January 15, 2008

How Good Is Good Enough?

Time is running out. The second hand relentlessly pecks away at the minutes and hours. Our proposal will soon be due, and yet we know it needs more work. The question is: When can we stop? What’s an appropriate standard of excellence for our proposals? Do we just keep editing and proofreading until time runs out? Or is there a reasonable standard that tells when we’ve done enough?

That’s our topic this time.

In some operations, the sound of the UPS truck backing up to the loading dock—beep! beep! beep!—is the signal to start editing. But waiting until the last possible instant to correct your work guarantees you won’t have enough time to do the job right. Even if they don’t wait until the last moment, proposal writers still send out proposals that they believe aren’t quite right, simply shrugging and saying, “It’s good enough!”

But how good is “good enough”? When is your proposal “good enough” to go to the client? What does a proposal that’s “good enough” look like?

We can define six levels of “correctness” or quality for our proposals:

  1. No spelling, grammar or punctuation errors, and no typos.
  2. No obvious errors of fact, content or logic that the reader will notice immediately.
  3. Well structured, using a persuasive pattern of development, and divided into meaningful chunks so the reader can understand and use the proposal easily.
  4. Clear and concise writing, no unnecessary jargon, and nothing that could be misinterpreted.
  5. Effectively aimed at the decision maker’s level of expertise, personality, and values.
  6. Creative, informed, and intelligent, written in a crisp and interesting style, and delivered in a format that makes it easy for multiple evaluators to read it.

So—how good is good enough? Lots of sales or proposal professionals are happy if their proposals reach level 2. If it sneaks by on the first reading, it’s good enough for them.

From a customer’s point of view, however, where the reader is making a buying decision, nothing less than level 5 will do. So how much should you edit? Enough to get to that level of excellence.

“Excellence” is the key word, by the way. Our goal in writing proposals should never be perfection. That’s not realistic. Even the most stringent quality control processes used in manufacturing high-reliability products don’t set perfection as the goal. Instead, as sales people and proposal writers, we should strive to deliver proposals to our clients that are truly excellent. We want them to read our proposal and say, “Wow! That was really interesting! That was well done!”

So, how much editing should you do? As much as you can. I know that’s a bit vague, but I’m sorry to tell you that there’s no magic formula, such as “five minutes per page” or “15% of the total time allocated to document development.” If it’s of any interest to you, at Sant Corporation we typically allocate about as much time for editing as we do for creating the initial draft. We think a one-to-one correlation is about right. For someone who has never written a proposal, the editing time might easily exceed the writing time.

The important point is to plan editing into your overall proposal project. Designate a specific amount of time for it, and resist any attempts to poach on editing time for other activities. Making our proposals perfect isn’t realistic. But making them extremely good is an obligation we ignore at our peril.

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