If you follow this blog, you’ll know how important we believe it is to organize and structure content for clarity and reading ease. It all goes back to our mantra: Conserve the bid evaluators’ energy for engaging with your ideas. Don’t burn them out struggling with a proposal that’s hard to follow and understand.
Structure has another purpose
It signals what it’s like to work with your company, particularly how well you organize and manage detail. Here's an example from a recent client project.
One section of the RFP asked proponents to describe their responses to four emergency scenarios, including details of its recovery plan. Each response was limited to one page.
Our client’s subject matter experts (SMEs) had drafted five- or six-paragraph narratives for each emergency. Buried in each narrative were assumptions, steps required, resources needed, time estimates, etc.
Because the scenarios required responses from different divisions of the company, a different SME had drafted each narrative. Not surprisingly, the responses were inconsistent, in both format and the information they contained.
They met the RFP requirement—but weren’t going to impress the evaluators.
Here’s what we recommended—and did
Created a standard format for each scenario
Summarized the scenario in the header
Listed all the assumptions behind the response
Built the action plan into a table with four columns: step number, action, resources and time required, and measures of completion and/or success
Added a notes section below the table for additional information, for example the bidder’s experience and track record resolving similar situations
The power of structure
Formatting the responses created consistency and highlighted gaps in information.
It also sent a powerful message to the RFP evaluators: When confronted with an emergency situation, this bidder immediately begins structuring the information it has, takes steps to learn more if necessary, identifies the resources it needs, and then organizes its action plan into a sequence of logical steps and goes to work. Finally, it has clear measures to identify when the action is complete and successful.
Build templates in advance
In the scenario above, we joined an effort that was already underway. A better approach is to create a simple word table and circulate it to SMEs at kickoff. The SMEs will work more efficiently and produce better, more complete drafts.
Need help getting the most from subject matter experts?
Last week we explained how to set up the Competitive Solutions Matrix (CSM). A CSM helps analyse issues important to the prospect and how your planned response stacks up—and then to develop strategies for stressing competitive advantages and addressing weaknesses.
The outcome is a set of decisions, for example to develop win themes and visualizations—or even to find a stronger subcontractor or component supplier—that will position your offer more favourably with evaluators.
But the CSM is also valuable for another reason—it provides input to help Blue Team Reviewers assess your built-out strategy and affirm (or reverse) the initial decision to bid.
The Vendor Comparison Matrix (VCM) is designed to help Blue Team Reviewers score your proposal strategy against likely competitors’ offers.
Setting up a Vendor Comparison Matrix
Open an Excel worksheet and create the column headers below:
Max points available
Competitor 1 score
Competitor 2 score
Competitor 3 score
Use the RFP to complete rows for the first four columns. Use as many rows as necessary to reflect the granularity in the RFP requirements and scoring system.
You can also complete the issues column—or leave that for the reviewers.
Completing and discussing the VCM
Circulate the fully developed and documented strategy (including the CSM) and the partially completed VCM to Blue Team Reviewers. Ask them to use the strategy, plus their understanding of the prospect, market and likely competitive offerings, to complete the matrix.
Be sure each key team member—e.g. capture manager, project manager and proposal manager—completes a VCM for comparison with the Blue Team consensus.
Facilitate a meeting of the reviewers to discuss their VCMs. Focus on scores that vary widely from one reviewer to another, and on areas where reviewers consider your offer weak. Brainstorm ways to strengthen the offer, and seek consensus on whether to proceed to proposal development.
The value of quantification
Having individuals commit to scores for RFP subsections makes subjective feelings about the offer more concrete and provides a starting point for discussion. Absolute scores are not important—the key is to uncover how reviewers believe your solution stacks up.
Committing to scores also provides a benchmark for post award win-loss reviews and analysis.
The CSM lets you match your solution against each identified prospect need and issue, and then compare your response to competitors’ offerings for each item. The exercise helps pinpoint strengths and weaknesses and inform decisions on how to address them in the proposal.
How to set up a competitive solutions matrix
Open an Excel worksheet and create the column headers below:
Issue: Identifies a specific strategic driver or need, concern, desire or preference expressed by the prospect. Each issue will become a row in the matrix.
Requirement: Describes specifically what the client requires. What’s the ideal response from the client’s point of view?
Available solution: How does your planned solution address the issue?
Gap: What is the gap (positive or negative) between the requirement and your solution? Quantify the gap whenever possible.
Competitor No. 1 Solution: How does your closest competitor address the issue? If you have two or more close competitors, add a column for each. Include any competitors who typically bid low. Highlight competitors with an advantage in addressing this specific issue. In each case identify the gap in the same way as for the previous column.
