In the last three posts we covered proposal kick-off goals, preparation and people. Now let’s look at a recommended structure and tips for running the meeting.
The agenda below will fit most proposals. For very large proposals, volume managers and senior editors may attend kick-offs, and then kick off individual volumes with their teams of writers, editors, graphics specialists and designers.
Welcomes and introduces participants, reviews agenda
Explains the importance of the project and the organization’s commitment, thanks the team members for their participation
Provides background on the prospect and project, including any competitive intelligence indicating the bid is winnable
Describes the proposed solution, its main features and successful deployments elsewhere
Outlines the proposal structure, prospects strategic drivers and key issues, and win themes; distributes writers’ packages, key dates
Reviews in detail the proposal plan, ATOC, work organization and allocation, writer’s packages (SCPs) and executive summary
Reviews the schedule, online storage set-up, versioning protocols and daily management procedure
Invites questions from writers/editors, subject matter experts, graphics specialists and designers
*These individuals and any non-presenting managers may leave at the break
** If there isn't a separate project manager, the proposal manager presents this session
Aim for in-person attendance
Get as many people to attend in person as possible. Kick-offs have less energy and impact when most attendees dial in. Also, we find some individuals feel less obliged to meet commitments made on a conference call.
Set the right pace and tone
Plan a professional meeting that moves briskly through the agenda items. Aim to balance achieving motivation, information and clear direction. Schedule the meeting to run no more than two hours.
Here's where the effort you put into strategy making will pay off. Content developers—your main audience—are sceptics by nature. Part of their value lies in knowing that facts beat fluff. They’ll be looking for the meat in the meeting. Your prework and a strong agenda above will ensure you deliver.
Need help kicking off an important upcoming proposal?
Because the kick-off needs to motivate, inform and direct the team—especially the subject matter experts, writers and editors—for the long days ahead, you need to choose and prepare presenters carefully.
Participants and roles
The table below lists individuals who should attend a major kick-off and their roles in the meeting.
MOTIVATORS AND INFORMATION PROVIDERS
Motivates the proposal team, demonstrates organizational commitment to the proposal
Describes the prospect, nature of the relationship, key drivers and hot button issues
Describes the solution and its key performance features
Explains the proposal schedule, reporting and other protocols
Managers assigning (losing) resources to the proposal project demonstrate support by their presence
Subject matter experts**
Understand proposal strategy and scope, schedule, procedures and work assignments
Writers and editors***
Understand proposal strategy and scope, schedule, procedures and work assignments, receive Section Content Planners
Understand proposal strategy and scope, schedule, procedures and work assignments
Understand proposal strategy and scope, schedule, procedures and work assignments
Size proposal teams and kick-offs to fit your organization, specific opportunities and solution complexity. On smaller proposal teams, the proposal manager can assume the project coordination role. Very large proposal teams may include several volume managers, each responsible for a major section, reporting to the proposal manager. In this case, the volume managers may kick off the proposal with the relevant subject matter experts in separate meetings.
When downsizing participation, see the asterisks in the table above and the following guide:
*** Critical ** Important * Optional
Companies submitting multiple proposals each month typically reserve the kick-off process described in this series for one or two strategic opportunities each year that deserve this level of attention.
Motivate and inform
Much of the kick-off will cover information needed by team members responsible for developing and assembling the proposal. Those parts are likely to be dry.
So, when inviting participants, be sure to remind the opening acts—the senior manager, sales manager and product manager—that those in the trenches need to see—and feel—their enthusiasm for the project.
Successful kick-offs result from careful preparation—taking time to build, test and package a strategy, so team members know exactly what’s expected of them.
For any major proposal, the core proposal team should spend a week (or more if the response window allows) developing and testing strategy. Time invested here pays big dividends in team morale and focus.
To help with proposal strategy development, we’ve devoted more than 50 posts to the subject. Find these by scanning down the strategy column in our Blog Index, or jump straight to one or more of the following:
When complete, your strategy will identify the prospect’s issues and your relative competitiveness for each, key differentiators and value propositions—and an approach to each major proposal section. Collectively these are the win themes that drive your proposal.
