A Modest Proposal

March 22, 2019

For years, I LOVED my dentist. Lately, not so much.

When I first started visiting this particular dental office a few years back, I was smitten. From the moment I stepped through the door, I was treated fantastically.

The receptionist was friendly – he took my coat, offered me water, and efficiently dealt with payment. When I was ushered into the treatment room – having waited no more than a few minutes – I was invited to relax on a beautiful burgundy leather chair (very classy), and I was given headphones and a choice of music (classical, please).

The dental hygienist was wonderful – kind and interested, and so thorough yet so gentle that I felt like my teeth and gums had been treated to a luxury spa massage. And although I didn’t see the dentist himself very often (yes, I am blessed with reasonably good teeth), when I did, he was calm, professional and reassuring.

So many little details, so carefully thought out and executed to perfection. No wonder I was out there declaring to all and sundry that this was, hands down, the best dental experience ever!

Until it wasn’t. Somewhere along the line, the original owner retired and sold the business to one of the younger guys. Then my beloved hygienist left. And after that, everything seemed to go hell in a handbasket. Headphones? No more. They were replaced by annoying chat radio. Burgundy leather chair? Gone. In its stead, a standard issue utility model.

While I missed those little touches, what I found most annoying was the new appointment “reminder” system. For every appointment, I now receive several notices – first an email reminder, then a phone call advising that if I don’t reconfirm within 24 hours, they will cancel my appointment. These are followed by texts. When I once tried to reply by text, however, I got a message saying they don’t accept text messages!  

Now, I appreciate that some clients (probably more than I think) arrive late, cancel at the last minute, or simply fail to show altogether. And I appreciate the impact this bad behaviour has on the dentist – on his schedule, his revenues, his peace of mind.

My problem is that it now feels like the dentist is the only party in this relationship. Before, the office seemed to be going out of its way to cater to me, the patient. Now I feel that everything is set up to take care of the dentist. His needs and convenience come first, with mine a distant second.

Moreover, the office appears to have adopted a one-size-fits-all approach. I could see hounding those Habitual-No-Show-Nancys about their next appointment, but why me? I’ve never missed one. Check my record.

So, what’s the lesson for proposals? In my experience, the most common mistake we professionals make when responding to an RFP is thinking that the proposal is about us – our extensive experience, our unparalleled capabilities, our ground-breaking past projects.

I hate to break it to you, but proposals are not about us; they’re about the client. A great proposal caters to the client – their needs, their issues, their pain points.

Here, then, are my top three tips for creating a more client-focused proposal.

Tip No. 1 – Comply with the RFP

This means providing all the information the client has asked for, in the order they’ve asked for it.

Even if it seems wonky – even if you’re sure your way of organizing the response is better and more logical – resist the urge to meddle. By doing it the client’s way, you are demonstrating right off the bat that you’re willing to follow instructions.

This doesn’t mean you’ll be a pushover for every crazy thing your client might want to do. It simply signals that you respect the client’s point of view and are willing to listen. Your relationship will inevitably involve some give and take, but there will be time enough down the line to build trust and sort all that out.

To draw attention to this “listening” quality of yours, I recommend explicitly stating that you have followed the RFP. In your cover letter or executive summary, include a statement like: For ease of reference, we have structured our proposal according to the requirements set out at page 10 of the RFP.

Tip No. 2 – Focus on the benefits

Your response should not be a laundry list of your experience and awards. It should point out how your experience will help the client.

Say you’ve been in business 25 years. So what? What have you learned in all that time? How will that experience streamline the work, save the client money, or produce a better result?  

So, you offer 24/7 customer service. You may think the benefit of that is obvious, but it’s always better to connect the dots for the client. Tell them why that’s a good thing: They will have less worry and fewer headaches.

The same advice goes for bios. Don’t just include your standard CV. You’re not applying for a job. Your goal is to clearly show the client that you have done projects like the one they’re looking to hire you for. Always tailor your bio to the specific proposal; provide relevant experience/projects/matters.  

One simple trick to weighting your proposal in the client’s favour is to use their name more often than your own and place their name ahead of yours. 

For example: 

Instead of: Fab Consultant (that’s us) can provide Grateful Client (you) with 24/7 customer service.
Try: Grateful Client can rest easy knowing that our team is on call 24/7.

Instead of: Fab Consultant has over 25 years’ experience in building engineering consulting.
Try: Grateful Client will benefit from the lessons Fab Consultant has learned over the past 25 years.

(And by the way, I’m not a fan of the big collective number: Together we have 400 years of experience. It might sound impressive on the surface, but, in reality, it’s a bit meaningless.)

Tip No. 3 – Make it readable

Follow the usual rules for good, readable copy. Use the active voice, break up those long sentences and paragraphs, and use bulleted lists where appropriate.

Get creative with your headings. For example, instead of the generic About Us, try something like, ABC Firm: Litigation Experts. That way, you take advantage of the heading to communicate a key message. (Remember, people don't so much read, as scan and grab.) 

Remember, too, that overall presentation counts. Your design should be clean and simple. Please don’t use 10-point type and tiny margins so you can cram tons of copy on each page! Evaluators will not be fooled. Worse, they may not even read your impenetrable tome.

You don’t need to get too fancy. One client I work with uses a Word template with a built-in heading structure, simple charts for pricing, and a bit of colour to add visual interest. It was created by a graphic designer and works just fine for most responses. If something special is needed, we bring out the big guns and use InDesign to create a custom document.

I haven’t talked at all about the executive summary. I could write a whole article on that, but for now, I will just say it’s a good idea to include one, even if the client didn't ask for it. In fact, sometimes, the executive summary is the only part of your proposal that actually gets read.

Unless, of course, the RFP specifically says: give us this, only this, and nothing more, and if you do give us even one wafer-thin Executive Summary, you will be disqualified. Then, of course, I recommend you omit the executive summary. Unlike my dentist, who doesn’t seem to realize that I don’t need all those damn appointment reminders, you’ll show that you can – and will – put your client’s needs first.

Remember this:
A proposal is not about you; it’s about the client.