Most bid teams we observe dive into the narrative and pricing sections of a new opportunity with enthusiasm. We typically see less appetite for tackling more mundane RFP requirements.
The result of this procrastination is often two or three days of nerve-wracking frenzy at the deadline. Pre-submission hours that should be devoted to polishing and packaging the proposal are instead spent (for example) chasing a letter from someone who happens to be on vacation.
Surprisingly, we’ve seen this dynamic even within large, well-managed bid teams—especially when they are part of a proposal consortium.
Here’s a better way.
Identify items and assign responsibility
When you create your compliance matrix, identify all the RFP requirements that aren’t part of the narrative or pricing. These may be appendix items—but not always. Some RFPs ask for insurance certificates and similar documents as part of a Statement of Qualifications section.
Examples of items in this category include:
Details of projects using a proposed technology
Agreement to license a proposed technology
Safety and compliance records
Team resumes and/or project sheets in an RFP-defined format
Once you’ve identified these items, assign them to someone without heavy narrative and/or pricing responsibilities. A junior bid team member makes an ideal candidate.
Manage priorities based on dependencies
Tackle items that require third party action first. For example, if an overseas patent holder needs to provide a letter agreeing to licence technology, get that request started on Day One.
Some internal documents may also have long lead times. Team resumes sometimes can take time, and each should be checked to see it includes all information required by this RFP.
Monitor and escalate
Make these assigned items part of every team meeting, so the proposal manager can identify and escalate action on any items that appear problematic. Escalation is not necessarily a reflection on the person responsible the list. It may simply take a more senior person to get action from the information holder.
Cruise to the finish
The benefit of this approach is a team that’s focused and working on high-value work right to the deadline. The result is the strongest possible proposal.
Many complex RFPs—especially those issued by government agencies—include large numbers of documents. Recently we worked on one comprised of no fewer than 36--including the RFP, 19 appendices and 7 schedules (several of which were subdivided into multiple files). Throw in a few addenda and the team had to manage over 40 individual documents, many containing dozens of pages.
In these situations—especially if the proposal team is large—it’s not uncommon to hear soneone ask the question, “Who knows how we’re handling Schedule X Part Y?”
When faced with a large number of RFP documents, create an action matrix as the first step in mastering—or as we say, owning—the RFP. This tool is different, but related to the compliance matrix.
Creating an action matrix
Use a row for each RFP document and capture five items of information in separate columns:
Title (if not in the file name)
Description of contents
As an example, the row for Schedule X Part Y above might look like this:
Schedule X Part Y
Listing of prospect’s required annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly etc. reports under the contract. Includes asset management, performance, incidents, change, billing etc.
Note: This schedule is included by reference in Appendix X: Pro Forma Services Agreement.
Confirm we can comply.
Add to compliance matrix to include a statement that we have read and will comply.
Different from a compliance matrix
Don't confuse the action matrix with a compliance matrix. The action matrix is a high-level snapshot of a complex RFP that identifies what needs to be done with each document and who is responsible.
The compliance matrix (described in this post) is much more detailed. It’s an item-by-item checklist of all content, structure, design and delivery requirements. To show how these two matrices are linked, on the line for the main RFP document, the action matrix would include “Create compliance matrix” as a required action.
The action matrix helps the team ensure every document is processed; the compliance matrix ensures every requirement is processed.
We’ve blogged extensively about the importance of developing a win strategy before beginning to write a proposal. But there’s an entirely separate strategy conversation to be had—especially in planning large, complex responses.
The aim is to identify and act on opportunities to standardize similar content before distributing sections to subject matter experts (SMEs) and writers.
Here’s what often happens
Once the bid decision is made, proposal and capture managers meet to focus on the prospect’s issues and likely competition. They develop a set of win themes to guide SMEs and writers.
After the kick off meeting, everyone goes away and starts writing sections.
Somewhere in the process, it becomes apparent that parts of each section’s requirements are similar. In an IT RFP, these could be about technical specs. In just about any large services RFP, they could be requests for proposed team members’ roles and experience, or evidence of the company’s experience and performance in similar projects.
Because of corporate silos, the writing is often well along before anyone notices. Then you need to decide whether to pick a format and align all sections—or inflict (sometimes widely) varying formats on the evaluators. Because of time, the varying formats often get submitted.
A better way
Recruit someone not involved in the win strategy process to review the RFP structure for opportunities to either write content once for tweaking and reuse, or to create attachments to which various proposal sections can refer. This person should be familiar with the company and its technology and have proposal experience. A good candidate is the individual responsible for formatting and assembling proposals for submission.
Once you find these opportunities, decide how best to tackle each one.
