To Do It Last or To Do It First, That is the Question

Article published in the Institute of Sales and Marketing Management "Winning Edge"

A debate raged recently on the social media channels about whether one should write an Executive Summary last or first. Strong opinions were offered for both cases, tempered by some apt mediation and pragmatism. So, is there a right answer? 

The case for last

How can you know what to summarise if you haven’t written anything? A good opening argument from those who support the case for last. Further lines of reasoning include:

  • The term “summary” suggests you are providing an overview of the content of the document, so the customer expectation is set to receive exactly that and you should give customers what they expect.
  • The solution will develop throughout the bid preparation period, so you need to reach the end before you can be sure you understand what you are proposing and create a summary.
  • New information may be received along the way that could change any aspect of the offer – the technical solution, the pricing strategy, the competition, the requirements. Any amendment to the original plan needs to be assessed and addressed. Writing it first would be a waste of time as it would only need to be changed to reflect the final story.

So, in this scenario we are satisfying the customer and taking the most time-efficient approach. What could possibly be wrong with that?


The case for first

Writing an Executive Summary first is recommended by many bid methodologies and practitioners. The rationale is as follows:

  • The Executive Summary is not a summary of the rest of the document; it is a stand-alone business case providing an overview of why the customer should select you and your solution over and above your competitors. It is the primary opportunity to sell to the decision makers.
  • If you cannot articulate at the start of the bid process why your customer should make this decision in your favour, then you are clearly lacking a strong win strategy.
  • Using the Executive Summary as the place to capture the essence of your win strategy means that it becomes a valuable guide to the bid team regarding the themes they should be building into the rest of the document.

The case for first also puts a strong emphasis on the salesperson to author the Executive Summary. The salesperson knows the customer best after all; (s)he is optimally positioned to know their key drivers, or ‘hot buttons’, so that the entire bid response can be built to appeal to the emotions as well as be responsive to the declared requirements. If the salesperson is not willing or able to prepare this critical component of the sales process, there is a serious question mark over whether the bid should proceed at all.


Balancing the argument

To support those firmly in the ‘last is best’ camp, it is a natural response to consider writing a summary at the end. Indeed, this is what we would typically be taught through school. Hence the concept of writing an Executive Summary first is counter intuitive. I admit that I laboured under the illusion, or perhaps delusion, for many years that last is the only way, let alone the best way. I wrote a whole section of a bid management procedure with guidance on how to construct an Executive Summary – last. I would have argued to kingdom come that I was right, but the truth is I
did not realise there was a genuine alternative. When I was finally taught that you can write an Executive Summary first and why you would do so, it was a revelation. So, before condemning those in the last camp, check if they know there is an option to do it first and share the benefits with them so they can then make an informed decision.

To temper the argument of the ardent supporters of the case for first, it is fair to say that they will generally accept that the Executive Summary produced early is a draft; it will most likely be in note form or a “storyboard” of key points, certainly not perfect prose. It will be honed throughout the process, taking into account both new information from the solution and commercial teams, and changes in the external procurement landscape, such as amendments to requirements or competitor updates. Material changes will be fed back into the win strategy process, assessed for their implications and adjustments made. Hence, the Executive Summary becomes a “work in progress”, completed in time for the final document review.


Exploring the purpose

The arguments in both cases hinge on the fundamental purpose of the Executive Summary. Those putting the case for first may have a very different perspective to those putting the case for last. The first camp regards the Executive Summary as a key selling document; those in the opposite camp often see it as a précis of the main proposal. Therein lies the rub. Perhaps the most misleading aspect of the term Executive Summary is the word Summary. This is the word that gets the emphasis first. Change the emphasis to the word Executive, and you may start to think differently. 

Executives are interested in confidence and proof that the supplier understands their issues and will deliver return on investment at acceptable risk. They are interested
in their problems and emotions, not yours. They want concise information – think of it more as intelligence – that is easy to scan and absorb. In the best  cases, they want to be able to cut and paste the words into their own business case. There is one story that goes around the bidding industry telling the tale of an opening statement to an Executive Summary ending up as the first words in the joint press release after the contract award. So, it can be powerful stuff when developed as part of a win strategy, not an afterthought.

When building an Executive Summary as a strategic document, the savvy bid leaders will take the output of early capture strategy/opportunity planning sessions and drill down to find the hot buttons and then develop themes, benefits and value statements around them. They will consider their audience and ensure visual and emotional appeal as well as factual. The typical structure and content may look very alien to those new to the concept. Figure 1 shows a sample format for a powerful Executive Summary. 

In your Executive Summary, make sure you:

  • Use a strong opening statement to summarise what the customer will achieve by purchasing your solution – ensure you use the formula of ‘Feature – Benefit – Proof’ to construct the statement.
  • Develop the document around each of the customer drivers or hot buttons.
  • Include emphasis devices such as ‘call-outs’ and graphics.
  • Keep the document to less than 1,000 words or 15% of the main proposal for more complex bids.

This approach will end up looking very different to a document that is written purely at the end of the process and simply seeks to create a synopsis of the main proposal. It may end up containing key messages and benefits, but at its worst it could end up like the example in Figure 2 above.


At the end of the day

There are two sides to every coin and it is important to examine both before deciding
which you prefer. If you have only ever looked at ‘tails’, go ahead and give some time and thought to ‘heads’, and vice versa.

Let us not, however, be too purist. In the real world, pragmatism is a helpful friend. So, if your sales team does not step up to the plate with a strong win strategy and deep understanding of the customer relationship, but your executive team insists you bid, take a deep breath and do your best, first or last, but please remember the following top tips:

  • Never begin an Executive Summary with the words “Company x is delighted to submit….”. Who cares whether or not you are delighted? And the Executive Summary is a standalone document, not an introduction to the main proposal.
  • Make sure you start with the customer’s name and mention the customer more than you mention yourself - a good tip for the entire document.
  • Focus on benefits and proof, not on facts and features.
  • And make it look interesting!

If you would like to know more, there are many specialist companies who can guide you in developing Executive Summaries. It is a subject worth getting to grips with as it can make the final difference. I recently read of a US evaluation team that chose its supplier purely on the strength of the Executive Summary after two companies tied on every other aspect. So underestimate the importance of a strong Executive Summary at your peril!


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