All you need to do to produce a winning proposal is give the customer the information they need to decide in your favor.
It really is that simple.
And that totally hides how difficult it really is. While what you need to do is simple to understand, it is hard to achieve. Here are six top problems that get in the way of keeping proposals simple:
- You have to know what information the customer needs. It’s not about you or your offering. It’s all about them. It's their decision. What do they need to make it in your favor?
- You have to have the information the customer needs. If you know what you need to write about, but you don’t have the knowledge to write it, it’s a problem. When you don't have the subject matter and other knowledge you need, it's usually because you need someone else to provide it. See problem #5.
- You need to know how the customer will make their decision. You can’t give them the information they need to decide if you don’t know how they’ll reach their decision. If you’re lucky, they’ll tell you and it will be right there in the RFP. All you have to do is understand their process. Invest yourself in that. If they haven't told you, it's worth exploring and discovering what's important to them, what procedures they follow, what their preferences are, and who is involved.
- You have to say it from the customer’s perspective. You don't have to be able to write in any particular style to win a proposal. But it does help to be able to write from the customer's perspective instead of your own. And for some people this is a big challenge.
- Doing proposals bigger than yourself. It’s so much easier if you can do the whole proposal on your own. But you can’t. High-value pursuits tend to require more information than any one person possesses. What makes high-value proposals difficult isn't the size or the value. It's all those other people involved. Working on a document against a deadline with other people is hard. It shouldn't be, but it is. You have to recognize that and do something about it.
- It helps to have something the customer actually wants. If the customer thinks you aren't qualified, then you don't have what they want. While it’s good to believe in yourself and have confidence, selling your greatness despite not meeting the requirements is a contradiction. The customer sees it very differently than you do and their opinion matters more than yours. If you are selling what you’ve got and hoping to make the customer want it, you face an uphill battle.
Now play them each back with a twist and you’ll see what you need to do to make your proposals as easy as they should be:
- Not knowing what information the customer needs. Proposal writing is easy. Figuring out the customer is hard and requires focus. It should be your highest priority during the pre-RFP phase. Not knowing the information that the customer needs is a major indicator that you shouldn’t bid. Put the majority of your effort into this and everything else will just fall into place.
- Not having the information you need to write a great proposal. If no one has it or knows where to get it, then this becomes an indicator that you shouldn’t bid. If you can get the information you need, then it’s just an execution issue. Once you’ve got it, the writing becomes easy.
- Not knowing how the customer will make their decision. When you don’t know how the customer makes their decisions, you only have two options: be everything to everybody or take a risk of being wrong. I’m comfortable taking risks, but most companies aren’t and make the mistake of trying to be everything to everybody. If you're watering down your positioning because you’re not sure what position to take, it’s another indicator that you shouldn’t be bidding. When you know how the customer will make their decision, it makes positioning and incorporating bid strategies in proposal writing easy.
- Not being able to write from the customer’s perspective. This is a skill that needs to be learned. Sadly, most proposal writing courses focus on process instead of how to assemble words the way the customer needs to see them. When you have the information you need, proposal writing becomes a simple matter of presenting it from the customer’s perspective.
- Other people. The primary reason companies implement a proposal process is to set expectations so that people can work together. But it is still more of a people problem than a process problem. It turns into a culture problem and an organizational development problem. Working with other people on a high-stakes document against a deadline is hard. If you resolve every other issue except the problem of working with other people, your proposals will still be hard. A case could be made that you have to solve this one first, before you can solve any of the other issues. When you solve how to write a proposal with other people involved, you may win the Nobel Peace Prize for being the first. But the closer you come to a solution, the easier your proposals will get.
- Having to sell something that’s not what the customer wants. Doing this forces you to write about what you think the customer should want, and that is not always the same as what they do want. Ignoring what the customer wants and presenting what you’ve got is a low-probability win strategy. That’s a nice way of saying it’s an indicator that maybe you shouldn’t bid at all. It’s much better to understand what the customer wants and then offer that to them. The next best strategy is to understand what the customer wants, show how what you’ve got relates to it, and then position any gaps as trade-offs that work in their favor. When what you are offering matches up perfectly with what the customer wants and how they’ll make their decision, proposal writing becomes a simple matter of telling them that and proving it.
Note that I didn't include not having enough people to write the proposal. That's because it's probably not true. The reason you need more people is often that your company takes too long to make decisions, changes its mind after proposal writing starts, plays passive/aggressive games when people don't cooperate, and has to write in circles around the information you should have but don't. Fix these and you'll greatly reduce the number of hours it takes to produce your proposals.
When you are in proposal crisis, remember that the problem is simple. All you need to do to produce a winning proposal is to give the customer the information they need to reach a decision in your favor. Being simple to describe does not make it easy to do. But it does help you gain some perspective on the problems. They are not inherent to proposals or insurmountable.
All you have to do is figure out the customer and get people to cooperate and your proposals really will become easy. A little progress in these two areas will make a big difference. When you run into proposal drama, try thinking about which one of these is behind it. Then work on the real issue and you might be surprised at the progress you can make.
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Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY.
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.
In addition, the groups Carl moderates on LinkedIn provide a place for tens of thousands of business development and proposal professionals to discuss best practices and network.
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