Once upon a time, I was involved in the planning of two back-to-back proposals. They happened to be about staffing, but that’s not what matters. What matters is how they were simultaneously the same but very, very different.
They were both for the same type of staffing, provided the same way, to do the same things, in very similar work environments, and in overlapping locations. However, in one, the RFP focused on market research and in the other the RFP focused on the compensation plan. This one small change in the RFP made the two proposals completely different.
The reason one customer focused on “market research” was because, in their experience, what impacts a vendor’s ability to deliver is whether they understand the trends in the local labor market. If you don’t realize which positions are scarce and you base your pricing on the wrong average, you won’t be able to deliver. This is even more true when you have to project several years into the future. For this customer, it’s all about proving that you know enough about the local conditions to be able to ensure delivery.
The reason the other customer focused on the compensation plan was because in their experience, what impacts a vendor’s ability to deliver is whether they provide competitive compensation. It does them no good to select the lowest cost vendor if the vendor can’t deliver because no one will work for compensation that’s too low. This customer is also concerned with retention, because if the pay is low people will be quick to jump ship. For this customer, it’s all about proving that your rates are high enough to be able to deliver, while still being low enough to be competitive.
What matters here isn’t the nature of the staffing business. What matters is how two different customers buying the same thing can evaluate you so differently. Those differences affect everything you put into your proposal.
In a staffing proposal, one thing you need to talk about is recruiting. But is your recruiting process successful because of your market research or because of your compensation plan? Do you address difficult to fill positions by knowing where to look or by adjusting your compensation? Does your project management focus on doing their homework to ensure that they know where to find people and are able to anticipate shortages? Or does your project management focus on knowing what to pay in order to retain staff? Do you track supply/demand and time to fill metrics, or do you track turnover and the reasons people turn down offers?
When the customer is focused on market research, you take every opportunity to show what you know about the local market conditions. When the customer is concerned with the compensation plan, then you take every opportunity to talk about the parts of your compensation plan that distinguish you. Since you can only do so much to pay people more and still remain competitive, what can make or break your compensation plan could be the non-financial considerations. This means that you need to expand your list of benefits to include as many things as possible, and identify the things you do in addition to the things you pay for.
You will be tempted to say that you do it all and are all things to every customer. But your proposal can’t read that way. You have to be what this particular customer wants to select. Can you accelerate your proposal by finding a staffing proposal someone else wrote and then tailoring it? Every aspect of the two proposals is driven by different things, and every result is due to something different. Context matters. While both proposals will address market research and compensation, they will both do it in a complete different context. Changing narrative text from one context to another may take longer than it does to write it in the first place. In the case of this example, the amount of narrative that the two proposals ended up with in common was less than 10%.
The key to winning in writing is to start from what matters to the customer. Look at what the RFP focuses on and ask yourself what that means about what is important to that customer. Then make sure that everything your proposal:
Let your competitors take shortcuts and recycle their proposals. Would you pick a proposal that sounds generic or like it was written for some other context, or would you pick the one that talks directly to how it achieves your goals?
- Is directed by those goals
- Is planned and organized to achieve those goals
- Leads the evaluator to conclusions based on those goals
- Defines quality and value in terms of those goals
- Results in achieving those goals
If you really want to see the overwhelming importance of context, take the two proposals from this article, and switch them. Imagine giving the market research proposal to the customer concerned with compensation and vice versa. If you are a customer whose experience shows you that if the compensation plan is not right the vendor will fail and you get a proposal that talks about how in tune the vendor is with the local market and another proposal that talks directly to how the vendor provides effective compensation while remaining cost competitive, which would you pick? Getting the context wrong is a sure way to lose. But the moral of the story is that getting the context right can be a competitive advantage.
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