Clear thinking

Learn how to improve your proposals and win more business.

Positioning your offer

 September 17, 2019
by Paul Heron

Last week we explained how to demonstrate responsiveness to a proposal issuer’s strategic drivers and hot button issues. This post deals with positioning—the art and science of comparing your solution favourably against alternatives.

Successful positioning differentiates your company, team and solution. To be a differentiator, a feature must:

  • Be a feature or quality you possess that your competitors don’t, and;
  • Convey a benefit that matters to your client

Where to find differentiators

Most differentiators can be found in four areas. To find yours, ask the questions below:

  • Understanding: Can you make the case that your company understands the prospect and the project better than any other vendor? Incumbents often make this argument during rebids.
  • Experience: Can you demonstrate that you have the most experience in the kind of work on offer? This can make the case that you are best able to bring the project in on time and on budget.
  • Performance: Can you prove that one or more aspects of your solution—design, quality, reliability, cost, safety record—is superior to those of other competitors?
  • People: Can you propose individuals for key project roles who are known and liked by the issuer and/or have proven ability to perform at a high level?

Manage your weaknesses

Positioning can also be defensive. Does your main competitor have strengths it is likely to position against you? If so, consider how you can defend proactively. For example, if you know a much larger competitor will position its bench strength and installed base against you, defend by stressing your flexibility and responsiveness—ideally with an example of how this led to success in a similar project.

Ghost your competition

Ghosting is the practice of directly targeting some aspect of a competitor’s offer—without, of course, mentioning the competitor by name. If, for example, a competitor is known to be struggling financially, you could ghost with a statement such as, “[OurCo's] strong balance sheet means [Issuer] will avoid risk of schedule delays caused by financial issues on our part.”

Ghosting can be used to offset competitor strengths, exploit competitor weaknesses, reinforce your relative strengths and defend your perceived weaknesses. See this post for more on ghosting competitors in bid proposals.

Stand out—but be careful

Relatively few proposal teams effectively use positioning in their RFP responses. This means that skillful use of positioning can have a significant impact on evaluators’ impressions—and their scores.

Because positioning involves making a comparison, it can be perceived as negative. Overdone, it can also be seen as preachy or condescending. To avoid leaving this impression, use positioning sparingly and ensure your arguments are sound.



Need help making the case for your solution?

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Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Showing responsiveness

 September 10, 2019
by Paul Heron

Last week we made the case that merely meeting compliance requirements is not enough to win large RFPs. Buyers rightly expect bidders to show how their solutions will do more than meet the bare minimum.

A responsive proposal shows deep understanding of the prospect and the project—beyond what’s in the RFP—and provides reasons to believe your team “gets it” and will deliver success.

Strategic drivers and hot button issues

  • Strategic drivers: Every RFP is issued in response to one or more needs. Those needs may have existed for some time. Strategic drivers explain why the prospect has decided to make this investment now. Is it defending against a competitor’s move? Is it fighting a decline in market share? Does it see a new business opportunity? Is it seeking to reduce costs? Is it facing compliance issues?
  • Hot button issues: In addition to strategic drivers, every prospect will have issues it wants addressed. Among these are hot button issues, items that are top-of-mind for the prospect—or for some evaluator(s)—perhaps because of a prior bad experience. These could include:
    • Desire for cost certainty
    • Need for on-time completion
    • Technology preferences
    • Safety concerns
    • Transition costs and hassle
    • Ease of use
    • Smooth business relations

Understanding strategic drivers and hot button issues gives you a significant leg up in developing and describing your solution. You’ll know, for example, which features and benefits to stress, how best to make performance-vs-cost and other trade-offs and—crucially—how to describe your solution in ways that resonate with evaluators.

Project factors

In addition to addressing strategic needs and hot button issues, you’ll want to show you understand and can satisfy the project requirements and the challenges and risks they present. These will be unique to the project and can range from building site characteristics, to environmental requirements, to traffic management, to winter weather, to the need to time installations to accommodate seasonal demands on the end users’ time.

