Monday, March 30, 2020

Why Include an Executive Summary When the RFP Doesn't Ask for One?

The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is unfortunately still in front of us. How long this will last or what impact it will ultimately have on our businesses, no one can know with any certainty. Yet I'm reasonably confident in suggesting that now is a good time to consider how your firm can get better in bringing in new business. There will undoubtedly be fewer sales opportunities for awhile. What can you do to improve your win rate?

When it comes to proposals, there are a number of relatively simple, yet largely neglected, steps for differentiating your proposals from the competition—making them distinctly client-centered, telling the story of how you'll deliver success, keeping them concise and skimmable—to name a few. Another effective step that most ignore is including a compelling executive summary.

Why should your proposals have an executive summary? Well, for one thing, there's a strong consensus in favor of them among the experts. A sampling:
  • "The executive summary is the single most important part of your proposal. It's the only part that's likely to be read by everybody involved in making a decision." — Tom Sant, probably the best known expert on writing business proposals
  • "The Executive Summary is often the most important section in the proposal. It sets the tone for individual evaluators and are sometimes the only pages read by decision makers." — Shipley Associates, a leading proposal consulting firm (I was trained by Shipley and was briefly under contract as one of their consultants)
  • "The Executive Summary might be the only thing we read." — Gary Coover, author of the book Secrets of the Selection Committee and former member of numerous private and governmental selection committees
  • "The Executive Summary is your most effective and important selling piece and deserves all the effort and attention you can give it." — Robert Hamper and Sue Baugh, authors of the book Handbook for Writing Proposals
So, you should include an executive summary in your proposals because it might be the only part that the entire selection committee reads, it sets the tone for the rest of the proposal (hopefully the right tone!), and it can be a powerful influence in your firm being selected. To this list of reasons I'll add the following:
  • An executive summary gives you a greater measure of message control. RFPs tend to nudge everyone in the direction of sounding alike. That's my observation, having reviewed thousands of A/E firm proposals over the years. More importantly, clients agree, based on my conversations with many of them.
  • An executive summary enables you to lead with client focus. A truly client-centered proposal has an edge over all others that focus instead on the offerer. Yes, they're simply responding to the RFP's instructions to feature their qualifications and experience. An executive summary, on the other hand, allows you to open your proposal with the spotlight directed where it should be—on the client.
  • The executive summary is the best place to deliver your value proposition. This is the persuasive business case for selecting your firm versus your competitors. By outlining your business case in the executive summary, you're focusing on outcomes that you know constitute the client's definition of success. This is often quite different from the formal "selection criteria" listed in the RFP.
As you've probably detected, I have an uneasy alliance with client RFPs. I certainly advise being fully compliant with the RFP, but not in the manner of passively "answering" its directives as you might answer a questionnaire or fill out a form. The latter seems the favored approach for most proposals I review. By contrast, I advocate what I call assertive compliance where you satisfy RFP requirements without sacrificing best practice and common sense.

This leads us back to executive summaries. Why don't most firms include one? Because the RFP didn't ask for it! So does that omission comprise a prohibition on including an executive summary in your proposal? Do you take a risk by including one? Not in my experience.

Over a 20-year period, I served as the proposal manager for a national environmental firm and then a regional engineering firm, meaning I was ultimately responsible for all aspects of the planning and preparation of key proposals (typically with contract values in excess of $1 million). We won 75% of those proposals, for combined fees totaling over $300 million.

I always included an executive summary, except on rare occasions when the RFP specifically excluded one. And...the RFPs almost never asked for one. In over 200 proposal debriefings, there was never a situation where we were criticized for including an executive summary. On the contrary, it was evident that clients consistently read them (in contrast with cover letters, which are often ignored) and, in many cases, they played a significant role in our being selected.

I'll take those odds. What about you?

As noted earlier, a good executive summary sets the tone for the rest of your proposal. It can also say something about your firm. Passively answering the RFP can suggest your firm is merely an order taker—tell us what to do and we'll do it. It occurred to me recently that both firms mentioned above more commonly inhabited the realm of trusted advisor. We included executive summaries because they provided us optimum space to feature what we thought needed to be said—whether mentioned in the RFP or not.

Our industry has fought long and hard for Qualifications-Based Selection, but I must confess I'm not a fan (I know, that's heresy to some). My biggest complaint is that it doesn't align with how research shows buyers make decisions. People don't really buy products and services; they buy what they believe those products and services will do for them. Similarly, buyers aren't inclined to pick vendors or service providers based on what they've done for others, but what they anticipate the provider will do for them. Past experience and qualifications are simply evidence that the provider can deliver what they promise.

This gets muddled when QBS is applied to the buying process. Yet I remain convinced that most buyers of A/E services still select firms based on the promise, not the past. Many RFPs seemingly constrain our ability to adequately feature that promise. Ask for a work plan or scope of work, and most firms will respond with just that—essentially a list (in narrative form) of tasks to be performed. We become so conditioned to this response that even when the RFP requests a "project approach," many firms pass on the promise and provide just an SOW.

A well-developed executive summary swims against this tide, giving you 2-4 pages at the start of your proposal to succinctly tell the client what they really want to hear—that you understand their needs, what outcomes will define success, and the best approach to deliver those outcomes. Will you pass on this opportunity because you weren't asked?

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