Executive Summaries

First impressions count. Your proposal’s executive summary appears first and therefore must be clear and persuasive to grab customer attention.

Introduction

A draft executive summary should be developed early during the opportunity/capture planning phase. It provides a roadmap for the rest of the opportunity/capture plan.

By the time the proposal is submitted, the executive summary will be a concise, informational, persuasive piece of writing. Its purpose is to convince the customer that your offer is superior to competitor offers. It is generally a stand-alone section at the front of a proposal. If the customer’s instructions do not allow for an executive summary, include this content as part of the cover letter or first-page introduction.

By writing a compelling executive summary, you make it easier for evaluators to digest the key messages in your proposal—and you improve your chances of winning. The executive summary is often the only part of the document read by the senior decision makers.

The executive summary isn’t a summary of the sections in your offer. Rather, it’s a sales document that shows that you:

  • Grasp your customer’s vision
  • Understand the customer’s explicit and implied needs
  • Have built a solution that satisfies those needs
  • Offer better value than any competitor

Aim the executive summary at senior-level decision makers in your customer’s organization. Articulate the customer’s vision and present a complete value proposition that clearly shows why your solution is the best choice.

Because the executive summary clearly articulates your bidding strategy, it’s an excellent tool for providing guidance to the proposal team. Write the draft executive summary in the opportunity/capture planning phase, before a kickoff meeting. Then, as appropriate based on value and strategic importance, review it early with management based on decision gate criteria.

Best Practices

1. Draft your executive summary early and ensure customer focus.

The Opportunity/Capture Manager should prepare the first draft of the executive summary and present it at the preliminary bid decision gate review. Convince reviewers that you deserve their support by presenting evidence that your view of the customer’s hot-button issues, vision, and expected solution is correct. At this stage, the executive summary is a powerful internal tool to gain senior management endorsement. The draft executive summary should continue to evolve throughout the opportunity/capture phase so that it can be used as a briefing tool at the proposal kickoff meeting.

Readers of your executive summary must clearly understand your solution and its benefits and be able to justify recommending your solution over competing solutions.

Always include a well-written executive summary with a proposal. An effective executive summary demonstrates that you understand the customer’s business issue, have worked with the customer to define its issues and needs, and can use the customer’s language in your response.

A customer-focused executive summary:

  • Demonstrates understanding of the customer’s motivation and vision for a bid
  • Articulates understanding of the customer’s hot buttons
  • Confirms that the solution satisfies each hot-button issue from the customer’s perspective
  • Focuses on benefits to the customer, not the underlying products or services
  • Uses the customer name more frequently than the bidder’s name
  • Is written in a concise tone and style that decision makers can understand
  • Avoids technical content that obscures customer benefits
  • Ghosts the competition

One way to plan your executive summary is to use traditional strategy tools like a Strengths, Weaknesses, opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis or a Bidder Comparison Matrix. Organize your executive summary around the answers to seven key questions:

  • What are the customer’s problems?
  • Why did these problems arise?
  • What results do they want to achieve by solving the problems?
  • Which outcome or result is the most important?
  • What solutions can you, or your competitors, offer?
  • What results will each solution produce?
  • Which is the best solution and why?

Define a structured approach for your executive summary. There are a number of options for building a persuasive executive summary. Here is one effective approach:

  • In the opening paragraphs, connect with the customer. Demonstrate that you understand their vision, objectives for success, and the challenges they face. Provide a brief overview of the value your solution will bring. Use your win theme and killer discriminator here.
  • In the next paragraphs, demonstrate that you clearly understand the customer’s needs. Prioritize these needs from the customer’s perspective. If you’re an incumbent, indicate your understanding of how needs have changed.
  • In the following paragraphs, present your solution to each of the customer’s needs. State your solution’s benefits and include proof points to substantiate your claims.
  • In the final paragraphs, review why the customer should choose you, and provide a roadmap for the proposal organization. Clearly identify the win themes (i.e., features, benefits, and proof points) that your proposal provides.

If a customer does not specifically ask for an executive summary, include one anyway. If customer instructions or procurement rules disallow an executive summary, you can explain the key points of your solution in other ways:

  • Your cover letter
  • The first sections of your proposal body
  • The first paragraph of a very short proposal

Identify the executive summary by whatever name the customer uses in its instructions. Common names include proposal overview, management summary, and management overview. If the customer gives specific instructions for the executive summary’s content and location in a proposal, follow those instructions. Weave the key points stated here into any framework the customer provides.