Show responsiveness to project factors by citing past experience and success in managing similar projects. Provide examples where your team has innovated solutions to challenges identical or very similar to those this project is likely to present. If possible, cite examples using the same key individuals as those you’ve nominated in your proposal.

Drivers and issues change over time

Don’t assume what mattered to a prospect in a previous RFP still matters today. As technologies mature, for example, reliability typically becomes a given and relative cost becomes more important. As processes and markets evolve, energy efficiency, for example, may outrank throughput in priority.

Ensure your assumptions about drivers and issues are as current as possible (see below).

Tapping sales knowledge

This post explains how building your proposal around deep (and current) knowledge of the project and prospect is the key to developing a top-scoring offer. The importance of gaining this intel highlights the critical role of business developers in crafting responsive proposals.

Most successful bidders for complex contracts have business developers trained to build close relationships with multiple prospect team members, to listen carefully, and to keep notes. Then, when the RFP is finally issued, they can mine their accumulated knowledge for nuggets of responsiveness gold.



Need help focussing on the needs of your prospect?

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Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Managing compliance

 September 3, 2019
by Paul Heron

Nearly every bidder understands a proposal needs to comply with the issuer’s requirements or risk disqualification. A compliant proposal does two things:

  • Answers all the questions. This may seem obvious, but content developers can write long responses without actually answering the question. And they—and sometimes reviewers—can fail to notice they haven’t responded to all parts of multi-part questions.
  • Addresses every instance where the RFP states, “the bidder shall” or “must” or “will” do something. This includes items such as page count, font size, forms, packaging, and the submittal deadline and location.

Compliance tools and tips

To improve compliance management:

  • Create and manage an annotated table of contents (ATOC) to track content items. If appropriate, use the ATOC to create a compliance checklist to include in your proposal, to point evaluators to where each item is addressed and to show your bid complies. 
  • Paste the RFP questions into the response template. Use a distinct style (we prefer an italic font smaller than regular body copy and shaded or set in a pale colour). For multi-part questions (e.g. 3.1.a, 3.1.b, 3.1.c), give each subpart its own line and space for the response.
  • Get routine RFP compliance items out of the way early by assigning one individual to actively manage these items. We’ve seen too many teams in panic mode close to submission deadlines because the person who handles, for example, insurance certificates, is on vacation when the team finally gets around to requesting one.

Beyond compliance

When bidding on standardized goods and services, compliance plus the lowest price can be enough to win. But for complex deliverables, such as a design-build project, or a multi-year contract to provide and support equipment or services, or to manage infrastructure, compliance alone is not enough.

This means tackling two situation-specific requirements:

  • Responsiveness: Showing evaluators that you’re aware of the prospect’s strategic needs and hot button issues, deeply understand the project itself, and that you have the required capability and experience to fulfill the requirements
  • Positioning: Distinguishing your company, team, solution and value for money as superior to those of your competitors.

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t make the mistake of treating an RFP response as a marketing brochure, full of broad claims about features and benefits. Instead, develop each as a logical sales argument tailored to the specific prospect and project.

Coming posts will explore responsiveness and positioning. The final post in this series will explain how to add impact to your arguments with visualization.



Are you struggling to win your share of bids?

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Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Positioning your price

 August 27, 2019
by Paul Heron

This month’s posts have made the case for treating price as more than a number buried at the back of your proposal. We’ve explained the importance of price in proposals, how to write a pricing executive summary and various ways to defend your price in a proposal. This post looks at how to position your price against your competition.

In large bids, the price quote is typically packaged separately from the technical proposal. In these cases, a bidder can be disqualified for including price in the narrative. But that doesn’t mean you can’t position your price—and you should.

Understanding positioning

Positioning is the technique of describing various features—in this case price—in such a way that your offer becomes the best option in the minds of the evaluators.

Buyers want to know a price is based on some logical process, includes all their requirements, and is competitive.

