Every formal proposal competition has a deadline. The goal of any improvement plan is to make better use of the available time. That’s the aim of all five ideas below. Based on your analysis and internal practices, decide which are priorities for your team.
1. Make faster bid/no-bid decisions
Speedy decisions are vital in maximizing the time you have to respond. If your company makes its bid/no-bid decision within a few days of the RFP release, you can skip this step. But if that decision typically drags on, see this post on making proposal bid/no-bid decisions.
2. Develop and document stronger strategies
If analysis shows your proposals need to do a better job of linking features and benefits to prospect issues, start by assembling the arguments you’ll need. See this post on proposal strategy making to get started.
3. Improve writer guidance
To obtain high quality content, it’s critical to communicate strategy to writers, along with their assignments and schedule. This is a weakness in most client processes. We recommend providing section planners and content prompts at kickoff to drive consistency across all sections. We’ll post on these tools in the coming months. Meanwhile, see this post on aligning proposal writers at kickoff.
4. Manage more closely
Allowing subject managers experts (SMEs) a week or more to deliver first drafts is risky. Given the competing priorities most face—plus the temptation to procrastinate—that deadline is likely to come and go with substandard deliverables, or none at all. Instead, schedule a bullet point review within three or four days of kickoff to assess each SME’s analysis and content plan. Then conduct further progress reviews every couple of days. This process may seem burdensome, but in fact it bite-sizes the writing job and reduces wasted effort. For further ideas, see this post on proposal management.
5. Line up the sponsorship you’ll need
You’re going to need executive support to enact your plan because:
Implementing 1 and 2 involves changing the way company leaders participate in the proposal process, and;
Implementing 4 and 5 changes how writers are managed. SMEs who are not your direct reports—especially if proposals lie outside their defined responsibilities—are likely to resist. In these cases, you’ll need executive backing.
Prepare for patient progress
Improving proposals—especially in larger companies—always involves organizational change. This inevitably means getting stakeholders on-board with a set of goals and roadmap. Success takes a solid plan with clear milestones and deliverables, strong communication skills, one or more executive sponsors—and patience.
In last week’s post, we explained how to use Freedom of Information requests to obtain your competitors’ bid proposals. The next step is to compare those proposals against your own to find areas where you can improve.
Since you’ve invested effort in getting the proposal, it’s worth making a careful analysis. Don’t let hard feelings towards the competitor or the evaluators (or your desire to put the loss behind you) turn this opportunity into a superficial exercise. Instead, structure your review to maximize the available learning.
Address questions in four areas
Focus on areas where successful proposals typically shine.
Successful proposals typically comply with all requirements. Evaluate for:
Compliance with key requirements
Instances where the competitor shows it exceeds minimal requirements
Devices used to draw evaluators’ attention to compliance, for example, a compliance matrix, icons or callouts
Review compliance, responsiveness, differentiation and reader engagement separately, rather than trying to assess them in one pass. Also, have team members conduct reviews independently, making notes for each question. Then get together and compare notes.
Finally compare the competitor’s proposal against your own in each area and, if available, to the evaluator's notes by section.
Consider using a third party
Consider inviting a proposal consultant to help with your review and to facilitate a team session to assess what your team found and evaluate the differences.
An outside expert will see things your team will likely miss. He or she will also ensure a no-blame atmosphere, so the review stays positive.
Decide on next steps
Close the loop by agreeing on next steps. Prioritize your improvement ideas and set reasonable expectations. Build frequent reviews into your management process so you can monitor for improvement on the next proposal.
Government agencies are typically the largest bid issuers in North America—and nearly all are governed by Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. That means they are legally required to release responses to their RFPs and documentation on their award decisions.
Despite this, few bidders make use of FOI requests to evaluate their competitors’ offers—in most cases because they don’t know they can.
Canadian jurisdictions share a similar disclosure process. This post contains the basics to help you get started.
Identify the document you want. In the case of a bid response, you’ll need the RFP number, title and issue date and the name of the company whose response you want to access.
Identify the institution that has the information you want—typically this is the entity that issued the RFP. Use this link to get a list of Ontario institutions covered by FOI and the FIPPA/MFIPPA coordinator at each institution. The coordinator can help with your request.
Complete an Access Request Form or provide the equivalent information in a letter. Requests we’ve reviewed typically use broad language (e.g. For competitor proposals, “all proposals submitted in response to RFP ______.” For the issuer’s scoring records,“all minutes, correspondence, reports and other records relating to the contract award.”).
Submit your request with the processing fee.
How much does it cost?
