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18 questions proposal evaluators ask themselves to identify your strengths and weaknesses

Don't just assume the evaluators will see your strengths

A lot of RFPs assess proposals in terms of strengths and weaknesses. But they usually don’t tell you what a strength is. While you will find some customers that will define a strength as meeting the requirements, that is not a safe assumption. Some customers believe a strength is something that goes beyond merely meeting the requirements. 

Weaknesses are easy to define. It’s when the customer can’t find something they think you should have talked about. Note: that’s not quite the same thing as you didn’t talk about it. It may mean that there’s an aspect to it they think is important that you missed, or they just didn’t see where you addressed it. They may expect to find it, even if they didn’t mention it in the RFP, even if it was right there and they didn’t see it, and even if what you said means the same thing, but they didn’t see the words they were looking for. You can lose if their expectations were not met or even if they were wrong. One reason that actually talking to your customers before you bid increases your win rate is that it helps prevent this from happening by cluing you into what really matters to the customer, regardless of what it says in the RFP.

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When you are being evaluated based on strengths and weaknesses, you should change how you write in order to get the best score. You should not rely on writing the same way you normally do and expect that somehow your strengths will be apparent to the evaluator. 

Strengths can be the features of your offering, but they will be the features that deliver a benefit the customer finds sufficiently compelling to make note of. Different customers, even different evaluators within a given customer, will have differences in what they find to be compelling. 

This is why the best strengths are differentiators. They are compelling features that none of your competitors can claim. Evaluators commonly look for what’s different between proposals in order to determine which is better. Small differences in qualifications are unlikely to stand out and be noteworthy. Differences that matter might be noteworthy. So make sure you explain why what you’re saying matters. Make it past the “So what?” test. And make why it matters relate to what they really want to know. Here are some examples of the questions evaluators typically ask themselves:

  1. Will you do what is required?
  2. Can they trust that you’ll do it completely?
  3. Can they trust that you’ll do it accurately?
  4. Will you do it quick enough and meet the required schedule?
  5. Why should they believe you’ll do it within budget?
  6. How do they know that things won’t get overlooked?
  7. What will you be like to work with when something goes wrong?
  8. What if something changes?
  9. What about the known unknowns? And the unknown unknowns?
  10. Will you put them at risk?
  11. Will your performance suffer because of the risks?
  12. Will you be attentive and responsive?
  13. Have you done it before?
  14. How will your experience lead to better outcomes?
  15. What about your proposal makes you their best alternative?
  16. Will your people be good to work with?
  17. Will your people be good at their jobs?
  18. How do you know that when you and the client’s backs are turned, people will still do a good job?

Keep in mind that you can’t simply claim these things. You can't simply claim that you will do what is required at the best quality with the lowest risk from Day One. In a proposal, you must prove your claims to be credible. Of course you think your people will be good at their jobs. You think they’ll be great. You are also a salesperson, so nobody believes you. What can you say that is tangible and provable that demonstrates they’ll do a good job under the most challenging of circumstances? That's what matters to the customer, and not claims that sound like bad salesmanship in a document where must try to prove your worth in order to win.

What you claim is not a strength. Read that last sentence again, because most proposals are full of declarative sentences that are nothing but claims. But if you combine your differentiators and claims with proof points, you create compelling strengths.

An easy formula for writing about your strengths

A strength is not a feature, declaration, or claim. A strength is in why it matters or helps the customer answer questions like those above. Here is an easy way to approach writing about strengths to maximize your score: 

What you say about meeting the requirements, plus something else.

"Something else" could be why it matters, how the customer will benefit, how it adds value, why it's the best trade off, how it differentiates your proposal, what makes it their best alternative, or some other rationale. But there has to be something that takes it from being a statement to being a strength.

What you add beyond what you'll do to fulfill the requirements is your chance to make it a strength:

  • It’s not just that you’ll do the work. It’s that your approach also prevents failure from occurring that matters.
  • It’s not just that your approach eliminates points of failure, it’s that your approach also reduces the burden on the customer to monitor your performance that matters.
  • It’s not just that you’ll staff the project on time. It’s that because you have named names you can do it more reliably than your competitors, and that matters to the customer.
  • It’s not just that you’ll deliver. You’ll also verify delivery was made to ensure that it occurs every single time, and that matters if it's important to the customer.
  • It’s not just that you have experience. But your experience enables you to show up with plans and checklists already drafted that you just need to confirm. And that matters if getting started right away is important to the customer.
  • In addition to having the tools to do the job, you have already tested, integrated, or configured those tools and the staff you’ll provide already know how to use them. The result will be a faster, more reliable startup that leads to the following improved outcomes…  that matter to the customer.

Do this in every sentence. Or at least most of them.  Or just do it as many times as is necessary to have more strengths than your competition. 

Implications for offering design

If you ask your subject matter experts to write something that is RFP compliant, that may be all you get. But if you teach them to write every sentence in two parts, you can teach them how to create a better offering. If you just ask them to create a great offering or to explain why it matters, you might just get a blank stare. If you teach them that every requirement response, every point made, every feature, and every step in your approach must come in two parts, then they will design the offering to deliver the value, differentiators, and proof needed. And that will lead them to produce a better offering than they would have by just trying to fulfill the specifications. Every time.

Considerations for how to best present your strengths

The evaluators will prepare a list of your strengths. So why not make it easy for them? Provide a list of your strengths in your proposal, possibly in a text box. Text boxes draw the eye to your strengths.

However, if you abbreviate your demonstration of those strengths in order to fit them into the box, your strengths can easily degrade into simple claims. Calling your claims “strengths” will not only be a self-delusion, it will do more to hurt your credibility than prove your strengths.

If your proposal is short, then you can provide a single list. But usually it’s better to highlight the strengths where you are talking about the topic. This way they can read it, do their assessment, and if they agree they can copy and paste from your list onto their evaluation forms.

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More information about "Carl Dickson"

Carl Dickson

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

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

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