Proactive Proposals: How to Win When You’re Behind

OpenAsset’s project-based digital asset management platform empowers AEC and real estate firms to create high-quality RFP responses quickly and easily, but it can’t provide the expertise needed to create winning proposals.  

Fortunately, we partnered with the CE Strong webinar series and The Architect’s Newspaper to provide OpenAsset users with the tools, techniques and best practice tips they need to create better proposals, improve their RFP win rate and outshine the competition. 

AEC Proposal Writer’s Guide: Expert Tips from Proposal Writer and AEC Marketing Consultant

OpenAsset is happy to sponsor the latest addition to the CE Strong webinar series, Proactive Proposals: How to Win When You’re Behind, hosted by Dionne Darling, VP of brand partnerships for The Architect’s Newspaper, and Rachelle Ray, founder of RMR Consulting. We are grateful for their insight, and excited to share their proactive proposal writing techniques with our audience.

CE Strong Webinar, Proactive Proposals: Winning When You’re Behind, Sponsored by OpenAsset and Hosted by the Architects Newspaper

Proactive Proposals: A Client-Centric Approach to Proposal Writing 

According to Rachel Ray, founder of RMR Consulting and AEC marketing consultant, a proactive proposal is a project proposal infused with proactive messaging. 

“We want tailored messaging that understands client motivations… instead of saying, our firm is pleased to submit for this project, you might say something that shows you understand why this project is important. You start with them, not you, instant proactive client-centric proposal.”

How to Write a Proactive Proposal: Research. Rally. Question.

“So how do we do that?” Says Ray, “How do we change from firm-centric to client-centric and really dig into the important messaging? I use three strategies, research, rally, and asking questions in order to build my strategic messaging.”

Research: Work to Identify and Understand Client Motivations

According to Ray, the best place to start once the RFP drops is to create a client profile, populated with pertinent information. “I start to build a client profile where I collect things like the vision, the mission, the values of the client,” says Ray. 

Proposal Writing Tip: Build a Client Profile

“I look for anything I can find on the people behind the project, what matters to them, what they care about, what they’ve been involved in previously, who they know, who they talk to, who they worked with.”

Fortunately, says Ray, the internet is more than capable of providing the information you need. “The internet is an amazing thing, we can do so much. I use it to find anything I can on the project. I check newspapers. I check blogs. I’ve checked podcasts. I’ve even followed the money – publicly funded projects often have a paper trail. You can track all of that.”

Proposal Writing Tip: Focus on People not Project

“..as I’m doing this, I’m remembering that I’m keeping or creating a client profile, not a project profile. We want to talk about people, not projects… you want to know what they care about, and what they’re worried about for their project. So as you’re doing your research, you want to focus more on the people than on the project.

Rally: Mine Your Network for Connections

“Once you’ve built your profile and all of your Googling,” says Ray, “you want to mine your network…See if anybody on your internal team has a connection to the client, to somebody involved in the procurement process or previous phases of the project.”

Ray goes on to state the importance of mining external partners for information. “Maybe a partner did the planning for [the project] or the programming… See if you can talk to them and gain insight. See if any of your partners, your sub consultants know anything about the project or the client. Have they done work with them? Have they done work on previous phases of this project?”

Proposal Writing Tip: Check Partner Resumes and Firm Profiles

Ray adds, “It’s amazing how much you can find from just asking people in your team, in your network. What do you know? Who cares about this? Who’s involved in this? Is there anything that we need to know while we’re putting together a proposal? Do you have any insights?”

According to Ray, an easy way to mine your team for valuable information is to review partner resumes. “When you’re asking your partners for their resumes, ask them if there is anything that they would want us to show? Is there any strength that they have related to this project? You’d be surprised what a gold mine your partners can be.”


Users of OpenAsset’s Employee Module can mine their network with ease. Using systems like Deltek Vision or Oracle as the single source of truth for employee-related data, the OpenAsset Employee Module makes it easy to scan through employee resumes for relevant experience and contacts.


Question: Confirm or Invalidate Your Assumptions

“So we have done our research, done our rallying, and built a lot of assumptions in this client profile,” Says Ray. “Now we want to confirm or invalidate as many of those assumptions as possible.”

