most A/E firms don't include one in their proposals. Why? Because the RFP didn't ask for it. Okay, so there's one reason to question it—but it's hardly a good one. Whether the client asks for an executive summary or not, in my experience it's well demonstrated that including a strong one can make the difference between winning and losing.
How does an executive summary wield so much influence? Because if well done it distills your value proposition down to its essence—a brief, compelling description of how your firm is going to deliver the outcomes the client needs. I described the content and importance of the proposal value proposition in my last article in this space. The main takeaway: Your value proposition should drive your proposal. And your executive summary should open your proposal by highlighting it.
A common mistake is thinking of an executive summary as a summary of the whole proposal. That might work if your proposal prominently featured your value proposition. But most proposals give far more emphasis to the firm's qualifications and the tasks to be performed than to the overarching project strategy that will enable client success. Yes, RFPs contribute to this misdirection, but don't be fooled into thinking you can consistently win on the basis of qualifications and scopes of work.
The well-written executive summary properly frames the winning narrative at the proposal's start—"This is how we will enable your success through this project (or contract)." How do you capture that message in your executive summary? Consider this basic outline:
Identify the problem or opportunity. Getting this right requires going beyond the mere technical dimensions of the need. The client doesn't just need improvements to Main Street; they need to enhance their core commercial district by improving traffic flow, safety, and visual appeal. It's not an engineering project; it's a community revitalization project. To properly frame the problem or opportunity, you need to see it from the client's perspective. Diagnosing the problem at three levels—strategic, technical, people—will help you gain that alignment.
Define the desired outcomes. Ultimately, you're not selling your solution or services, you're selling the outcomes the client wants. Focusing on outcomes is one of the best ways to differentiate your proposal. But for this to work you need to know what the client really wants. Don't hypothesize; summarize what the client previously told you—in person during the sales process, not through the RFP, which is rarely an adequate source of this insight. What if you don't know because you didn't engage the client before the RFP? That should be an automatic "no go."
Build your executive summary around 3-5 critical success factors. What absolutely has to happen to deliver the client's desired outcomes? Answering that question is my preferred approach to writing proposal executive summaries. And I've found that this outline generally works better with technical professionals than the more nuanced, sales-oriented ones I've found online. The best CSFs to feature are usually key challenges or concerns that the client has voiced about the project or program.
Highlight your strategy for addressing each of the CSFs. Like the steps above, this one will contribute not only to a more compelling executive summary, but to a better overall proposal. A strong technical proposal features your strategy rather than your scope of work. The executive summary is a great place to introduce key elements of your project strategy. For example, if one featured CSF is to meet a demanding schedule to avoid regulatory penalty, briefly describe what steps you will take to ensure that the schedule is met and the associated benefits are realized.
Done well, your executive summary can practically make the case on its own for the client selecting your firm. Indeed, it might be the only part of your proposal read by some members of the selection committee—especially executive decision makers. They may skim the body of your proposal, looking for specific details. But an effective executive summary is likely to get their attention and could well predetermine the outcome. I've had this confirmed by many clients over the years. Don't miss this opportunity to start off your proposal the right way!