Clear thinking

Learn how to improve your proposals and win more business.

Critical Point: Strategy

 July 17, 2018
by Paul Heron

This month we’re posting on critical points in the bid lifecycle—those where opportunities can be won or lost. Previous posts focused on pre-RFP pursuit and on the bid/no-bid decision.

This post covers strategy—in our experience the single biggest improvement opportunity for most bidders.

Develop strategy first

Take time right after the bid decision to define and document your strategy.

Delay kicking off with content developers until you’re ready to implement a clear win strategy. Premature kick-offs doom your proposal efforts to focus on compliance (which avoids disqualification, but has no selling value), or to present an incoherent mix of whatever each section writer decides is the strategy.

Follow these high-level steps:

  • Gather a select group, including the capture manager, proposal manager, solution manager(s) and others key individuals. Limit the group to 10 or fewer.
  • Start with your pre-RFP pursuit discovery and use facilitation and process tools to develop responses to each of the issuer’s key strategic drivers and hot button issues. Draft value propositions for each major section and for the economic buyer, technical buyer(s) and user buyer(s). Decide how to position your company, team and solution against likely competitors by major issue.
  • Circulate the group’s output to participants for review and input, and then create a one or two-page summary of your strategy. Organize the summary by key themes, main response sections and buyer types
  • Circulate the summary to a wider group (which may include trusted outside partners) and then convene a meeting to review and gather additional ideas.
  • Update your strategy summary with the additional input.

Plan to invest 10-15 percent of the available time to submission in pre-kick off strategy making and preparation.

Test strategy with a Blue Team review

Test your strategy using the ideas in this post on Blue Team reviews. In large or very competitive situations, consider also conducting a Black Hat review.

Well-managed reviews will either confirm your strategy or make it stronger. In rare cases they expose fatal flaws that avoid further investment in unwinnable opportunities.

What to do

Here’s how to start building and implementing better proposal strategies:

  • Build internal support for defining and documenting strategy early.
  • Follow the steps above and the linked posts to plan and run your strategy sessions.
  • Draft the executive summary as part of your strategy process.
  • Create a strategy document as part of the proposal plan.


A strategy-first approach to proposals creates alignment from the outset, resulting in dramatically better first drafts. Understanding the strategy and how it applies to their sections will enable your team will work more efficiently, feel more confident—and produce more wins.

Next week: Critical Point: Kick-off planning and execution


Need help building strategies that can win more business?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Critical Point: Bid/no-bid

 July 10, 2018
by Paul Heron

This month we’re posting on critical points in the bid proposal lifecycle—opportunities to exert outsize influence on your chance of success.

The bid/no-bid decision is one of those. This point is a bit of an outlier, since it’s about whether to bid, rather than how to manage the bid effort. Still, by focusing on two decision variables, you can make a huge difference in wins.

Those variables are speed and quality.

Faster is better

We see companies routinely take two weeks or more to decide whether to bid on opportunities with six- or eight-week submission deadlines. Deciding faster has positive consequences, whichever way the decision goes. Here’s why:

  • If you decide to bid, you’ve gained a big chunk of the (typical four to six week) window for preparing a winning proposal
  • If you decide not to bid, you’ve saved time that can be invested in more promising opportunities or on other business priorities

High quality decisions maximize return on resources

Bid/no-bid decisions are intended to predict the likelihood of winning. Bidders who make better decisions deploy their proposal development resources on more promising opportunities.

A process for making high quality decisions also avoids internal divisions and lack of commitment. In the absence of such a process, there’s often no shared definition of success potential. Under these conditions, company leaders frequently push to bid on most or all opportunities despite resource constraints.

A clear process helps align stakeholders behind bid/no bid decisions, results in better decisions, and guards against weak proposals symptomatic of bid writer burnout.

What to do

Here’s how to start making faster, higher quality decisions:

  • Use the arguments above to get buy-in for a repeatable process that considers specific questions about the prospect, the project, likely competition and internal factors as part of your decision.
  • Involve key stakeholders and structure the process to be as transparent as possible.
  • Prepare one-page summary of each bid opportunity, so participants don’t have to wade through the entire RFP. We’ll devote a future post to bid decision summaries.
  • Download the Complex2Clear Bid/No-Bid Decision Tool and adapt it for your company’s use.

Learn over time

Document your bid/no-bid decisions and track bid outcomes against those scores. This will improve your ability to predict success and provide information to help fine-tune your decision criteria and process.

