Seven Rules for Writing Winning Proposals

“If you want to win more business you must write better proposals—regardless of the size of the sales opportunity.”
− John Brennan, Shipley Associates Consultant


Shipley Associates, the leading global business development consulting firm helps improve client win rates 40-60 percent by using best practices in proposal writing. Improve your writing and your win rate by applying the following seven rules:

  1. Use Customer-Centric not You-Centric Language.

Customers want to know that you have taken into account their business needs. They are looking to buy a solution to a problem or a roadmap for an opportunity. You will persuade them that your solution is best if you explain how it solves the problem or addresses the opportunity.

Don’t bury your benefits in the middle of the paragraph or at the end. Put them up front where they are more likely to be seen by the customer. Start the first sentence of every paragraph with a benefit, followed by your solution. For example, “ABC Corporation will prevent down-time while saving on operating costs by using IPD Corporation’s software solution.”

  1. No Using Features without Benefits.

Customers buy benefits, not features. They buy what your product or service will do for them, not its features. Make sure that when you are writing about features, you start first with a benefit. For example, “Efficiency and customer satisfaction are the twin benefits of our new seven step process.” Having established the benefit, you may then go on to write about the features of your product or service, and always include proof that it works.

  1. No Product/Service Benefits without a Customer Need.

This means that you will write about your customer’s needs, not just your solution. Do not simply push a bunch of features at them, and brag about your company. A business need might be a problem or an opportunity. Your proposal should solve the problem or point the way to capitalize on the opportunity. Until it satisfies a need, a benefit is just an advantage of your product. A lid is just an advantage of a cup until its owner wants to walk down a crowded hall with it filled with hot coffee; then it’s a benefit.

  1. No Graphic without a Caption.

A graphic is an opportunity to effectively get your message across. Readers are more likely to read captions than the text that surrounds a picture. So, write captions that include benefits of your solution. Your caption should tell the reader what to look for in the picture, table or graph and what conclusion you want them to reach. For example, “Self -service machine location. Locating the self-service machine in high foot traffic areas in the store will increase sales 20 percent.”

  1. Tell Your Customer What You Will Do for Them.

It is not enough to tell your customers that you understand, appreciate or know about their needs. You must tell them what you will do for them. “Understanding” implies little or no commitment, while promising action implies a strong commitment.  Similarly, don’t tell them what you can do, or what you will strive to do for them but what you will do. “Will” is a stronger commitment than “can” or “strive.”

Strong: “To improve ABC Corporation’s security, IPD Corporation will implement a three-point plan.”

Weak: “IPD Corporation understands the importance of security to ABC Corporation.”

  1. Substantiate All Claims.

Customers are skeptical of extravagant claims. They want to see proof—so give it to them without asking them to take it on faith. Be especially careful of claiming to be “world-class,” “cutting-edge” or “best-in-class” without providing proof. Remember adjectives do not sell, but the benefits of your solution do sell. Keep in mind these seven sources of proof:

  • Research studies
  • Past performance
  • Case studies
  • Expert’s endorsement
  • Testimonials
  • Publicity
  • Logical argument
  1. Avoid the Common Tendency to Editorialize.

Customers want to read about what you will do for them. They do not want to read about your understanding of their needs or background to the problem. Nor do they want to read about your heroic efforts to develop your new product or build your company. Omit the editorializing and cut to the chase. Tell them how your product features meet their needs, describing the specific benefits to them, and ask for their business.

Apply these 7 rules and be more competitive in your proposal responses.

About the Author. John Brennan is a Senior Consultant and Writer for Shipley Associates and a sought-after trainer of sales methods and business best practices.