At most companies, the proposal management role is not well defined. What you are managing is not well defined. Who you are managing is not well defined. The resources at your disposal are not well defined, and they're usually minimal. Your responsibilities are all-encompassing.
In larger companies, there are multiple roles (business development, capture, subject matter experts, writers, proposal specialists, etc.). But sometimes that just means more cats to herd. In small companies, you have the opposite problem. Writing a proposal sounds like a single thing, so it’s often given to a single person. That person is usually not a proposal specialist and is often a stuckee low on the org chart.
That’s okay. It creates an opportunity, since proposals are competitive. You can beat companies who don’t take proposal development seriously and try to slack their way through them. But you might have to transform your entire company to do it. It often falls to the proposal manager to see the need, define what needs to be done, and become the change agent. Proposal managers are often the tail that wags the dog.
Most of the issues below will appear unsolvable if you just try to resolve them with improved procedures. They require change at the organizational level. This is often above the pay-grade of a proposal manager. But if you build the right types of communication into your process, you can make it clearer to The Powers That Be what needs to be done to increase your win rate. Create reports that show the performance of the handoffs that occur in your process, the flow of information, and how they impact the return on investment. Make your process speak for itself regarding what should be done to maximize win rate and return on investment.
Some of these issues are not exclusive to proposal management. However, for proposal managers these issues can almost be inherent in the role, even though they shouldn’t be.
- You’re closing someone else’s sale. Someone else found and chased the lead. And yet, it doesn’t close until the proposal is accepted. If they aren’t part of closing the sale, is it really their sale? Are they responsible for putting lines in the water, or reeling them in? Regardless of how you allocate your sales resources, design your process to effectively close and not just produce leads. If you are on the receiving end of someone else’s lead, you should be able to articulate what you need from them to close the sale, while they are still pursuing it and able to get it for you. You should be able to show the correlation between whether you start with what you need and your win rate.
- You have all the responsibility, with none of the authority. No one on your team actually reports to you. You don’t even control the proposal budget. Proposal managers are often called on to manage their own bosses and even their bosses’ bosses. Is it any surprise that people often fail in their proposal assignments without being held accountable? It’s hard to manage expectations when you are not in charge of the expectations. Building expectation management into your process helps change it from a chain of command issue and instead make it a natural part of the collaboration.
- You don’t get to decide who’s on your team. You get what you get as far as resources go, and you’re expected to take it from there. And win. If you want more resources, you need to be able to prove the ROI. Expect them to not have any training, their experience to be from at least five years ago, and you may not know if they’re any good until it’s too late to do anything about it. This is one reason why building training into your process and making it part of performance instead of something separate can help so much.
- You are responsible for the information you’re not given. You are supposed to win. Not being given sufficient insight into the customer, opportunity, and competitive environment is not an acceptable excuse. If you are expected to win, design your process to clearly identify what information you need to write a winning proposal, and put it in the hands of people who interface with the customer early enough to be able to get it.
- Your process will break. Every time. One reason people usually have more of a way of doing things than an actual proposal process is that the customer will do things that break your process. If you have to reinvent your process every time, why bother to write it down? Most proposal managers do not have the ability to design a process that is sufficiently adaptable, and if they do, they won’t be given enough time to write it down. Build your process around your information needs instead of steps. You can predict what information each participant needs to play their role, regardless of whatever wackiness the customer throws into the RFP.
- You’re supposed to be able to write, present, manage staff, implement processes, design offerings, read the customer’s mind, provide quality assurance, and understand the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), DCAA compliant pricing, graphics, and publishing. And yes, you’re not only expected to supervise, you’re supposed to participate personally in doing all those things well enough to beat any potential competitor. It’s usually a mistake to give your proposal manager writing assignments, but it happens all the time. Overloading the proposal manager usually results from simply not sufficiently defining the role.
- Making an accurate, on time, within budget, and defect-free submission is not good enough. Did it win?
- You have no control over other people changing their minds. You’re outranked. It’s hard to give people a voice in the process and an opportunity to make or participate in decisions, when they randomly change their minds later. It’s one thing when the customer does that to you. It’s another when it’s people in your own organization.
- Everyone thinks they are more qualified than you, but no one wants to do your job. Or follow your instructions. Look at how most writing roles are staffed. It’s like people assume that anyone can write, at least well enough. If you allow it to happen, you’ll be positioned as the pusher of paper that no one else wants to push. That’s an asset, but not much of one. You are not indispensable just because no one else can push paper as well as you do. If you are going to be responsible for winning, then show your organization what it needs to do to win. If you are going to be responsible for the process, then become the organizational developer who implements it, the trainer who shows people how, and the indispensable helper who makes their lives better than they would be without you.
Everyone resents that they have to work on your project. No one wants to work on proposals. If you’re not a proposal specialist, it’s a distraction from your real job and a secondary source of deadlines. The more you can do to link participating in the proposal with their aspirations for making a difference on the project, the company, the customer, their career, and more, the better. Growth happens through proposals. The world changes through proposals.
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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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