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What to do to prepare for a proposal ahead of RFP release

The good ways, the bad ways, and the in-between ways

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

See also:
Pre-RFP Pursuit
  1. Writing the proposal in advance. If you write the proposal without the requirements, keywords, and evaluation criteria from the proposal, how can you create a proposal designed to demonstrate compliance, and write it so that it's optimized to win? Preparing for the proposal does not mean writing. It means doing things that will make the writing go better and faster. Instead of assuming that there are sections of your proposal that are routine and won't change, try spending the time thinking about how to differentiate in those sections so that they are better than what your competitors will offer. 
  2. Staging re-use material. If you make it easy to recycle your past proposals, which are not optimized to win the new proposal, there is a huge danger that people will start from those files instead of from what it will take to win. 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 through what it will take to win. Identifying reuse material is not the best place to start to get ready for a new proposal. Discovering and articulating what it will take to win is far more productive, and actually speeds the proposal up more.
  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? Winning requires not only writing a compliant proposal, but also addressing 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 or services? What will the logistics be? What is your concept of operations? What issues will you face and what will you do about them? These are things you must be able to articulate before you start writing. If you try to figure them out by writing about them, you’re just asking for a disaster because each change in what you offer 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. Designing your offering ahead of time means that your proposal starts with a gap analysis against the requirements instead of starting from scratch. 
  3. Articulating your positioning. You should position everything against everything. Explicitly. Your company against each competitor. Your offering design against all alternatives. Your offering against the requirements. 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. Positioning isn't just for marketing. Positioning answers "Why?" and sometimes "Why?" matters as much, if not more, than what you are offering when it comes to getting selected. Positioning is where you demonstrate your insight, judgment, and trustworthiness.

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. A better title for what you need is a pursuit strategist. 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. Even when you don't use the data directly, it can often be turned into soundbites or proof statements. The data you need may also change based on the specifics of what’s in the RFP. But there is definite value in starting that research before the RFP is released because aggregating the data also can take a lot of work. When it comes to the statement of work, you stick to functional or high level terminology before the RFP is released. Simply having the data sources you'll need lined up can be a big help later.
  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 or be easy to update. 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.

Once you know what you're going to offer, the points you want to make, and how you should position things, writing will go much more quickly and the result will have a higher win probability. This is a much better way to approach your proposal than to write it in advance, recycling past proposal or boilerplate text, or preparing the same-old same-old theme statements that are all about you and don't even pass the "So what?" test.

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 responding to it in the limited time available, and may not take the time they should 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, 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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