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How do you demonstrate thought leadership in a proposal?

What does it take to be a thought leader in a proposal?

You can't credibly claim thought leadership in a proposal. It’s too late. If the customer doesn't already know you and agree, what will they think about that claim? At best it won't affect your evaluation score one bit. At worst it will hurt your credibility. And since thought leadership is more about trust than knowledge, simply claiming it can backfire. When you get to the proposal phase, instead of claiming thought leadership you must demonstrate thought leadership. The way you demonstrate it is through insight.

How to demonstrate thought leadership in a proposal

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Proposal Writing

Insight means going beyond simply responding with something that addresses the requirements. Insight involves explaining what matters about the requirements and why your approach to fulfilling them has advantages. When you can explain what matters about something instead of simply describing it, and point out things the reader didn't realize are important, that's insight. Your demonstrated awareness of things the reader didn't realize makes you an invaluable asset.

When you go beyond simply identifying a trend and explain what to do about it, that's insight. When you go beyond describing a problem and explain how to solve it, that's insight. Insight is about adding value by pointing out things that matter to the reader.

This is how a thought leader demonstrates value. This is what makes thought leadership important in proposals. The customer needs the vendor to help them realize the value being proposed because the company is the only one with the insight for how to achieve it. Thought leadership like this can make a company the customer's best alternative.

In a field of competing proposals, where they all describe their approaches because that is what the RFP asked them to do, the one that will be the thought leader will be the one that doesn’t simply describe, but also explains why their approaches matter. In a field of competing proposals, a demonstrated thought leader has an advantage and earns the customer's trust. A claimed thought leader is just a salesperson trying to sell something.

Becoming a thought leader without claiming to be one

Why” you do things is more important to the customer than “what” you do. “Why” shows that you have good judgment and deliver value. "Why" shows that you are trustworthy and reliable. "Why" demonstrates your value instead of merely claiming it.

If all you do is describe “what” you do, then you have shown that you can follow directions and the customer will get what they ask for. But you haven’t shown any value beyond that.

It doesn’t cost you anything more to explain “why.” By explaining “why,” you show the customer that you can deliver greater value than those who simply explain “what” they will do. By explaining "why," you can even beat competitors with more experience if they merely say "what" they will do. If all they do is cite the fact that they have experience without explaining "why" that experience matters, you have an opportunity to beat them.

For vendors to become thought leaders, they must earn the customer’s trust through their knowledge. Some types of bids require more trust than others. When the customer is purchasing a commodity, it barely matters who supplies it. But when the customer needs a solution, they must be able to trust that you will be able to deliver, often with insufficient time, information, or unexpected complications. The higher the risk of the project, the more the customer must trust its vendors. Simply saying that you will do whatever they ask you to do does not make you trustworthy.

When the customer requires a vendor with solid judgment and awareness of the issues, they tend to look more favorably on thought leaders. But they won’t select you because you self-identify as a thought leader. They will select you because in your proposal you demonstrated good judgment when you explained “why” you chose the approaches you did. They will select you because when something unexpected happens, they can trust you to figure out what to do about it on their behalf.

When the customer is concerned about risk (and all customers are concerned about risk), and they have to pick between one vendor who describes what they will do for their price, and another vendor who describes why they chose their approach, what matters about it, and what the customer will get out of it for their price, which vendor do you think has the advantage?

A thought leader may not even need to describe their approach in as much detail as their competitors to have the better approach. A lot of detail that is not insightful doesn't demonstrate much. However, a demonstration of good judgment regarding an approach can eliminate the need for details that don't ultimately matter.

Using thought leadership to win your proposals

If you started the proposal at RFP release and have a weak customer relationship, but are trying to somehow win the pursuit in the proposal phase, then demonstrating thought leadership can be how you do it. The customer needs more than just claims to select you. They don't know you, but they must learn to trust your judgment in order to select you. They need more than procedures and qualifications to trust your judgment. Demonstrate your judgment by focusing on what matters and why the approaches you selected make you their best alternative.

When the customer is following a formal evaluation process, scoring your proposals against written evaluation criteria, and filling out forms that justify their selection, a proposal that demonstrates thought leadership has the advantage. The reasons "why" you do things make completing the evaluator's justification an easy copy and paste. They score better than descriptions of what you do. 

Being a thought leader during the proposal phase is very different from what people think of as how you become a thought leader during the pre-proposal marketing phase. This is because marketing is about how you get introduced to the customer whereas the proposal is the last thing you say to them before they make their selection. The last thing you say shouldn’t be an unsubstantiated claim. Instead, the proposal should demonstrate what you'll be like to work with after award.

The best way to become a thought leader is to do it without ever claiming to be one or using the words "thought leader." If you truly are a thought leader, the customer will use those words on their own in their award justification.


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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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