Even for the most experienced proposal managers, writing a fresh request for proposal (RFP) executive summary can be a challenge. After all, it needs to be concise, clear and compelling. At the same time it must convey your understanding of their unique needs. Simultaneously it should perfectly capture how your proposal helps them meet their goals and delivers value. Certainly, it’s no easy feat when you’re staring at a blank screen, feeling the RFP deadline approaching minute by minute. So, to avoid facing the pressure of a blank screen, I always recommend using an RFP executive summary example to give yourself a head start.

In this post, we’ll explore the definition and purpose of an executive summary as well as how it differs from a cover letter. Then we’ll cover best practices to keep in mind when composing your document. Finally, I’ll offer an RFP executive summary example and template for inspiration to help you get started.

Download the RFP executive summary template here.

Executive summary basics

What is an RFP executive summary?

A request for proposal executive summary is a short document provided in addition to a proposal. Bid Perfect, a proposal consultancy, offers this definition:

“The people who will read your executive summary will be expecting it to summarise the main, compelling elements of your bid, how it meets with their specific objectives and why they should select you as their supplier of choice above all others.”

Due to the in-depth nature of RFP questions and responses, it is impractical for each stakeholder in a business to read every proposal from front to back. The executive summary offers a solution. It allows stakeholders to understand, at a high-level, the supplier or vendor’s offering in minutes.

Who writes the executive summary?

The responsibility of writing the executive summary will vary from one business to another. Generally, it will depend on who is most familiar with the potential customer and the win strategy for the RFP. For example, that person might be a sales executive, business development manager or proposal coordinator

Regardless of who is the primary writer of the executive summary, just like with the proposal, it’s a group effort. Many members of your proposal team will contribute to or review the executive summary. This group could include subject matter experts, executives and other stakeholders.

When should you write the executive summary?

At what point in the RFP response process should the executive summary be written? Well, it depends on who you ask. This is hotly contested among proposal professionals, and each strategy has benefits.

APMP teaches that writing the entire first draft of your RFP executive summary at the beginning is best. By writing the summary at the beginning, you can incorporate customer insights gained from the go/no-go process as well as any win themes that have been identified.

Bid Perfect suggests that the executive summary should be a living document that you work on as the proposal develops: “We believe that there should be no fixed time for writing it but that we are always writing our executive summary throughout the life of the bid preparation phase.”

Boardroom Metrics recommends writing it at the end, saying, “… write it at the end, once all the other work has been completed on the response. That way you will have access to all the thinking that’s been done on preparing the request for proposal – thinking on the issuer, their needs and your solution.”

What’s the difference between an RFP executive summary and a cover letter?

At first glance, it may seem like the executive summary and cover letter for an RFP are the same thing. Afterall, they are both short attachments that accompany the full RFP response. And often, the RFP issuer doesn’t establish requirements or parameters for either document. So it’s easy to see why the two get confused. However, each document has a unique purpose and requires a different approach.

Executive summary

To put it simply, the executive summary is a high-level overview of your proposal. Its purpose is to enable the reader to quickly understand key elements of the proposal. Think of it as a blurb on the back of a book. Without having to read the entire thing, anyone can read the executive summary and understand the highlights of your proposal.

A well-written executive summary will:

    • Help a busy executive or stakeholder get up to speed
    • Summarize the most important parts of your proposal
    • Offer additional insight on key differentiators

RFP cover letter

On the other hand, the RFP cover letter is more like a greeting and introduction. Consequently, it can be slightly less formal than the executive summary. A great cover letter will give the reader a positive first impression of your company and encourage them to dig into your full proposal.

A compelling cover letter will:

    • Be addressed to the evaluator(s) and set the stage for the proposal
    • Express an understanding of the business and their needs
    • Convey your desire to be a true partner and why you’re a good fit
    • Create a genuine, human connection

Download the cover letter template.

Despite their differences, when well written, both the executive summary and cover letter can help make your proposal more memorable.

Best practices for a stand-out executive summary

Now that you have all the basics down, let’s dig into the request for proposal executive summary best practices.

Make your message customer-centric

Similar to your RFP response, the focus of the executive summary should be the customer. As you write, keep them in mind. Make sure that you address their criteria, needs and goals. Hone in on the specific things they indicated are a priority and explain how your solution delivers value to those areas. 

Your message should resonate with executives and stakeholders alike. If possible, tell a memorable and influential client success story that brings your value to life. Alternatively, you can convey your strategic vision for your partnership. In addition, clearly and succinctly reiterate the key points and differentiators in your proposal.

Be brief 

Your summary, by definition, should be short. Be concise and make a big impact using as little space as possible. Make sure each sentence conveys something crucial. If possible, aim to make your executive summary fit on a single page. It should be easy to scan and understand. 

Remember, the reviewer is likely reading a summary from every vendor trying to keep them all straight. Your brevity will not only make your executive summary more memorable, but the reviewer will appreciate it.

Leverage your knowledge library

Your proposal content repository doesn’t just have to be for RFP Responses. You can also store executive summary content in the same way. We all know the feeling of satisfaction when we perfectly articulate a value proposition or find a clever way to point out a differentiator. Use tags and categorization to save sections of text for future executive summaries. 

Using previous responses can improve your efficiency. However, don’t forget to remove any customer information before saving it to your knowledge library. And just like your proposal templates, always remember to customize and review before sending.

Make sure it can stand alone

Write your executive summary as if the reader can’t reference the RFP response. The document should be easy to understand on its own. Keep this in mind to avoid getting too far into details and logistics. Outlining high-level benefits is key. Remember that the executive summary may be the only thing that some key stakeholders read. So make sure you make it count.

Follow directions

This may seem basic, but it’s not uncommon for procurement teams to disqualify vendors that didn’t follow instructions. For example, we’ve seen some RFPs that include executive summary guidelines like page limits, topics to be covered or format. If instructions are provided, be sure that you’ve read them carefully and follow them closely.

RFP executive summary example, template and resources

As with most writing, starting is the hardest part. If you find yourself frozen, staring at a blank page you might find an RFP executive summary example helpful. 

With the help of my team, we recently created the executive summary below. The customer needed a solution that was going to improve or eliminate manual processes, deliver value quickly and grow with them. We were also able to mention our key differentiators including our exclusive knowledge extensions, innovative full-circle approach and unlimited model.

Executive summary for RFPs template

If you found this helpful, we’ve also created a downloadable template from this RFP executive summary example. The template offers a step-by-step guide for customizing your own executive summary.

Download the RFP executive summary template now.

The value of an executive summary

Creating the perfect executive summary is a never-ending process. Each one is a little different. However, as your experience grows, evolves and improves, so too will the quality your executive summaries.

Originally published June 26, 2018 – Updated April 30, 2020.