How to Lose a Proposal in 5 Ways: What Not to Do

When you write a lot of proposals, it can be easy to fall into the habit of doing things the same way every time. But some of those habits might actually be hurting your chances of closing the deal. Here’s my checklist of what NOT to do when writing a business proposal.

how to lose a business proposal

10 min. read

I know I don’t have to tell you how important proposals are to growing your business. But I do think we all might need a reminder about common proposal writing mistakes a lot of people make. Mistakes even smart people like you might be making.

Writing business proposals isn’t fun, I’ll be the first to admit that. So it can be easy to try to rush through to get them off your desk and into your client’s hands without giving them a lot of thought. Another app development proposal? Done. Another PPC campaign proposal? Done.

Hopefully, they’ll be successful.

But what about the ones that aren’t? Do you just shrug them off and chalk it up to, “You win some, you lose some”? Or maybe you place the blame of a deal gone wrong on your sales lead?

What if the real problem was your proposal? And what if just a few tweaks that you might not have thought about before, or maybe you underestimated, could be the tipping point to a big, fat close?

So before you assume the I’ve-been-writing-proposals-for-years-and-I-know-what-I’m-doing position, take a quick peek at these common business proposal mistakes just to make sure you haven’t inadvertently strayed off course.

1. You didn’t qualify your sales leads

This is the biggest and most common mistake in sales and it happens before you even START developing a proposal. When you’re hungry for business it can be hard to resist the urge to chase after anything that moves. But not everything that moves is worth your time, energy, or business.

If you don’t invest some time into figuring out if this lead is the right fit for your company, you could end up wasting hours preparing a proposal only to hear:

“We’re not really ready to make a decision right now. We were just looking to see what’s out there.”

“Oh! I had no idea it would cost this much! We don’t have the budget for that.”

“I thought this project was a go but my manager is the one making the final decision and she wants to go with an agency she’s worked with before.”


qualify your sales lead before writing a proposal
“Are you for realz right now?”

This is all information you could have secured BEFORE you spent ten hours designing a proposal, working with your team to come up with a great pitch, and sustaining a deep commission-less heartache.

By determining the answers to these simple questions during your initial conversation with every sales lead, you’ll improve the chances of developing a proposal that will actually close because it will be for someone who is actually ready, willing, and able to do real business. And if you choose wisely, you may even end up with a fruitful long-term client.

Ask yourself:

  • Does this sales prospect fit into our target audience in terms of industry, size, or revenue?
  • Can our services and expertise help solve their problem and reach their goals?
  • Does this company have a realistic budget that we can work with to get realistic results?
  • Am I talking to the actual decision maker? (if not, make sure you do!)
  • Will my team be excited to work on this project?
  • Are there any red flags indicating the client might be a big jerk?

If this sales lead is proposal-worthy, then the answer to most of these questions should be ‘yes’, before you ever log in to Proposify. Confirming that this client is actually a good fit for your business will increase your chances of creating a winning proposal.

2. You didn’t focus on the client

I get it. You’re excited to tell your potential new client all about how awesome your company is, how experienced your team is, how you’ve rocked the worlds of previous clients.

All of that is indeed important but somewhere along the way you ended up talking about yourself waaaaaaaay more than you talked about the client and their needs.

I’ve been in meetings with potential new clients where the agency owner has gone on and on about how much a previous client loved our agency. After awhile I could tell the lead had had enough of hearing about someone else and he wanted to hear about how we were going to make him love us.

Your proposal should focus on what your client wants to know, not just what you want to tell them. You need to convince them that you understand their challenges, their industry, their customers, and what it is they need from you.

And make sure you use your client’s full company name several times during the proposal - it will reinforce that you’re focused on them. (BTW, I don’t need to remind you to make sure no other client’s name shows up in your repurposed proposal, right? Right. Find and replace the crap out of that document or you’re going to look disingenuous. And dumb.)

3. You didn’t demonstrate why you’re different

No offence, but companies like yours are a dime a dozen. Even without knowing exactly what industry you’re in, I know this is true. Because it’s rare that there is a business on the planet that’s the only one doing what they do.

It doesn’t mean you’re not good at what you do but most people don’t know how you differ from your competition. (Maybe you don’t even know how you differ from your competition, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Generally clients don’t know the difference between companies for two reasons:

  1. They don’t understand the intricacies of your industry. And why should they? If they were experts in your field, they wouldn’t be coming to you for help.
  2. You’re not clear in demonstrating your differentiation in a way that connects with their need.