Ways to position your price

Positioning is industry and project-specific. Here are some examples from situations we’ve seen.

Using trade-offs: Make any cost and price trade-offs in your pricing decisions explicit in a table or text. For example:

  • We considered using the slightly cheaper D433Z technology, but our recommended solution provides 30% greater reliability (MTBF), giving you much better system uptime and lower lifetime costs.
  • The recommended approach uses open trench construction. Open trench is 20% less expensive than the trenchless technology used in your reference project, which had to accommodate greater environmental and traffic issues.

As reasonable and low risk: Savvy buyers want to know your price calculations are based on sound information and that you can deliver within it. For example:

  • Our price quote is calculated based on our experience with a project last year for XYZ Corporation, used as a reference. The XYZ project, which had an 90% functional overlap and was slightly larger than yours, was completed on time and within budget.
  • Over 85% of labour and management costs will be for internal resources. Our two proposed subcontractors have each teamed with us on three projects in the past year. This structure enables us to price your project realistically with low risk of cost overruns. 

Against competitors: If you know one or more competitors typically cut corners to make their price more attractive, call them out (without mentioning them by name). For example:

  • Because of your high availability requirements, our price includes OEM warranties providing 24-hour repair or replacement on all major components during the five-year contract life. Some competitor prices may be based on cheaper third-party warranties. These technically comply with the RFP, but are typically less reliable, risking major disruption to your operations in case of a breakdown.

Find what works for you

Use the above techniques as thought-starters and brainstorm with your team to find ways to position price.

Your goals are to help evaluators have confidence your pricing is based on sound reasoning and to pre-emptively explain away any variances with competitors’ prices.



Challenged to express the value behind your price offer?

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Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Defending your price

 August 20, 2019
by Paul Heron

Last week we made the case for including a pricing executive summary in proposals. The aim is to show your offer was carefully developed, and is realistic and more attractive than alternatives.

This post shows how to make that summary easy to consume and responsive to your prospect’s issues.

Organizing your cost/price summary

Structure the summary around 3-5 themes important to your prospect. Themes vary by industry and project type, but common examples include price reasonableness, total cost of ownership, costs aligned to progress payments, risk of overruns and/or non-performance, return on investment, etc.

Present the information at a high level and aim for a 50/50 balance of text and visuals.

Rich visualization gives evaluators fresh perspectives on your price and builds comfort. Your goal is to make the evaluator’s job easier, not to complicate it.

Cost/price presentation examples

Use these examples to stimulate your thinking, and then decide what will work best in your situation.

  • Over time: Show costs broken out by major milestones and/or project segments
    Purpose: To show affordability, alignment with progress payments and/or possible divisions between budget categories (e.g. capital vs. expense items).

  • Compared with similar projects: Use a table and visual to present costs of recent projects of similar size and scope to the current project.
    Purpose: To show price is realistic and competitive
  • How estimated: Diagram your estimating process
    Purpose: To reinforce that your price is cost-based and carefully calculated, so the prospect understands your price is realistic and any contracting negotiations must be logic-based.
  • By subcontractor: Use a pie chart to show the relative size of contracted segments, together with information on each contractor.
    Purpose: To show how costs are allocated, emphasize competitive selection process, contractor capability and low non-performance risk.

  • Including trade-offs: Use a table to show options and how each decision impacted cost and price
    Purpose: To show how cost/price decisions align with the prospect’s strategic drivers and hot button issues. Also use to ghost competitors’ price offers.
  • Return on investment: Use a graph to show value added, compared to project costs
    Purpose: Where your solution will increase sales or reduce costs, to show a comparison of costs and related profits/savings over time

Add a selling caption

For each visual, include a selling caption to stress the benefits it conveys. Write these so they can be cut-and-pasted into an evaluator’s summary.

Here’s a post on writing selling captions in proposals.

The payoff: Better contracting conversations

In the absence of cost calculations, market comparisons or alternatives considered, your prospect has little basis for negotiation other than “your price seems high.”

