Clear thinking

Learn how to improve your proposals and win more business.

Mastering the RFP

 June 2, 2020
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—including some pursuing contracts in the tens of millions of dollars— jeopardize their chances by letting important pieces fall through the cracks.

We’ll briefly describe the main elements of mastery in this post, and then look at ways to accomplish it in the coming weeks.

Establishing the proposal structure

RFPs vary widely in how closely they specify the contents of your response. Ideally the bid issuer will provide a specific set of questions and sub-questions, essentially building the table of contents for your response.

Others are less straightforward. In one recent example, the issuer repeated the statement of work twice in slightly different formats, making it frustratingly difficult to decide which to follow. Another RFP contained a set of pass/fail "mandatory criteria" and a separate set of scored "technical criteria." 

Follow this rule: When in doubt, organize your response to align with how the evaluation criteria are structured. 

Ensuring compliance

Every RFP contains compliance items. These are things bidders must address, or risk a poor score, or even getting thrown out of the competition. They consist of two broad categories:

  • Content compliance: This involves answering all the RFP questions. Sounds simple—but in fact teams often get off track, because the RFP is confusing, or because their technical training or company culture leads them to make assumptions not supported by the RFP language. 
  • Administrative compliance: Examples include the submission deadline and the form and packaging of deliverables. Most RFPs also include font size, page formatting requirements, page limits, and various forms and certifications for completion and/or submission.

Ownership includes identifying all compliance items and following up to ensure they are met. 

Managing content development

Once you've mastered the RFP structure and requirements and assigned content to writers, don't 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 writing. Either outcome results in incomplete and/or non-compliant content and those all too familiar pre-deadline writing marathons.  

Managing strategy (win themes)

Every successful proposal—even those on short deadlines—needs to start with a win strategy. ("Answer all the questions" is not a strategy.) This rule has two parts:  

  • Developing and documenting a winning strategy for each main section of the response and then;
  • Ensuring every proposal section supports that strategy. Many bidders spend time upfront on strategy—but fail to see it carry through into the proposal.

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?

Next week: Structuring a response using an ATOC



Need hands-on support for an upcoming opportunity?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Rebid team preparation

 May 22, 2020
by Paul Heron

Vendor complacency as a common client complaint in long-term contracts. If complacency extends to your rebid, you’re at high risk of losing the business.

Few companies set out to be complacent. Instead, it’s the cumulative result of various blind spots, including perceptions of client loyalty and habits of working and communicating.

Instead of simply vowing not to be complacent, we recommend taking specific actions—including starting rebid preparation early and enlisting your business developers in the rebid effort.

You also need to engage the proposal team in shaking off complacency, starting with the following ideas.

Five ways to shake off complacency

  • Make fresh thinking a kickoff theme: Don’t warn the proposal team against complacent thinking. Instead, challenge members to brainstorm three fresh ideas for each key deliverable, based on your customer’s hot button issues and known competitor strengths.
  • Send some ringers on the site visit: Take advantage of the site visit invitation to get input from another business team managing a similar contract. Ask your colleagues to be tough markers. What shortcomings would they pounce on if a competitor held the current contract?
  • Turn speed bumps into lessons learned: Don’t ignore issues that arose during the current contract, hoping your client will have forgotten. Instead, explain the steps you took to address root causes. If the process involved significant investment (of your own money), state the amount. Use non-recurrence of the issue to show your remedy was successful.
  • Find specific cost savings: Identify new ways to reduce costs or add value. Choose examples that involve an investment and business case—otherwise the client will wonder why you didn’t introduce these improvements in the current contract.
  • Ghost your competition: Try to anticipate your strongest competitor’s moves and decide how to offset them. For example, if a hungry competitor offers to waive its transition costs, what other valid arguments can you make for not switching?

Be sure to do Blue Team and Black Hat reviews

Successful teams use Blue Team and Black Hat reviews to test strategy. Both provide good value in rebid situations.

