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Thought leadership and proposals

You can't credibly claim thought leadership in a proposal. It’s too late. And since thought leadership is more about trust than knowledge, simply claiming it can backfire. When you get to the proposal phase, you can only demonstrate thought leadership. The way you demonstrate it is through insight.

Insight means going beyond simply responding with something that addresses the requirements. Insight means explaining what matters about the requirements and your approach to fulfilling them. When you can explain what matters about something instead of simply describing it, that's insight. When you can explain what to do about a trend as well as identify 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. A thought leader shows the path to realizing that value.

In a field of competing proposals, all describing 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 the approaches matter.

“Why” you do things is more important to the customer than “what” you do. “Why” shows that you have good judgment and deliver value. If all you do is describe “what” you will 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. In price-sensitive competitions, it doesn’t cost you anything more to explain “why.” But by explaining “why,” you show the customer that you can deliver greater value than those who just explain “what” they will do.

For vendors to become thought leaders, they must earn the customer’s trust in their advice. Some types of bids require more trust than others. When the customer is purchasing a commodity, it doesn’t matter who supplies it. But when the customer needs a solution, they have to 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 has to trust its vendors.

When the customer requires a vendor with solid judgment and awareness of the issues, they look for thought leaders. But they won’t select you because you self-identify as a thought leader. They will select you because 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 the best solution 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 has the advantage?

Note: The second vendor may not even need to describe their approach in as much detail in order to have the better approach.

Also note: No matter how many unsubstantiated claims about being the unique industry leading state of the art thought leader the first vendor adds, it will not affect the outcome one bit. However, if the second vendor adds similar unsubstantiated claims, it will at a minimum add a layer of noise and could even damage their credibility.

Final note: 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, this is how you do it.

If the customer is following a formal evaluation process, scoring your proposals against written evaluation criteria, and filling out forms that justify their selection, which of the two proposals above will be easy to score? Which makes completing the evaluator’s justification an easy copy and paste?

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. That is because marketing is about how you get introduced to the customer whereas the proposal is the last thing you say to them (subject to negotiations) 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 after they select you.

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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.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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