Always summarize the content in the narrative
Never relegate important content to an attachment and simply reference it in the narrative. Doing this risks losing points if the evaluator can’t or chooses not to access the attachment. Include a summary—perhaps in meatball chart format—to ensure you comply with the request for that section.
Taking time upfront to identify and plan for duplicate content results in better content quality—and sends a strong signal to evaluators that you’re well organized and efficient.
Even believers in using visualization to stress benefits and key differentiators often find they haven’t the time and/or budget to make it happen. If that’s your experience, here’s an idea that might help.
BBC News streams infographics on current news stories through social media. The examples at top and below recently appeared on Twitter.
We think this is a great way to make information interesting and memorable. If you agree, scroll down to apply the idea to your next proposal.
How to do it
In every case, BBC has combined an arresting image with 2 facts organized into 1 or 2 sentences. Do the same by following these steps:
Think of a key benefit or differentiator you want to stress and express it a short sentence. For example:
In the past X years, we’ve implemented Y sites on time and on budget
Over X% of our service technicians have achieved NAME certification
X% of our clients have been with us for Y years or more
X of Canada’s Y largest financial institutions use our technology
Our X North American sites average Y years with no lost time accidents
Find a striking photograph with a 2:1 ratio of width to height. If you don’t have your own, search online for an image that connects to your message and that is licenced for commercial use. You can buy image rights for less than $20 or find a free one using Google advanced image search to filter by size (large) and license type (commercial use allowed).
Size and crop the photo so the area of most interest is in the right half of the picture.
Using Photoshop or a less expensive alternative, such as Acorn or PowerPoint, place a complementary colour block set to 80% opacity over 40% of the image as in the examples above. Centre your message in contrasting text on the block and enlarge the key numbers/words.
Save the image in a graphics format (PDF, PNG, JPG) and you’re ready to drop it into your proposal.
Using this process, some of our team members are able to create proposal infographics in less than 30 minutes.
Consider a caption
Even though this kind of graphic carries its own message, you might want to expand on the limited information you can fit into the visual. In this case, add a selling caption that reinforces the image content.
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Visualization is a powerful tool to stress your win themes. Do not use visuals simply as decoration, to “break up the text.” Instead, benefit from the fact that graphics (and their captions) attract far more attention than plain text.
Use the examples below as thought starters to develop visualizations for your informal proposals.
Show you have repeatable process with a high-level illustration. Use the caption to stress the advantages of your process (time to market, reliability, risk reduction etc.). Have a freelancer create a simple graphic (example below) for $150 or so, and then use it many times. Plan your graphic so any project-specific content is in the caption, not in the graphic itself.
Structure your solution
Use structure to walk reviewers through your proposed solution. Keep the descriptions high-level. If your prospect requires a highly detailed solution description, consider putting it in an appendix, so you don’t lose the attention of senior-level proposal reviewers (such as the economic buyer).
Show the alternatives
Buyers naturally want to know they’re making the best choice among available options. Help your prospect with this due diligence by including a comparison table.
Show you satisfy all requirements
We recommend using a matrix to show you fully comply with a formal RFP. For informal proposals, use a table to align key prospect issues with elements of your solution—as in the example below.
Include selling captions
Now that you’ve attracted the evaluator’s eye, put your strongest selling arguments in captions. See this post on how to write captions that do more than simply explain the visual.
Return on investment
It makes good sense to invest in strong informal proposals, considering the alternative—the cost and risk of a formal RFP response. And because informal proposal components—both copy and visualizations—can be customized and reused, you will recoup your time and out-of-pocket costs many times over.
Need help using visuals to get evaluators leaning in?
Many sales professionals live by the mantra: “Don’t answer questions your prospect hasn’t asked.” That’s good advice for live meetings—but your informal proposal is likely to pass through several reviewers en route to approval. Your job is to understand and satisfy each.
Ask your client contact
Rule one is to ask your prospect for guidance. He or she will know the gatekeepers and influencers for this type of purchase, as well as the final decision maker. Each of these individuals will have hot buttons, in addition to the specific concerns of his or her buyer type.
Motivated by the opportunity to work with a trusted vendor and avoid the cost and effort of an RFP, your prospect should be eager to share intel on questions reviewers are likely to have.
Create a template and prebuild as much as possible
The purpose of prebuilding is to reduce the time it takes to generate each proposal. Using a set of prebuilt sections, one of our clients now spends just two hours creating higher quality proposals than they used to write in two days.
See the table below for candidate sections. The columns at right indicate sections we recommend including in every proposal (REQ?), good candidates for visualization (VIZ?) and good candidates for pre-build (P-B?).
