window.dataLayer = window.dataLayer || []; function gtag(){dataLayer.push(arguments);} gtag('js', new Date()); gtag('config', 'UA-97641742-38');
(502) 271-0607

The Mail. Open it. Read it. Answer it.

Antique mail chest symbolizes the concept of mail.
Read on ideas on compelling and compliant proposals. Hint: it’s called “Answering the Mail.”

Are we talking about answering the mail?

Not really. In the proposal management field, when we produce a complete and succinct response we “answer the mail.” Answering the mail is the foundation of a compliant proposal. Each client request for proposal (RFP) states project requirements – people, processes, and products to deliver, for example. This request outlines services clients want. The proposal describes who will do it and how they will complete the work. It commits to perform the work following the requirements. “Answering the mail” is important . It means you describe your proposed approach thoroughly and accurately. That is a good thing.

How hard can that possibly be? Turns out, it is plenty hard.

Often (too often) proposal teams write their responses before reading the requirements in full. That communication obstacle psychologists term “inference-observation confusion”. In lay terms it is “jumping to conclusions” (JTC). A form of cognitive distortion, individuals form conclusions without sufficient data and respond without full understanding. [ Hamilton, Cheryl (2011). Communicating for Results: A Guide for Business and the Professions. p. 162. ISBN 978-1-4390-3643-3.]

In effect, they are jumping to solutions – JTS. They think they are answering the mail, but it is a letter they sent to themselves.

In real life, we can have the opportunity to explain ourselves when we JTC. We can back the conversation up, gather additional information, and correct wrong assumptions and mistaken responses.

Will that work for Proposals?

Most RFPs include information that explains how the client will evaluate bids. These evaluation criteria may include statements about what the client believes is important and may also assign points to sections of the proposal, including approach to the work and cost. Importantly, the evaluators rely on the written proposal to make their assessments. They may, or may not, request clarifications of a submission. For example, a recent request for proposal stated:

“Discussions may be conducted by the procurement officer with any Offeror that submits a proposal determined to reasonably susceptible of being selected for award. Proposals may also be accepted without such discussions.”

Failure to understand the requirements and jumping to a solution can lead to losing the bid if you misunderstood the requirements and did not answer the mail. Even worse, you may have to perform to the standard and/or conduct the work based on your mistaken perceptions. Unfortunately, that situation can lead to losing the contract for failure to perform according to requirements – a performance issue that can disadvantage a company for years.

How do you prevent jumping to the solution?

Too many times, proposal writing begins before companies read and discuss the RFP, research the requirements, ask questions, and plan the response. The Proposal Team is busy with cutting and pasting, using a previous proposal for the same work or a recent proposal for similar work. Unexamined assumptions and mismatched requirements lead to insertion of irrelevant text to fit a hasty and irrelevant solution. After a painful Red Team, getting to basic compliance can require massive, expensive, and time-consuming editing. However, teams that assess the details, plan the response, review and edit with care, achieve better results.

Open the Mail.

Assume you receive a bill in the mail from the water company. Do you pay it without opening it to see how much it is? Of course not.

The same thing is true of RFPs. First “open it,” that is, make sure you have the complete RFP, including forms, attachments and model contract if relevant. Make sure it is in a location that other members of the proposal team can access.

Read the Mail.

The next step is reading the documents from start to finish to understand the expectations. Who is the client? Do you know them? When is it due? What is the scope of the work? How will the client evaluate responses? Is there an incumbent? Can you ask questions? A thorough review of the RFP and all its files (yes, including the attachments and model contract) is the second step.

Expect this team to read and discuss the requirements in detail until everyone understands what the RFP says. List the requirements and the approach to meet them to aid in this discussion. Research “buy or build” decisions as needed. Evaluate the business approach of possible competitors. Assess the odds of beating them. What would it take for you to win the business?

Your proposal should detail your solution. Document it and then answer the mail.

Answer the Mail.

Now you have a compelling solution and are ready to begin writing the proposal. But first, plan the content. Create a compliant template for the response that follows RFP directions. Including text from the RFP can help writers by keeping the requirements in front of them as they work. Include data that support the effectiveness of your solution – “proof points.” Include statements that answer the question “Why us?” These statements are win themes and they position your response for a positive evaluation. This approach is actually less time-consuming than rewriting!

Simplify the process with cautious use of prepared content. Are there stock descriptions for past performance that you can update? Compile resumes, job descriptions, biosketches of important personnel, workflow descriptions and charts for major performance requirements to simplify content. Do you have relevant, recent, and positive references? These materials can help you reduce the level of effort for standard components like staffing plans without relying on tired content from old proposals. Once you populate the template with these standard responses, your team can add original content to describe your solution, blending in proof points and win themes to convince evaluators your proposal is the best choice for the client. Your “smart template” guides the writer to create content that is accurate and complete – content that answers the mail.

Conclusion: These 3 steps can help you win the business.

  1. Open the mail: make sure you have all the components of an RFP before beginning a response.
  2. Read the mail: thorough review and assess the requirements to drive your solution.
  3. Answer the mail: Plan and write your response with succinct and complete content.

Got a question? Contact me at Or read more about Proposal Management: What is it you DO?

Visit the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) to learn more about the Proposal Management Industry.