Next week: Critical Point: Strategy and Blue Team review


Need help making better bid/no-bid decisions?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Critical point: Pre-RFP Pursuit

 July 3, 2018
by Paul Heron

Regular followers of our blog may get the impression there are countless tasks—all equally important—in responding to a competitive Request for Proposal (RFP).

Large bid responses do have lots of moving pieces, and high performing teams will want to fine-tune their processes and execution in every area. But what about teams just getting started, or seeking to improve from weak results?

This month, we’ll look at five critical points where large deals can be won or lost. You can use Complex2Clear’s bid lifecycle diagram to understand where each fits.

The first point is the period before the RFP is issued.

Why Pre-RFP pursuit is critical

Bidders often lock up contracts pre-RFP by getting closest to the issuer’s key decision maker(s). This is common despite ostensibly transparent bid processes, especially when the front-runners are seen as equally qualified.

Effective pursuit happens before the RFP is issued. It aims to do two things:

  • Build relationships: Buyers like to deal with people they know and trust—especially if the contract is for complex services delivered over many years. That’s why trusted advisors (as distinct from service providers) regularly win large bids on relationship alone, even when their offer isn’t objectively superior, based on features or price.
  • Discover what really matters: RFPs often contain an “Our objectives” section—but it’s rarely insightful. Pre-RFP discovery builds deeper understanding of both the strategic purpose for the purchase and the evaluator hot button issues bidders need to address. 

What to do

Ask yourself: Are we getting out in front of large pieces of business?

If you’re just learning about large opportunities when the RFP comes out—or, worse, weeks later—you need a pursuit strategy with these components:

  • Research: Make a habit of scanning for future opportunities, both with current clients and new prospects. How you do this will depend on your business model and industry. Networking and Google alerts work well at Complex2Clear. Note: You can still jump on off-radar opportunities—the aim is to become more proactive over time.
  • Alignment with the client team: If your prospects and clients are large organizations, work at building relationships at all levels in the chain of authority. If your company is large enough, create a client map and assign your team members to target individuals at similar levels. See this post on large prospect pursuit.
  • Project discovery: In addition to building relationships, focus on gathering useable intelligence about the project, including its strategic purpose and what features and benefits will be most important to the evaluators. Ask team members to make notes at or right after meetings to capture the prospect’s own words whenever possible.
  • Capture planning: Document pursuit results in a capture plan that can transition into a proposal strategy. Choose a framework and format for the capture plan (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) that makes it easy to share and update.

Start with an improvement plan

Transitioning from no pursuit planning to a robust and repeatable process takes time. The first step is to get buy-in from your sales structure and senior leadership. Then adapt the components above to your situation and identify first steps in an improvement plan.

Next week: Critical point: Bid/no-bid decision



Need help moving your company to disciplined pursuit planning?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Start rebid planning early

 June 26, 2018
by Paul Heron

This month we’ve focused on how to make the most of your incumbency when rebid time comes around. Perhaps the biggest single idea is to start preparing early.

It’s an obvious step—and one most teams vow to take. But between the thrill of winning and the throes of mobilization, it’s easy to put it off.

To-do list for winning your next rebid

Start on day one of each new contract to:

  • Find out why you won: Ask for a detailed debrief on your winning proposal and aspects that most impressed your client—and then be sure to fulfill that promise in your offer.
  • Get regular, honest feedback: Set up systems to gather feedback from everyone affected by your solution. If you interact with large numbers of client employees or customers, develop regular surveys or other mechanisms so you can measure and react to satisfaction indicators.
  • Track performance: In addition to contracted metrics, develop and track KPIs for your performance on other issues important to your client. Many teams find themselves scrambling at rebid time to assemble facts that remind clients of the “above and beyond” efforts made on their behalf. Avoid that mistake by documenting both small wins and case studies of outstanding efforts (and investments) your team made to recover from unexpected events.
  • Brainstorm the future: Include an agenda item for future-looking discussions in your regular client meetings. Seek opportunities to collaborate on value propositions for needed improvements. Whether or not these become part of the rebid RFP, they will provide valuable context that lets you show deep understanding of your client’s strategic drivers—information no other bidder will have.

Document, document, document

Capture all the information you gather in a rebid file. To the extent possible, note client feedback and aspirations for the future in the exact words individuals use to express them. File everything in a location the rebid team will be able to access in three or five years.


Need help winning your rebid?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Highlight transition ease

 June 19, 2018
by Paul Heron

This month we’ve focused on winning rebids—including making your proposal future-oriented and using past performance to showcase your understanding and value. This week we’ll look at the transition.