Include unchecked items in the REQ column if your buyer research indicates these are likely issues for one or more proposal reviewer.
CONTENTS AND SELLING PURPOSE
Link the proposed purchase to the prospect organization's vision to show the proposal is strategically aligned and deserves buy-in
Use a lead-in sentence to introduce a bulleted list outlining the current situation and the challenges your proposal will address. Use the prospect's own language wherever possible. End by linking your solution to the prospects biggest hot button
NOTE: Evaluators will consider your understanding of their strategic drivers and hot button issues a key differentiator.
Bullet point the key stages of your process
Explain the solution in more detail. Consider using a 3-column table listing the process step, how you will perform it and the benefit or outcome of each. Stay high level—your purpose is to show reviewers you have a logical process.
Use a table to show how your solution addresses all strategic drivers and hot button issues.
Provide a high-level implementation schedule (5-8 milestones)
Use a table to show how your solution provides better overall value than the alternatives, based on criteria that matter to the prospect, such as cost, risk, time to implement, etc.
Use facts and client testimonials to showcase your experience and past performance on similar projects
Identify key members of your solution and align their experience with their project roles
Present your price and show it is realistic, reasonable, minimizes risk and represents the best trade-offs to address the prospect’s needs and issues. Include terms.
End your proposal by promising to contact the prospect within one week to discuss next steps.
Terms & Cond.
State the terms and conditions that apply to the project. Get legal advice, but keep this section to two pages
Provide a place for the prospect to formally accept your proposal
IMPORTANT: The idea of the table above is to help you create custom informal proposals without starting from scratch for each opportunity. The degree of customization needed will depend on the range of solutions you offfer and other factors.
Evolve your sections and visualizations
As you encounter prospects with new issues, add to and update your proposal sections. Improve your visualizations too, as you discover new ways to express your key differentiators and solution benefits using graphics.
Next week: Visualizations for informal proposal templates
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Many clients express dismay when projects they’ve been discussing with a prospect for months or years go to a competitive bid. In some cases this is unavoidable—government agencies and large companies often have internal guidelines that require RFPs for all but small purchases.
But in many situations, an informal proposal can save the purchaser the expense of developing a formal RFP and managing the evaluation and decision process.
To capitalize on these opportunities, you need to first recognize them, and then to develop proposals that address all your prospect’s issues.
Informal proposal opportunities
You may be able to avoid a competitive RFP if 1, plus any combination of 2,3 and 4 below apply:
RFP process not required: Ask your prospect if he or she can authorize the purchase without an RFP. Even in government agencies and large companies, buyers often have ways to avoid a formal bid when they’re convinced one vendor offers the best solution at a competitive price.
Existing client relationship: Years of delivering customer satisfaction make a powerful case for avoiding a formal RFP—especially if the current requirement is similar to a solution you’ve provided in the past.
Strong value proposition: If you can offer significant initial savings over the current contract, and/or the prospect of reversing a pattern of annual cost increases, this may be enough to clinch the sale with an informal offer.
Disruptive technology: A compelling solution involving a new-to-the market technology is a logical candidate for an informal proposal—especially if you own the technology. In fact, it may be the only way to make the sale, since your solution may not comply with RFPs built around known approaches.
Clarify with your prospect what’s needed
Your key contact may be sold, but in any large organization, other decision makers will almost certainly review your proposal. These are likely to include:
Technical buyers—gatekeepers who will decide whether your offer fits the functional requirements of the solution, and that contracting and other risks are acceptable. See this post on selling to technical buyers.
Before drafting a proposal, find out as much as you can about the review process and any issues evaluators might have. Ask too what size proposal your prospect expects. You may hear “simple proposal” and think 5 pages; you prospect may think 25.
Prepare in advance
Build components beforehand—both copy and visualizations—and use them to tailor an informal proposal to suit each selling opportunity. Next week we’ll show you how to do this.
Does this seem like a lot of work?
You may be thinking that even an informal proposal has a lot of moving parts. That’s true.
But remember the prize for success is a sale without the far more labour-intensive (and riskier) process of responding to a formal RFP.
Next week: Table of contents for an informal proposal.
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Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) provide the specifics in any proposal. SMEs are the designers, engineers, transition planners, customer service managers and other technical experts who develop and implement proposed solutions. They’re the people who actually do what your company gets paid for doing.
Many bidders get into the habit of deciding to bid, then immediately distributing RFP sections to SMEs with requests to write content. Their logic: Who better to describe what we’ll do and how?
Some SMEs (a tiny percentage, by our estimate) are okay with this. Most hate it—and passively or actively resist.
