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Succeeding with a high volume of proposals

Your high-volume proposal issues are not the same as everyone else’s issues.

Your high-volume proposal issues are not the same as everyone else’s issues. And a generic proposal template can do more harm than good. So what should you do?

Start by understanding who you are and the nature of the problem. Is what you offer:

  • A commodity that the customer can get from any supplier?
  • Determined by the customer and you’re just supplying the labor?
  • Customization on top of what would otherwise be a commodity?
  • A proprietary product?
  • A unique solution or service offering?

Each one of these has different issues at high volume. Because the issues are different, the amount of reuse and subject matter expert (SME) participation varies. This in turn changes where your bottlenecks are and what you do about them.

And what about your RFPs? Are they the same? And by that I do not mean, “Do they ask for the same thing?” I mean, “Do they ask for the same thing using the same words in the same sequence?” Similar RFPs are not the same. This impacts the level of effort required to respond.

Finally, are the customers' concerns and evaluation criteria the same? Do all your customers have the same issues and preferences? The odds are they don’t, but for certain narrowly defined lines of business it can be true. This is important because it determines what you need to say about your offering in order to win. If it changes in every proposal, then what you need to write in every proposal changes. This can become an issue at high volume.

Peaks and valleys or steady state?

The strategies for coping with an occasional or seasonal surge are different from the strategies that work for a continuous high volume of proposals.  

To get through a surge, you might try to push through by working harder. Or you might bring in staff augmentation consultants. 

The challenge is to identify and understand your bottlenecks. Is the problem that production resources are stretched too thin, or is it that you don’t have enough SMEs to design the offering? Hiring production support is a lot easier than hiring someone who knows your customer, this particular area, the right technology, and your company’s capabilities.

What can you do to streamline adding resources? Can you add production skills or subject matter expertise through temporary assignments or using consultants? To quickly add resources you need to streamline how you:

  • Select the resources. This helps if you establish provider relationships ahead of time. Keep in mind that future consultant availability is always an issue.
  • Budget and procure. Line up your approvals, have provider agreements already in place, and try to make it as simple as placing a pre-approved order.
  • Onboard and train. Once you’ve got the help, then what? How do you get the badges, IT accounts, and how do they learn what your proposal procedures are? This stuff can take a surprising amount of non-productive time, so try to make it checklist simple and self-explanatory. You need the new resources to be able to follow a script because your current staff can’t hold their hands in a high-volume environment.

Think about functional support requirements instead of roles

See also:
Dealing with adversity

You may not be able to quickly assign someone new and have them efficiently produce an entire proposal in your environment. Don’t think in terms of the roles people normally play on your proposals like proposal managers, coordinators, writers. Try to think functionally:

  • What information do you need provided, what form can you work with it in, and how can you specify it? How can you frame providing information as a task for someone new?
  • What deliverables do you need from one person or step to another? Which of these can someone new create or contribute to?
  • What formats do you need things in? When, where, and how should formatting be done? Can you either bring in someone to do the formatting, or exclude formatting from what someone needs to do and have someone who specializes in the formatting do it?
  • Do you need finished writing, draft writing, inputs for others to write, or what? Can someone do the writing from simple inputs to lower the burden on your SMEs? Or can someone provide the inputs for one of your writers? If your surge support writers are merely good enough, can they do drafts while your rock stars do finished copy? Or if only your internal staff know all the necessary details, maybe they should do the drafts and you can bring in surge support to clean them up? 
  • What are the flows of information and deliverables, points of contact, and methods of coordination? Can you make it self-explanatory so that newcomers will know who to contact and how to obtain or exchange information and files? The less you have to tell the newcomers what to do and the more they can follow a script, the less of a burden they will be.

If you can’t bring in someone to take over a role, you might be able to carve up the tasks so that people focus only on what they absolutely have to do, and someone else can help with the secondary parts. This is a good strategy for dealing with limited SME resources. You need information from them, but you don’t necessarily need it to be in a finished form. Job carving can be very effective, but it must be thought through in advance. You have to organize to take advantage of it. Trying to figure it out in the middle of a surge will make getting help take more effort than the help it delivers.