Differentiators: Identify your advantage/disadvantage relative to highlighted competitors. Include any offsetting factors.
Strategy: How will you address disadvantages and leverage advantages? Options range from stressing advantages to redesigning your solution.
Action: Who needs to do what and when to act on the strategy?
Tips for completing the matrix
Group issues by each main RFP section or, if you develop the matrix during sales discovery, by sections that align with a typical statement of work. Don’t make the mistake of focusing only on the technical solution—RFP issuers usually have important issues around transition (implementation), after sales service, etc.
Because issue identification is a brainstorming exercise demanding a different kind of thinking than issue analysis, populate the first column with as many issues as possible, and then work across the row to analyse each issue.
Make a special effort to use quantifiable criteria for requirements, solutions and gaps, so you can measure the success of any actions you decide to take.
Start building your matrix as early as possible
The ideal time to develop this matrix is pre-RFP. During the needs analysis phase, your prospect can freely express all issues and opinions, including about vendor preferences. This is one of the key benefits of focused pre-RFP pursuit and discovery.
Armed with this matrix, you can build a stronger proposal strategy, including win themes and value propositions. At the proposal kickoff meeting, you’ll be able to inform and align content developers around the main messages likely to convince evaluators of each section.
With this clear direction, they’ll work more efficiently and turn out stronger content.
A senior leader at one of our client companies evidently believed more is more. During proposal reviews, he pushed to include every imaginable feature and benefit, sacrificing page margins, type size and graphics to stay within the page count.
Despite (or, more likely, because of) this leader’s efforts, his team’s proposals never achieved their win rate potential.
Many proposals are page-limited, which, combined with restrictions on minimum font size and margins, penalizes low-value content. But even responses without page limits benefit from restraint.
The last thing an evaluator wants is more words to read and paragraphs to score. What each wants is to find the right information in the right place. If you don’t believe us, ask one.
Here’s how to strike the right balance.
Start with a clear strategy
The situation above reflects a flawed strategy process and a leader who was not involved early on—but reserved the right to have his way in final drafts.
Avoid this situation by developing proposal strategy as soon as you decide to bid and have selected the response team. Use it to map information about the prospect’s strategic needs and issues into the bid proposal plan. Decide which aspects of your offer are unique and which are not.
With this information, conduct a blue team review to get all decision makers aligned on your plan—including the features, benefits and value propositions around which to build your proposal.
And then, as content development progresses, conduct a red team review to test alignment with strategy—not to jam in irrelevant or off-strategy information
Place information correctly
On bid requests of any size, individual evaluators take lead responsibility for reviewing one or more sections across all bids. Often evaluators will specific expertise will handle similar sections across all responses.
To level the field and make their work easier, most evaluation teams use pre-determined scoring guidelines based on the RFP scoring system and the issuer’s priorities.
Given these facts, you can see why placing information correctly is critical. A great argument in the wrong place may not get read or scored. If you believe the argument belongs in two sections, state it in full in the prime location and include a summary in the secondary section. Do not rely on the evaluator to track down cross-references.
Identify information with the RFP item it addresses
Explicitly connect information with the RFP requirement it addresses. Do not assume the evaluator will make the connection if it is not spelled out. Use your section or subsection summary paragraph to reference the requirement and/or hot button issue and link it to your solution.
Engage your leaders in strategy and follow these simple rules—and you’ll improve your win rate.
Need help developing successful response strategies?
RFQs and RFPs for large projects often require reference projects demonstrating the capabilities of the proponent and key individuals proposed to manage project responsibilities. Many issuers limit the number of reference projects.
Selecting reference projects inevitably involves trade offs, since proponent strive to include projects similar to the one under procurement—and that also showcase the work of its proposed key individuals.
Select projects as part of strategy making
If possible, select reference projects before kicking off content development. This lets the team begin work on on project sheets, and also lets resume writers give prominence to each key individual’s involvement in reference projects.
Selecting reference projects early also guides narrative writing, since it’s good practice to cite only designated reference projects as examples when making a case for the proponent’s strengths and experience.
Setting up reference projects
Use a meatball chart to select reference projects. Devote a row to each reference project candidate, and then use columns to identify project characteristics (type, value, rural or urban, unique constraints, etc.). Set up the RFP project as the first row and use its main features to decide which characteristics to choose.
Next, add a column for each J-V member and individual on your proposed team. If individuals perform more than one role, you can use different symbols to indicate whether the role on the reference project candidate is or isn’t the same as proposed for the RFP project.
Once you’ve populated the intersecting cells, you’ll have a clearer picture of which candidates offer the best combination of resource overlap and desired characteristics.
