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14 things that are wrong with the proposal industry and the companies that depend on winning proposals

Warning: I have a bad tendency of being a little too honest at times…

I was recently asked about what’s changed in the proposal industry over my career. My response was that what strikes me far more is how little has changed. It’s not just that we have the same problems we had decades ago, it’s that there are viable solutions just waiting to be implemented. Every other part of the companies that depend on winning proposals for their revenue have developed and matured their practices. Except the proposal function. 

Please read the following as motivation and focus on what to do about the need for change instead of making excuses. This isn't venting. We’ve heard all the excuses and done our share of venting. Note that I haven’t pointed fingers. It’s not the proposal department’s fault. Or sales. Or the executives. The fault belongs to all of us. But fault doesn't matter. Only progress does.

I'm sure not all of these apply to every company. But consider just how many of them do still plague your company…

See also:
Successful process implementation
  1. Why are we still doing proposals without defining what proposal quality is? Instead companies still practice “I’ll know it when I see it” quality management. But only on their proposals. Is there any quality methodology in existence that sets that as its standard? Why does every aspect of what we do have actual standards but the critical proposal function which impacts, give or take 100% of the company's ability to generate revenue, does not?
  2. Why aren’t we giving writers and reviewers the same set of quality criteria? Why are we surprising the writers with what the proposal should be or say after they have prepared their draft? Why after all this time are we still expecting writers to guess what will be required to pass proposal reviews? How do we ever expect this to work? This is a completely solvable problem. So why haven’t we implemented the solutions?
  3. How often are we still beginning proposal writing with little more than the RFP to guide the writers? Even when you start at RFP release, you should have some ideas about what it will take to win that you can use to guide people. Why are we still throwing RFPs at people and expecting them to just figure it out?
  4. How is that we’re still getting little or no useable input from business development or capture effort? It’s always amazed me how little the business development briefing or capture plan had in it that helped put the right words on paper during proposal development. Why haven’t we helped them prepare better and create more useable inputs that would have a greater impact on the win rate? Why aren’t we giving them input forms for what we need to know in order to write a winning proposal, and why aren’t they building their processes around delivering it?
  5. How is it even possible that engineers and subject matter experts who know better are designing the offering or solution to be proposed by writing narratives about it? This is a major cause of the proposal death spiral. What engineering school or best practice recommends designing things by writing narratives about them? Why do we still do this? Are we really incapable of figuring out what to offer and validating it before we starting writing?
  6. When are we going to starting measuring proposals by ROI instead of cost? Going from a 20% win rate to a 30% win rate would increase the company’s revenue by 50% and pay for all the effort required to do it many times over. So why are we still under investing in the proposal function instead of tracking its ROI? Is there any other business line or function with the potential to increase the company’s revenue by that much which isn’t tracking its ROI? How much would the company pay for a sales function that could increase revenue by 50%? Increasing your win rate can do that with the leads you already have. And yet, we get stingy with proposals. Maybe it’s because companies don’t know how to increase their win rate. And maybe that’s where they should start.
  7. Why haven’t win rates changed? Separate from the ROI issue above, why haven’t companies improved their ability to win proposals enough to change industry average win rates in an amount that’s noticeable? If our “best practices” really are such, shouldn’t there be a quantifiable impact?
  8. Why are we still preparing “lists of hot buttons and themes” that do not map to either the proposal outline or the evaluation criteria? We’ve convinced ourselves that we have a process because we have themes. By why do those themes never seem to actually cover the outline or relate to how we’re going to maximize our score against the evaluation criteria? And why are so few themes differentiators? Why can so many of the themes on the lists I see companies preparing be claimed by any company that makes the competitive range? Weak themes are not a best practice, do not mean that you have a process, and are ultimately uncompetitive. Why are they still tolerated, let along offered as something to brag about?
  9. Why are people still giving more attention to proposal content reuse than proposal content planning? We all know that content reuse does more to lower win rates than improve them. So why do we focus on that while assuming that planning before writing is just too hard to achieve? Still. By now, we should all know that we spend more time thinking and talking about the proposal than actually writing it. So why do we continue to believe that recycling content is a better way to accelerate things than speeding up figuring out how to prepare a proposal based on what it will take to win? Still.
  10. Can we finally kill the meaningless color team labels and milestone-based proposal reviews that don’t actually validate proposal quality? Why can I still ask everyone at the [insert color label here] review what the scope of the review is and get a different answer from everyone participating with nothing defined in writing? And if it is defined in writing, why does everyone still define the scope of the review differently? And regardless of the scope why do we simply ask reviewers to tell us whether the proposal is “any good?” Still. And why do we think that reviewers can read the entire RFP and the entire proposal and assess everything that needs to be validated in a few hours? And do it without any written quality criteria.
  11. Are we really still giving assignments to writers with the only guidance amounting to heading titles and the RFP? Why do we still say “write this section” without providing any guidance regarding what to write about and how to present it? Still. 
  12. Why do companies still treat business development/sales, capture, proposal, contracts, and pricing as sequential silos instead of fully integrating them into winning proposals? Is it because we still try to staff everything proposal related with people who have day jobs and the proposal isn’t their top priority? See the items about ROI and win rate above. Why do we tolerate people expecting the proposal to magically appear without them touching it or learning about it as little as possible? What kind of win rate is that supposed to generate?
  13. With everyone claiming to know the “best practices,” how is it that we continue to tolerate train wrecks at the end of proposal production? Why do I still find people who think that a train wreck at the end of the proposal is just the nature of the universe? What other function potentially increasing revenue by 50% or more is allowed to continuously have obviously disruptive results because “that’s just the way it is” and “we can’t do anything about it?”
  14. Why are (unsubstantiated) claims still showing up in proposals? We’ve known that this is the most common and curable win rate stealing worst practice for decades. Why is it still showing up? We talk about it. Everyone knows about it. And yet companies have done nothing to eliminate it. Do we care so little about win rate that we can’t even fix this?

Since you’re on PropLIBRARY, you probably are not the source of these problems, and if you are a subscriber you have access to solutions for all of them. But the Powers That Be have some mighty bad habits. They’ve accepted these problems for so long they may not even be looking for a solution. Or they’ve institutionalized these problems for so long they’re afraid of what it would take to tear down and rebuild. Or maybe they’re just afraid to admit they don’t know how to solve these completely solvable problems. You can help them with that. But they have to show up motivated and with the will to make it happen.

None of these problems are technical. All of these problems are habits. Habits may not be easy to change, but these are opportunity stealing, growth limiting, and revenue reducing habits that are within your power to change. Everyone says they want to win. Now’s the time to finally prove it.

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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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