Top 12 Winning Engineering Proposal Tips for 2022
It’s January 2022, and the time has never been better to brush up on your proposal writing skills.
Engineering proposal writing is a skill that anyone can improve at. It requires a healthy balance of technical and sales know-how to really excel. When you figure out how to make this balance work for you, your proposals will be unbeatable!
If you are new to writing civil engineering proposals or looking to refresh your skills, then this post is for you. We have compiled a list of 12 winning engineering proposal examples and tips for your consideration.
1. “Better late than never” does not apply
Every RFP will identify a deadline for submitting proposals. Unlike project deadlines, which may move as the project progresses, proposal deadlines are firm.
Hard copy proposals that are submitted physically are often time-stamped (yes, with a real stamp!) the moment they are received. If your timestamp is even 1 second after the deadline, you are out of luck.
Digital proposal submissions have become more popular in recent years, but the firm deadlines remain. With added complications like upload speed and internet outages, it is best to build in a large time buffer for submitting proposals online.
It is common for companies to invest anywhere from a few thousand, to tens of thousands of dollars preparing an engineering proposal. If you can imagine, a $250,000 civil engineering design project may require $5,000 (or 2% of the project value) to prepare the proposal — this is considered an investment in securing future work. If a deadline is missed, this investment is lost.
Here are a few tips to make sure you get your proposal in on time:
- Ask a senior staff member to provide recommendations on how the proposal will be submitted. Will you use a courier service? Deliver the documents in person? Or, submit it by email?
- Ask for help if you need it. If you are having trouble or running low on time ask for help. It is not the time to be a hero, make sure you tell your boss or manager that you need support.
- Build in ample buffer time. Everything always takes longer than expected. You might be printing off 10 copies only to run out of paper. Or, one of your team members wants to make a last-minute change to their work plan. Giving yourself lots of time to prepare and submit the final documents will reduce the risk of missing the deadline.
Rule of thumb: Multiply the time you think it will take to prepare and submit the final documents by Pi (3.14). Things always take longer than you think!!
2. If you can afford to, visit the site in person
It can be difficult to scope a civil engineering design project without a visual inspection of the site conditions. The less information is known about the site, the more risks are introduced into the work, and the costs tend to increase as a result.
Many civil consultants will opt to visit the site in person. This allows them to get a better lay of the land, confirm any assumptions, and develop a preliminary idea of opportunities and constraints. In addition, it is a great opportunity to take high-resolution photos to improve the visuals in the actual proposal document.
When you visit the site, pay close attention to any features that may impact the proposed works. If you have a site map from the RFP, an aerial photograph, or GPS, this can help you document your findings. Here are some features you may want to consider looking out for:
- Utilities and services
- Existing infrastructure
- Water features
- Significant environmental features
- Steep slopes
- Safety hazards
- Undocumented structures
Remember, you are not there to complete the actual project work, so you don’t need to record your observations in excessive detail. Rather, your observations should help your team feel more comfortable with the work plan and pricing that is being proposed. This is also your opportunity to demonstrate to your client that you have done your homework and are invested in the opportunity.
3. Make a list, and check it twice (maybe three or four times actually)
Fighter pilots use checklists to avoid deadly errors. Doctors use checklists to make sure they don’t amputate the wrong limb. So, at minimum, civil engineers should use checklists to make sure they don’t miss anything in a proposal!
RFP’s will identify very specific requirements that you must follow in your proposal, here are some examples of what to look for:
- Page limits
- Hard copies versus digital copies
- How the proposal is labeled
- Acknowledgment of any addenda that are issued
- Signature pages and forms
- Specific proposal sections
- And so on…
Sometimes, these requirements are even grounds for disqualification so be careful! It may sound extreme, but these requirements help ensure proposals can be evaluated fairly. Can you imagine if there was a ten (10) page limit, but one of your competitors submitted a fifty (50) page work plan? In this example, there is no way to fairly compare the two submissions, hence the latter would be disqualified, as they did not follow the requirements.