Centralized vs Decentralized

In some companies, you can centralize functions like formatting and editing. In some companies, things are so decentralized you can’t even get everyone to agree on processes or techniques that could enable things to be streamlined. Centralization works great for standardization and standardization is important for maximizing efficiency against a high volume of proposals. If your organization is decentralized, then instead of focusing on task assignment and resource allocation efficiency, focus on providing guidance to achieve efficiency.  Guidance can take the form of just-in-time training, checklists, forms, templates, and more.  

Margin matters too

If you have a sustained high volume at a sufficient profit margin, you should invest to maximize your win rate. Focus on calculating ROI, understanding how win rate impacts it, and tracking how what you do impacts your win rate. But if you have a sustained high volume of low-margin bids, you must focus on efficiency. But what does proposal efficiency mean? And when does reducing proposal costs in a way that also lowers your win rate produce a negative ROI? Instead of focusing on proposal reuse, it may be better to focus on creating proposal recipes that help people more quickly figure out what they should write and how they should write it.

Don’t forget about quality assurance

Most companies do an awful, inefficient, and inconsistently effective job of reviewing their proposals. This is largely a result of reviewing proposals without even defining what proposal quality is! If you standardize your proposal quality criteria, then proposal quality validation reviews can become as simple as checklists. In a high-volume environment, you might:

  • Centralize proposal quality validation
  • Outsource proposal quality validation
  • Outsource everything except proposal quality validation
  • Standardize quality validation to the point of making it checklist simple

Your approach to quality is critical to not only achieving a high volume, but also achieving a high win rate.

Work the gaps

Similar is not the same. Templates and reuse should only be used for the parts of a proposal that are the same across bids. Streamlining proposal development depends on understanding the gaps you have between what you have and what you need:

  • What is new?
  • What is different?
  • What is the same?

What is different might require a little rewording, or it may require a lot of rewording. A simple change in emphasis, such as a differently worded evaluation criterion can have a huge impact on the amount of editing required. Even changing "just a few words" can take as long as it did to write the sentence in the first place

It helps to realize that most of the time spent on a proposal is not spent writing. It is spent talking about what to write. It is spent thinking through what it will take to win and how to achieve that in writing. This is where you have your best opportunity to streamline. If you can create recipes, decision trees, or scripts that help people quickly figure out what the strategies are and what points to make in the document, it can be a bigger accelerator than having a template. 

You should also look for gaps in capability, capacity, and availability. Do you have enough people, with the right knowledge and expertise, who are available when you need them and to the extent you need them? Or do you have gaps you need to fill? When creating proposal assignments, it may help to identify all the functional requirements or activities that need to be covered, and not just think about the proposal outline. A RACI (Responsibility Accountability Consulted and Informed) matrix can help you quickly identify gaps in coverage.

What about tools?

Software won’t help as much as you might think. Proposal automation is more myth than substance. What matters is how well thought through your procedures are. If you have solid procedures, then office applications can be very effective. Proposal automation gives you someone else's procedures and tends to focus on document assembly, which is not where you lose the most time. Proposal automation can hurt your win rate unless you are bidding commodities with no RFPs involved.

Think about where you have gaps and where you spend your time. The best software for proposals is often collaboration software. Speeding up the ability to communicate, exchange, and manage files is often more helpful than trying to speed up document assembly. And workflow automation software tends to break in the messy real world of proposal development. Plus it takes a ton of time to learn and configure.

Another fruitful but overlooked area is to use software that facilitates proposal reviews. Proposal reviews can be a huge time sink.  Also, software that facilitates delivering just-in-time training or supports onboarding of resources can be helpful.

Succeeding with a high volume of proposals: TL;DR

Reduce decision time. Reduce the time it takes to figure out what to say, but do it without trying to recycle narratives. Be ready to add resources. Make everything self-explanatory so no time is lost not knowing what to do or having to be a teacher. Streamline how you discover your gaps and fill them. Divide and conquer your bottlenecks. Don't automate. Instead facilitate.


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More information about "Carl Dickson"

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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