Many bidders seeking to adopt our strategy-first approach find their biggest stumbling block is lack of a prospect familiarity and/or project knowledge. They often realize this only after the RFP is released—when the window for communication has closed.
Complex2Clear doesn’t focus on pre-RFP sales processes—but our strategy facilitation and implementation work relies on the information it produces. This is true for all opportunities—but especially when chasing large contracts issued by large organizations.
Team selling in large accounts
For large prospects—a financial institution or government agency, for example—one-to-one selling is seldom enough to be seen as a serious contender for large contracts. In these cases, the most successful companies deploy teams.
Savvy teams use the fact that most individuals prefer to deal with those in comparable or more senior positions. CEOs, for example, are most comfortable working with other CEOs or board members. Below this level, prospect company individuals often welcome relationships with those at a higher level in vendor companies. So, rather than focussing solely on their peers at a prospect, sales team members should also build relationships with those at a level below (see illustration).
Within this network of relationships, one or more connections usually become critical to the sale, and can be developed accordingly.
What if you’re small?
For small companies, selling into larger prospects is challenging. Two strategies that can help build the needed relationships and understanding are these:
Invite a colleague to meetings with large prospects, to lessen the pressure on you, and to gain another perspective. Be sure to agree on your respective roles in each meeting.
Expand the conversation: Once you’re comfortable with your main contact, ask as often as possible: “Who else should be involved?” or “Who else will be part of this decision?” If your contact hesitates, use your sense of likely technical buyers and user buyers and be more specific.
Partner with others: Seek out one or more allies who can help you build a more robust solution. Your ideal partner also knows the prospect. It’s better to share a large opportunity than to lose it by looking too small. As above, be sure to agree beforehand on your respective roles.
For large projects, two years or more pre-RFP is not too early to start building relationships and gathering facts—not to mention shaping the requirements to better suit your solution. Well managed, this patient work always pays dividends.
Need help translating sales discovery into strategy?
One of our friends, a highly successful consultant, sums up what matters in winning an opportunity as “the three A's”—Available, Affable, Able. During the pre-RFP stage, focus on being affable—someone prospects like and want to work with.
Because most large RFPs assign less than half the points to price, buyers have considerable flexibility to award contracts to proponents they like. Being affable will also get you the best answers to your capture planning questions, so you can position your solution and team as available and able.
The lowest level, “Customary,” describes perfunctory, “How are things?’” conversations. Higher-level, “Emotive” and “Self-reflective” interactions involve asking deeper questions that result in increasingly more intimate sharing. Business developers who communicate with prospects at these levels uncover the knowledge needed to build a powerful RFP response.
Moving up the intimacy scale requires courage and judgement. It also involves risk. Seek increased intimacy too soon and you’ll be written off as pushy. Fail to get close enough and you’ll never learn what you need to craft a winning proposal.
Part of success is understanding the need and the levels you want to reach. Another is discovering which conversational tools work best for you. And the most important part, of course, is practice.
We’ll leave the understanding and practising parts to you. Meanwhile, here are two questions to try adapting and using.
What one or two improvements would make you happier in the next contract?
What are your top two or three takeaways from the current contract experience?
Each can help move your conversations from Evaluative towards Emotive and Self-Reflective. Constraining the responses to one to three items forces the client to reflect and prioritize, increasing his or her investment in the conversation.
It’s about the prospect
The best business developers aren’t the slickest or most clever—they’re ones who show over time they really care about the prospect’s success. Reinforce that message—and back it up with consistent action—and you’ll get the trust and answers you need.
Some marketing departments also handle proposal responsibilities. On one level, this makes sense. Marketing people are familiar with their company´s products and their features and benefits. They also understand the market and tend to be good writers.
So, especially in small businesses with low volumes of bid opportunities, it seems logical to assign bid responses to marketers.
You’re not bidding to the market
But if your marketing people rely solely on product and market knowledge, your proposals won’t perform as well as they could, especially in competitive situations. For that you need capture planning that results in a client and project-specific strategy.
Capture planning relies on knowledge in three areas:
Prospect: Why has the prospect issued this RFP at this time? What’s the strategic purpose driving the purchase? What business pressures and opportunities does the prospect face? What issues are top-of-mind for the individuals who will evaluate the bids? How well do we know these influencers and decision makers?
