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How to Win Friends & Influence Proposals

In 1936, Dale Carnegie published the seminal business book, How to Win Friends & Influence People. Though nearly a hundred years old, the book is still a near requirement for anyone interested in business. Through a series of principles and anecdotes, Carnegie details his methods for building strong relationships that help him succeed in business and life.

Working on proposals can be a difficult and frustrating task. There are deadlines to meet, sheep to herd, and always another proposal right around the corner. A number of skills, including project management, technical writing, and knowledge of the product, help make proposal professionals successful. But more than anything else, proposal professionals’ most important skill is being able to work with people. With this in mind, we revisited How to Win Friends & Influence People with an eye for how proposal professionals can benefit from Carnegie’s insights. Below, we list the 8 most important principles for proposal professionals to keep in mind as they work to write strong proposals and win business:

1. Arouse in the Other Person an Eager Want

When encouraging team members to hit their deadlines and put in good work to a proposal, it’s important to encourage in them an eager want. To do this, give them a sense of the big picture. Why is this proposal exciting? How much revenue will it bring in for the company? What doors could it open? Then, remind them how their particular role will help bring this about. No proposal response should begin without giving the team the big picture and inspiring as much enthusiasm as you can reasonably garner.

2. Give Honest and Sincere Appreciation

One of the biggest difficulties in proposal management is getting people to hit their deadlines. Most respondents have other initiatives for which they are primarily responsible. Their goals are rarely tied to proposals. How can you encourage them to submit responses on time? Carnegie suggests the answer is simple: give honest and sincere appreciation and don’t criticize, condemn or complain.

In other words, use positive reinforcement and avoid negative reinforcement. Every time someone submits work on time or early make sure you thank them. In-person if possible. In the long run, it will be more effective than chastising them for the deadline they missed.

3. Let the Other Person Feel the Idea is Theirs

Speaking of deadlines, work with your SMEs to come up with their own deadlines. Explain when the proposal response is due. Ask them about their workload. Let them pick the date of their commitment. This ensures that they think the deadline is reasonable and manageable. Now, when you’re following up, you’re doing so to check in on their commitment rather than enforcing your own deadline that’s out of touch with their workflow.

4. Talk About Your Own Mistakes First / Call Attention to People’s Mistakes Indirectly

If someone does miss a deadline, don’t criticize them for it or report them to their supervisor. Instead, approach them with humility. Own that you might have set an unreasonable deadline. You could have given them more notice. And you understand why they had to prioritize their other work. Now that they understand you are not there to get them in trouble, you will have more trust to discuss the work that needs to be done. As you transition into the work to do, try to discuss it indirectly by asking questions. Ask how you can support them in the answers they need to write. Offer to schedule a meeting where they can dictate answers to you and you’ll write them down. Note: Any offers of support need to be genuine for this to work.

5. Praise Every Improvement

Other than members of the proposal team, most respondents aren’t evaluated based on their work on proposals. That means that any time they are putting together responses, they are taking away time from the initiatives that their bosses will notice most. Make sure you take the time to praise contributors to their supervisors for their work on proposals. Don’t let work done on proposals be invisible to the rest of the company. When a proposal is won make sure you shout out all the good work that went into the proposal as far and wide as you can.

6. Make the Other Person Feel Important — And Do It Sincerely

In order to get people to put a significant amount of time into a proposal, you need to show them that you understand how valuable their time is and appreciate the work they are putting in. Of course, some of this comes from the praise you will give. But more importantly, it will come from demonstrating that you value their time by creating a smooth, streamlined process that makes responding as easy as possible. Remind them that every answer they contribute now will help save them time in the future because it can be reused (if you don’t have a system for reusing answers, now is the time to start!). Be prompt in replying to their questions. And never delay on commitments you made to them that would be a bottleneck to their work.

7. Make the Other Person Happy About Doing What You Suggest

One of the proposal team’s core responsibilities is to qualify out low-probability opportunities. At the same time, Sales’ responsibility is to bring in more revenue, which means they are more inclined to be bullish about pursuing proposal opportunities. This creates a natural tension. The best proposal teams are able to work with this tension by helping the salesperson understand the direct personal benefit of saying no. What this means is that you should demonstrate how much work would be required by the salesperson to successfully complete the proposal. Show them the low probability, and how that equates to the expected value of their commission (probability x commission rate x revenue = expected value). If you are working on another proposal for them, point out how an additional proposal will lower the quality of the other proposal.

By helping them see that the proposal would be intensive and would provide minimal gain, you can help the salesperson feel relieved about a proposal being qualified out rather than aggrieved. When they agree to pass on a proposal, make sure you thank them for understanding and praise them for being a team player.

8. Talk in Terms of the Other Person’s Interest

One of the biggest mistakes proposal teams can make is writing proposals in terms of the company’s interest rather than the prospect’s. In other words, never tell the prospect why your company wants to win their business. Always speak in terms of the prospect’s interest.

Positioning in the executive summary should specifically lay out how the prospect will directly benefit from choosing your company. The language should be tailored to highlight the terms that the prospect included in their proposal. Don’t rely on buzzwords, think about exactly what the prospect is interested in, and figure out how to communicate that you will provide exactly that. For instance, does a prospect care that your solution is “innovative?” Most likely not! Instead, show them how your solution will bring them more revenue, save them time, and make their life easier.

How to Win Friends & Influence Proposals

Proposal Management as an Art

Revisiting Carnegie’s book reminded us that proposal management is an art more than a science. It’s not easy to remain positive, compassionate, and magnanimous in the midst of stressful proposal responses. In fact, Carnegie himself said that he rarely lived up to his principles. Instead, he recognized that life, like business, is an art. We aim for excellence, fall short, and try again. We hope these principles can help you reflect on your proposal process and think creatively about how to inspire your team. Our hope is that returning to proposal management with these principles in mind will help make it just a little bit easier for you to hit your deadlines and generate strong proposals.

Download the Guide to Modern Proposal Management eBook to Learn More

Want to learn more about how the best-performing proposal managers optimize win percentage, reduce stress, and capture more revenue? This eBook breaks down the best practices of the most successful proposal management functions and translates them into useful insights for companies of all sizes.

Download The Guide to Modern Proposal Management eBook to learn four key strategies to help you win smarter:

  • How to Implement a Disciplined, Documented Proposal Qualification Process
  • How to Design & Implement Win Strategies to Capture Business
  • How to Run a Color Review System
  • How to Track the Most Impactful Proposal Metrics

Download the eBook