Proposal losses generally fall into these categories:
- Someone had an offering that the customer liked better
- You made mistakes or didn’t follow the instructions
So when a proposal loses, why do people tend to focus the lessons learned on how the proposal was written? The truth is that you probably lost before the proposal started.
Here are the universal lessons to be learned at the end of a proposal:
- Increase your pricing skills, part of which is increasing the information you have about costs and your competition.
- Don’t make mistakes. Good luck with that. Quality processes can help. Trying really hard can help.
- Follow the instructions. Try harder. But sometimes it comes down to how to interpret what the customer said. It’s often not as clear as they thought it was.
- Improve how you write your proposals. This can be either improving your planning or improving your execution. It can be proposal writing or proposal management. Process and training can help. A lot. Recycling content, using tools, etc. won’t help as much as you think.
- Improve your offering. What are you proposing to do or deliver? What makes your offering better?
In my experience, problems with the offering are the number one reason why proposals lose. A loss on price is more likely to be a result of differences in how the work was scoped and defined than it is to be a result of an actual difference in prices. Bid strategies can be based on the RFP, but the best ones are based on giving the offering strategic impact. When offering design occurs during the proposal phase, it often degrades to being more about presentation than strategic impact.
Mistakes like missing forms or proposal requirements should never happen. But they do. That’s the nature of mistakes. Thankfully, they are rare. Poor decisions about what to offer happen far more often but are also harder to admit.
Lessons learned reviews tend to focus on making the proposal better instead of making the offering better. People want to believe that they made the best decision they could without beating themselves up about it. The only problem is that accepting this does not lead to better decisions in the future.
Almost all of the bad decisions people make about their offering are a result of not having the right information. Informed decisions are easy. The reasons people don’t have the right information is that they didn’t do their homework, they made assumptions, or they didn’t dig deep enough.
You can fix two out of those three:
- If you didn’t do your homework, it’s most likely because the assignment was poorly constructed and not from lack of effort. This is a nice way of saying that whoever was supposed to be in charge gave poor instructions. Usually they led a fishing expedition instead of a real inquiry.
- If you made assumptions, like “the customer loves us” or “the customer doesn’t like [fill in the blank],” then you need to learn how to recognize your assumptions so you can start catching yourself making them and test them instead. Most assumptions take the form of thinking you know what the customer will like or not like.
- If you didn’t dig deep enough, it may be because you exhausted your contacts and the customer wasn’t willing to talk. Maybe you could have tried harder, but you might have just run into a wall. One challenge is that the customer is not one person. There are many people involved in the decision, often with competing agendas. Does your information reflect that? If not, are you assuming the people you have talked to reflect the consensus? How do you get to those at the customer you don't know and who might not be willing to talk to vendors?
It's harder for incumbents. It’s easy as the incumbent to think you know the customer. But what are they not telling you? What are the preferences at management levels above the customer staff you interact with? Are you assuming that the future project should resemble the current project in size and scope? What has changed? And what might a competitor do to woo the customer away? Are you willing to change? Are you willing to downscale to increase your chances of keeping the customer? Is that what the customer wants? Did you invest in real continuous improvement and delighting the customer? Are you going to pay the price if you didn’t? An outsider has nothing to lose by submitting a bold proposal.
When an incumbent loses, it’s even sadder. When it’s not the result of a mistake or pricing, it can because of things like they weren’t providing the awesome service they thought they were, their offer didn’t support the changes the customer wanted to make, or someone else offered something new that the customer wanted more than they feared the risk of change. In every case, bad information or assumptions are what killed the bid and not bad proposal writing. Even though we want to believe that a last-minute heroic effort can save the day, no improvement in the proposal process or writing could have changed the fact that what was proposed was inferior.
The real lesson to be learned isn’t just that you should start before the RFP is released. It’s that you should make sure that what you think you know is real. Otherwise, no matter how nice a house you build during the proposal phase, the weak foundation can make it collapse. You lose the proposal before it even starts. Bring valid information to the proposal and heroics won’t be necessary to write one that wins.
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The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.
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