Transitions always concern issuers. Even a well-run changeover usually involves some user inconvenience. Beyond inconvenience, there’s always the possibility of serious glitches—or that the new solution was misrepresented or misunderstood, resulting in re-contracting headaches.

You may be thinking: But we’re the incumbent provider. We won’t have to transition. Can’t we just say: “Not applicable?”

That’s not wise. Even if you foresee a nominal transition, respond to all the RFP questions in this section and identify key individuals assigned. Anything less could cost points.

Maximize your transition advantage

Use these four ideas to make the most of your transition advantage:

  • Develop a detailed plan with resources: To obtain the available points, identify all the actions involved and the individuals who will manage transition. Use trade-offs to justify your plan as the best option, cite your transition record and itemize benefits for the client.
  • Embrace improvement: Some incumbents avoid recommending changes because they fear jeopardizing the prospect of a pain-free transition. Instead, ensure your solution is the right one for the client, now and for the future—and only then—plan and resource the transition. Your transition will still be less risky and costly than your competitors’—and your solution will now be fully competitive.
  • Accelerate the schedule: Identify changes you can implement during the client’s anticipated mobilization period. Develop a transition schedule that delivers these improvements sooner than your competitors could possibly manage. If possible, quantify the benefits your customer will obtain from early completion.
  • Ghost your competitor’s transition plan: Build a transition plan as if you were new to this contract. Don’t exaggerate, but use your knowledge to develop a detailed process. Compare this, item by item, with your own plan. At a minimum, this will highlight your advantage in risk, time and cost. And, if one or more competitors offer less robust plans, their credibility will suffer in comparison with the detail you provide.

Get the points, get the cred

Under time pressure, it’s tempting as an incumbent to give the transition short shrift. Instead, treat it as you would any other section—and reap the benefits in evaluator points and credibility.

Next week: Getting started early


Need help writing responsive bids?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Stress capability in rebids

 June 12, 2018
by Paul Heron

Last week we discussed the need to make rebids future-focused. This week we’ll look at stressing your current contract experience and performance.

Mine your client experience for advantages

Of all RFP bidders, only you have detailed knowledge of the current contract metrics, investments, and issues and their resolution. Use this information to:

  • Show deep understanding: Bid evaluators often complain that proponents fail to show they understand the requirements and have tailored their solution accordingly. At every opportunity, reference details of the client’s configuration and practices. This familiarity will create a level of comfort your competitors can’t provide.
  • Demonstrate performance: Cite efficiency improvements you’ve made and how you successfully managed unexpected situations. If you experienced performance lapses, don’t ignore them and hope the client has forgotten (it’s unlikely). Instead, document the investments and other changes you made at your own expense to prevent a recurrence.
  • Justify escalators and extras: If your client experienced price increases during the existing contract, defuse negative feelings these might have caused. For example, cite increased service volumes at declining unit costs, and/or improved outputs (quality, client satisfaction).
  • Ghost competitors’ pricing: Often one or more competitors will underbid, based on incomplete understanding of the requirements. To defend, do two things. First, include and price only required items. Second, find ways to reinforce the complexity and effort required to perform to expectations, including ongoing training. Also, identify any trade-offs you made that could impact price, and explain why this was necessary to achieve required performance and/or maintainability.

Position yourself as low risk and innovative

Use the ideas in this and last week’s posts to present your offer as an ideal combination of fresh ideas, combined with low risk due to your proven ability to perform.

When citing your knowledge and performance under the current contract, choose your opportunities carefully to avoid coming across as preachy.

Next week: Take transition seriously


Need help writing more successful proposals?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

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




Focus rebids on the future

 June 5, 2018
by Paul Heron

Incumbents often underestimate the pitfalls they face when contracts expire. This month we’ll look at four must-do items that will help you win your rebids.

As the incumbent, your biggest risk is complacency. Your client likes you (or at least isn’t complaining), and your team is meeting its operational targets. So you should have a lock on the rebid, right?

Not so fast. Assuming your contract is attractive, other companies have been waiting for this opportunity. They’re wooing your client with exciting possibilities and probing for weaknesses in your performance.

And they may discover issues a conflict-averse client is reluctant to raise with you—especially if you don’t ask.

Describe an attractive future

Our first recommendation is to be future oriented. Every other proposal will stress improvements on the status quo. So, no matter how well you think you’re doing, you need to paint a future that's brighter than the present.