When you are reviewing a new RFP, it is a good idea to create a checklist of all of the key requirements right from the start. This way, you can build in enough time to ensure everything is included and seek clarification early on in the process. Also, checking things off a list just feels so so good, so give it a try next time.
4. Study the evaluation criteria
Every RFP will include a set of evaluation criteria for assessing all of the proposal submissions. Many RFPs will have similar criteria, but you should always review this information carefully to understand what matters most for the specific assignment. Here is an example of evaluation criteria:
- Project Understanding — 20 points
- Team Experience and Qualifications — 30 points
- Methodology and Work Plan — 20 points
- Cost Proposal — 30 points
As you can see, each of the criteria is assigned a different number of points, or weighting. In this example, let’s say you could nail the cost proposal (you had the lowest price) and score all 30 points. In this case, you can still be beaten by a competitor if they excel in the remaining sections (worth 70 points). This is why it is important to ensure that you put forth strong effort across all of the criteria listed.
Rule of thumb: It can be helpful to divide up your time, and the pages in the proposal, based on the evaluation criteria. If a section is worth a significant amount more than the rest, that should be reflected in the effort you put in!
Hot tip: Make it easy to find the right information by making the headings match the evaluation
5. Do your homework
RFPs will come with some background information on the project. Sometimes this will be multiple reports, drawings, and other documents, and other times you may get just a few sentences. Your challenge is to efficiently distill the background information provided into valuable insights.
This information generally comes into play in the Project Understanding section. Here, you have the opportunity to really show off how much homework you have done, and make the client feel comfortable with your understanding of the assignment.
We recommend that you extend your background review beyond the information provided in the RFP. In doing so, you can pick up valuable information that other competitors could easily miss. Other great sources of information include the local government mapping websites or online mapping platforms like Google Earth or Equator.
6. Make a long story short
Sometimes, you will run into an RFP that has a high page limit, or no page limit at all. You might be thinking, “amazing, now I can fulfill my lifelong dream of writing a novel” and that you have permission to submit a whopping 200-pager. Don’t do it.
Lots of big names recommend against it:
“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher.
“The more you say, the less people remember. The fewer the words, the greater the profit.”
— François Fénelon, writer e theologian.
“If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.”
— Mark Twain, writer.
And so on.
Remember, your prospective client will be evaluating your submission against many others. The more efficiently they can access the critical information in your submission, the better. The more text you provide, the easier it will be for them to skim the document and miss the important information — avoid the wall of text.
When you simplify and streamline your submission, you are showing the client that you have a strong understanding of the concepts and can communicate clearly. Clear communication is a large part of civil engineering projects. Imagine, widening a residential road without clearly communicating to residents and stakeholders why the project is happening, and what it means for them. Consider the proposal your opportunity to show the client that they are in good hands, and they can trust you to take care of their interests.
7. A picture is worth 1000 words
Civil engineering projects often involve many drawings, figures, and maps. Why? Because designs need to be communicated visually to be fully understood. It is no different when it comes to proposals.
When you have the opportunity to communicate site conditions, opportunities or constraints visually, take it! You will save your client time reading, and you will help ensure your insights are featured and well understood. Your client will also appreciate the level of effort you put in while preparing the proposal document — it looks like you have really done your homework.
8. Make your weaknesses your strengths
As you start to pull your proposal together, you may have a list of things you are worried about losing points on. Maybe it’s that the company is too new, or has never worked with this client before, or that your team does not have the right experience on their CVs. Often, the worst thing that you can do is treat your fears like the “elephant in the room” — something that is obvious, but that you avoid talking about.
Chances are, if you are aware of a weakness, your prospective client will spot it too. Why not be brave and address it head-on? Better yet, why not turn your weakness into a strength. Here are a few examples:
9. Are they buying what you are selling?
As engineers, we are often driven towards technical perfection, efficiency, and work that is interesting. Sometimes, we go out of our way to make a task that might be simple, more interesting by improving the way we approach it.