2. Write and review early.

Preparing executive summaries early promotes clear alignment for the pursuit. This ensures that every individual, from proposal team members to senior executives, conveys the same message to your customer.

An early executive summary provides a consistent baseline to ease customer communications and positioning. An early draft of your executive summary should form part of the kickoff meeting package. Write it after planning, but before kickoff.

Drafting your executive summary early lets you and your team:

  • Test your value proposition on the client before starting your proposal effort and refine it to match the client’s needs. However, be careful not to do this after the RFP has been issued or you may risk being disqualified.
  • Align your proposal team on the proposal strategy so that contributors link their sections to the overall win themes, where possible.
  • Avoid costly rework of your solution at a later stage when mistakes may be too late to correct.
  • Give senior management time to review and support your strategy.
  • Allow time for better graphics and production methods that will be more persuasive to your client.

If you’re not prepared to write the executive summary early, you probably aren’t ready to bid and should consider a no-bid.

Obtain approval for your executive summary from the relevant person in your organization as soon as possible. Use it in early reviews to drive the proposal team’s direction and keep the proposal effort in line with your proposal strategy.

3. Use your executive summary to make an impression.

The first thing clients read sets the tone for the rest of your proposal. Executive summaries are important because they’re often the only pages a busy evaluator reads in detail before skimming through the rest of your submission. If you make mistakes or fail to show value in your executive summary, evaluators may skip to the price page and dismiss the rest of your proposal.

Think of it this way: If you went to the hospital to get advice about a medical problem, would you be more trusting of a doctor dressed in a white lab coat, or one with ripped clothing and arms covered in tattoos? Chances are, you’d perceive greater expertise and authority from someone who looks the part (even though that perception could be false). The same goes for executive summaries: If your executive summary is professional and persuasive, reviewers are likely to expect the same from the rest of your proposal.

A good executive summary is unique to each opportunity because solutions, client requirements, and competitors differ from one opportunity to the next. Overuse of boilerplate or clearly recycled content may lead evaluators to think you haven’t thought carefully about their particular needs.

Give evaluators clear reasons to select you over your competitors. If you offer more than one option, recommend the solution that best matches the client’s needs. Mention what makes your solution unique and provide relevant proof points, such as success stories for similar solutions provided to similar clients.

Decisions often are driven by emotion. Include graphics to add emotional appeal and use a professional layout that makes the key points easy to see. Graphics serve as guideposts through a proposal. They build understanding of discriminators and promote buy-in.

Explain what value your customer gets for investing in your solution, but avoid too much technical detail. Instead, focus on benefits and clear discriminators. Where possible, quantify the payback and include high-level pricing. Exclude pricing only if prohibited by the client or where this is not relevant to the purpose of your proposal.

As a sales document, your executive summary helps advance the sales process to the next stage. Ask for the customer’s business in a subtle way by confirming your understanding of the next step in your client’s decision cycle. Phrases you can use to do this include:

  • I will call you on Friday to discuss next steps
  • Our team is ready to present our solution to your board next week
  • Sign here before month end to accept the terms of this proposal and meet the project deadlines with the team that we propose
  • Click here to order now

4. Clearly indicate your proposal’s responsiveness and compliance.

Find out who will read and evaluate your proposal, then tailor your executive summary to match the priorities of key decision makers:

  • Motivators are what the customer is trying to achieve to realize its vision.
  • Issues are the things that worry the customer. They may stem from an existing problem or be driven by an upcoming opportunity.
  • Hot buttons are a combination of issues and motivators. They are the singularly important issues that are likely to drive decisions.

Cite the origin of any needs or hot buttons mentioned in your proposal to provide context and allow your executive summary to stand alone. Clearly show that you have validated needs with the customer. For example:

  • In our recent meeting, you mentioned that your key requirements are …
  • In RFP 123/4, Acme states that …
  • Acme Vice President Mary Jones recently said …

Make it clear that you’ll comply with the client’s requirements. For example:

  • Our proposal fully complies with the requirements in Acme RFP 123/4

5. Assign writing and review responsibilities strategically.

Use a clear, easy-to-read writing style. The Oxford Guide to Plain English recommends using simple words and short sentences of no more than 15–20 words. Check the readability statistics when you write using tools available in word processing software. Aim for a grade level of 8–10. Write clear, direct sentences in active voice.

