How to prepare for a proposal ahead of RFP release

Sometimes you know you have an opportunity coming up and you want to get a head start on the proposal. Unfortunately, what a lot of people do to prepare for the proposal actually does more harm than good. So here are 3 things people do to prepare for an upcoming proposal that are counterproductive, 3 ways to prepare that can help you win, and 3 that can go either way.

3 Ways to prepare for a proposal that are counterproductive:

  1. Writing the proposal in advance. If you write the proposal without the keywords and evaluation criteria from the proposal, it may not be compliant, and it certainly will not be optimized to win. Preparing for the proposal does not mean writing. It means doing things that will make the writing go faster and better. If you think there are sections of your proposal that are routine and won't change, you might be better off spending the time thinking about how to optimize those sections to win and what the customer really wants to see in them.
  2. Staging re-use material. There is a huge danger that if you make it easy to recycle your past proposals, which are not optimized to win the new proposal, people might actually use the boilerplate. You might think what you are doing is research that will make the proposal go faster, but what you are probably doing is creating a path of least resistance that people will take instead of thinking though what it will take to win.
  3. Preparing win strategies and themes that are all about you. When they don’t have the RFP, people are even more likely to focus “on their strengths” and begin defining their win strategies in terms of themselves. This makes it more likely that the proposal will describe the vendor instead of being written from the customer’s perspective.

3 Ways to prepare for a proposal that will help you win:

  1. Discovering the points you want to make. What matters about what you plan to offer? What matters to the customer? What differentiates you? What is your value proposition? You want to be able to not only write a compliant proposal, but also to address the RFP requirements in a way that matters to the customer. While you may not be able to itemize and address the requirements without the RFP, you can anticipate many of the points you’d like to make and perfect your ability to articulate them before the RFP is released. Then when you have the RFP, you combine your RFP responses with those points to create a proposal that goes beyond compliance and truly matters to the customer.
  2. Designing your offering. What approaches are you going to take? What staff will you bid? What configuration of products? What will the logistics be? What is your concept of operations? These are things you must be able to articulate before you start writing about them. If you try to figure them about by writing about them, you’re just asking for a disaster because each change will spawn a re-write cycle that ends with submitting the proposal you have instead of the proposal you wanted. The more you can do before the RFP is released to figure out what you are going to offer, the better your chances of being able to articulate and validate your offering design before the deadline clock forces you to start writing about it.
  3. Articulating your positioning. You should position everything against everything. Explicitly. Your company against each competitor. Your offering design against all alternatives. Your preferences against the customer’s preferences against your competitors' preferences. Trade-offs against each other. Price against value. Risk against reward. Etc. The better you can articulate your positioning, the more likely your proposal is to stand out. It will stand out because it’s clear why your offering is the alternative for the customer to fulfill their needs and achieve goals. Without the positioning, that would just be an unsubstantiated claim.

3 Things people to do prepare for a proposal that can go either way.

  1. “Engaging” the proposal manager. The success of this depends on how you define a “proposal manager” and how much time they can put into a pre-RFP proposal. Does your proposal manager help craft the message (very helpful pre-RFP) or just process the document workflow (can’t really fully engage until there is a document)? If your proposal managers are overloaded, they’ll most likely focus on the RFPs that are out and have deadlines rather than give much attention to something that will be coming out in an uncertain future. It’s not counterproductive to assign the proposal manager early, but in a lot of organizations the proposal manager can’t really do much until the RFP comes out. However, you need someone to lead the effort to craft the messaging in the way that is recommended above. It doesn’t matter whether that person is called a sales, capture, or proposal manager. When no one else does it or knows how to do it, it often falls on the proposal manager. If the proposal manager crafts the message at your organization, then you might want to make sure they have the capacity (and budget) to fully engage before the RFP is released.
  2. Sending out data calls. Charts that show staffing counts, locations, or projects relevant to the statement of work can all be very beneficial to include in your proposal. They also may change based on the specifics of what’s in the RFP. Since they also can take a lot of work, there’s definite value in starting that research before the RFP is released. Unless the RFP changes things. Then you may have to do it all over again. But if you stick to functional or high level terminology, you might be able to make the results more survivable.
  3. Drafting graphics. Doing graphics early can help you visualize your offering. But like text or data calls, a change in the RFP can result in a lot of wasted effort. Even if the RFP doesn’t change significantly, you can end up with a proposal that is not optimized to win. But a lot depends on which aspects you attempt to visualize. While procedures and solution details may be risky, graphics that deal with relationships may not be impacted by most RFP changes. You can prepare for the proposal by preparing graphics that demonstrate or help visualize the things that matter and the relationships between them, and use that to drive what you say in the proposal when the final RFP is released.

The key takeaway here is that the things that are best to do to prepare for a proposal do not involve proposal writing directly. They involve making proposal writing easier and more effective. They involve working through how you want to say things and how you're going to articulate your messages. While the final words that you put on paper may have to wait until you have the RFP, it's never too early to start figuring out how you're going to prepare a proposal that's not only better than the RFP, but better than anything your competitors have to offer. Once the RFP hits the street, people tend to become completely focused on it and the deadline, and may not have a lot of time to ponder secondary issues like what it will take to win.


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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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