A strong summary will help prospects see you as a responsible and reasonable vendor, willing to share information and seeking a fair deal.

This is to your advantage, whether you want to avoid turning an informal opportunity into an open competition, or in a formal bid situation where final selection is subject to successful contracting.

Next week: Positioning your price


Need help presenting price information in complex proposals?

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Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Pricing executive summary

 August 13, 2019
by Paul Heron

Because price matters so much, it makes sense to invest in presenting it as favourably as possible. Despite this, many companies relegate price to a single number at the back of informal proposals and submit only the issuer-supplied pricing forms in formal bids.

A better strategy is to give your price the prominence it deserves.

Price-included proposals

Informal proposals (solicited without an RFP process), and many private sector RFPs, call for a single document that includes both the solution and price. In these cases:

  • Include your price in the executive summary. The belief that burying the price quote will force your buyer to read the proposal is false. He or she will read a page or two at most, then flip to the back to find the price. That brings us to the next point.
  • Present your price favourably. Use the executive summary to telegraph that your quoted price is logic-based and competitive, and then make the detailed case in the pricing section.

Remember: Almost always, the person who solicited your informal proposal needs internal buy-in for the purchase. Anything you can do to help—and avoid involving other vendors—is worth the effort.

Two-envelope proposals

Include a summary with your price submission in all large RFPs. Do this unless the RFP specifically forbids including additional material in the price binder.

This practice has at least three benefits:

  • Creates an executive summary for senior decision makers. Senior people seldom read pricing tables, which are often highly technical and complex. A plain language summary, including visualization, increases your chances of getting senior-level attention to price.
  • Sets up a positive evaluation. A well-crafted summary creates context and positions your price as carefully reasoned and organized.
  • Makes it easy for evaluators. The team evaluating prices on complex RFPs usually need to prepare a written summary with their recommendations. An ideal way to think of your summary is as cut-and-paste content for evaluators to include in theirs.

Stay client-focused

The goal in your informal proposal is to close the sale without involving competitors. In a formal RFP response, you want to show your price covers all requirements, is reasonable and realistic, minimizes risk and includes trade-offs that best address the prospect’s needs and issues.

In both cases, keep your prospect in mind when presenting your price.


Next week: Visualizing your pricing and costs.


Want to add a cost-price summary to your next bid?

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Photo credit


Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




The importance of price

 August 6, 2019
by Paul Heron

Although our posts focus mainly on differentiating and presenting your proposal’s technical offer, we’d never suggest price is unimportant.

Even in the case of two-envelope RFPs, where prices are revealed only after the narratives are scored, price looms large in the final decision. This is true even when the narrative sections are weighted at more than 50% of the total.

The chart below shows the narrative points advantage you need to prevail (expressed as a percentage of the total) if your price is anywhere up to 10% higher at various weightings.

In competitive situations, bidders are unlikely to overcome a price disadvantage of 5% or more.

Favouring price

If a buyer is determined to award to the lowest priced bidder—whether due to budget pressures, or to avoid protests or public scrutiny—there are at least three ways to accomplish this.

  1. Adjust technical scores after the price envelopes are opened (This is unfair and/or illegal—but it happens.)
  2. Score the technical narratives in a very narrow range, so the lowest price is likely to prevail, despite the relative weighting scheme
  3. Structure the RFP rules so the lowest qualified bid wins

The good news is, most buyers are looking for value and strategic fit, not just the lowest price.

Also, nearly every bid we’ve supported has been run fairly. In fact, evaluation teams for large government bids typically include an independent monitor responsible for ensuring a fair process.

Still, as a key element of your offer, price deserves the same attention to expressing value as do the sections devoted to your understanding, solution, experience, team and implementation plan.