The Blue Team review tests strategy, using internal resources who understand the project and the competition—but who haven’t been closely involved in building the strategy.

The Black Hat team is tasked with attacking the strategy from the perspective of your toughest competitor. In high stakes situations, companies often engage outsiders with deep industry knowledge to perform Black Hat reviews.

The payoff

Tackling some of these ideas may be painful—examining performance lapses, for example.

But, by keeping the image of smart and hungry competitors looking to steal your contract front and centre, you and your team can take steps to avoid complacency—and produce lean and forward-looking rebids.


Do you have an important rebid coming up?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Rebid discovery tips

 May 19, 2020
by Paul Heron

This month we’re looking at ways to improve rebid success, including laying the groundwork for a successful rebid right from the moment the contract is awarded.

This post contains tactics for taking advantage of incumbency to develop client knowledge that can be used in the rebid.

Things you can do

Tailor discovery to your position as incumbent. Do as many of the following as apply to your business. Use these ideas as triggers for other steps you can take.

  • Calendarize the contract term: Crazy as it sounds, contract renewal can sneak up on an incumbent—especially if business development resources are stretched. Create a set of milestones to serve as reminders to follow up on the ideas below and others.
  • Recruit CSRs to provide client intel: Many companies have structured programs that use their frontline people to glean information from client interactions. If yours doesn’t, start. Interview CSRs regularly with questions designed to uncover, not just feedback, but client events and new issues that may impact your rebid.
  • Gather wider input: Ask business developers to grow their contacts at the client organization, especially targeting likely bid evaluators. And don’t seek affirmation by asking, “Is everything OK?” Instead ask, “What improvements would you like to see in the next contract period?” and “How is your business changing in ways that will affect our relationship?” Open-ended questions such as these will produce actionable intelligence.
  • Confirm your perceptions of client issues: It’s easy to assume you know what’s on the client’s mind. As in the above item, ask open-ended questions.
  • Review costs and pricing: Price is always important in bid situations. Are there things you’re doing that they don’t need/want? Are you providing services beyond what the contract requires? Can you re-engineer existing services in ways that will drive down future costs?
  • Offer strategic input: Arm your business developers with news of value, such as industry trends or enhanced offerings that customer contacts will value, and that will position your company as a strategic partner, rather than simply a vendor.

The goal and payoff

Acting on all of these ideas may be challenging or impossible in your situation. Pick those with the most attractive effort/reward ratio as a start. The goal is to start the rebid with a file of valuable strategy ideas, rather than scrambling just before or after the issue date.

Bid windows are never long enough. Building a client-focused strategy ahead is an excellent way to maximize the use of that precious time.

Do you have an important rebid coming up?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Start rebid prep now

 May 6, 2020
by Paul Heron

Congratulations—you’ve won the contract!

Everyone is busy. The transition and operation teams are focused on start-up and finding ways to optimize profit. And the business developers are working on winning the next piece of business.

Contract renewal is years away and pretty much off the radar. But now is the best time to begin preparing for a successful rebid.

Plan for rebid success

Doing some or all of the following to improve your chances at rebid:

  • Involve sales in implementation: If you’re not the incumbent, invite the business developer to transition team meetings to provide customer perspective and continuity—and to help deliver the smooth, trouble-free transition you promised.
  • Nominate and empower an internal client champion: Designate a member of the operations team to proactively follow up on outstanding problems and expedite/escalate internally before they damage the relationship.
  • Follow up on hot button issues: Did your proposal identify and offer to address specific hot button issues? If so, will your operations plan fulfill these promises? Check every three months for evidence and confirm progress with your customer.
  • Log efforts to resolve issues: Multi-year contracts inevitably include performance lapses. Set up a real-time process to track timelines and investments made to correct these problems. This will enable your rebid team to demonstrate speedy and successful issues resolution without consuming precious time reconstructing the facts.
  • Gather evidence of improvement initiatives: This is similar to the item above. Document improvements you make, both internally and client-facing, so you can include success stories in the rebid.