FOI request fees are typically low, since accessibility is the goal. In Ontario, the filing fee is currently $5 per request. Processing fees depend on the actual cost to reproduce the required documents. If the processing fee is over $25, the requester receives an estimate. If the estimate is over $100 a deposit may be required.
How long does it take?
In Ontario, the coordinator must comply with your request within 30 days or explain why more time is needed.
Part of the process is advising the other party or parties of the request and its pending decision and giving them 30 days to object and eventually to appeal to the IPC. Overcoming an objection may add to the turnaround time—but the IPC typically dismisses objections to the release of proposals.
Exceptions: Although bid awards are public information, detailed costs and pricing schedules are usually considered private and not released. Also, proposals that contain details of proprietary technologies or other trade secrets may be redacted or not released.
Links to other jurisdictions
The following links will help you make requests outside Ontario:
If you’re serious about improving your win rate, reviewing successful proposals is a great place to start. FOI requests are neither difficult nor expensive, and there’s no evidence that FOI requests generate ill will or otherwise put future opportunities at risk.
Getting your competitors’ proposals is the first step. Next you’ll need to do a structured and unbiased comparison with the offers you submit.
Proposal evaluators can usually find ways to adjust the technical score in favour of a preferred candidate to offset small price disadvantages. That means bids lost by a few percentage points—say, less than five—were likely winnable.
This is why it’s essential to review every lost bid.
Get both internal and client perspectives
Some bidders take the opportunity to receive feedback from the RFP issuer, but do not meet as a team to decide whether and how to improve internal processes.
Both exercises are valuable and can benefit from external expertise.
What we recommend
Take advantage of both issuer feedback and internal post-mortems. Budget for, conduct and document a formal post-mortem when you’re unsuccessful on any large bid. Structure your reviews using these steps:
Recruit an independent third party to lead the evaluation
Consider using Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to get copies of the winning bid and any close runners-up*
Interview individuals (directly, or using a third party) in the prospect organization
Get input from your bid team members, subject matter experts and relationship managers
Summarize findings in a lessons-learned document with specific improvement recommendations
Facilitate conversations with your team and other stakeholders to review the findings
Develop a plan and assign individuals to implement agreed-on improvements
Follow up to ensure completion
* FOI requests can take months to process, so don’t postpone your internal review waiting for FOI results. Also, some issuers will offer a debriefing in exchange for a waiver of the right to pursue an FOI request. Debriefs are faster and cheaper but, to avoid making a bad bargain, negotiate the information to be provided before agreeing to this deal.
Dealing with resistance
Teams often resist win-loss reviews. Avoidance closes the door quickly on an embarrassing, even painful, experience. The counter argument is that doing the work to understand a loss is the only way to know what to do differently the next time.
Individual team members may claim they already know why the effort fell short. If so, a formal review is an opportunity to reach shared agreement on needed improvements. Documenting what happened and what needs to change also builds wider support for changes to processes and behaviours.
Conduct a post-mortem even when you win
Bid wins are usually greeted with high-fives—followed immediately by the realization there’s lots to do to mobilize the new opportunity. In many companies, bid team members are also on the front line in gearing up for the new work. A post mortem is not a high priority.
It’s also easy to assume you know what you did right. But even when you win it makes sense to compare the runner-up proposals, ask your customer what was most (and least) compelling about your bid, and then compare what you learn with your team’s assumptions.
Knowing the facts will help you do more of what you did well next time.
Once you understand differentiators and how to develop them with specifics, the next step is using them to maximum advantage in proposals.
Features only you offer and that your prospect cares about can be your winning advantage. Deploy differentiators often in your proposal, keeping in mind that many evaluation teams divide up large proposals, giving each individual one or two sections to read. That means a differentiator needs to be mentioned in every relevant section to score maximum points.
The following are ideal opportunities to use differentiators.
The executive summary is usually the most read section of any proposal—and often the only section read by the decision maker. This is where you lay out your winning strategy—and win strategies are all about differentiation.
Make key value propositions the centrepiece of your executive summary—and take every opportunity to stress features that make your offer superior. Do not hesitate to draw comparisons with your closest competitors (without naming them).
High-impact page components
In addition to embedding differentiators in proposal text, ensure they are always present in these high visibility locations:
Make your differentiators count: Express differentiators where they will have highest impact, including in section summaries (1), capsule statements (2) and visualizations (3).
Section summaries: These two or three sentence statements explain how your solution satisfies the section requirements. Use a design template that sets off these summaries in large and/or bold face type and places them right after the section title.
