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How proposal writers are like Apple product designers

6 steps to a better customer offering

Apple is famous for having a designer lead their product development efforts instead of having an engineer lead them. Apple designers obsess over what will please their customers. In many ways that exactly describes what great proposal writers do. 

So who designs the offering for a company that offers complex services like engineering? Should it be a subject matter expert? Someone who understands the work? Or should it be a designer, someone who understands what will please the customer?

Could it be that most contractors have it backwards?

See also:
Technical Approach

Could having your subject matter experts determine what to propose based on the RFP ensure that you never reach greatness? Could starting by figuring out what will please the customer lead to better solutions? Could measuring your solution against what will please the customer instead of the specifications alone result in better engineering? Should you design your offering instead of engineering it?

Personally, I prefer integrated project teams. I don’t care for a hierarchy based on whose ego gets to claim they are leading the effort. But more often than not, I have found that when I support proposal efforts, I tend to shape what is going to be proposed. I don’t just merely try to make an approach sound good. I try to make it better so that it will be more competitive. When I work with companies on a series of their proposals, more often than not I end up introducing change to the company. I represent the voice of the customer, and instead of directing the solution, I seek to inspire it. 

Determining the solution requires subject matter expertise I don’t have. I rely on the subject matter experts for that. But I do help make the solution the subject matter experts produce better. I can do this because I look at it from the customer’s perspective and am a little cynical when it comes to the claims of vendors. I help turn the solution into something that is more credible and reliable. This in turn makes it better than other alternatives and more competitive. It results in a proposed offering that is more pleasing to the customer. 

Let's try an example...

As an example, in order for a company to get a top score related to quality, I would look for ways that the team could raise the bar on their quality approach. And I’m not talking about writing the required quality control plan. I’m not a quality engineer or formal quality methodology expert. But I’ve written enough proposals on the topic to suggest ways to improve accountability and transparency. Or ways to better design quality in from the beginning or validate it on the back end. Or to measure and report performance and support data-driven decisions. As a proposal expert, I show proposal teams how to choose their approach based on what the customer has indicated is important to them in the evaluation criteria. I help them approach quality in a way that has an impact, that the customer cares about, and that makes our proposal their best alternative.

By working improvements into their proposals over time, I can also show them how to be a quality driven company. We can change how the company comes to view quality and embed that into their culture. I’ve always been amazed at how much change a proposal specialist can drive into their company through influencing how they identify themselves in their proposals. Proposal writers can change a company’s identity. 

If you are a corporate executive trying to figure out how to herd the cats to do better, then forget about writing a new mission statement. Instead consider using the proposal process to continuously define your company’s identity in a way that pleases your clients, and that affects what people actually do on the job.

The obligatory Steve Jobs citation...

Steve Jobs changed the world and changed how products are built. He started by changing Apple. He put designers in charge of product development. Instead of products that were merely handy, useful, or practical, Apple designed products to please their customers. In the 90s, Apple had a market share of less than 14%. Today, Apple is a dominant industry change leader.

The approach Steve Jobs took doesn’t have to be limited to computers or even product manufacturers. Service contractors can take the same approach. Only instead of designing and building, a service contractor proposes their offering. Contractors decide what they will propose doing for their customers when they write their proposals. Proposals are where contractors design their offerings.

If you want to be a great contractor, you shouldn't simply do what you’re told. Bring a vision and capabilities that please the customer in ways they didn’t even realize were possible, delivered in ways that are feasible. You don’t settle for the status quo. People throw money at high-priced Apple products because they are not the status quo. And if Apple ever settles for the status quo they’ll go into decline. You will never become great simply by responding to the requirements in the RFP. You will never get there simply by having the best specifications. Apple routinely defeats companies who compete on the specifications alone. 

Is Apple the best company in the world? Nope. They’ve got issues of their own, even (especially?) under Steve Jobs. That’s not the point of this article. The point is that you can use the proposal function to change your approach to how you determine what to offer, and do it in a way that changes your entire corporate identity. You can be better than you are. Much better. 

What to do about it

People tend to be afraid of change. They get caught up in how it will impact them personally. They often seek to control territories and create stovepipes in an attempt to prevent change. It helps to focus on the goals and what you are trying to accomplish. All it takes to accomplish improving your offering design is to:

  1. Start your proposals with an assessment of what would please the customer
  2. Make this part of your overall assessment of what it will take to win
  3. Determine how to position what you intend to propose against your competition and how the customer will make their decision
  4. Do a gap analysis between the items above and what it will take to be RFP compliant
  5. Identify approaches that fill the gap to make what you are going to propose stronger from the customer’s perspective
  6. Bring this to the start of proposal writing

Note that I did not turn this into a contest of who leads the offering design effort. It's not an ego contest or a territorial dispute. Instead it should be about what you want to accomplish, how to accomplish it well, and how you will validate that you succeeded in accomplishing it. Who can accomplish it is a secondary consideration. A significant one, but one that must fulfill the goal. It may very well be that the scope is too broad for any one person. This is why I like integrated teams.  They bring more skills and experience to the effort.

If you want to make your company great, institutionalize this approach so that it becomes part of everything you do, and don’t just do it at the start of a proposal. 

Let's discuss your challenges with preparing proposals and winning new business

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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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