Overcoming obstacles

Depending on your organization’s incentives and culture, acting on some or all of the above ideas will prove more or less challenging.

Like many smaller, private companies, C2C focuses on protecting client relationships, even at the expense of maximizing profit on each project. If your fulfillment teams are incented to wring every cent out of every contract—and/or if job rotation means others will deal with the rebid—your path will be more difficult.

Ask yourself these two questions

When convincing others (or yourself) to strike an appropriate balance between contract profitability and client retention, ask:

  1. Will taking even some the simple steps above improve our chances at rebid?
  2. If yes, how do the additional effort and any costs involved compare with those required to replace this contract?

Next week: Business development’s role in rebid situations


Need help with an important rebid?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Avoiding a lazy rebid

 May 5, 2020
by Paul Heron

We see incumbents lose rebids fairly often. In fact, according to one recent report, 40 percent of incumbents lose U.S. federal contracts at rebid.

There may be good reason for these losses. Some incumbents perform poorly or fail to manage the relationship well. In others a more efficient (or foolhardy) proponent underbids the incumbent. But in many cases, the incumbent could have won—and wanted to—but simply mishandled the bid process.

Unsuccessful proposals often stem from lazy thinking, leading to beliefs such as:

1. Nothing much has changed

A “more of the same” proposal assumes:

  • The client’s strategic drivers haven’t changed during the current contract
  • The same individuals are calling the shots
  • Technology hasn’t changed over the life of the contract
  • There’s no downward pressure on budgets
  • Your competitors will use the same approaches and pricing as last time

Really? If this describes your world, you’d be unique among the bidders we see.

2. The client loves us

You may have a warm relationship with your client—but don’t base that belief on one or two contacts. Given the natural desire to avoid conflict, the warmth may not run as deep as you think. And there may be others in the organization with more power who judge you less kindly.

Perhaps your client really does love you. However, if you’re bidding into a government agency or other entity with strict evaluation criteria, love will only take you so far.

In most cases, you’ll still need to win the technical portion and be close on pricing.

3. The client doesn’t want a transition

Transition risk and cost are significant issues in many situations.

But, against hungry competitors willing to waive transition costs and/or slash margins to win business, incumbents cannot rely on change aversion to win. This is especially true in competitions monitored by fairness commissioners.

Avoiding complacent thinking

Complacency is like weight-gain. It creeps up on most of us unnoticed.

It’s also hard to combat. Rather than vowing not to be complacent, decide on concrete actions your team will take to ensure a fresh look at rebid. Over the coming weeks, we’ll consider specific steps you can take.

Next week: Set up for a successful rebid as soon as you win the contract



Need help developing winning bid strategies?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Proposal kickoff agenda

 April 28, 2020
by Paul Heron

In the last three posts we covered proposal kick-off goals, preparation and participants. 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.

5 Proposal Manager Welcomes and introduces participants, reviews agenda
5 Senior Manager* Explains the importance of the project and the organization’s commitment, thanks the team members for their participation
10 Sales Manager* Provides background on the prospect and project, including any competitive intelligence indicating the bid is winnable
10 Product Manager* Describes the proposed solution, its main features and successful deployments elsewhere
15 Proposal Manager Outlines the proposal structure, prospects strategic drivers and key issues, and win themes; distributes writers’ packages, key dates
30 Proposal Manager Reviews in detail the proposal plan, ATOC, work organization and allocation, writer’s packages (SCPs) and executive summary
10 Project Manager** Reviews the schedule, online storage set-up, versioning protocols and daily management procedure
20 Proposal Manager 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 upcoming proposal?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Proposal kickoff participants

 April 21, 2020
by Paul Heron

In the past two posts, we covered proposal kickoff meeting goals and how to prepare for successful proposal kickoffs. This post identifies those who should be present and the roles each will play.

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.