Proposal Writing Tip: Ask Informed Questions 

According to Ray, the best way to confirm or invalidate your project assumptions is to ask informed questions. “For example, if our research has led us to believe that the budget for this project is low – maybe they’ve got $4 million secured, but you estimate that this is a $10 million project – we are going to ask what that [$4 million] covers. Is it basic services? Is it additional services? Does it cover the renovation and the addition?”

Proposal Writing Tip: Speak to the Right People

To get the answers to these important questions, says Ray, you have to talk to the right people. “Find out who is involved and what they care about? Remember, people have problems, projects don’t. The project doesn’t care if it’s under the budget. The project doesn’t care if it’s a tight schedule, but people do.” 

Proposal Writing Tip:  Make an Emotional Connection 

“People care if there’s not enough budget…  People care that a 12 month project might take 16 and that’s four months that they’re not getting a return on their investment, which causes problems for them at work.” Says Ray. “Keep in mind that we are making an emotional connection. Everything we’re doing in this first section is trying to understand the people behind the project.”

Proposal Writing Tip: Avoid Aggressive Questions and Language

Ray is sure to warn against overly aggressive questioning with the client. “We are not going to ask whether the client thinks they have enough money, because that’s kind of aggressive and is going to put them on the defensive.”

Proposal Writing Tip: Ask “Why” and What” Questions 

“Remember,” Says Ray, “you’re trying to get them to be honest with you. So you want to ask ‘why’ questions or ‘what’ questions and not aggressive ‘do you know’ questions… We want to find out how much they know. We want to find out if budget is a concern to them. We want to lead them towards our way of thinking and get them to be honest with us.”

Proposal Writing Tip: Don’t Draw Conclusions 

Ray is sure to caution proposal writers against drawing their own conclusions. “We don’t want to draw conclusions and make assumptions. Like I was saying, [your concern] might not be a problem for the client. They might not think it’s an issue. And an issue for you is not necessarily an issue for them.” 

She adds, “So, if you think the project is under budget – but they don’t – and you create your entire proposal strategy on this project being under budget, you now have to convince [the client] that the project is under budget and solve a budget problem that they don’t think they have. Unfortunately, that proposal is going to fall flat because it doesn’t connect with the client in the way that we need our proposals to connect with them.”

Fortunately, Ray has a solution. “If you are convinced that budget is going to be a problem, and you are sure that you need to convince the client. That might be something you table for the interview, or maybe you no-go this one because it’s not a good fit.”

How to Use Reflective Communication to Write Winning Proposals

In addition to her advice on client research and the RFP process, Ray extolled the benefits utilizing reflective communication to write a winning proposal. “Reflective communication is probably something you’re familiar with in terms of networking… It’s a psychological thing that we do naturally as humans to connect with one another. 

You can do that in your writing as well. We do that in proposals by identifying keywords, phrases and concepts, and mirroring them back at the client to show them that we understand and we hear them.”

Identify Valuable Keywords and Phrases Within the RFP

Fortunately, says Ray, “Identifying keywords is easy to do with an RFP. Go through [the RFP] and see how many times [the client] said a specific word. Is there anything that jumps out at you that they’ve said many times? 

  • Are they emphasizing a particular concept? 
  • Is there something that seems like it’s really important to them?
  • Do they have any client specific keywords? 
  • Are they people-centric? 
  • Are they tech-centric? 
  • Are they 21st century or forward-looking? 
  • Are they historic and traditional? 

“The idea,” says Ray, “is to get a feel for [the client’s] tone and the important keywords that they’re repeating.”

section of an AEC proposal with specific keywords highlighted in the text | OpenAsset

“Here is an example of identifying keywords from an RFP that I worked on, where the word ‘energy’ shows up more than 30 times in a 10 page proposal.” Says Ray, “So energy was clearly very important to this particular client.”

Ray adds, “We flagged every time [the keyword] was used, as well as its different iterations, like ‘energy-using’, ‘energy cost savings’, ‘energy waste’, ‘energy consumption’. Then we made sure that we used those versions of the keyword in our communications.

So instead of inefficiencies in energy, we used ‘energy waste’. If we said cost savings, we made sure that ‘energy cost savings’ was in that phrase, to let the client know that energy was important to us too.”

Identify Emphasized Concepts: Look/Listen for Concepts that Stand Out

“Emphasized concepts can be a little bit trickier to pick up on.” Says Ray. “Those might be things that someone says in-person at a pre-bid meeting. For example, I was in a pre-bid for a construction manager risk proposal, when one of the procurement people casually said, ‘we would like a non-adversarial relationship’.”

