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Learn how to improve your proposals and win more business.


Managing win themes (SCP)

 August 29, 2017
by Paul Heron

Last week’s post explained how to use the proposal Section Content Planner (SCP) to ensure writers include all the information needed for a compliant bid.

This post shows the SCP’s value as a tool to keep writers focused on your win themes and key messages.

Several past posts focused on the strategy components of proposal planning. For example:

All this strategy work is aimed at developing win themes—clear messages that express the uniqueness of our offer and our key differentiators. Now we need to ensure writers make maximum use of these themes in their sections.

Use win themes to complete the SCP

Each writer gets one or more SCPs, pre-loaded with general information and compliance items. Insist writers fully complete the remaining SCP sections (see Figure 1) before they start to write.

The work of going through the proposal plan and individual strategy-building tools and conferring with subject matter experts will give writers the depth of understanding needed to write powerful content. If subject matter experts are section authors, the exercise will help give them a strategy perspective—lifting their thinking from simply how the solution works to why a proposal evaluator should care.

Figure 1: Developing Powerful Content: Completing the SCP forces writers to fully integrate compliance requirements, technical content and win themes before they start to write.

Capsule statements and visualizations

As you review SCPs in progress, pay special attention to the capsule statement and ideas for visualizations (including captions). Because they need to integrate information and strategy, these act like canaries in a coalmine—early indicators a writer might be struggling.

If a capsule statement is missing or lacks impact and/or if a graphic and its caption don’t highlight a key benefit or differentiator, go back through the SCP to see how well the writer has completed the other sections.

Sections will write themselves

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But the investment in completing, reviewing and approving section content planners is guaranteed to produce stronger proposal content with fewer surprises—and keep you on your completion schedule.


Need help with process that builds strong proposals?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Managing content (SCP)

 August 22, 2017
by Paul Heron

This post continues our series on “owning the RFP”— mastering and managing all the ingredients of a successful proposal. Two weeks ago we posted on managing compliance and last week on managing proposal structure.

Content consists of three categories:

  1. Information—specific facts the RFP asks you to provide, for example details of your proposed solution and implementation plan, proposed organization, past experience (often in the form of project sheets), and key individual resumes
  2. Strategic messaging—showing you really understand the project and the prospect’s needs and hot buttons, expressing your points of differentiation, and positioning your company against your competition
  3. Visualization—graphic representations of important aspects of your offer, usually those identified in the messaging item immediately above

Using a Section Content Planner

In this post, we’ll focus on the information part of content. Information items are identified in the RFP, then captured in the compliance matrix and copied to the Section Content Planner (SCP) using the process shown below.

Figure 1: Information tracking: Required information (i) is identified in the RFP, captured in a Compliance Matrix, then organized in the Annotated Table of Contents (ATOC), before being used to populate Section Content Planners used to guide and monitor writers.

The SCP is a key part of the package Complex2Clear uses to provide guidance to writers and to monitor proposal completion. It’s a Word document started by the proposal manager and completed by the writer with input from subject matter experts (SMEs).

SCP sections and responsibilities are shown in the table below:

General info
Proposal ID, Section no., topic, page limit, RFP references for statement of work, scoring, deliverables, etc.
Proj. Mgr.
Compliance info
Compliance items with RFP reference for each
Proj. Mgr.
Section outline
Bullet point outline of key points to be covered
List of known buyer issues
Strategy to address buyer issues, competitive threats and other risks
Features and benefits
Key features and benefits of our offer
Our differentiators and expressing our advantages over competitors’ offers
Capsule statement*
One sentence answer to: Why should this section get maximum points?
Sketch or description of 1-2 graphic(s) that captures our key differentiator(s)
Selling caption*
Benefits-oriented, buyer-focused caption for each graphic
 * Strategic messaging elements will be covered in next week’s post

Daily progress management

The SCP lets the proposal manager see how well each writer understands a section’s required information and his/her ability marry that information with your strategy to produce compelling arguments for your offer.

Insist on checking your writers’ progress daily. Begin by monitoring SCP completion and then use the SCP contents to ensure those ideas are well expressed in the section. On large proposals, focus on one or two elements (e.g. visuals and captions) across all sections, rather than trying to carefully review all parts of every section every day.