Project: How exactly does the solution need to perform to meet the prospect’s needs? What kinds of trade-offs (for example, performance vs. price) are appropriate in this situation? How do we need to modify our standard offering to win each section of the response?
Competition: Who else is likely to bid? What relationships do they have in the prospect organization? How closely can they align their offer to the requirement and at what cost?
Fully answering these questions requires a combination of sales, product, engineering, and solution owner input.
By all means use your marketers
Marketing departments are capable of writing winning proposals. But only with support from individuals who have intimate knowledge of the prospect and project—far deeper knowledge than you'll find in the RFP.
So use your marketers, if it makes sense—but give them the support they need to win. Because bidding is an extension of sales, not marketing.
Many proposal teams have experienced “higher-ups” jumping in just before submission to demand (sometimes major) changes to the response. This typically happens in high-stakes opportunities, forcing the team to reschedule work and even neglect other proposals with concurrent deadlines.
These changes may be valuable—even critical to winning the business. The issue is timing, not quality. How can teams engage senior decision makers and gather their input earlier in the process, so they don’t become last-minute disrupters?
Managing executive engagement
Minimize last minute surprises by formally soliciting input at critical points in the process. Key opportunities follow:
Bid/No-bid decision: A structured bid/no-bid decision process focused on factors related to the prospect, project, competitors, and internal implications is the first opportunity to engage senior people and solicit their input.
Strategy: Preparing a complete, well-structured strategy document is the next opportunity to get input from execs. See this post on developing a proposal strategy.
Pre-kickoff reviews: No matter how well managed, a bid/no-bid decision is always based on imperfect knowledge. Before kicking off a large team of solution experts and content developers, subject your documented strategy to a blue team proposal strategy review and, in the case of large projects, a black hat proposal strategy review. At a minimum, these reviews will affirm and strengthen your strategy. In some cases, they’ll lead to a major course change or abandonment of the pursuit altogether.
Proposal reviews: Conduct a red team review when the proposal is 50-75 percent complete. Focus on assessing how well the strategy is expressed in the response. See this post on organizing and managing a proposal red team review. Close to the deadline, conduct a gold team review focused mainly on contractual risks and pricing. Despite their intended focus, gold team reviews always turn up gaps and errors, so build time into the schedule for post-gold review editing.
Scale to suit and execute well
For large AFP proposals Complex2Clear supports, executives from consortium member companies gather at an agreed location and sometimes meet over multiple days. Everyone receives the document in advance and arrives armed with specific input.
Clearly most projects don’t warrant this much executive time. But rather than skipping reviews entirely, we recommend scaling them to fit the opportunity. A two-day review could become a half-day or two-hour session.
In all cases show senior people you respect their time with careful preparation and crisp execution.
Keep your expectations reasonable
Despite your best efforts, last minute disruptions will still occur, for good reasons and bad. Persist in encouraging early engagement and, over time, the incidents should diminish in frequency and intensity.
The next step is managing to the submission date. That’s the subject of this post.
Manage SMEs closely to avoid surprises at content deadlines. Rather than simply seeking assurance they’re making progress, break down their writing assignments and review their results at each step.
This approach is especially critical in consortium responses, where the requirement for consistency of approach and writing style runs up against a variety of corporate cultures.
Consider adapting the process below and roll it out at kickoff, getting SME buy-in on dates for each step:
Ask SMEs to use the strategy and tools provided at kickoff to analyze and plan their sections, including ideas for visualization. Output should include a client needs analysis and bullet points for key items to be covered in each subsection.
Conduct an initial review with new-to-the-process writers to answer questions and provide encouragement. Do this within a few days of kickoff.
Review each plan with the writer, providing feedback and making notes for follow up.
Depending on the quality of the plan, ask the writer to proceed to drafting or schedule a review of the updated plan.
Ask SMEs to begin by focusing on one subsection at a time, so you can identify and catch flaws early on. In addition to compliance and responsiveness, evaluate any commonly-agreed structure.
Ask writers to insert placeholders for visualizations they’ve identified. As soon as rough graphics are available, provide them to writers for comment and captioning.