(Most) SMEs are not natural proposal writers
Each of us sees the world through a lens shaped by our personality, education, career choices and work environment. At the risk of oversimplifying, SMEs inhabit a world in which they:
Master and value process and technical detail
Express benefits in terms of functional performance
Strive to root out and eliminate risks
Communicate mainly with other experts
Proposal writers, on the other hand, are trained to:
Position processes and features as differentiators
Express benefits in terms of business results
Identify and include risks as trade-offs for value
Write to communicate with non-technical readers
So it’s not surprising proposal managers are often disappointed in the content SMEs return. The question is: How can we better engage SMEs in the proposal process and get maximum benefit from their knowledge?
Tips for getting the best from SMEs
Here’s how to get more useable content from SMEs:
Share strategy and context: Include your high-level proposal strategy, win themes, section summaries, capsule statements and value propositions when you assign content. This ensures SMEs understand what’s important to evaluators before they start to write.
Provide direction and monitor closely: Give specific instructions, such as a list of RFP questions and approximate word limits for each. Schedule frequent check-ins to review content-in-progress and provide feedback on responsiveness and completeness.
Interview to fill in the blanks: Rather than asking SMEs to revise their drafts, use interviews with a writer to clarify and fill in missing information. Have the writer email a list of questions ahead of time. During the call, repurpose the 5 Whys technique to engage SMEs in identifying client benefits in features they believe are important. We’ve found a 15-minute phone call produces far more content value than multiple revisions with no direct communication between SMEs and writers.
Respect the differences
Given their different orientations, it’s hardly a wonder most SMEs don’t deliver the same crisp, client-focused content you expect from proposal writers. On the other hand, without access to SMEs and their know-how, your writers can’t write proposals that win contracts.
The solution: Improve your results with a process that helps each group do what it does best.
In the last three posts we covered proposal kick-off goals, preparation and participants. Now let’s look at a recommended structure and tips for running the meeting.
The agenda below will fit most proposals. For very large proposals, volume managers and senior editors may attend kick-offs, and then kick off individual volumes with their teams of writers, editors, graphics specialists and designers.
Welcomes and introduces participants, reviews agenda
Explains the importance of the project and the organization’s commitment, thanks the team members for their participation
Provides background on the prospect and project, including any competitive intelligence indicating the bid is winnable
Describes the proposed solution, its main features and successful deployments elsewhere
Outlines the proposal structure, prospects strategic drivers and key issues, and win themes; distributes writers’ packages, key dates
Reviews in detail the proposal plan, ATOC, work organization and allocation, writer’s packages (SCPs) and executive summary
Reviews the schedule, online storage set-up, versioning protocols and daily management procedure
Invites questions from writers/editors, subject matter experts, graphics specialists and designers
*These individuals and any non-presenting managers may leave at the break
** If there isn't a separate project manager, the proposal manager presents this session
Aim for in-person attendance
Get as many people to attend in person as possible. Kick-offs have less energy and impact when most attendees dial in. Also, we find some individuals feel less obliged to meet commitments made on a conference call.
Set the right pace and tone
Plan a professional meeting that moves briskly through the agenda items. Schedule no more than two hours total.
Although motivation is a goal, focus on delivering information. Content developers—your main audience—are sceptics by nature. Part of their value lies in knowing that facts beat fluff. They’ll be looking for the meat in the meeting. The agenda above will ensure you deliver.
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Explains the proposal schedule, reporting and other protocols
Managers assigning (losing) resources to the proposal project demonstrate support by their presence
Subject matter experts**
Understand proposal strategy and scope, schedule, procedures and work assignments
Writers and editors***
Understand proposal strategy and scope, schedule, procedures and work assignments, receive Section Content Planners
Understand proposal strategy and scope, schedule, procedures and work assignments
Understand proposal strategy and scope, schedule, procedures and work assignments
Size proposal teams and kick-offs to fit your organization, specific opportunities and solution complexity. On smaller proposal teams, the proposal manager can assume the project coordination role. Very large proposal teams may include several volume managers, each responsible for a major section, reporting to the proposal manager. In this case, the volume managers may kick off the proposal with the relevant subject matter experts in separate meetings.
When downsizing participation, use the asterisks in the table above to guide your decisions:
Attendance is critical
Attendance is important
Attendance is desirable
Companies submitting multiple proposals each month typically reserve the kick-off process described in this series for one or two strategic opportunities each year that deserve this level of attention.
Motivate and inform
Much of the kick-off will cover information needed by team members responsible for developing and assembling the proposal. Those parts are likely to be dry.
So, when inviting participants, be sure to remind the opening acts—the senior manager, sales manager and product manager—that those in the trenches need to see—and feel—their enthusiasm for the project.