To accomplish this, take the following steps:

  • Meet with your client: Seek a meeting about your future together. Ask open-ended questions. For example: “What improvements would you like to see in the next contract period?” and “How will your business change in the next five years?” followed by “How can we help you respond to these changes?”
  • Leverage internal resources: Enlist your senior people to approach their client counterparts and have their own conversations. Separately, invite colleagues managing a similar contract to tour your operation. Ask them to be tough markers. What shortcomings would they pounce on if a competitor held the current contract?
  • Get fresh input: Your regular contacts may be unaware of (or unwilling to share) the information you need—so be sure to connect with a wider group at the client organization. Seek out likely bid evaluators, including the economic buyer, technical buyers and user buyers. If your team directly impacts large numbers of client personnel, get permission to survey them on their experience. Bonus: You may discover and be able to correct an issue that might otherwise tip a close decision.
  • Collaborate on value propositions: As an extension of the above, collaborate with your client on future improvements that align with its strategic direction. Use this post on value propositions as a guide. You can’t include out-of-scope investments your proposal—that risks losing on price—but thoughtful collaboration leading to operational improvements will enhance your perceived value and competitive position.

Document, document, document

Make detailed notes of every client interaction, including as many verbatim quotes as possible. Then you can reference specific meetings and cite client statements to support your proposal—demonstrating a level of client focus other bidders cannot match.

Bottom Line: Use your home field advantage

Take every opportunity to benefit from incumbency. Use your unique client access to create an insightful, forward-looking proposal.

Next week: Track your performance


Need help to improve your proposal strategy?

Contact Complex2Clear

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




Editing for evaluators

 May 29, 2018
by Paul Heron

Our recent posts covered understanding proposal evaluators, and how to use structure, content planning tools and close management to make proposals easy to scan and score.

Editing is the next step in making content as evaluator-friendly as possible.

Structural editing

Structural editors use their understanding of the project and the team’s win strategy to improve selling power and ease of scoring. This work can include:

  • Triage: Confirming the draft meets agreed minimum standards of completeness and compliance for editing and returning or escalating substandard drafts.
  • Rearranging, merging and/or breaking up paragraphs for greater easy of reading
  • Restructuring the logic flow to align with the team’s agreed information architecture, or with good practice (e.g. problem statement, solution, reasoning, proof of past success).
  • Cutting low value or repetitive content to meet page limit requirements
  • Identifying content gaps and opportunities to connect content with win themes.
  • Converting plain text to graphics (illustrations, tables, graphs) and evaluating submitted graphics. (One test: A graphic should convey the desired message in less than 5 seconds.)
  • Turning embedded project examples into mini case studies.
  • Using subheads or bullet points to break up large text blocks for easier reading.
  • Adding callouts to emphasize differentiators.

Structural editing, also called strategic editing, takes a high-level approach to content and makes macro improvements. Depending on the downstream copy editors’ abilities, the structural editor will either make the needed changes or insert comments asking copy editors to make them.

Copy editing

Copy editors work to ensure proposal evaluators to scan and score content without confusion or distractions, for example:

  • Increase clarity with edits to use plain language, including short paragraphs, active voice, simple sentence structure, verb forms and words. Use the readability tool built into MS Word and aim for grade 11 reading level or lower.
  • Consistency starts aligning heads, bullet styles etc. with the template and using consistent abbreviations and short forms for weights and measures, projects, company names, committee, etc. throughout. Other aspects include single voice (consistent sentence structure and avoiding emotional or idiosyncratic language) and using bullets and lists consistently. On large projects with multiple copy editors, a proposal style guide is an essential aid to consistency.
  • Callouts use snippets text boxed or set off in bold type to highlight key benefits and differentiators. Use the same callout style throughout the proposal and—again, for the evaluators’ benefit—place them in the same position on each page.
  • Graphics captions should include a clear benefit or “so what” for the evaluator.
  • Trigger phrases make it easier for evaluators to identify scorable features by connecting them with their related benefits in a consistent way. To draw attention to strengths and differentiators, lead each with: “A key strength of our solution is . . .” or “A clear benefit of this approach is . . .” or “Only this approach provides . . .”
  • Echoing the prospect’s preferred words is another approach to helping evaluators spot scorable items. Begin by analysing the RFP document for most frequently used adjectives and verbs used describing preferred actions and outcomes. For example, if the word “enhanced” appears frequently in the RFP, consider using it instead of synonyms, such as “improved,” “superior,” or “increased.” Compile a list of the top 20 such candidates and (within reason) substitute them for synonyms throughout the response.

Keep your eye on the ball

In making edits, remember that the goal is to help evaluators scan and score your proposal. Clarity of logic and language trumps elegance when it comes to proposals. Unlike your grade 10 English teacher, evaluators are not grading for originality.

