Where should you invest to improve your proposals?

How do you get good at doing proposals? Where do you start? What should you focus on? You won’t get good at proposals simply by doing a lot of them. You might get more efficient, but being more efficient at submitting ordinary proposals is not the goal.

Proposals are an investment that are expected to achieve a return. To maximize your investment and improve the win rate that has such a huge impact on your return, we’ve identified six simple, specific, and highly leveraged things to focus on.

Here are six simple “yes’ or “no” questions for you to answer. If you answer “no” to any of them, then that is what you need to work on.

  1. Do you build your proposals around what it takes to win? To do this, you have to be able to answer what it will take to win. You have to do your homework before the proposal starts. Then you have to structure your proposal effort around what it will take to win and measure quality against it. Most people give it lip service, but don’t actually build their proposals around it.
  2. Do you separate designing your offering from writing the proposal? This is a clear line that if you cross it greatly increases your risk of proposal disaster. If you design your offering by writing a narrative about it, then every change will spawn a re-write cycle that only ends when you submit the proposal you have instead of the proposal you wanted it to be. Neither design nor engineering should be performed in writing. Once you can describe what you are going to offer and have validated that, then you are ready to describe it in writing. If you have learned what it will take to win, you can write about it in context and from the customer’s perspective.
  3. Do you plan and validate your content before writing it? It takes more than an outline to plan what should go into your proposal. It takes more than a compliance matrix to plan the construction of a proposal built around what it will take to win. And once you’ve got it all figured out, you need to validate it before you jump into writing. The good news is that when you do, the writing goes much faster and produces better results. Here’s something we wrote that explains without any defined scope, they may be worse than no having any reviews at all. You should start by defining what a quality proposal is, and then create quality criteria based on it. When you do it right, you’ll have traceability from your reviews back to what it will take to win. If the reviewers of the draft proposal think it’s their job to figure out what it will take to win, you’ve got a problem --- you’re addressing it way too late in the process.
  4. Do you prioritize your efforts? Why do so many proposal kickoff meetings address writing style? With so much to talk about at that stage having a much larger impact on whether you win or lose, and so little time, how does that make the list? There is a time and place to address writing style. In fact, there is a time and place to address everything related to the proposal. It helps to understand your priorities so you can focus on first things first. I like to think about it as being similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, applied to proposals.
  5. Do you raise the bar on a regular basis? Most companies work on their proposal process and training once every few years. They put it in place, and think they are done. Until the next time. Instead, try implementing your process continuously over time. Identify a set of principles and standards like those above, establish a baseline, and then every few proposals raise the bar. That planning before writing thing that everyone struggles with? Start off simple and once you’ve got expectations set and everyone able to achieve something basic, raise the bar. If you overload people at the beginning, your process improvements will fail. But the right process will survive in the real world. And over time, you can turn it into a science.

When we work with our consulting customers, this is what we help our customers achieve. We introduce these techniques, often on a live proposal. Then we raise the bar. We not only make their submissions, but we help them develop their organization's ability to win future proposals. Getting a proposal submitted is easy. Winning them all is hard. If you treat proposals as an investment, then to maximize your long term ROI, you need to stop doing proposals in insolation, and instead continuously improve your win rate by raising your standards.

But it all starts with getting the right foundation in place. If it’s not there, your win rate will be hit or miss. Mostly miss. What most people do to improve their proposal efforts is also hit or miss, mostly miss, because they focus on the most recent pain. The list above is about setting the stage to win and not about treating pain or symptoms. Becoming healthy takes more effort than swallowing pills, but it’s how smart people invest to maximize results and ROI.



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Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY.

The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.

In addition, the groups Carl moderates on LinkedIn provide a place for tens of thousands of business development and proposal professionals to discuss best practices and network.
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