When your strategy is set, draft the executive summary and have it available for circulation at the kick-off. Presenting your argument for selection in one coherent narrative is as important for your team as it will be for the prospect.
Assembling a proposal plan
Use a proposal plan to organize your strategy outputs and process components in one comprehensive and coherent document.
Strategy components include the following topics:
Prospect: Strategic drivers; hot button issues; perceptions of your company, etc.
Competitive Factors: Your strengths and perceived weaknesses; comparison matrix of bidders
Proposal Themes and Strategies: Key elements of your solution; your experience and performance; project partners and contractors; section strategies, summaries, and value propositions; executive summary
Process components include:
RFP summary: Deadlines; scope of work; duration and value of contract; client information; compliance matrix
Team: Members names, roles and contact information
Project management: Project schedule; reporting procedures; available support, etc.
Providing SME and/or writer guidance
The most important members of your kick-off audience are subject matter experts and writers. They’ll do the heavy lifting. If you can get these two groups on the right strategy track from the beginning, your proposal effort will run smoothly.
In our experience, SMEs and writers produce much better results, faster, when they:
Receive specific guidance tailored to their section(s)
Devote time to analysis and outlining before content writing
Check-in daily with the proposal manager for feedback on their section(s)
Prepare and distribute a customized Section Content Planner (SCP) to each SME and writer at the kick-off meeting. Prepopulate each SCP with a subset of the proposal plan contents tailored to his or her section(s). A junior member of the core team should be able to do this.
Preparing for and conducting a professional kick-off meeting takes more work than the sessions many bidders deliver. But your team will appreciate your effort and the respect it shows for their time—and they’ll produce more winning proposals as a result.
Imagine a general assembling his field commanders and saying, “We’re going into battle tomorrow morning. I think we can win this. You and your soldiers know how to fight. Be ready at zero-eight hundred hours. That’s it. Dismissed.”
It doesn’t take military experience to know that such a briefing is a recipe for demoralization and defeat. The field commanders have no strategy or story to tell their troops, no understanding of their tasks—and no faith they can carry the day.
Competent generals inspire their troops and show respect for their lives by carefully explaining the importance of the upcoming battle, laying out a detailed strategy for winning and providing cllear instructions for each battalion’s role.
Be a better general
Large bid proposals are like extended battles (or small wars) without the blood. Your team will need to sacrifice their regular work—and likely some personal time—to create the response you need to win.
And, like soldiers, their reward will be the chance to do it all over again the next time an opportunity appears. No wonder proposal managers often feel alone in their enthusiasm.
The solution: Motivate and equip your team to build better proposals by being a better general. That starts with carefully planned and well executed kickoff meetings.
Plan and orchestrate your proposal kickoff meetings to achieve three goals:
Motivate: Make participants feel part of something bigger than getting a bunch of pages out the door. Why exactly is winning this opportunity important to the organization? Why do we think we can win? How will our senior leaders support the team?
Inform: Satisfy the team’s hunger for information—especially inside information. Why is this purchase important to the buyer? What specific issues and features do evaluators care about most? Where is our solution strong? Do our competitors have an edge in any areas? What is our value proposition for each of the major sections?
In addition to the big picture, participants also need details: proposal framework, compliance items by section, workflow, deadlines, team organization and coordinates, etc.
Direct: Once team members have a sense of the mission, they need to know what to do next. Each participant needs detailed instructions outlining his or her tasks, including a completion date for each milestone. In addition participants need to be clear about team protocols—scheduled meetings, calls and other check-ins—and consequences if commitments are missed.
Kicking off a major proposal properly takes careful planning and preparation. The next three posts explain the process, including:
Kickoff participants and their roles
Running the meeting
When we're done, you and your troops will be fully prepared for every battle.
Need help planning and kicking off an important proposal?
Draft the executive summary as part of strategy making. Aim to get it 75 or 80% complete, close enough that it can guide content developers in drafting their sections.
