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This guest blog was written by our partner OpenAsset.
If you work in the AEC industry, then you are, at least, familiar with RFPs and proposals. You know how important proposals are to the business development process, and how much time and effort goes into their creation.
This guide on how to create winning AEC proposals has everything you need to create high-quality proposals that win projects and grow your business.
Proposal writing is one of those subjects on which a lot has been written but very little has been said. Sure, there are dozens of proposal writing guides out there, but few of them are available outside of business school, and none of them equate proposal writing to the art form that it is.
This guide on proposal writing for AEC professionals in 2022 aims to correct that oversight by acknowledging that proposal writing is an incredibly complex, analytical process with many facets that require full collaboration from the entire firm. Winning proposals also require:
As shown by the length of this introductory section, winning proposals require a lot more than one person can contribute. That’s why, above all else, winning proposals require teamwork and collaboration from the entire firm.
Now that you understand what it takes to write a winning AEC proposal, we can delve into the actual proposal creation process. Like building a skyscraper or erecting a home, creating a winning AEC proposal starts with a plan. Fortunately, the majority of AEC proposals utilize a similar structure.
The cover page of your proposal is different from your cover letter/letter of interest and executive summary. The cover page is usually artfully done and contains branding material like the firm’s logo, whereas the letter of interest and executive summary answer the question,
“What can your firm do for me and why should we hire you?”
This is the section in which you make the case for choosing your firm over the competition by providing the client with all the information they need to feel confident in their decision to hire your firm.
More than a list of accolades, your executive summary should highlight the gap between what the prospective client knows, and what they want to know. In other words, your executive summary should:
The project understanding (alt. project description) section of an AEC proposal is a high-level overview of the project’s objective, its essential qualities and the reasons why your firm would like to undertake the project.
Like an elevator pitch, the project understanding section should briefly answer the “what” and “why” of the project without delving into the “how”. Consider the challenges the client is dealing with and why those challenges affect them. Don’t forget to briefly identify the site, key design/engineering features, aesthetic considerations and a broad timeline for the project.
The following is an excerpt of a project understanding section taken from a real proposal submitted to the City of Portland and related entities to deploy a new transportation and land use strategy in the area.
“Forest Avenue is a vital link connecting downtown Portland to its most dense outlying neighborhoods, retail and employment centers, the University of Southern Maine, and also to the outskirts of the City of Westbrook.
At present, the study area between Park Avenue and Woodford’s Corner is most visibly used as a vehicular throughway by private autos. Two bus routes also use this section of Forest Avenue, although most passengers are not from the immediate vicinity of the study area…
The [AEC Firm] team offers a project approach that will recognize these differences and will guide the city and the community in selecting a transportation and land use strategy that will be sensitive to the contextual details within and outside the study area.”
A Scope of Work (SOW) is a fundamental piece of every AEC proposal, meant to describe what the firm is looking to achieve as a result of the RFP. The SOW also helps to ensure that the firm meets the needs of the clients and establishes the parameters of what could be included in the resulting contract.
In other words, the scope of work section of the proposal should outline what your firm will do for the client. Often a client may provide a scope of work in the RFP and ask firms to address how they will approach that scope.
In this case, the scope should explain how the firm will perform the tasks outlined. It should also contain an overall timeline, detailed milestones, reports, charts, tables and all deliverables.
The project execution plan (PEP) is the section of an AEC proposal that governs project operations and management. It also establishes in appropriate terms what will be done to meet the project scope and contractual requirements. The goal of the PEP section is to:
The following is an excerpt of a project execution plan created by the U.S. Dept. of Energy and related entities to build a physical science facility at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
“The Department of Energy (DOE) is required under the Tri-Party Agreement with its regulators to complete surplus facility disposition and remedial action clean-up of the Hanford Site 300 Area by 2015.
With about half of the space used by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in the 300 Area supporting their research programs, the DOE Office of Science (SC) has undertaken the Capability Replacement Laboratory Projects (CRL). The CRL projects will ensure the long-term viability of the PNNL and preserve the following vital research capabilities…”
Project execution plans can differ widely depending on the size of the project and the client requesting the proposal. The PEP you create for one proposal may consist of a small section, whereas another proposal might call for an extensive document. Below you will find several project execution plans submitted to the federal government for a variety of different projects.
The resume and relevant experience section of an AEC proposal is the first chance the client gets to meet your team, especially your key personnel. Regardless of the agency, customer or project, the resume section of your proposal should contain:
This information should be readily available and easy to access. If it is not, then it is best to hit pause on the proposal creation process to find a digital asset management system that can help you create employee resume documents at speed.
With a digital asset management solution like OpenAsset in place, it will be easier for your team to upload the necessary documents (resumes, staff photos, certifications, etc.) and move on to the first step in the process.
