14 dos and 3 don'ts for winning a proposal when you’ve never even talked to the customer

You'll never win. Unless you do.

It's true that the odds of winning a proposal when you have never even talked to the customer go down so much that it may not be worth bidding. But the fact is that sometimes companies win them, so let's look at when it's possible to win and what you can do to increase your chances. Occasionally, in some markets, no one gets to know the customer before they surprise the world with an RFP. It largely depends on the nature of what they are procuring.

Bidding blind is not worth it. Except when it is. That’s a judgement call. It’s hard to be prosperous when the deck is stacked against you. When you bid a bunch of things with slim odds, it doesn’t increase your chances of winning anything. Each time you bid, the odds remain slim. If you have to write 20 proposals just to win one, it’s going to make proposals seem a lot more expensive than they should be. And you will be tempted to take shortcuts in proposal development that will lower your odds even further. Or fail to invest in doing things better.

But sometimes you have reasons to bid even though you haven’t talked to the customer. And when that’s the case, you want to do it well and not hold back. I’ve won proposals for companies that had no prior relationship with the customer and hadn’t talked to them at all. Here are some of the things you can do to go from having a slim probability of winning to having a probability of winning that’s still slim but maybe a little bit better:

See also:
Dealing with Adversity
  1. Price always matters. How many times have you bought something from a new vendor simply because they had what you needed at a cheaper price? One strategy for winning a new customer is to intentionally undercut your competitors on price. But keep in mind that every proposal is a chance to ruin your past performance record. Winning a proposal but getting a bad reference can cost you more business than you might gain by winning this proposal. The secret to winning with a low price is to have incredibly low overhead. That’s easier to want than it is to achieve.
  2. Think about what it will take to get the customer to trust you more than the companies they already know. Even though the customer doesn't know you well enough to trust you, there's always the chance that the incumbent has lost the customer’s trust. Probably not, but what approaches can you offer that would make you more trustworthy than the incumbent they already know the limitations of? 
  3. Think about what it would take for you to accept somebody else's proposal when you've never met them or never even talked to them. Then make sure that your proposal does all the things needed for you to be that company. Think about the specific things you can do to be more accountable and transparent. What can you to do make it impossible for things to go wrong?  And if not impossible, then what you can do to catch and correct it immediately? You need your proposal to demonstrate that your approaches are so much more reliable that you are more worthy of your customer’s trust than the companies they already know. This is not easy, but it is sometimes possible.
  4. Can you get to know the customer after the award? While you are bidding without having any special insight into the customer or their requirements, you may be able to put in place a process for discovering their specific needs and applying what you learn to a specific plan of action that is more detailed and credible than any other proposal. A thorough discovery process that makes performance reliably traceable to requirements can be effective if the incumbent sleepwalks through their proposal and just says they’ll do things without explaining how or why.
  5. Prove everything you say. Don’t expect the customer to accept anything you say. You are a stranger coming in at the last minute with expectations of winning. Prove everything you say. Hopefully the other bidders will write an ordinary proposal full of unproven claims. Don’t claim you understand. Prove it. Don’t claim to be compliant. Prove it. Don’t claim to have the best solution. Prove it. Don’t claim to be qualified. Prove it. Prove everything.
  6. Align everything in the RFP. Show how your solution integrates the RFP instructions, performance requirements, and evaluation criteria. Use tables and illustrations to match everything they’ve asked for, and then match them to your key strengths. Achieving this will make you look more insightful and responsive to their needs than a competitor who doesn’t.
  7. Understand the difference between selling a commodity and selling a complex service or solution. If a commodity meets the specifications, the provider may not be that important to the customer. However, with complex services and solutions, the customer really needs to trust a vendor in order to accept them. Match your proposal strategies to the nature of what the customer is procuring.
  8. Profile the customer. You may not have met or talked to the customer, but you may be able to make educated guesses based on customers like them, the environment they operate in, their history, or their culture. Those guesses will have better odds of being right than if you avoid trying to write from the customer’s perspective because you’ve never met them. Do your homework better than companies who think they already know the customer. Put a ton of effort into writing from the customer’s perspective, and hope that those who do know the customer will get lazy and just write to the RFP.
  9. Study their stakeholders. If you can’t talk to the customer, talk to their stakeholders. Who do they serve? Who do they partner with? Who do they report to? How are those interactions? What issues do they face? How does this impact the customer’s needs and their decision-making processes? Gain insights. Use them to demonstrate that your proposal reflects a deep understanding of the customer’s environment.
  10. Talk to their exes. The customer may not be willing to talk to you. But what about people who used to work for the customer? Can you find any on LinkedIn or through networking? Can you hire them? Will they participate in your proposal as a consultant? Even if they can’t help you earn trust with the actual customer, can they help you gain the kind of insight into them that will enable your proposal to read like someone who’s not a stranger?
  11. Give them a path from where they are to where they need to go. Provide them with a change management solution that minimizes the impact of selecting a new vendor. Maybe even propose an approach that never mentions the scary word “change.” But do give them the path and make it look easy and reliable. If the incumbent offers continuity and the same great status quo, you can offer them a non-disruptive way to improve and meet their changing needs.
  12. Why would a customer that's not inclined to change, change anyway? Sometimes people and organizations change, even if they have to be dragged kicking and screaming to it. Why do they change? You may not have to convince the customer to change. You just have to provide them with an easy way to get their needs met. By understanding the reasons why they change, you can position your proposal to support what you hope they might already be thinking. “Hope” isn’t the best proposal strategy. But if it’s all you’ve got, do it well.
  13. Give the customer options. Demonstrate flexibility. Give them things to consider. Show that you are willing to consider the possibilities. Show that you are willing to adapt to their preferences. The incumbent might already know the customer’s preferences. Or they might not. Maybe they just did what they were told to do. Maybe you can discover a preference going unmet. Maybe. But it won’t happen unless you uncover and articulate it. It won’t just happen by them randomly seeing it in your proposal unless you intentionally put it there.
  14. Be responsive to their RFP and make no mistakes. Don’t screw up your proposal. Maybe the incumbent will screw up theirs. It’s not much of a strategy. But if you screw up your proposal you won’t even have that.

Don’t:

  1. Kill your credibility with empty slogans, statements of understanding pasted from the customer’s website, unsubstantiated claims, or other such fluff. To win when the customer has never talked to you before you need pure substance. 
  2. Ignore anything they’ve said in the RFP. All you know comes from the RFP. You need to show that you’ve paid attention and then added value.
  3. Simply submit a compliant proposal. The only reason the customer has to select you if you are merely compliant is the price. Unless you are doing everything it takes to have the lowest price, you need to give them some other reasons to select you, other than just your willingness to do what they asked for. Simply hoping to be a little better, a little better qualified, and somewhat more experienced than the others while claiming to be superior has very low odds of success. So either give them the lowest price or give them something demonstrably better. That something will be the reason they select you, so it has to be capable of unseating the incumbent and all your other competitors.

Final thoughts

There are reasons why the customer might not select a company it already knows. But you have to anticipate them and take a position in your proposal that helps the customer make that move. You can even make assumptions about why the customer might not select the incumbent and risk being wrong. Unlike the incumbent, you’ve got nothing to lose. And going from no chance of winning to the slimmest chance of winning is an improvement. But going from no chance of winning to the slimmest chance of winning habitually can actually destroy your company’s potential  by replacing strategic growth with random wins. This approach will consume the resources you need for more strategic approaches.

Whatever you choose to do, do it well. And if you bid opportunistically, don’t do it with ordinary proposals thrown together without much thought and minimal effort beyond simply responding to what they asked for in the RFP.

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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. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, 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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