Ray adds, “This stuck out to me because it was very casual. Of course, you want a non-adversarial relationship between your architect and your contractor. So I flagged that [concept] and did a little digging. 

I mined my network, where I found a connection who informed me that the client was currently having an absolute nightmare with their contractor and architect not getting along. It was a very adversarial relationship and it was causing a ton of problems.”

Ray adds, “So, that casual comment was actually very, very important, and it was an emphasized concept that we used throughout the proposal – talking about our great relationships with contractors, and how we create a non-adversarial relationship. We used those exact words. It worked really well and it was just a casual little thing. So listen to your gut.” 

The Importance of Active Voice in Proposal Writing

“So there are three ways that we can use our keywords and emphasize  important concepts in our proposals.” Says Ray. “We can repeat them directly. We can paraphrase them, or we can reflect them back to the client by taking that same concept and putting our own spin on it.”

To utilize keywords effectively, however, you need to utilize the active voice – a tool that Ray says is woefully underutilized throughout the profession. 

Slide depicting the difference between the active and passive voice | OpenAsset

“Passive voice is very common in architecture proposals. It’s very academic, so we naturally use it to write proposals for some reason or another. But it’s very flowery, noncommittal, wordy and difficult to follow, whereas active voice is concise, it’s decisive and it inspires confidence.”

Slide depicting the difference between the active and passive voice | OpenAsset

“Here’s an example from a client that gave me this sentence, ‘During the initial stages of the project, a detailed schedule will be established and a budget will be assigned.’ This is a passive voice.” Says Ray. 

“I have no idea who is responsible for creating this schedule or establishing this budget. It’s just some magic thing that apparently is going to happen. That’s great, but it doesn’t inspire confidence for me as the client. It leaves me a little bit uncertain of how these things are going to happen.”

An initial revision for this was, ‘During the initial stages of the project, the project manager will establish a detailed schedule and assign a project budget.’ This gives the client a go-to person responsible for the budget. I don’t have to worry about anything. It inspires confidence.” 

Proposal Writing Tip: Add, “By Zombies”

“An easy but silly trick I use to determine if a sentence is passive or active voice,” says Ray, “is to add ‘by zombies’  to the end of your sentence. If it still makes sense as a sentence, you have used the passive voice. 

So in this example, if you were to say, ‘during the initial stages of a project, a detailed schedule will be established and a budget will be assigned by zombies.’ you have a passive voice.” 

Proactive Proposals: How to Win When You’re Behind

If you’ve made it this far into our guide on how to create proactive proposals, then you are one step closer to winning your next RFP. You know how to:

  • Identify valuable keywords, phrases and concepts,
  • Apply the active voice to instill confidence in your firm, and 
  • Utilize reflective communication to portray understanding.

According to Ray, the only thing left to do is to be proactive in how you apply what you’ve learned. “Winning when you’re behind is entirely contingent on being proactive. Proactive in your voice, proactive in your messaging, proactive in how you turn a firm-centric proposal into a client-centric proposal.” 

She adds, “You need to anticipate client challenges; remember that people have problems, not projects, and you need to use concise, confidence inspiring language in order to write your marketing masterpiece.”

Don’t Forget the Visual Elements of Your Proposal

So far, this guide on how to create a proactive proposal has explored the written elements of your proposal, but text is only one part of the larger proposal. We would add that you also need a way to manage the visual elements of your proposal. 

person looks at colorful charts and smart phone on wooden table | OpenAsset

Fortunately, there are several resources that you can use to marry the language of your proposal with the dazzling visual elements that make it stand out from the competition.

Now you have the knowledge and the resources needed to create a winning AEC proposal, the only thing left to do is enable your team with the tools they need to support your proposal writing efforts. 

Be Proactive: Implement a Digital Asset Management System

Designed for firms in the built world, OpenAsset is the preferred project-based DAM solution forArchitecture, Engineering, Construction and Real Estate firms across the world. Follow the link for more insights on the AEC industry or schedule a demo of OpenAsset with one of our solution experts. 

