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?
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.