Senior manager** Motivates the proposal team, demonstrates organizational commitment to the proposal
Sales manager*** Describes the prospect, nature of the relationship, key drivers and hot button issues
Product manager** Describes the solution and its key performance features
Proposal manager*** Runs the meeting, introduces the proposal plan, outlines the strategy, distributes Section Content Planners
Project manager*** Explains the proposal schedule, reporting and other protocols
Obliging managers* 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
Graphic artist(s)* Understand proposal strategy and scope, schedule, procedures and work assignments
Designer(s)* Understand proposal strategy and scope, schedule, procedures and work assignments


Right-sizing kick-offs

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.

Next week: Kick-off Meeting Agenda


Need help kicking off an important proposal?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Proposal kickoff preparation

 April 14, 2020
by Paul Heron

Last week’s post identified proposal kick-off meeting goals—to motivate, inform and direct the proposal team.

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.

Strategy building

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. For more on SCPs, see this post on tools and frameworks for proposal writers.

Does this sound like a lot of work?

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.

In the next two posts, we’ll cover:

  • Kick-off participants and their roles
  • Running the meeting


Need help kicking off an upcoming proposal?

Contact Complex2Clear

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




Proposal kickoff goals

 April 7, 2020
by Paul Heron

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 will have no strategy or story to rally 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 clear 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 by being a better general. That starts with a carefully planned and well executed kickoff meeting.

Kickoff goals

Plan your proposal kickoff meetings to achieve three goals:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Kick-off preparation

Kicking off a major proposal properly takes careful planning and preparation. The next three posts explain the process, including:

  • Proposal planning
  • 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?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Visuals for informal proposals

 March 31, 2020
by Paul Heron

This month's posts have covered using section storyboards to integrate visuals, creating rich visuals on small budgets, visualizing with flowcharts, and using meatball charts as visuals. This post describes ways to reuse visualizations in informal proposals.

Informal proposals—those submitted outside a formal bid process offer the potential of making sales without the time and expense of completing an RFP response. For more, see this series of posts on informal proposals. Informal proposals offer the added benefit of letting you determine the structure and content—including visualization. This is an opportunity to develop visuals that you can use over and over.

Use the examples below as thought starters to develop visualizations for your informal proposals.

Show process

Use a high-level illustration to showcase a repeatable process. Use the caption to stress the advantages of your process (time to market, reliability, risk reduction etc.). Have a freelancer create a simple graphic (example below) for $250 or so, and then use it many times. Plan your graphic so any project-specific content is in the caption, not in the graphic itself.

Structure your solution

Use structure to walk reviewers through your proposed solution. Keep the descriptions high-level. If your prospect requires a highly detailed solution description, consider putting it in an appendix, so you don’t lose the attention of senior-level proposal reviewers (such as the economic buyer).

Show the alternatives

Buyers naturally want to know they’re making the best choice among available options. Help your prospect with this due diligence by including a comparison table.

Show you satisfy all requirements

We recommend using a compliance matrix to show you fully comply with a formal RFP. For informal proposals, use a table to align key prospect issues with elements of your solution—as in the example below.

Include selling captions

Now that you’ve attracted the evaluator’s eye, put your strongest selling arguments in captions. See this post on how to write selling captions that do more than simply explain the visual.

Return on investment

It makes good sense to invest in strong informal proposals, considering the alternative—the cost and risk of a formal RFP response. And because informal proposal components—both copy and visualizations—can be customized and reused, you will recoup your time and out-of-pocket costs many times over.

Need help using visuals to get evaluators paying attention?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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






CalendarBlog Index


Stay current



Sign up for our monthly blog summary

No spam promise

We hate it when we sign up for a newsletter and suddenly get several emails a week. So we won't do that to you. You'll get our newsletter—period.

Get monthly summaries?:*
Privacy Policy: Complex2Clear will not use your name and contact information for any purpose other than to respond to your request and to advise you of important updates. We will not sell or give your information to any third party.
Top of page