Capsule statements: Capsule statements or call-outs are short (8-10 word) sales pitches designed to grab the evaluator’s attention and be memorable. Build each around a key differentiator. Set off capsule statements from body text using coloured text and/or a background tint.
Visualizations: Build visualizations around key differentiators. Examples:
If your processes are superior, use the cover of a process manual or independent process audit report to make the point—then stress this feature and one or more related benefits (such as consistent service quality) in a selling caption tied to the graphic.
If you have proven success with projects that align with the bid requirements, use a photo, client logo or other graphic to draw attention to a selling caption that expresses this strength (feature) and ties it to reduced delivery risk and/or better quality (benefits).
Use trigger phrases to signal differentiators
Since most evaluators scan and score proposals, rather than reading them closely, don’t risk having them overlook your differentiators.
Instead, consider beginning a sentence or paragraph expressing a differentiator with a phrase such as “a significant strength our team brings to the project is . . .” or “a unique advantage of this solution is . . .” to ensure reviewers understand the following information may be worth additional points.
Add a checklist to make it easy for evaluators
Build a table of RFP key requirements and how you satisfy each. Include this in the executive summary and/or at the end of each section. Include differentiators in the column where you show how you will address the requirements.
Repetition is OK
Don’t worry about repeating the same differentiator in different sections—or even within a section. Evaluators are looking for reasons to score one bidder higher than another. Don’t disappoint.
Next week: Identifying differentiators as part of the strategy process
Need help building your key differentiators into proposals?
Bidders often squander potential advantage by talking about their differentiators in general terms. Avoid this mistake by adding specifics that make your claims more difficult to match.
This post explains how to better differentiate your team, performance, experience and understanding of the project.
Add specifics to make team claims stronger
In the team leader statements below, note how adding the leader’s name and specific experience increases the selling power in versions two and three:
Weak: Our proposed team leader has more than 10 years of experience.
Stronger: Julia Menéndez, our proposed team leader, has successfully managed implementations similar to yours since 2001.
Strongest: Julia Menéndez, our proposed team leader, has managed eight similar implementations on time and on budget since 2001, including two in the past year that use the AZ300 technology we recommend for this project.
Add specifics to performance claims
See how adding specifics to performance in a particular area sharpens your performance advantage over competitors. Apply this in other performance areas relevant to your business and the project you’re pursuing. Use statistics, awards, client testimonials and audit results to back up your performance claims.
Weak: We have an excellent on-time, on-budget project completion record.
Stronger: In the past five years, we’ve had a perfect on-time and on-budget completion record across 35 projects.
Strongest: In the past five years, we’ve had a perfect completion record of 35 on time, on budget projects—including 8 brownfield projects similar in size and scope to yours. This performance earned us the 2014 Builder of the Year award from the Ontario Construction Association.
Add specifics to experience claims
Here’s how to build selling power using specifics in your experience claims.
Weak: We developed and delivered more than 100 websites in the past three years.
Stronger: In 2014, we completed 12 e-commerce sites, including 6 with requirements very similar to yours.
Strongest: In 2014, we built 12 e-commerce sites, including 6 with requirements similar to yours. The table below contains the URLs for these 6 sites with columns aligning with your 5 top functionality requirements.
Show you understand the project
Prospects are naturally most comfortable awarding contracts—especially for complex solutions and/or ongoing support—to vendors who clearly understand their strategic drivers and the hot button issues they care about.
Use notes from pre-RFP discovery conversations to show you are responding to the prospect’s needs. Wherever possible use the same language as the prospect. Tie features of your proposed approach and solution directly to your prospect’s overall strategy and expressed needs and wants.
What if you can’t make strong, specific claims?
If you have no areas where you can claim superiority, you need to ask whether you should bid at all. Using a disciplined bid/no-bid decision process will help you avoid spending effort on unwinnable bids.
Another decision point is after you’ve fleshed out your strategy, but before kick off. Sometimes an opportunity that seemed worth pursuing looks shaky when subjected to a post-strategy review (See our posts on conducting proposal Blue Team and Black Hat reviews).
If post-strategy reviews paint a bleak picture of your prospects, the best course is to swallow your pride and pull the plug.
Consider getting help
Many bidders have trouble identifying and maximizing their differentiation opportunities. If you suspect this is true in your case, please follow the link below.
Next week: Expressing differentiators in your proposals
In last week’s post we described differentiators as features that a) cannot be claimed by your competitors, and b) are important to your prospect. In tight competitions—especially where there is little difference in price—small degrees of differentiation is often the difference between winning and losing.
If differentiators are like diamonds, where do you start looking for them?