Managing additions and deletions
Few things are more nerve-racking to a large proposal team than integrating late changes that ripple through the entire document. But reference projects can change if a consortium member drops out, or a key person becomes unavailable, or for other reasons.
The selection matrix helps identify the impact on selected projects and provide a start in selecting other candidates. Following a proposal style guide that includes long and short form project names will make it easy to find all mentions of the now-deleted project(s).
Early planning pays off
The reference project matrix is one more example of how upfront planning makes the sprint to submission more bearable—and results in persuasive and flawless proposals.
One of our clients was determined to put a winning effort into an upcoming RFP response. The issuer was a government agency, and the opportunity promised to be both large and profitable. Given the agency’s record, the RFP would include a tight response deadline and a complex scope of work.
Their question: What could their team do in advance of receiving the RFP?
But what if the RFP will be a repeat of the last one?
In this case, our client noticed the agency had issued virtually the same RFP every three years. It expected minor updates, but believed 95% would remain unchanged. The team was able to develop and polish a 90% complete response—before the RFP was issued.
This is not an unusual situation. Governments especially often issue largely unchanged RFPs for contract renewals.
How to leverage the expectation of repeat RFPs
Make a practice of keeping a file RFPs for all competitions you bid on, or considered but decided to no-bid.
If you don’t have RFPs for current and previous contract periods, request them from the issuing agencies. The issuers should comply, since these are public documents. MERX, the Canadian tendering site, makes expired RFP documents available to registered users.
Although it takes more effort, you can also use a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. Both the United States and Canada have FOI legislation covering federal, state (or provincial) and municipal governments and most agencies. While you’re at it, request a copy of the current incumbent’s (winning) proposal.
If last two RFPs are highly similar, you’ll be in a good position to develop a complete and responsive proposal on your schedule, instead of within the RFP timeframe.
Be sure to start with a bid/no-bid decision, just as if the opportunity were live. As input, learn how well the incumbent is performing.
Risks and downsides
Pursuing this direction does pose some challenges:
It can be hard to motivate your team to complete a proposal without a hard deadline
Your hard work may be second-guessed when the actual RFP arrives—even if its requirements haven’t changed—just because there’s more time available
Your draft will need major surgery if this is the year the client rethinks its RFP. This becomes more likely if the prospect’s leadership changes, or if one or more disruptive technologies became available during the current contract
BOTTOM LINE: Time is the number one constraint for all teams developing large bid proposals. If an upcoming RFP looks like a repeat, this approach can provide relief.
“Normal”—as in “mainstream”—has a positive connotation for many. But in documents built on Microsoft Word, Normal also a style—one that should be avoided at all costs. This is especially true for large documents with several contributors.
Experienced proposal managers know this. This post is for those who don’t.
What is Normal?
If you open a new Word document and start typing, you’ll be using Normal style. In my version of Word, that’s Calibri 12 point font. Normal has many other attributes, including colour, paragraph and line spacing, tab settings, language, etc.
You can change the attributes of any Normal paragraph (body copy, a heading, list, caption, etc.) by selecting the text and using dropdown menus to make adjustments—change the font, change the size, make it bold, add colour, and so on.
And you can restyle other headings, lists, captions etc. to look the same by selecting one and using the paintbrush tool on other instances. This is an easy way to add structure and visual impact to a plain-looking proposal. Many people work in Word this way.
Here’s the thing
Working as described above creates temporary instances of Normal with applied changes. So, if you or another team member:
Works on the proposal using Word on another computer
Pastes submitted copy into the proposal and attempts to style it
Selects content and clicks on Normal in the styles ribbon
Modifies Normal using the styles menu
-- all of the changes you’ve made to customize headings, lists, captions, etc. could be lost. To recover, you’ll need to go back and restyle all the text in your document.
This may be small potatoes in a three- or four-page document, but it can be heartbreaking in a 20- or 30-page proposal—and we’ve seen it happen.
Getting past Normal
Here’s a better way. Set up the styles you need for your proposal, starting with body copy. Base your body copy on “No style,” not Normal, which is the default setting as in the image below. Then base styles for lists, captions, etc. on the body copy style.
If you want to use another font for heads and subheads, set up the first style, again based on “No style.” You can then base all subheads that use the same font on the first style you defined. That way, changing body copy later won’t affect the style(s) you’ve defined for heads.
Naming and managing styles
For convenience, begin all style names with a client or project identifier when setting up proposal templates. This ensures styles appear together in the style ribbon.
To keep unwanted styles out of your document, use the styles management window. Click on the icon at the end of the style ribbon, and then select “Styles in use” from the dropdown menu at the bottom of the window (see below).