Managing schedules and attachments
Most RFP responses include a variety of forms and attachments. It can be tempting to ignore these until just before submission.
That’s a mistake. We’ve seen several examples where the designated signer or “the person who handles those” is unavailable due to vacation, illness, etc.
Save yourself grief by making a list of all these items and being proactive about collecting them well before the proposal is due. Examples include:
Agreement to license a proposed technology
Safety and compliance records
Use an ATOC
Set up an annotated table of contents (ATOC), or similar tool, to document and track all the components of the response and the status of each in near-real time. Share it with section leads as a way of keeping everyone aligned on content assignments and deadlines.
Nothing causes chaos for proposal managers like content that is incomplete, non-compliant, unresponsive, confusing, far too long—and/or late.
In most cases, content is drafted by subject matter experts (SMEs). Although they have the needed technical knowledge, few SMEs are natural writers. Add the fact that SMEs typically handle proposal assignments in addition to their “day jobs,” and it’s no surprise draft content is often less than stellar.
It’s safe to assume SMEs would rather get content right on the first draft and avoid the frustration of multiple rewrites and last-minute marathons. The solution is tools that can guide them to better results.
Giving SMEs the tools they need
Instead of simply circulating the RFP and assignments to SMEs with deadlines for content, prepare for and conduct an in-person kickoff. Use the kickoff to provide guidance and clarity on the following:
Requirements and scope: Describe the project requirements and scope for each of the response sections. Explain why the contract is both important and winnable.
Structure: Provide section outlines as an aid to organizing content. Breaking content requirements into half-page or one-page chunks will make drafting more approachable for SMEs, improve consistency in multi-company projects, and help drafters work to page limits. Encourage SMEs to suggest graphics to visualize important aspects of their content.
Style conventions: Provide a proposal style guide containing general guidance on plain language writing, short forms for the prospect and the project, how to refer to project partners, subcontractors and reference projects and how to handle acronyms, abbreviations, numbers and symbols, etc.
Workflow and protocols: Explain when, how and to whom drafts should be submitted, including the file management platform and versioning rules.
Distribute this information in hard copy, so team members can make notes during the kickoff. Be sure to schedule ample time for questions.
Set expectations at kickoff
The proposal kickoff is the place to motivate, inform and direct SMEs. Like an army going into battle, SMEs need to understand the proposal is worth winning, that there’s a plan for success, their roles, management expectations and next steps.
Some proposal managers frame the information described above as an author contract that each SME enters into for the duration of the proposal. This framing adds weight to the guidance and to the importance of meeting deadlines.
The next step is to maintain the momentum created at kickoff through close management.
Next week’s post will deal with management basics.
We’re kicking off the new year with a month devoted to proposal basics—that handful of things you need to get right to submit consistently strong RFQ and RFP responses.
First on our list is strategy.
“Answer all the questions” is not a strategy
Meeting all the requirements results in a compliant proposal—which only means it’s eligible for evaluation. But, assuming you have strong competition, your proposal needs to move beyond compliance and make the case for selecting your offer over others.
For this reason, it’s essential to develop and agree on a strategy, before kicking off content development.
Understanding the prospect and project: Strategy begins with understanding the prospect’s underlying issues and strategic priorities, beyond simply what’s stated in the RFQ or RFP. Deep understanding enables you to design the ideal solution; it also convinces the prospect that you have insight into what’s involved in delivering the project.
Competitive intelligence: In tight proposal competitions, small differences among the top two or three contenders often make the difference between winning and losing. Rather than counting on evaluators to spot your unique advantages vis-à-vis competitors, identify them as part of strategy making—and decide how and where to express them in your proposal. For more, see this post on positioning your offer.
Documentation: Capture your strategy in a document that can be shared with the entire proposal team at kickoff, and that can be used to evaluate content and to guide reviews.
Strategy always pays off
We recommend taking about 10 percent of the response window to develop and document strategy before kickoff.
Some clients balk at the idea of devoting this much precious time before starting to develop content. But these are often the same clients who wind up endlessly rewriting unsatisfactory content—because subject matter experts (SMEs) were unclear on strategy.
To put it plainly: If you don’t have time for strategy, you don’t have time to write the proposal.