“What’s the difference between Cool Kids web design agency and Skater Rad web design agency? They both build great looking sites, or so their website says. Hmmmmmmm”

If you don’t give your clients reasons to feel like you offer something different over your competition, something they really need, chances are they’re going to make their decision about your proposal based on price. And that’s the last thing you want. Because just like you don’t win friends with salad, you don’t win quality clients with price.

So be explicit about what you do that makes you unique, make it easy for the client to evaluate the difference between you and the competition, and help them feel smart for choosing you.

4. You listed features instead of talking about benefits

Features are facts. Facts are great but only if you understand WHY they’re great. Otherwise, who cares?

Who cares if you build mobile apps using Sencha Touch? If your client doesn’t understand why having their app built in Sencha Touch is going to make it more successful, then it just won’t matter to them. Or better, why should they pay MORE to have you build their app using Sencha Touch compared to your competition who uses JQuery Mobile, which is cheaper?

So if you’re listing features in your proposal as a way of persuading your sales lead to choose your company, it’s going to go right over their heads unless you explain why they should care. Remember, they’re not the experts in this arena, you are. So you need to explain it to them.

I’m not suggesting you don’t talk about features but they need to be accompanied by their benefits. This happens to me sometimes here at Proposify. One of our super-smart developers will tell me about something they’re working on or a change we’re going to make and they want to tell our customers.

My automatic response is, “Why will our customers care? How will this affect them?” Once I know the benefit of what they’re working on, then I can figure out how to communicate to our audience in a way that gets them excited or builds their confidence in our product.

For example, one of Proposify’s features is that we have variables. Variables? Who cares?

Well, variables are small pieces of information that change from proposal to proposal - things like client name, project name, and page numbers. Using our variables feature prevents you from needing to use the dreaded and time-consuming find and replace tool every time you write a proposal.

So in a nutshell, variables save you time filling in all those little details, plus it’s going to make sure you don’t accidentally leave another client’s name in a new proposal, which is tantamount to a nuclear business disaster.

So make sure when you’re writing your business proposal that you demonstrate how your features are going to alleviate a pain point for your client or improve their situation in some way.

As ye olde saying goes, “Features tell, benefits sell”.

5. You let typos, bad grammar, and jargon run amok

OK, seriously. I feel like my mother on this topic, like a freaking broken record. But I still can’t believe the amount of typos, sloppy grammar, and infuriating use of jargon I see in proposals, sales materials, blog posts, and arrghhhhhhhhhh!

I’m not saying you have to be Oxford Dictionary perfect but for love of their, they’re, and there, get someone who is literate to proof your work before you send it to your client. I don’t even trust myself to proof my own work. After awhile you can’t see your own mistakes so you need that valuable second set of eyes to catch things before they fall through the cracks and make you look stupid.

bad grammar is a proposal mistake
“Maybe I should spend less time on my hair and more time reading Grammar Girl

And typos don’t just make you look stupid, they make it look like you don’t care, that you’re not paying attention to the details. While your client might not be hiring you to write the literary novel of the century, they are hiring you to care and be on top of details.

One UK study showed that a single spelling mistake on a website can cut online sales in half because it diminishes the confidence the user has in that company. The same could be said for your business proposal. I have disregarded both proposals and résumés based on typos and sloppy writing.

If you don’t have someone you can trust to proof your proposals, use a tool like Grammarly. There’s a great free version that quickly catches misspelt words, typos, and common grammar mistakes.

While you’re at it, cut the jargon from your proposals. It doesn’t make you look smart, it makes your client feel dumb. And no one wants to do business with a company that makes them feel dumb.

Jargon can act like a smokescreen to mask the fact that someone doesn’t really know what they’re talking about, or it can confuse clients if they’re not familiar with the same terms. Like, what the hell is ‘next gen’, anyway? Ugh.

These kind of proposal writing mistakes can negate all the brilliant ideas, amazing price, and beautiful designs of your proposal, and blow your deal in one fell swoop. So be sure to take the time to write carefully, brush up on your grammar, proof your work, and cut the goobledegook words from your proposal.


Avoiding these proposal mistakes won’t guarantee a win, but it can improve your chances substantially. It’s a tough battle out there for business so everything you can do to edge yourself above the competition, even something that seems small, may end up being the difference that makes the difference. And it all starts with a well-written proposal.

How to Lose a Proposal in 5 Ways: What Not to Do

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