For example, there may be a standard model that we always use to complete our assessment. The model gets the job done and moves the project forward, but we know we could get better results if we could build our own, more complex model from scratch.
If we propose this new approach to the client, it may help us stand out and win the job, but only if the client understands how it will help them achieve their goals, hopes, dreams, and so on. We can’t assume that the client will get excited about the same things we do.
In this example, the client may be thinking “I don’t need any more detail in my results, this is just a rough assessment.” Or, “I am worried that reinventing the wheel will introduce risk and additional cost into the project.” Or, “I need the results to be consistent with what I am getting from ten other consultants.”
If you want to sell an idea or approach, you need to understand why it matters to your buyer. If you can’t figure out how it helps the client reach their goals, you may need to go back to the drawing board and rethink your approach. A proposal is a sales document at the end of the day!
Here are some ideas of how you might sell your new approach:
- This new approach is an investment in future-proofing your results. We expect that you won’t have to repeat this assessment for another 10 years.
- The detailed results we will get in our custom model will allow us to reduce our construction costs by 5%, in comparison to the old way.
- Our detailed, custom model will add more time to the assessment phase of the project, but once complete, we estimate that we can cut four months off our detailed design timeline.
10. Avoid overcomplicated or excessive language
This tip is fairly straightforward: avoid using over-complicated language. When you are trying to prove a point, it is tempting to string together adjectives from Thesarus.com, but this plan can often backfire.
Your team may be “very efficient, highly motivated, and exceptionally qualified”, but guess what: so is the competing team. Adjectives like these tend to be overused in proposals, so much so that their meaning is lost.
Instead, provide specific examples or even stories of how you demonstrated your abilities. If you don’t know, run around to everyone on your team and ask them: “Can you provide an example of when we completed a project in a very efficient way?” And then go write about it! Better yet, you can even include references to past clients that can back you up.
Similarly, don’t assume that the readers will know all of the same industry jargon that you do. Consider learning more about the client and review panel to better understand their background and experience. They may be hiring a consultant to design a new bike shed because they know nothing about designing bike sheds! If you want to highlight something very specific and technical, consider providing enough context to make sure you don’t leave anyone out.
11. Get a buddy to check your work
Did you know: when you proofread your own writing, it can be extremely difficult to identify mistakes. Why? Because your brain already knows the meaning that you are trying to convey, so it reads it accordingly. Have you ever read your work over 10x, only to have a friend point out you missed a critical word? This is why. So if we can’t trust our own brains, we should make sure we always have a buddy check our work.
Obviously, peer review is extremely important, not just for spelling and grammar, but for a long list of other reasons as well:
- Simplifying and clarifying ideas
- Highlighting and emphasizing the important points
- Incorporating a variety of perspectives
- Ensuring the requirements are met
- Making sure the big takeaways are easy to find
- Assessing the visual quality of the work
- Checking over any calculations or estimates
- Improving our written communication skills
12. Look for opportunities to create a more competitive proposal
Consultants are always looking for ways to stand out from the competition in a proposal. Consider brainstorming a shortlist of key takeaways you want the client to remember. This list will provide guidance as you prepare and design the document, and when you get others to review your work. Here are some ideas of big takeaways you might want to highlight.
- What is your team’s “value add?”
- What do you know about the site that no one else does?
- How are you different from the competition?
- How are you going to invest the client’s financial resources efficiently?
- How are you going to make the client look great in front of their stakeholders?
At Equator, we are obsessed with helping civil engineers answer these five (5) questions and create winning proposals. Equator helps civil engineering teams create more competitive cost estimates, and create standout visuals for proposal submissions. Equator users report saving up to $20K on topographic survey, GIS, and data-processing costs, per project. Read more about us here.