How to Write a Proactive Proposal: Frequently Asked Questions

OpenAsset would like to extend a special thank you to Rachelle Ray, of RMR Consulting for lending her extensive expertise to the CE Strong webinar series hosted by The Architect’s Newspaper. We are especially grateful for her participation in an extensive Q and A that took place after the webinar. Here we include the most relevant questions – and Ray’s answers to those questions – in no particular order. 

How Long Does It Take To Research Clients From Scratch? 

Rachelle Ray: “I typically budget an entire afternoon, so two to four hours to do research depending on whether I’ve worked with this client before, whether I know anything about them, whether I’ve worked in the region… When I work in other markets that I have not worked in as much, it takes me closer to four.”

What is the Standard Lead Time Between Receiving the RFP and the Final Deadline?

Rachelle Ray:  “My average [lead time] is about two weeks. I think usually the RFPs are out for 30 days, but by the time my clients have done their internal go, no-gos and their internal planning before they bring me on, the average is two to three weeks.”

What are the Red Flags that Indicate a No-Go on the RFP?

Rachelle Ray: “Red flags can be tricky because you can see them or not see them depending on your feelings about an RFP. But ones I often look for are very specific requirements in the evaluation criteria. 

For example, if you see something like, ‘have you designed this exact specialized building in this city in the last two years’  this probably means that whoever did build the last building in the last two years is helping the client to write this proposal.”

How Do You Formulate “How” Questions in Your Proposal?

Rachelle Ray: “I often find that you have to decide what you think [the client] is going to say and phrase your question in that way. For example, If you think that schedule is going to be an issue, you can say things like, how would a 13 month schedule versus a 12 month schedule impact this project? 

Hopefully we’ll get a response that says, ‘we can’t go over a month because tenants need to be in or because of equipment or because we’ve got the next phase of the project scheduled.’’

How Do You Define Scope if the Client is Unwilling or Unable to Do So?

Rachelle Ray: “I have worked with a few clients where we decided that our strategy hinged on the fact that the client didn’t understand what they were asking for, or didn’t quite understand what they were doing. 

We realized that they needed someone to hold their hand and walk them through the whole process. So we wrote our proposal around how we will help the client refine their scope. We guessed right that the client hadn’t done a building project in 15 years and trying to just piece together RFPs and scopes from whatever they could find publicly. They were doing what we were doing with our research, just backwards. 

So, we adjusted our strategy to support them through everything. ‘We can help you with securing additional funding. We can help you with public involvement. We can help you with whatever you need help with. We can bring on specialists for anything you need.’ That was all they needed. That was what they wanted and they just didn’t know how to ask for it.”

How Long Should a Cover Letter Be? 

Rachelle Ray: “One page, keep it short, keep it snappy, say the most important things. Let the client know right away that you are writing about them, this is for them, this proposal is about them. And keep it short.”

Do You Have a Page Limit on Responses?

Rachelle Ray: “I often have page limits that range from micro proposals, which are like three pages long and real fun to 20 to 30 pages. I would say that the average proposal I work on is 15 to 20. So it’s really important to make sure that all of the core messaging gets in there as quickly as possible and we don’t waste time on fluff, boilerplate, or vague content.”

How Do You Speed Up The Internal Decision Process When You Are Already Behind? 

Rachelle Ray: “For me as a consultant, I can say things like, hey, if you don’t put this on my calendar, I can’t do it. For an internal person, I would say something similar like, hey, if you don’t get this on the marketing team’s calendar, we have to pick up this other pursuit, we won’t have the resources to dedicate to it. Or ask why it’s taking so long to make this decision.”

Is It Possible To Stand Out Too Much? 

Rachelle Ray: “I don’t think so. Unless you are completely off track with your assumptions and you’ve charged forward in a way that is not going to connect with the client, I don’t think it’s possible to stand out too much.”

Resources for AEC Marketers and Proposal Writers

This guide on how to write a proactive proposal is part of our series on how to craft a winning RFP response. Armed with the information and examples provided above, AND the resources provided below, you have everything you need to:

Unfortunately, this guide can’t help you find, share and utilize the digital assets you need to create a winning AEC proposal. For that, you need OpenAsset. Designed specifically for firms in the built world, OpenAsset makes it easier to share and manage the multitude of digital assets needed to create winning proposals like the ones featured here. 

Don’t forget to contact OpenAsset today to schedule a demo of the only martech solution designed specifically for firms in the built world.

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