

Is there one silver bullet that wins proposals? Yes (kinda). Trust is the closest factor I have found to being the silver bullet that wins proposals.

Our customer must trust that we can deliver the solution at the agreed-to price with little to no issues. (Do you make it a habit of buying from people or companies you do not trust?) No trust, no win.

Definitively, there is no one silver bullet factor that guarantees a win. There is no one thing that always works; nor is there one thing that offsets a sea of negative influencers (e.g., bad reputation, noncompliant or poorly executed proposal, lack of customer insight).

However, there are five silver bullet factors that greatly impact the likelihood of a win, and these factors require customer trust.

These five silver bullet factors historically tip the scales in favor of one solution provider over another. Which factor(s) to use varies according to circumstances. The five silver bullet factors can be cumulative. They are relative to one another and relative to other factors.

In other words, relative to all other aspects of proposal development, one could call these silver bullets because of the historic weighting of these five variables.

1. Price

The right price can win a proposal, especially, when the customer is focused on price (for whatever reason).

For example, if the customer is downsizing and needs to buy your solution, there may be great pressure to spend less money. A low, realistic price is paramount.

Signs that price is a silver bullet factor should be evident based on customer insight and RFP language and type (e.g., LPTA, a heavy weighting toward price in government RFPs and a high quantity of price-centric terms in the commercial RFP). Commoditized solutions are often purchased based on price.

Selecting the winning price requires insight and discipline, and it must be proven possible. If the customer does not trust that the solution provider can deliver the solution to their satisfaction at the listed price, that solution provider will not win.

2. Sales or Capture

Most proposals are won before the RFP is released. Cultivating a strong relationship with your future customer is key. The more you know your customer (and the more they know you), the better your chances of success.

It is common that white paper content supplied by a solution provider can be found in an RFP, which favors the solution provider that supplied the white paper. The proposal is theirs to lose.

Learn all you can about your future customer. What are their hopes, fears, and biases? If possible, meet with them. Establish a relationship. Build trust.

Help your future customer connect your solution with their problem. Make it easy for them to favor your solution by providing (easy to copy and paste) softcopy content that differentiates your solution from your competition (e.g., whitepapers, specifications).

3. Reputation

Buyers and decision makers are risk adverse. They fear making the wrong choice. There is a saying, “No one was fired for hiring (insert well-known company here).” If there are three companies vying for one contract and two are unknown, the known company usually wins. It is safer. It is a trusted solution provider.

Solution provider reputation is often established over time and independently of a single proposal contract. Popularity, branding, marketing, and word-of-mouth are keys to building a strong reputation.

Unknown companies can leverage this approach. Use testimonials and past performance to allay fears (see “Proof”). Everyone claims to be capable—perhaps, superior—but very few prove it. Who says you are the best besides you?

4. Professionalism

Perceived professionalism, based upon the quality of the proposal, intrinsically transfers to the solution and the solution provider. All content the decision makers receive must support your professionalism in order to build trust.

In a recent large RFP, the first bolded paragraph under the “Instructions to Offerors” reads:

“Offerors are cautioned that the Government considers the overall form and substance of their proposal to represent the general quality of work expected to be performed under this contract. Accordingly, it will be considered throughout the review and scoring/evaluation process.”

Although common knowledge among proposal professionals, this is one of the few times this factor has been formally stated in an RFP.

An evaluator in an international bid told me that the winning proposal was so well done (i.e., aesthetically superior, easier to read and evaluate, used quality materials, was of a better print quality, and was customer-focused) that the evaluators considered not reviewing the other proposals.

Compare A Compare B

He said that it was obvious who wanted it more, was more dedicated, and who was going to deliver a better solution. Below are two proposal pages from the same solution provider. Which do you think will be seen as more professional by an evaluator—A or B?


Content isn’t king, contrast is.

To make your proposal standout, use experienced proposal professionals, writers, designers, editors, desktop publishers, and printers. The quality of your document from cover to cover informs your customer’s perception of your professionalism and abilities. (Relativism is significant. If all proposals are professional, then none stand out. Other factors become more important.)

5. Proof

Many proposals make unsubstantiated claims hidden behind jargon. Measured, quantified proof such as past performance and metrics validates claims and reassures buyers. Our customer believes (trusts) our claims. Use graphics, callout boxes, and highlighting to draw attention to proof points. For example, the following graphic helps prove how the price is 80 percent lower and provides past performance metrics.




These five silver bullet factors have one thing in common. They must resonate with the customer and build trust. For example, if the price is too low based upon customer expectations then the customer may not trust that you understand the complexity of the problem. Customer insight and an understanding of the problem are paramount to building trust. For this reason, some factors may trump others (e.g., reputation may trump price in some situations).

Know your customer. Decide what silver bullet factor(s) will work best and apply them. Measure your success and improve. This approach works well for me and it will for you.

Reader Comments

Sun, Jan 26, 2014 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

Great article. In this low cost buying environment, it is vital to ensure that price realism is paramount and easily understood by the government evaluator. This really gets to the bullet of proof, as many proposals make grandiose claims without any proof or risk considerations. Further, graphics can be a vital tool, but if overused, they can be a perception issue where the content is lost and the opportunity to demonstrate superior competency and value are lost in pictures. Nonetheless, having the relationship is probably the most critical competent of positioning, since if the customer does not know you or at least have awareness of your capabilities, you are simply submitting a proposal blind with little chance of success. This strategy of blindly submitting proposals in response to FedBizOpps RFPs is a formula for failure.

Thu, Jan 23, 2014 Tysons Corner, VA

Well said, Mike. The overall message I saw here was: look at the word "trust" and determine every possible way you can ensure you are building trust with the Government throughout the process. As you noted, the page that simply looks more professional does say a lot about who the offeror is, how much thought, work and care they put into developing their proposal, and at a subconscious level (of the evaluators) has an impact on their overall evaluation. That's not to say that a significantly lower price won't still win - it likely will (assuming the TA part of LPTA is met, of course). But as an offeror, why take the risk of submitting a ho-hum proposal that looks like it came out of Word when you can do more to improve your chances?

Thu, Jan 23, 2014 Tom

I agree that this is a well written and pointed article. It has the 5 silver bullets identified and mostly in priority order, although I would move "reputation" to the bottom and slip the others up. Most proposals are won or lost before the RFP, as you stated. I worked my first proposal in 1984 and even back then relationships and graphics were critical. A well designed graphic does many things for you, such as saving space in page restricted proposals, it provides clarity to the discussion, and adds professionalism to the aesthetics, as long as you are not explaining the graphic in the text. If the graphic needs an explanation, then you have waste you time and money developing the graphic.

Thu, Jan 23, 2014 Mike Parkinson

In a strict LPTA bid, the approach I use is: PROVE that the solution provider will deliver the solution on the timeline at the price quoted. In LPTA I rely primarily on the "Price" and "Proof" Silver Bullet Factors. (There is ALWAYS wiggle room that allows evaluators pick the solution provider they feel are capable of delivering; however, using this wiggle room can result in a protest.) Here is more on LPTA: http://www.24hrco.com/images/articles/html/Mike_Parkinson_May13.html

Thu, Jan 23, 2014 Mary DC

Thank you for a great article, especially the comparison between one with graphics and the other without.

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