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It Depends

We see the same questions getting asked over and over again. They never get answered in such a way that people can just "look it up," so they keep asking. The reason this happens is that it depends.

In business and proposal development, the answer usually depends on your circumstances:

  • What do you offer? Is it a product or a service? Is it a commodity or is it unique? Not only do you have to sell them differently, but you have to approach learning about the customer’s needs differently, and you need different resources and approaches in order to prepare the proposal.
  • What are your customer’s expectations? They rule. The only way to answer whether your proposal should be formal or informal, what style should you follow, or how should you format it, is to answer in the context of your customer's expectations. If your customers have a different expectation from those of a another company, then your proposals must change to meet them.
  • Do you typically bid alone, or as a team with other companies? This changes what you are offering and the benefits to the customer as well as the methods you use to collaborate during proposal development. A company bidding on its own does things very differently from a company bidding as a team.
  • Are you in a regulated environment? Are you a government contractor? Or a small disadvantaged business? Does your customer have policies, procedures, or rules that they have to follow? Can you optimize your proposal against how it will be evaluated? Do the rules, or the absence of rules, impact your win strategies.
  • What is the competitive environment? Some companies deal with the same competitors over and over. Some deal with so many that you can't identify them all. Some lucky few don't have much competition. The approaches that make sense for competitive intelligence gathering and positioning are very different when it’s possible to name your competitors and when it isn’t.
  • What are your company’s strengths and weaknesses. You should consider your competitive strengths and weaknesses, as well as your internal strengths and weaknesses. For example, while your win strategies will be impacted by your competitive strengths and weaknesses, your approach to preparing the proposal could be impacted by the strengths, weaknesses, and availability of resources to prepare it.
  • What is your company’s culture? Some companies are well organized. Some are chaotic. Most are in between. Some are decentralized. Some are centralized. Most are in-between. Some are experimental. Some avoid risk. Most are in-between. Culture matters, but can be hard to define. The right approach for one company can conflict with the personality of another company.
Now considering these factors, consider the following questions:
  • Why won’t people follow our process?
  • What should our win strategies be?
  • Who should write the proposal — subject matter experts or proposal specialists?
  • Should the proposal manager be responsible for the content or just the production?
  • Should you recycle previously written proposals or use boilerplate?
  • Will proposal software help or be a complete waste?
  • Who owns the message?
  • How should you plan the content of the proposal?
  • Who should set the pre-RFP goals and who should manage their fulfillment?
  • How many proposals can a person work on at one time?
I cringe everytime I hear someone give a firm, definitive answer to questions like these. Because the answer depends. Approaches that make sense for a company that sells commodity products will not work for a specialized services company. And vice versa. Universal rules of thumb like, “In order to win you must start the proposal effort before the RFP is released,” are not true — for some companies.

When people talk about “The” bid process, they really should be saying “the bid process at our company” because no two companies can follow a single process the same way. Even when they’re in the same market. Developing the best possible proposal capability requires you to understand how your circumstances impact what approach you should take and that you understand whether advice offered to you is applicable to those circumstances.

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You can also visit our group on LinkedIn where we have open discussions on winning proposals

By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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