Presenting and positioning and your price

This month, we’ll look at ways to help evaluators understand how you reached your price, why it is reasonable—and proof you can deliver within it. This will include ideas in two areas:

  • Presenting: Most bidders limit price presentation to completing the issuer-supplied forms. But—especially for multi-phase projects and complex blended pricing situations—we’ll suggest other approaches.
  • Positioning: Every technical narrative reflects choices made when developing an offer. Many of these will differ from your competitors’ decisions and will impact price. It’s important to make your trade-offs visible and to justify them.

Added benefit: By making the effort to present and position your price, you and your team will gain new perspectives on decision making that impacts costs and pricing. This may well lead to adjustments in your process that improve your chances of winning.

Next week: Pricing executive summary


Need to do a better job of presenting price in your proposals?

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Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Managing the final stretch

 July 30, 2019
by Paul Heron

This month’s series explains how to manage large narratives to submission. Recent posts focused on preparing proposal writers for success, pre-Red Team management, and running a Red Team review. This post provides guidance for managing from Red Team to submission.

Immediately following Red Team, provide section leads with annotated narrative(s), and confirm they understand and have committed to making required updates.

Pens down

During or before the Red Team review, set and communicate a “pens down” date. This is the point at which all post-Red Team updates are due. For most proposals, assuming pre-review narratives were largely complete and compliant, section leads should require less than a week to submit for pens down.

Copy editing and proofing

Following pens down, the core team copyedits the narratives for smoothness, grammar, one-voicing and consistency in the use of acronyms, short forms and capitalization. This is often an intense period—but nothing like the panicky efforts to rewrite entire sections that often characterize poorly managed proposals.

Editors should identify instances where Red Team input was not integrated, and/or where content is unclear. When these flaws are found, do not send the sections back to the authors. Instead, retain control of the narrative, by sending a snippet and question via email or using screen-share to make the correction. This is faster and reduces the chance of corrupting a nearly perfected document.

Gold Team review

A Gold Team review, typically by senior executives, is standard for most teams. It aims to confirm the offer aligns with the requirements, is viable, and entails an acceptable balance of risk and reward. If the proposal has been well managed, with a sound strategy, clarity on requirements and well managed reviews, there should be no surprises at Gold Team.

Final tweaks and preparation for submission

Correct any flaws identified at Gold Team and prepare the proposal for upload as text or PDF(s) to the issuer’s portal, or for printing and binding. If printing, have the printer make one copy and do a page-flip with the core team to catch production flaws before printing and binding.

The time scheduled between Gold Team and submission depends on the size of the proposal, the submission requirements—and, of course, your confidence the Gold Team reviewers won’t suddenly have second thoughts about some major aspect(s) of the proposal.

Careful management pays off

This month’s posts describe in a general way how we support our clients in managing proposals for large contracts. The logic is self-evident—before you unleash dozens (or hundreds) of individuals in a high-stakes, time-constrained proposal effort, it only makes sense to communicate a clear strategy, have a plan to manage them closely, and conduct formal progress reviews.

If you base your process on this month’s posts, you’ll see upcoming submission deadlines as a time to celebrate, not panic.



Need help with proposal processes?

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Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Managing a Red Team review

 July 23, 2019
by Paul Heron

This month’s series explains how to manage large proposal narratives to submission. Recent posts focused on preparing proposal writers for success and pre-Red Team management. This post provides guidance on running a Red Team review session.

Red Team review input

As advised in last week’s post, send all participants the annotated sections in MS Word or PDF format at least two days before the review. Include a clear expectation that reviewers read and be familiar with the content prior to the review.