The ideal author for your executive summary is a salesperson or Opportunity/Capture Manager who has a relationship with the client. The salesperson can articulate the customer’s needs and explain how your organization can solve its problems. The writing doesn’t need to be perfect in the first draft, and a structured writing approach can help. When a draft is written, a skilled writer can polish the wording, and a graphic artist can create the visual imagery.

When choosing reviewers for your executive summary, make sure you have a good mix of client knowledge, competitor knowledge, solution capabilities, past performance, and executive and writing skills.

Use a professional Proposal Editor for edits. This may be the Bid or Proposal Manager or an Editorial Specialist on the proposal team, depending on the size of your team and organization.

Allow time for changes in the executive summary as your proposal effort progresses. Be sure to do a final proofread after any last-minute changes to preserve the quality. Keep production schedules in mind when editing to make sure that there’s enough time for layout, graphics, and printing to the level required.

6. Mirror your executive summary themes in the proposal cover, title, and cover letter.

The proposal title, packaging, cover letter, and executive summary are highly visible parts of your package to persuade the customer. Each of these components makes a strong contribution to the customer’s first impression of your offer, so it is critical that your message and visuals are consistent and compelling.

When preparing these aspects of a proposal, consider the following:

  • Use an active, engaging title. The title of your proposal is the first thing the customer reads. Avoid generic titles such as “Proposal for Company XYZ.” According to Tom Sant, a good title should:
    • Describe your recommendation
    • Start with an active verb that stresses the benefits to the customer
    • Focus on results or benefits, not a product name
    • Avoid jargon

    An effective approach is to use a two-part title (when not instructed differently in the bid instructions). For example, “Eliminate Your Test Lab Worries and Reduce Your Costs: [Your Company Name] Solution for Company XYZ.”

  • Design a customer-focused proposal cover. The most effective proposal covers feature the customer, not your company. If instructions allow, use a picture, diagram, or graphic on the cover that relates to the major win theme of the proposal. You may want to include your customer’s logo or branding colors. Above all, the focus should be on the customer’s perspective, not your own.
  • Include a cover letter. The cover letter formally presents your proposal to the customer. It is part of the overall persuasion package. It should mirror the win themes of the proposal.

Address the letter to an individual (usually specified in the bid request), not the company. Regardless of the level of the addressee, use the tone of communication for a decision maker. The highest-level person in your organization that the customer personally knows (and has signature authority) should sign the cover letter. Do not use dual signatures, unless the offer is being made by a strategic partnership between two companies.

Reference the bid request you’re responding to. In brief terms, highlight the solution and key discriminators of your proposal. Thank the customer and close with a statement of commitment.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Including irrelevant information in executive summaries

An executive summary isn’t a summary of your proposal, but rather a business case or a value proposition to convince evaluators to select you. Don’t include your corporate history in the executive summary. If you feel compelled to include it somewhere, add it as an appendix to the proposal.

Summary

  • A good executive summary provides a value proposition that helps evaluators choose you.
  • Always include an executive summary as a stand-alone document unless the proposal is very short. Follow instructions if provided. Follow instructions if provided.
  • Begin a draft executive summary during opportunity/capture planning so that it’s available for the proposal kickoff—and get it approved early.
  • Use it as a briefing tool to drive the direction of first the opportunity/capture team and then the proposal team.
  • Allow time for changes and be sure to do a final proofread, while keeping production schedules in mind.
  • Plan before writing. Adapt your approach to the time available
  • Write executive summaries for nontechnical, upper-level decision makers.
  • Tie major discriminators explicitly to customer issues.
  • Match the goals and priorities of the evaluators. Give them good reasons to select you by showing them the unique value of your solution with relevant proof points.
  • Mention the client first and benefits before features. Show your solution’s compliance.
  • Use a clear writing style, and include graphics to add emotional appeal. Avoid too much technical detail. Include high-level pricing and related value propositions unless prohibited or irrelevant.
  • Ask the salesperson (or Opportunity/Capture Manager) who knows the client best to write the draft executive summary. Enlist a Proposal Editor, if you have one, for final edits and a mix of client, technical, competitor, executive, and proposal skills for reviews.
  • Keep your executive summary short. Use a structure that works. Each executive summary differs for each opportunity because the client, evaluators, competitors, and solution are all different.

Terms to Know

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