See our blog index to explore the rest of our 2017 (and earlier) posts. And visit our blog page every Tuesday or subscribe to our monthly blog summary (see the form at right) for a fresh injection of winning ideas.
Nearly every RFP seeks details of the bidders’ relevant project experience and proposed team resumes.
Both project experience and resumes should be customized for each prospect. Despite this, there’s a lot you can do to get project sheets and team resumes ready for the next RFP.
NOTE: This post is intended mainly for internal bid teams. Consortiums responding to RFQs for large infrastructure projects typically create custom project sheets and resumes for maximum alignment, responsiveness and positioning. If you participate in RFQs as part of a consortium or joint venture, please see an earlier set of posts beginning with RFQ Basics
Challenges in presenting project sheets and resumes
Inserting several project description pages or team resumes into the narrative can bog down evaluators. These pages also eat up precious space in page-limited responses.
There’s another issue with inserting project pages and resumes. Often, they contain more detail than the evaluator needs for scoring, detracting from message clarity.
So how do you avoid having to create fresh project pages and resumes for each opportunity? We recommend a two-step approach.
1. Pre-build pages to include in an appendix
Using standard templates, develop project descriptions and key person resumes outside the pressure of an impending deadline. Store these in a content library.
A two-column format works well in both cases. Use the left column for labels and right for details. Figure 1. shows a project sheet example.
Figure 1Develop a Standard Project Description Format: Use two columns and create a placeholder for an optional opportunity-specific message
For project pages, include a photo and a short overview paragraph, and then identify key features and capabilities. Include optional placeholder text for a one-sentence statement that delivers the experience/capability selling points for this project.
These can be included with minimal editing in a proposal appendix (which are generally not included in the page limitation).
2. Include summaries in your narrative
Always respond to all RFP requirements in the proposal narrative. Don’t simply refer evaluators to an appendix, because some won’t make the effort to find it. Instead include highlights of each resume and project. There are two common ways to do this:
Create a summary of each project and team member by editing the full project sheets and resumes
Last week we explained why it’s unlikely you’ll win bids simply by searching and replacing prospect names in an old proposal. But there are cases where minor tweaks to a standard proposal can produce contract wins.
Let’s look these situations.
What drives customization?
Any combination of contract size, tough competition, and offering complexity points to a more customized bid response (See Figure 1).
Figure 1.Need for Customization: Analyze the characteristics of your market to decide how much you need to customize your proposals.
We combined size and competitiveness on the same axis because large bids tend to attract competition. However, they drive customization in different ways.
Large RFPs typically reflect a strategic need, and your prospect will want to know you recognize that need and have crafted a solution that responds. Customization also shows you respect the issuer’s planned commitment.
Complex offerings demand customization to explain and relate features and promised performance to the prospect’s specific need. Complexity also requires proof of your ability to implement and support your solution in this prospect’s business.
When can you use a standard proposal?
The flip side of Figure 1 suggests that standard proposals are suitable for small projects and/or easily defined offerings for which you have few if any competitors. So standard (or semi-standard) proposals can work in any of the following situations:
Goods offerings: Standard proposals are ideal for offering goods—and especially commodities—that can be narrowly specified. Most companies we work with sell services or products that bundle in one or more services (installation, maintenance and/or warranty). As the service component of an offering increases, typically so does the need to customize. Exceptions are industries that specify services tightly enough to suit standard proposals.
Protected markets: A few companies have offerings so compelling they can submit standard proposals even for large opportunities. These situations rarely last more than a few years.
Informal proposals: Effective sales conversations often result in an informal request for proposal. These can run to several pages, but are not responses to formal RFPs and therefore allow the seller to follow a standard format. If you have opportunities to submit unsolicited offers, invest in developing a strong standard proposal that requires only minor tweaks. NOTE: Even in an unsolicited offer, it’s well worth building a custom value proposition that shows you understand the prospect’s situation. Pure boilerplate offers tend to read like sales brochures.
Degrees of customization
There’s a big range between zero customization and a fully customized bid response. We’ve helped many clients leverage past proposal efforts for future opportunities. The secret is in understanding where and how to spend energy on customization.
Next week we’ll look at two typical bid sections—relevant experience (project sheets), and proposed team resumes—and show you how you can get maximum future value out of current proposal work.