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Confessions of a Proposal Specialist

I am fortunate to have experience with proposal development at many, many different kinds of companies. It’s human nature to want to label and define things. When people discuss proposals they often make pronouncements that apply to their company, but are the exact opposite of what is true for others. I was trying to illustrate that point with examples from my experience recently. What I wrote sounded like a list of confessions:

I have helped customers exploit their relationship and influence the RFP in a way that gave them an overwhelming advantage. This would not have been possible if the customer didn't love their performance. While it certainly wasn't what the rules intended, it's hard to blame the customer. I've done the same thing as the buyer when I knew what I wanted but purchasing was forcing me to follow their rules. Here's an article we've written on influencing the RFP. It would be easy to conclude that the only way to win business is to influence the RFP. But…

I have also stolen deals away from incumbents who thought the customer loved them more than they really did. And I did it without any customer relationship --- just a well written proposal. It helps to have nothing to lose and a company bold enough to take risks. Here’s another article we’ve written about stealing bids that are wired for someone else. You might conclude that all you need to win business is a well written proposal. But…

I was saddened when a huge proposal I contributed to ended up losing. We were the incumbent and concerned about others saying our team was too big to manage. We lost to a company with a team 10 times the size of ours. Either the customer didn’t care or we just didn’t understand what they wanted, even though we were the incumbent. It would be easy to conclude that you need understand the customer in order to win. But…

I set up a small proposal department that wasn't getting any love from the rest of the company. We bid everything blind (because we had no support) on contract vehicles that were all supposed to be wired. When we started winning and we were able to give projects (not just leads) away to P&L executives, things naturally changed. But along the way we proved that with the right strategies it is possible to bid and win as an outsider in a market that's supposedly 100% relationship driven. With most of the competition scared away, we were often the only alternative and did a good job of outscoring the complacent competition. It would be easy to conclude that you should bid everything you can. But...

I worked at a company that used its small business status to bid everything it could find. When they grew out of their small business status, they had this mismatched collection of project experience that they couldn't leverage and simply imploded. Here's a whole collection of articles on bid/no bid decisions. You might conclude that you should be very selective in what you bid. But…

I did a commercial bid that was totally set up to award to a specific company (not us!), and stole it away by offering an alternative that changed the rules. If we'd bid what was asked for we'd have lost. We didn't know the customer, had to work through a purchasing agent, and never got to talk to the actual buyer. But we took advantage of the lack of rules in the commercial space to present another way to solve the problem instead of the same old thing everyone else does. And they went for it, because it was far more economical, it had a much better value proposition, and they could always do what they were going to do later. They just never got around to it. Here's an article we wrote on disrupting the competition. You could conclude that there is a way to win every bid. But…

On the next bid we followed a similar approach, only this time we did have a relationship with the customer. We invested more than we normally would in the pursuit. When the competitive field was narrowed down from eight to two, they handed them to their boss to pick. The boss picked the lowest price and we lost. You might conclude that price is always the most important consideration. But…

I know a staffing company that does a lot of bids and loses far more often when they have a lower price than when they have a higher price. I keep telling them that they should bump their pricing up until it balances out. You might conclude that relationships count for more than price. But…

I've known companies that provided vertical software to local governments. It was the kind of thing a customer would only buy once, so they couldn’t invest too much in relationship building with any single customer. While they couldn't be physically present in all of the localities (or even find points of contact in all of them), they did have to watch all of them because they never knew who'd release an RFP next. So they had to be able to start at RFP release and bid blind. They got good at profiling the type of person who was the buyer and the kinds of companies they competed against, and were able to speak to them in their proposals instead of writing anonymously. They also had a long list of information they wanted to have but probably weren't going to be able to get. They ignored what they couldn’t get and spun stories off what they could. Having the list enabled them to get more of an information advantage than they otherwise would. Here's an article we wrote to help you figure out whether to use templates. It would be easy to conclude that the right boilerplate and templates can make up for not having a relationship with the customer. But…

I reviewed a proposal for a billion dollar company that was awful. But yet familiar. It was written with many of the same bad habits I’ve coached small businesses out of. It turns out that in reusing their proposal files, they had passed them down for 20 years! Here's an article describing the dangers of reusing proposal content. You might conclude that reusing proposal files is dangerous. But…

I worked with a company that provided security guards (pre-9/11). The customers didn't care about the company, just the guards. The guards changed employers whenever a new company won. A relationship did not ensure a win or even any influence. But it could provide you with an information advantage, which is what we targeted. We built templates that separated the facts and details from where we told our story based on the information they gathered and made huge improvements in their proposals that were easy to produce. Here's an article we wrote on how to prepare proposal content for reuse. You might conclude that the right templates are what make the difference between ordinary proposals and great proposals. But…

You might conclude almost anything.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned here, including ones we didn’t even point out.  Keep in mind, as the examples show, what you conclude at one company could be completely different for another company. We’d love to hear your stories. Join us in our group on LinkedIn and let’s see how many we can collect.

 



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By Carl Dickson, Founder of CapturePlanning.com



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