Focus on differentiators in four areas
Look for opportunities to make unmatched claims in four areas:
People: No two people or teams are identical. Highlight your team’s distinguishing attributes and its members’ abilities. Don’t rely on evaluators to read resumes tucked away in an appendix to learn your team is superior. Instead, find opportunities to stress this edge in narratives wherever possible.
Performance: Zero in on areas where strong performance aligns with important prospect issues. Think about performance in broad terms. Safety, implementation, communications and responsiveness all provide opportunities to compare your performance to that of competitors.
Experience: Define your experience in ways that closely connect to the specific needs of this prospect and opportunity. Don’t trust the evaluators to draw parallels—instead spell them out.
Understanding: RFP and RFQ issuers favour vendors who really understand their business and priorities. Don’t limit yourself to expressing strategic understanding in the executive summary and (if you get there) the orals presentation. Instead, demonstrate understanding throughout your proposal.
Later this month, we’ll show how to connect your differentiators to the prospect’s hot button issues and how to use them to appeal to different buyer types.
Include systems and processes
Show prospects you have reliable, repeatable systems and processes in place to deliver what you promise—especially if your competitors fall short in this area.
Companies fear being let down by unfulfilled service delivery promises caused by their vendors’ lack of the robust systems and repeatable processes they claimed or promised. If your prospect has been burned this way, win over evaluators with proof your systems and processes are in use satisfying similar clients today.
Coming up: More on differentiators
In the upcoming posts, we’ll show you how to make the most of your differentiators, including:
How to use specifics to strengthen differentiators
Where and how to express differentiators in proposals
Proposals typically describe all the features of a proponent’s offer. Many will be cited in the RFP as compliance items. Nearly all will be items every competitor can provide.
But a precious few will be differentiators, which are features that possess two characteristics:
They are unmatched by your competition
They are important to your prospect
A feature is only a differentiator if both qualities are present. Identifying and calling them out is critical to success in winning competitions.
Understanding your differentiators
In tight situations, the difference between winning and losing often comes down to knowing and expressing differentiators. You need to:
Understand your prospect: Just as some home buyers are motivated by location, others by operating costs and still others by curb appeal, RFP issuers will find certain features more appealing than others. What features deliver benefits this prospect considers most important? Finding out should be a key deliverable for business developers.
Know your competition: Like you, your competitors are constantly adding and changing features. If you rely on outdated information to claim uniqueness for features others have, you’ll lose credibility. Ensure your team is working with up-to-date competitive intelligence.
Know your offering: Arm your writers with as much detail as possible about your features—especially those you rely on to differentiate. Avoid throwing away your advantage with generic claims, such as: “Our team is highly experienced,” when you could state: “Our proposed team members have an average of 12 years of experience on projects similar to yours.”
Continually re-evaluate your differentiators
Even bid teams that have moved well beyond the “search-and-replace” stage of writing proposals, often assume differentiators that worked in the past will bring success this time around. That’s a dangerous approach.
Instead, ask your business developers and relationship managers to stay current on which features will appeal your prospect, based on changes in strategy and shifts in decision-making power. Also, continually monitor competitors’ offerings to ensure they haven’t matched or leap-frogged features you’re counting on for your edge.
As a team, that means understanding your prospect’s needs, the ideal solution, and what other bidders are likely to offer to address each key requirement.
The Venn diagram below will help organize that understanding.
How do you, your prospect and competitors intersect?
The small circle (upper centre) represents the prospect's needs and hot button issues, or “solution wish list.” The medium circle on the right represents the features of your potential solutions. The large circle on the left represents the features available from other offers. You can think of this circle as all competitors, or your closest competitor—whichever makes more sense.
Analyse the overlaps
Looking at the areas where the larger circles overlap with the small circle:
Segment A includes features both you and your competitors´ offer, and that the prospect needs or wants.
Segment B contains your features you offer, that the prospect needs or wants—and that competing solutions can´t match. For example, while both you and one or more competitors have the ability to perform, you may be the only proponent with key individuals who successfully completed the exact type of project on bid (same size and scope) in the past year. Since you´ve learned that recent proven success in a similar project is on the prospect´s wish list (in the small circle), it is a differentiator.
Segment C contains features where at least one other competitor offers features you cannot claim.
NOTE: While you can infer the prospect’s preferences from past experience, some will be less obvious than the recent experience example above. Nothing beats a proposal based on intimate knowledge of the prospect’s needs and issue—which is why pre-RFP discovery is essential.
What actions will you take?
This model prompts two questions:
Which features—both compliance items and those your sales discovery tells you are important—belong in each of A, B and C?
Having identified A, B and C items, what actions will you take?
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?