Dealing with pushback

Doesn’t all this form filling waste time? No! Far more time is lost when writers go off in different directions and write without a plan. The two or three hours it takes to plan a section thoroughly is more than recovered in writing that’s complete, compliant and on-message—especially where content developers are subject matter experts unused to writing.

Some writers may bridle at being held accountable for daily progress. We recommend you insist on the same rules for all. This is especially true for virtual teams where precious days can be lost if a writer goes off message (or AWOL) undetected because no check-ins are scheduled.

BOTTOM LINE: This is the way every large bid team operates. It’s the best way we’ve found to produce a winning proposal on a schedule without last minute all-night and weekend sessions.


Need help implementing better proposal processes?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Managing structure (ATOC)

 August 15, 2017
by Paul Heron

Once you understand the RFP completely and have captured its requirements in a compliance matrix, decide how you will structure your proposal. Depending on the RFP, the structure may be self-evident, or you may have to infer it.

If the RFP:

  • Specifies a structure, follow it exactly, using the same numbering system as in the RFP
  • Implies a structure—for example by posing a set of questions—follow that structure, using the question numbers to number your sections
  • Includes a scoring breakdown, use that breakdown to structure your proposal

We’ve seen all of the above, plus examples of no guidance and RFPs containing separate overlapping versions of the required information. If unclear, consider using the process specified in the RFP to ask the issuer for guidance. Many bidders are reluctant to ask questions, but issuers tell us it shows engagement and interest in winning their business.

In the absence of any guidance, organize your proposal as follows:

  • Cover letter
  • Executive summary
  • Understanding of the situation
  • Proposed solution
  • Benefits of proposed solution and advantages over alternatives
  • Experience and qualifications
  • Past performance
  • Proposed team
  • Implementation plan and schedule (if applicable)
  • References

Where the RFP is vague or contains conflicting content information, make it easy for evaluators by including a compliance table cross-referencing RFP paragraph numbers to locations of the corresponding responses in the proposal.

Using an ATOC

Document your proposal structure using an Excel worksheet formatted into an annotated table of contents (ATOC). Assign columns for:

  • Section no.
  • Subsection no.
  • Title
  • RFP page and paragraph nos.
  • Requirements
  • Points allocated by section or subsection (if in the RFP)
  • Pages allocated (8.5 x 11)
  • No. of foldouts (11 x 17)
  • Section lead (person responsible for writers and SMEs)
  • Writer(s) assigned
  • Subject matter expert(s) (SMEs)
  • Graphics support person
  • Content delivery date(s)

On a separate worksheet, list all team members’ contact information (including mobile numbers).

Populating the ATOC

Use the information captured in the compliance matrix (see last week’s post) to populate the ATOC. Reserve the first couple rows of the ATOC for general information about the proposal, including maximum pages allowed, any formatting restrictions and packaging and delivery requirements.

Use the remaining rows for proposal content requirements.

We assign separate rows to covers, tabs, sections and subsections and appendices. This lets us assign and manage responsibility for all design elements (covers, tabs, etc.) and for individual required forms (insurance certificates, bid bonds, etc.) as well as content. It also makes it easy to compile a detailed contents list as part of our printing instructions.

Make it yours

The ATOC is a powerful proposal management tool. Make it yours by adding columns for additional items you need to track and make decisions about how to populate it. Customize your ATOC so it works best for your business and team.


Need help getting your proposal process organized?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Managing compliance

 August 8, 2017
by Paul Heron

In last week’s post we talked about “owning the RFP”—by which we mean mastering and managing all the details needed to win.

This week we’ll look at compliance, the first sub-component of mastery. Assigning clear responsibilities for identifying and tracking all compliance items ensures proposals are judged on their merits—not crippled by failure to meet one or more requirements.

What is compliance?

Compliance items are the issuer’s specific asks—things the RFP states the bidder “shall,” “will,” or “must” do. “Should” may also indicate a compliance item. For example, if the RFP asks that an individual section should contain no more than 15 pages, we recommend you treat that number as a hard limit.

Deciding what to track

Even with the above definition as a guide, different individuals can interpret compliance differently. We’ve seen over-zealous team members identify hundreds of compliance items in a 300-page RFP. The result is a list that no one has the time or appetite to manage.