You should only see those styles you have defined. If an unwanted style appears in the list, navigate to it and restyle the paragraph(s) to correct.
Which brings us to the final point. When importing text from a content developer, always paste the imported copy as “Text only,” and then restyle it. Avoid the temptation to select “Match destination formatting” to keep your document free of unwanted styles.
Need help setting up and managing proposal templates?
Proposals submitted at the prospect’s request and outside an RFP process are wonderful opportunities to win business without going head-to-head with competitors.
Although an invitation to submit gives you the inside track, and let’s you organize your offer as you wish, you still need to address all the prospect’s issues to avoid a subsequent decision to go to RFP.
Regular readers know how strongly we believe in making a fast bid/no-bid decision and then developing a detailed strategy before beginning to write content.
But your chances of success depend even more on what you do before the RFP is issued.
The contender spectrum
Winners of most large contracts have worked with the issuer for months—and often years—before the RFP hits the street. They’ve become trusted advisors and preferred candidates to win the contract. Below this status, other bidders fall along a spectrum, depending on their relationship with the prospect.
This creates a pecking order of RFP contenders as follows:
RFP shaper: The prospect considers you a friend and trusted advisor, invites your input and is actively helping you win the contract. He or she invites you to comment on the draft RFP—or, ideally, to write key sections.
Inner circle: The prospect would be happy if you won and proactively shares information, but can’t or won’t favour you over others. You know the economic buyer and several other evaluators and influencers, and you understand their strategic and hot button issues.
Well-respected: The prospect knows and respects your company and business developer(s), but doesn’t consider you superior to other candidates. You need to ask the right questions to uncover strategic and hot button issues—and even then the prospect may not always be candid.
Rest of the pack: The prospect doesn’t know your company and has likely never met your business developers or senior executives. You have little or no inside knowledge of the prospect’s issues and may have only learned of the RFP post-release.
Disliked: From direct experience or by reputation, the prospect has a negative impression of your company. Evaluators will—consciously or not—tend to underscore your technical narrative to lessen your chances.
Large private sector contracts usually go to a contender with trusted advisor status. Fairness watchdogs monitor many public sector bids—but even those contracts often go to companies with very close client relationships, if only because inside knowledge enables them to tailor an offer that meets all the issuer’s needs at a price that isn’t inflated to protect against unknowns.
Inner circle and well-respected contenders round out the field of likely winners or close runners-up. The rest of the pack and disliked contenders are long shots at best.
If you and your team are making a bid/no-bid decision and strategy on the basis of hunches and assumptions, rather than facts, you are not in the top three categories and are unlikely to win. This may seem self-evident, but we still receive regular calls for proposal assistance from companies in this position.
If the prospect knows and respects you, it’s worth trying to learn if a competitor has the inside track. You may still decide to bid, especially in two-envelope systems—in which case your best bet is likely a “skinny” offer with a correspondingly low price.
Past posts have described the challenges of appealing to the economic buyer, technical buyer and user buyers. Complex procurement teams often include another member—the coach. Whenever a complex RFP attracts more than a half-dozen proposals, a coach often screens submissions to decide which go to the evaluation team. The rest are out of the game.
What coaches look for
The coach is all about compliance and process. He or she will comb through proposals to ensure bidders have addressed all compliance items, completed all sections and followed the “Instructions to Bidders," and aligns with the RFP structure. Some coaches will read or skim key sections for readability and clarity.
Keep the coach happy
To make sure the proposal you've spent weeks (or months) preparing gets evaluated, do the following:
Include a compliance matrix: If you’ve used a compliance matrix to manage your bid (as we advise), include it as an appendix. That gets you off to a good start with the coach.
Follow the Instructions to Bidders: Make a checklist and ensure you fulfill all items, including the formatting and delivery instructions.
Emphasize the right things: Most RFPs include scoring criteria. Allocate section page counts to align with the points weighting in the RFP.
Structure your response: Organize your proposal to follow the RFP and include a table of contents. Use strong heads and subheads to guide readers.
Back claims with facts: Ensure the coach can pick any section at random—Past Performance, Relevant Experience and/or Proposed Solution—and find specific proof for your claims.
Write clearly: Use plain language and keep responses brief. A coach won’t want to expose evaluators to overly complex and/or rambling content.
Coaches may waive minor oversights by established providers to keep them in the running.
But most bidders don´t get special treatment. Especially if you are new to an industry or much smaller than your competitors, be sure to satisfy the coach. One way to do this is to have a coach of your own—that's a role an outside resource, such as Complex2Clear, can fill.