21 Rules of the Competitive Proposal Game

Selling a B2B contract is a game where buyers pick winners by judging sellers’ proposals.

If sellers blow the proposal (aka losing) they’ve wasted all their time, effort, and money on that sales opportunity.

And the rules of the game are the rules buyers follow. Buyers (from publicly traded companies) follow rules that are driven by the Sarbanes Oxley Act (SOX) because it’s the law.

SOX means a Procurement process of competitive proposals. It provides a document trail as proof buyers aren’t pulling an Enron or other shady spend of stakeholders’ money.

Most private businesses also follow SOX because if they’re sued or indicted, they can show they were following the law — even if they didn’t have to. Good defense, eh?

Here’s a list of 21 rules of the competitive proposal game. They’re not written in a rule book, and like life there will be exceptions. Follow these rules and sellers win, or ignore them and wait three years for the next go round.

1. Buyers make decisions based on emotion then justify with facts

2. Buyers are human, they’re overworked and underpaid like sellers

3. Buyers hate to read proposals, they skim at 700 WPM instead of reading at 200-220 WPM

4. Buyers’ attention span of eight seconds is about the same as a goldfish at nine seconds

5. Buyers syndicate the risk of making a bad buy using evaluation teams & informal feedback

6. Buyers don’t risk their jobs to give contracts to friends, they want defensible decisions

7. Buyers will first buy solutions to fix pains, then to make improvements

8. Buyers evaluate proposal text subjectively then numerically rate it to try and look objective

9. Buyers know incumbents’ past failures, but untried suppliers are sparkly and new — “incumbent reinvent thyself”

10. Buyers see sellers on a grey scale, but sellers think they’re advantages are unique, and see as black and white differences to competitors

11. Buyers’ rationale exists before RFPs are released — “sellers don’t wait for the RFP”

12. Multiple buyers have multiple agendas — “proposals must speak to all”

13. RFPs don’t tell sellers what they need to know to win

14. Price is not the most important determinant, typically it’s 3rd

15. The status quo is always a seller’s competitor — “tell a burning platform story”

16. A seller’s proposal must persuade buyers to select them

17. Winning proposals are emotionally engaging stories of intellectually compelling solutions

18. Sellers’ Me-Me-Me sales proposals are losers, buyers don’t care

19. Sellers’ data dump proposals inform but don’t persuade buyers

20. There are no proposal silver bullets — winning is an accumulation of a proposal’s persuasive story

21. Winning proposals provide context for how a seller’s solution works

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