Executive strategy structure
Organize the executive summary into four components:
An intro that links the prospect organization’s vision or strategic purpose to the planned purchase and aligns your response to that purpose
A series of short paragraphs that align with the major RFP sections and tie your key differentiators and offer for each requirement to one or more of the prospect’s strategic issues and hot button issues
Three- or four-paragraph sections expanding on each of the bullet points, including your value propositions, positioning statements, and proof points. Include visualizations for your key differentiators
A closing section summing up your strongest selling points
This draft doesn’t have to be polished, but it should include all the key sales arguments for the main response sections. It’s hard to be this focused early in the response window—but the effort will pay huge dividends in aligning your team on strategy and messaging.
Benefits of drafting the executive summary early
Because content developers will naturally be more productive and sure-footed, second drafts can focus on improving already sound content, instead of rewriting to align with strategy and messaging. The entire team will have more time and energy to devote to improving visualization and polish.
Result: Your proposals will be more coherent, more strategic and stronger—and stand a better chance of winning.
So you might ask: “Isn’t a cover letter that explains your proposal’s key selling points just an executive summary-lite?”
This post explains how we distinguish between these important opportunities.
Cover letter vs. exec summary
The following comparison assumes your proposal responds to a formal RFP or RFQ. Short and/or informal proposals may have different requirements.
PURPOSE: The cover letter’s job is to get the reader's attention and then position your offer highlighting three or four differentiators while sowing doubt about your competitors' offers. The executive summary’s purpose is more ambitious. It should serve as a mini proposal for the senior decision maker—typically the economic buyer—who may read this section and nothing more. As such, it needs to capture your key selling arguments in non-technical language.
FOCUS: The cover letter focuses on tactical reasons for the purchase; the executive summary ties the purchase to the prospect's strategic goals.
LENGTH: We recommend one or two pages for a cover letter. A typical executive summary is much longer—up to 10 percent of the narrative. Note: If your narrative runs more than 100 pages, consider limiting the summary to about 10 pages to ensure it ends before the reader loses interest. (Separately, your team should take a hard look at any long narrative for opportunities to slim it down, especially if the response is submitted in one volume and/or the evaluation team is small.)
OPENING: Two posts ago we provided a cover letter opening citing the RFP's tactical requirements. Aim higher with the executive summary by showing you understand the prospect organization’s strategic priorities. This demonstrates ability to think at the level of the economic decision maker and senior leadership and to be a strategic partner.
CONTENTS: As described last week, the cover letter cites three or four points of differentiation, and then expands on each. The executive summary uses a similar structure to demonstrate how key aspects of your solution support the prospect’s long-term goals. We’ll provide more detail in next week’s post.
Can a cover letter serve as the executive summary?
Yes. The cover letter can double as an executive summary in very short proposals, or in the case of page-limited proposals where the format doesn’t provide for a summary or introduction. In this case, the cover letter can run to four or five pages and should include visualizations.
Next Week: Developing powerful executive summaries
Does your team struggle to express value in proposals?
Last week’s post argued for avoiding the trite cover letter opening: “Thank you for this opportunity etc.,” followed by self-centred chest pounding—in favour of showing you understand what your prospect seeks to accomplish with the planned purchase.
But a good opening just gets the prospect’s attention. What you say next is crucial. Here’s Part 2 of a successful cover letter.
Become the frontrunner
Use the cover letter to position your offer as the prospect’s best choice.
Do this by addressing big questions connected to the essential ingredients of an ideal solution. Typical question themes include:
Technical solution design
On-time, on-budget implementation
Total cost of ownership
Strategic partnership, future flexibility
Select three or four themes that best differentiate your offer. Then, for each theme, write a lead-in sentence, followed by questions that highlight your strengths. See the example below:
In deciding how best to achieve the important goals for this purchase, we invite you to consider the following:
Support capability: How many proponents can provide truly responsive mobile support over the 5-year contract? Can any match our in-house team of 260 fully equipped, fulltime technicians and guaranteed 4-hour response time?