Need help making your proposals clearer and more powerful?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Managing proposal drafting

 May 22, 2018
by Paul Heron

Recent posts explained how to create evaluator-friendly proposals by adopting a consistent information structure and using proposal writer frameworks and prompts to assist writers in drafting logically sound, persuasive content.

Even if you do all of the above, you’re still not guaranteed high quality output. You also need to transfer this information to writers and then provide ongoing direction and support.

Start with a well-run kickoff

Schedule kickoffs to occur after the leadership team has built a win strategy, including how various elements apply to each section. See this four-part series on successful proposal kickoffs.

Provide each content developer with a section content planner and take time to explain how to use it when drafting content. Ask narratives writers to begin by analysing the requirements, known client issues and the win strategy for their sections and develop bullet point outlines of their responses.

Ongoing management

  • Schedule a bullet-point review soon after kick-off to evaluate and approve each section analysis. Look for compliance, structure, use of win themes, claims that need more specifics and opportunities to replace text with graphics. Ask writers to revise and resubmit any substandard analyses for approval before beginning to write.
  • Follow up on progress every day or two, to ensure the drafting is ongoing, and that it aligns with the approved section analysis. Use judgment in deciding how closely you monitor each writer, but avoid setting a two-week deadline with no follow up. We’ve seen too many long deadlines arrive with little or no content produced.
  • Vary your follow-up focus. For efficiency, and to promote consistency, focus on one or two aspects of draft content during each review. For example, devote one review to structure, another to win themes, another to compliance, another to graphics and captions, etc.
  • Review project sheets and resumes as received to ensure they include the required information and have focussed on experience and past successes that relate to the RFP project.

Dealing with pushback

If the proposal management and content leads are onside, pushback will be minimal.

Strong pushback may occur, especially if writers are used to simply lifting sections from previous proposals. To reduce this risk, select an important RFP—one for which warmed-over content won’t do.

Above all, avoid making exceptions. Insist everyone follow the plan.

The payoff

Section planners and prompts and close management make proposal development more consistent and predicable, improve quality and reduce the potential for last minute marathon drafting and editing sessions.

For most writers this planning and analysis process actually makes drafting easier by breaking the content into manageable chunks and reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings and major rewrites.

Next week: Editing for evaluators


Need help making proposals clearer and more powerful?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

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




Planning for consistency

 May 15, 2018
by Paul Heron

Last week’s post showed how taking an information architecture approach makes proposals easier to read and score.

This month’s remaining posts explain how to operationalize this approach to achieve internal consistency in RFQs and RFPs.

Identify and group required content

As part of your pre-kick-off planning, identify RFP sections that lend themselves to a common structure. Obvious candidates include:

  • Approaches and plans (e.g. design, construction, implementation (transition), operations and maintenance, customer service)
  • Company profiles in joint ventures
  • Project descriptions
  • Key individual resumes

Build and populate frameworks

Analyse each section type and decide what information to present and in what order. Ensure your analysis accommodates the information and structure specified by the RFP. Obtain proposal leadership team agreement on the structure and content.

Create framework documents to capture draft content. Frameworks align in structure to the final proposal template but are much simpler. Use MS Word tables and populate with guidance and prompts as follows:

Approaches and plans: Create and customize a section content planner (SCP) for each section. Include the RFP question(s), win themes and links or contact information the writer may require. Provide an area and instructions for a bullet point analysis of the response. Provide an area for the response to each question and prompts (questions) that will produce the desired structure and information (see last week’s post on information architecture). Include prompts and space for suggestions on graphics, call outs and case studies.

Project sheets, resumes and JV partner profiles: Set up similar MS Word frameworks for these items that align with the RFP required information. Include a prompt in resume frameworks for the writer’s contact email and mobile number, so your editor can follow up directly with questions. For more, see this post on standardizing resumes and project sheets.

Document multi-use content

Avoid the common issue of gaps and inconsistencies in late drafts by identifying and collecting information likely to be used across multiple sections. Examples include facts supporting win theme, reference project facts, client reference information, organizational charts and performance measures (e.g. safety record, on-time and on-budget history, number of similar projects completed, number of staff with professional designations, etc.). Create, publish and update a database everyone can access.

Does this sound like a lot of work?

Setting up content frameworks and prompts takes upfront time and effort. But, in our experience, the downstream benefit of getting first draft content that is complete, compliant and responsive more than outweighs the cost.

Next week: Managing for consistency



Need help making clearer and more evaluator-friendly?

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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