Our rule is to select items that pertain to the proposal only (not to later stages in the procurement and contracting processes) and that apply to:

  • Delivery requirements: Where, when and how your proposal must be packaged, labelled and delivered.
  • Design: Requirements and restrictions around paper size (including for foldouts), margins, type font and size, colour and duplexing, binding, etc.
  • Contents and structure: Information the RFP requires as part of your response and the proposal’s high-level organization. This includes narratives, project sheets, resumes, forms, and schedules, including page limits for each

Capturing compliance items

In the old days, teams cut up a hard copy of the RFP and used the clippings to assemble a compliance checklist. Today, high-end software can strip compliance items out of an RFP and assemble the list automatically.

We use the following approach:

  1. Use the annotate feature in a PDF reader to highlight compliance items throughout the RFP. As insurance, ask a second team member to review the annotated PDF for any missed items, since this may be the only comprehensive compliance check made.
  2. Create a compliance matrix using an Excel worksheet as follows: 
  • Copy each requirement, its RFP page reference, section and subsection, into adjacent columns of the worksheet
  • Use one or more columns to categorize items under Delivery*, Design, and Content and Structure 
  • Sort the sheet by category and use a column to assign responsibilities for each item

We've found this process is uncomplicated, requires no single-purpose software, makes it easy to add comments where needed, and works for all RFP types.

* NOTE: Delivery requirements are invariably found on one page of the RFP. Make copies of this page, and any required labels, for the proposal manager and the person responsible for delivery.

Working with compliance items

Figure 1 shows how we organize and track compliance items through the proposal development process.

Figure 1: Working with compliance items: After identifying compliance items in the RFP, divide them into delivery (1), design (2), content (3) and structure (4) and use these requirements to populate proposal management documents. ATOC is an acronym for Annotated Table of Contents—the subject of next week's post.

Managing the design and delivery requirements is important but relatively straightforward, since one person is typically responsible for each. The content and structure items, however, need more work before they’re ready for use.

Include a compliance check list in your proposal

Some RFPs include a compliance checklist for completion and inclusion. If proposal rules allow, consider including a table listing content requirements with a column headed COMPLY with the word “Yes” or a checkmark alongside each item. This will affirm to evaluators that you have met all requirements.

Next week: We’ll describe the ATOC and how to use it.


Need better proposal management processes?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Owning the RFP

 August 1, 2017
by Paul Heron

To develop a competitive proposal, you first need to master the RFP (or RFQ). This seems self-evident—but we repeatedly run into situations where clients still haven’t fully grasped one or more requirements, just weeks before the due date.

One of our team talks about “owning the RFP.” He means getting your head around—and then managing—three kinds of requirements: compliance, structure and strategy.

Most teams responding to very large opportunities have structured their processes to do this. But others—often pursuing contracts in the tens of millions of dollars— jeopardize their chances by letting important pieces fall through the cracks.

We’ll briefly describe these items in this post, and then dive deeper into each one in the coming weeks.

Ensuring compliance

Every RFP contains compliance items. These are things bidders must do—or risk being thrown out of the competition. The most obvious example is the submission deadline, deliverables and packaging—but RFPs typically include font size and formatting requirements, page limits, and various forms and certifications for completion and/or submission.

Someone on the team needs to identify all compliance items and follow up to ensure they are met. We’ll recommend a process for doing this next week.

Creating a proposal structure

RFPs vary widely in how closely they specify the contents of your response. Some are vague—one recent example repeated the statement of work twice in slightly different formats, making it frustratingly difficult to decide which order to follow. Other bid issuers provide a specific set of questions and sub-questions, essentially building the table of contents for your response.

We’ll post on documenting the structure of your proposal in two weeks.

Managing content

Once they've mastered the requirements and assigned content to writers, some team leaders make the mistake of managing too loosely. Loose management runs the risk of writers heading off in the wrong direction or—as more often happens—waiting until just before the deadline to begin, resulting in poor or incomplete content.  

We'll post on how to manage content in three weeks.

Managing win themes

Every successful proposal—even those on short deadlines—starts with strategy. This rule has two parts:  1. Developing a winning strategy and; 2. Ensuring every proposal section supports that strategy. Many bidders spend time upfront on strategy, but fail to see it carry through into the proposal.

We’ll post on ensuring strategy gets deployed throughout your proposal in four weeks.

How strong is your ownership?

Based on our research, most bidders (about three quarters) do a good job of identifying and managing compliance requirements—but less than half consistently master structure and strategy. Where does your team rank?


Need hands-on support for a current opportunity?

Please 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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