Close with next steps
In closing, avoid threadbare language such as: “Thanking you again for this opportunity, we look forward blah, blah . . .” Instead, affirm that your proposal meets all the prospect’s requirements, and then do the following, depending on the situation:
For RFP responses, address any formal requirements, such as including the RFP title and number and confirming that the signer is authorized to make the offer
For informal proposals, tell your prospect how long your offer is valid and provide a specific date by which you will follow up
In one page this approach achieves three important goals:
Demonstrates you understand your prospect’s objectives
Connects your strongest selling features to the prospect’s key issues
Creates uncertainty about the strength of competing offers
Proposals are sales documents. And any successful salesperson knows the importance of first impressions. You may make a sale after arriving with soup stains on your shirt, but the odds are against it—especially when selling a solution that’s strategically important for your buyer’s organization.
The cover letter’s job is to create a strong first impression. Here’s how to do it (right)—Part 1.
Two ways not to open
Few people take offense at being thanked. So many bidders play it safe by starting off with: “Thank you for giving XYZ Technologies the opportunity to provide this proposal for . . .”
Here’s the problem: This opening has been done a million times. It’s trite. The reader is going to see you, consciously or subconsciously, as one of the herd. Your proposal may begin to sparkle by paragraph three—but by then you’ve lost any first impression advantage.
Another common opening is “XYZ Technologies is very pleased to provide this proposal for . . .” This opening is equally boring as “Thank you for” and has the added disadvantage of seeming self-centred, rather than client-focused.
A better approach—show you get it
Strategic procurement specialists have told us repeatedly that they begin to pay attention when they see a seller gets it, that he or she really understands the need and is focused on meeting it.
So let’s open with the key strategic requirement our proposal addresses. And let’s do it in a way that’s client-focused, rather than bidder-focused. Here’s an example:
“YourCo has identified the need for point-of-sale technology that accepts all currently available payment methods (including near field), occupies no more than 80 cm2 of counter space and provides software support to integrate new technologies as they emerge.”
Boom—you’ve got the buyer’s attention. He or she knows you understand all the key required features. In the rest of the cover letter you need explain why your proposal is worth reading.
No chest-thumping please
What many bidders do at this point is begin to talk about themselves—how they’re industry leaders, how many units they’ve installed, etc., etc. We’ve seen cover letters that go on like this for paragraphs.
The trick to stay focused on your prospect and the critical factors in the purchase decision.
We’ll show you how in next week’s post.
Need help developing powerful, client focused bid responses?
In his wonderful book, On Writing—A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King describes a bell curve of writing ability. At the high end, two or three sigmas out, stand such titans as Shakespeare and Milton, plus a host of other greats. At the opposite end are those who should find another line of work.
Advice for potentially good writers
Between these two extremes, King believes many writers have potential to move significantly towards the greats. He goes on to prescribe some steps aspiring writers can take to improve.
King published his book in 2000. A decade later, President Obama signed the U.S. Plain Writing Act of 2010, aimed at making communications by Federal agencies easier for the public to understand.
The Act, like all acts, was written by and for lawyers. But the companion Plain Language Guidelines are nothing short of gold for aspiring proposal writers. They hit all the notes we’ve been stressing for years. For example:
• Write the way you speak
• Use the active voice and simplest form of verbs
• Use short, simple words
• Write short, simple sentences and paragraphs
• Use lists, tables and illustrations
• Write separate copy for print and the Web
And they include examples for each guideline.
Won’t make you Shakespeare—or even King
Some writers work magic with language. They’re the Crosbys and LeBrons of their chosen craft. Don’t expect these results from studying and following the guidelines. But do expect to become a much better proposal writer.
Following the guidelines will remove your writing as an obstacle to effective communication. You’ll still need to be strategic, use consistent messaging, stress benefits and understand pain points to produce content that can sell.
Read it aloud
We devoted an earlier blog post to this final bit of advice. It’s a great test of whether the guidelines are having the desired effect. Read anything you’ve written aloud, before hitting SEND or PRINT. (Yes, you really do have to read it aloud.)
If your copy is sound, you won’t run out of breath or stumble on the phrasing. It’s ready. Unleash it on the world! And good luck!
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?