Relevance is key to creating a great resume proposal and the same is true of the resume section. Thus, the first step in creating a great resume section is to filter through resumes looking for past experience, skills, and areas of knowledge relevant to the specific project or task order. If the experience isn’t relevant to the scope of work, then it should be omitted.
Avoid language like “leveraged expertise and lead development team to enhance system functionality.” It’s deliberately vague and means nothing to everybody. Instead, provide concrete examples of the expertise applied and areas of measurable improvement. Don’t forget to include the relevant facts and figures.
Many RFPs, especially government RFPs, distinguish between certifications and training because evaluators look for industry-standard credentials, which are not the same as a candidate’s relevant skills and experience.
To give evaluators a better idea of a candidate’s skills, it’s best to list certifications apart from job experience. Listing them apart also makes it easier for evaluators to connect relevant certifications to job experience and where those skills were applied in a real-world setting.
The best resume sections provide a brief paragraph describing the rationale for selecting this team member for the proposal role. Utilize the brightest moments of their relevant experience, as well as exceptional accomplishments, awards, and customer testimonials.
Remember, evaluators need to read through a pile of resumes, which means they are likely to skim through most of your proposal. It is, therefore, best to provide attention-grabbing accolades near the top of the page. Don’t forget to explain why individual team members are the perfect candidate for a proposed role.
Many proposal writers assume their audience is another architect/designer/builder like themselves. This is a misconception. Prospective clients have their own jargon and easily recognized acronyms. Therefore, it’s best to ensure the resume section of your proposal is written in plain language. In other words, put it in layman’s terms.
The pricing section of an AEC proposal is one of the trickiest sections because it contains the cost of the project, which is either too expensive or just right. It doesn’t matter how good your proposal is if your bid is five times more expensive than other firms.
That said, the pricing section of your proposal still needs to be perfect. In general, there are three ways to price a project:
If your firm has priced the project as a lump sum, it’s best to break down those costs in a table. Hourly pricing should be broken out into hourly rates for each category of staff working on the project. If you have any payment terms, like “net 30,” you need to state them in your pricing or attach terms and conditions.
Assumptions and clarifications should also be included in the pricing section. For example, if you are proposing to provide tree removal services, then one of your assumptions should be – “We assume there are no underground gas lines within five feet of this tree.” Don’t forget to identify every assumption and to be very clear about the services that your firm will not provide.
Now that you know the structure of a winning proposal, the next step is to actually write and design it. Remember, the goal is not to write a contract or a summary document. The goal is to write a sales document that is meant to persuade the client that your firm is the right choice to complete the work.
Writing the content of an AEC proposal is a large part of the proposal creation process, but it is not the only part. Second only to the content of your proposal, is its design. Design also helps your proposal stand out from competing proposals and leaves the evaluators with a positive impression of your team.
Wow prospective clients from a unique and impressive cover design that features a high-quality image of your best work. Feature impactful photography, videos and other digital assets that showcase the skills of your firm. The first glance at your cover will decide if they want to pick up your proposal and read what you’ve got to offer.
Your branding serves to differentiate your firm from competing firms, and help evaluators recognize your proposal just by looking at your document. Do not be tempted to match your proposal’s design (colors, fonts, style) to the brand of the client. Remember, the goal is not to imitate the client, but impress them.
To make your proposal clean and easy to read, it’s best to let your designs breathe. Every element in your proposal (including logo, text, images, infographics, tables, etc) should have enough white space around it to ensure it isn’t confused with other elements.
Most AEC proposals are text-heavy. Include a hierarchy to your text by using a different font for headings or using a different weight of the font used in the body. This makes your proposal visually appealing and easy to read.
Highlight important information in a compelling way by using thoughtful graphics, tables, charts and other digital assets that draw the reader’s attention to the best parts of your proposal.
Designers can only create amazing work if they have the tools they need to create, share and manage digital assets like videos, images, graphics, renderings, etc. Fortunately, there are a number of martech tools available that enable designers to create and collaborate with the entire firm. Learn more about helpful martech tools in our guide on How To Build a Marketing Technology (Martech) Stack.
Like any sales document, an AEC proposal is not complete until it has been edited, revised and proofed for mistakes.
If you have completed all of the above, and you’re proud of the proposal, then it’s time to submit it and start reporting. For example, one might track the number of prospects who reach out with follow-up questions because something wasn’t clear? Try using a SaaS proposal program to monitor how much time prospects spend viewing your documents. You could also track:
The more KPIs that you track, the better your chances are of creating a better proposal for the next RFP.
We hope this guide on how to create winning proposals was helpful. As you go about answering RFPs, remember that there are a number of solutions out there to help you make better proposals and win more business. One such solution is OpenAsset, the only Digital Asset Management (DAM) solution designed specifically for firms in the built world. Contact OpenAsset today to schedule a demo.