Review process

Use the following steps as a starting point and modify to suit your situation:

  • Welcome participants and thank them for their efforts to date. Confirm everyone has received the content
  • Remind everyone of the status of the narratives—leaders have reviewed content against RFP and strategy to identify gaps or confusing content that will not score well and visualization opportunities for discussion during review
  • Establish the order of sections. Start with big picture sections as a warm-up, but then move to any particularly complex or problematic sections to take advantage of morning energy, scheduling less challenging sections for after lunch
  • Remind everyone of the purpose: To ensure responses answer the questions and identify opportunities to improve clarity, responsiveness and competitive positioning. Red Team is not a forum for copy tweaking
  • Set ground rules: No slowing down for people who haven’t read sections; session leader will suggest taking discussions offline after 4-5 minutes; content leads should understand and agree with all decisions and commitments made
  • Explain work that will be done after the review. Assure participants that all content will be edited for grammar, consistency and one voice to achieve a finished product
  • Begin review, making sure all commitments are recorded and annotations understood by those responsible
  • Break after 75-90 minutes to assess progress


Project the current section in MS Word and live edit the annotations, so all attendees can follow and see the results of their input and evidence of assignments and commitments made.

Consider using a second screen on which you can keep the RFP, org chart, ATOC open for easy access.

Unified or multi-part reviews?

We’re often asked whether everyone needs to be present for all sections. Is it not more efficient to conduct a review with just the author(s) for each individual section? The answer depends on the situation. Use the following for guidance in deciding:

  • RFQ responses, which are fairly short and aim to present a unified team and strategy, are best reviewed by the entire team to ensure no opportunities for fresh thinking, cross-section references and strategic consistency are missed
  • Conversely, very large consortium RFP responses are almost always reviewed in rolling reviews, due to the volume of material to cover, the number of authors, and the time it takes to annotate and prepare content for review
  • Single-company RFP responses, where everyone is familiar with the solution and have developed several proposals together, are also candidates for multi-part reviews
  • Generally, the more one section’s content directly affects other sections, the stronger is the case for reviewing them together; also unified reviews offer the greatest opportunities for fresh thinking, and avoiding group think—assuming participants are fully engaged

Always do a Red Team review

Do not skip the Red Team review step in developing proposals. With proper preparation and management, this review allows you to make major course corrections and improvements while there is still time before submission.

Next week: Managing the final stretch




Need help with proposal processes?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Pre-Red Team management

 July 16, 2019
by Paul Heron

This month’s series explains how to manage large narratives. Last week we focussed on preparing proposal writers for success. Today’s post includes tools and processes for managing the period from kickoff to Red Team review.

Red Team review planning

NOTE: The points below assume narratives total 200 pages or less, and the response window is 45-60 days. Adjust for larger or smaller responses and submission times. For much larger narratives, consider scheduling multiple Red Teams or plan a multi-day review.

  • Time the review for about halfway through the response window
  • Issue invitations early for an all-day, in-person session
  • Invite the proposal manager, capture manager and section leads
  • Set a content submission deadline 4-6 days ahead of the review
  • Specify that submitted narratives be at least 70 percent complete

Pink Team review

If the schedule permits and especially if requirements are complex, consider scheduling a bullet point or Pink Team review between kickoff and Red Team. To prepare, ask writers to analyse their sections and provide their analyses and proposed responses in point form. For all but very large responses, conduct review sessions virtually and/or one-on-one. Focus on ensuring writers are clear on structure and compliance before they begin drafting.

Triaging submitted content

Analyse pre-Red Team submissions when received and return or escalate sections that are not 70 percent or more complete and/or that are non-compliant. Include notes explaining your decision. Fast turnaround increases the chances of getting acceptable content back in time for Red Team.

Structural editing

Due to time constraints, and because reviewers’ input often results in wholesale changes, do not invest in copyediting content at this stage. Focus annotations on recommended cuts to irrelevant or non-responsive content and missing information and opportunities to improve compliance, logical flow, convert plain text to tables, graphics, mini-case studies etc., and to add strategic messaging.

Circulating documents for Red Team

Assemble annotated narratives into a Word or PDF document and distribute to all reviewers at least two days before the review. In your distribution email, set the expectation that reviewers will have read the narratives before the review session.


These investments in supporting writers and making clear and thoughtful annotations enable more successful Red Team reviews and create early momentum towards a complete, compliant and strategic response.

Next week: Managing the Red Team Review


Need help with proposal processes?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 






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