Writing a Winning Executive Summary

By Geoffrey James

The executive summary is always the most important section of a proposal. Most large software sales are won or lost while customer executives are reading the executive summary. For a successful sale, your summary should have the following structure.

Paragraph one: Define the problem, need or goal. Demonstrate your firm’s understanding of the customer’s business situation by restating the reason the customer requested a proposal. This paragraph must be more than a paraphrase of the customer’s original requirements. Instead, your definition should reflect the results of your research into the customer’s situation and show your understanding of the customer’s business. Note that you should not include your company’s history or an overview of your product line. The initial focus must be on the customer and what he or she needs.

Paragraph two: Define the expected outcome. Describe the potential positive affect on the customer’s organization if the problem is solved, the need is fulfilled or the goal is achieved. Note that this is not a discussion of your solution’s features and benefits. Rather, the focus is on the customer’s organization and the gains it will achieve from implementing your solution. Good: When problem A is solved, you will have 50% less downtime. Bad: With our XL25G-pro v2.1 software you will be massively more productive.

Additional paragraphs: Define the solution. In words that are meaningful to the nonspecialist, provide a brief overview of the solution you are proposing. If you must use jargon, use the customer’s jargon, not your company’s idiosyncratic jargon. You don’t want the reader of the proposal to wonder what you’re talking about. Ideally, each element of the solution should tie back to one of the customer’s problems or needs and to one of the desired outcomes. Good: We are proposing A because it solves the problem of…. Bad: We are proposing B because it’s leading edge and best in class.

Final paragraph: Call to action. Ask for the business. This can be something as simple as saying: We’re eager to work with you. Then mention one or two key factors that differentiate you as a vendor and make you the right company for the client to choose. Avoid putting costs in the executive summary unless the customer specifically requested that price be mentioned in this section.

In short, use the executive summary to make the first presentation of your compelling value proposition – increased productivity, reduced operating costs, increased market penetration, lower total cost of ownership or some other significant measure of gain. Emphasize what you can do for the customer and what’s unique about your solution. Create a perception of value that raises your proposal above the rest, even if other solutions might cost less.

The above is based on a conversation with Tom Sant, author of Persuasive Business Proposals (Amacom, 1992; second edition 2004). While formerly with Sant Corporation, he is now a public speaker and private consultant.