How to write an RFP executive summary that stands out
How to write an RFP executive summary that stands out
Even for the most experienced proposal manager, 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 the buyer’s unique needs while perfectly capturing how your organization 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 that pressure, I always recommend exploring executive summary samples for proposals to give yourself a head start.
In this post, we’ll explore the definition and purpose of an executive summary for a proposal as well as how it differs from a cover letter. Then we’ll cover best practices to keep in mind when composing your RFP executive summary as well as how to leverage RFP software to make the process faster. Finally, I’ll offer an RFP executive summary sample, example and templates for inspiration to help you get started.
A request for proposal executive summary is a high-level overview of your RFP response. It captures the most important elements of your proposal in a single page. Furthermore, this short but powerful document provides additional context for the buyer to consider. 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.”
Why create an executive summary for a proposal?
There’s no way around it, reading an RFP response isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. Indeed, due to the in-depth nature of RFP questions and responses, it is unrealistic to expect that an executive will have time to read each 50-page proposal from front to back. Despite this, often executive stakeholders are key decision makers.
Luckily, the proposal executive summary provides a solution. Typically contained on a single page, it enables busy stakeholders to understand a vendor’s offer in mere minutes. Not only that, but it allows you to directly address the big-picture concerns of the organization that may ultimately sway the decision.
With that in mind, the executive summary of your proposal presents an opportunity to differentiate your organization from your competitors. It is the perfect place to express your understanding of the buyer’s needs and why you’re the best possible fit.
Who writes the executive summary?
Generally, the proposal coordinator writes the executive summary of the RFP response. However, that is not always the case. Indeed, in small- to medium-sized businesses, sales or marketing may write the proposal executive summary. In most cases, the person most familiar with the proposal content, potential customer and win strategy creates and manages the executive summary.
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.
Typical creation and approval process for the proposal executive summary
Proposal coordinator or manager: Begins the process using an executive summary template for proposals
Sales, marketing or business development team: Ensures the proposal summary aligns with win themes and customer needs
Subject matter expert: Contributes to and verifies accuracy
Executive approver: Reviews the messaging, signs and approves the final RFP executive summary
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.
Some argue that writing the executive summary of the proposal at the beginning of your proposal timeline helps guide your messaging and process. Conversely, others recommend waiting until the end of your proposal process to create the executive summary for your RFP response. And still others believe it’s best to write the proposal summary as you go.
As you might imagine, this topic is hotly contested among proposal professionals. The difference in timing delivers different benefits:
1. Starting with the proposal executive summary
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 your discussions to bid or not to bid as well as any win themes that have been identified in the capture management plan.
2. Writing the RFP executive summary as you go
Another option is building your proposal executive summary in tandem with your RFP response. Bid Perfect suggests that the executive summary of your request for proposal should be a living document. Consequently, edits are gradual and continual as the team works on the proposal: “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.”
3. Creating the proposal executive summary as your last step
Finally, Boardroom Metrics recommends writing the RFP executive summary 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.”
Ultimately, each of these approaches works and only you can decide which of the three is best for you. Consider your organization’s unique RFP response process and determine which strategy fits.
What’s the difference between an RFP executive summary and a cover letter?
At first glance, it may seem like the executive summary and an RFP cover letter are the same thing. Afterall, they both precede the full RFP response and take only one page. In addition 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 vs cover letter
Request for proposal 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 RFP response executive summary will:
Help a busy executive or stakeholder get up to speed
Predicts the benefits the customer can expect from your partnership
Summarize the most important parts of your proposal
Offer additional insight on key differentiators
RFP response 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
Despite their differences, when well written, both the executive summary and cover letter can help make your proposal more memorable. However, it is important to remember that neither document is a sales pitch. Indeed, both should be customer-centric and benefit focused.
Which comes first, the proposal executive summary or cover letter?
Another common question that comes up when discussing proposal executive summaries and cover letters is which comes first when presenting your final RFP. Again, the answer to this question depends on who you ask. One easy way to decide is to ask, ‘If a decision maker only reads one of these two pages, which would you pick?’ In most cases, we believe the answer is the 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.
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
The proposal content repository in your RFP response software 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. Don’t miss an opportunity to take advantage of that messaging in the next RFP response. 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.
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.
RFP executive summary example
With the help of my team, we created this executive summary for a proposal we submitted recently. In this executive summary, our customer needed an RFP management solution that was going to improve or eliminate their existing manual RFP response process, deliver value quickly and grow with them.
You’ll see in this sample proposal executive summary that we addressed each of the customer’s needs. In addition, we mentioned several of our key differentiators including our exclusiveknowledge extensions, innovative full-circle approach and unlimited model. To conclude, we support our statements with a proof point and a statement of what they can expect from our company.
Executive summary template for a proposal
This RFP executive summary example above is also available as a template. You can download this executive summary template for a proposal in Word and customize it to meet your needs. In addition, the template provides suggestions in the comments with additional direction so anyone can quickly create an impactful executive summary.
Creating the perfect executive summary is a never-ending process. Indeed, 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 15, 2021.