7 categories of proposal software. But do you really need it?

Proposal software companies don’t want you to read this article. Wait a minute... that’s me!

Most proposal software fits one (and sometimes more) of these seven categories. Some are a better fit for winning proposals than others. Your needs depend partly on the nature of what you offer and partly on your corporate culture. It may very well be that what you need the most isn't proposal software at all...

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Proposal Software
  1. Automating proposal assembly. The only time you should automate the assembly of your proposals from reusable parts is when you sell a commodity, compete primarily on price, and don’t have sufficient profit margin to invest into increasing your win rate. For most companies, you will gain far more revenue by customizing your proposals to maximize your win rate, than you can possibly save from recycling narratives. Often the difference is two or three orders of magnitude. Since I rarely work with companies that sell low-margin commodities, I never use automated proposal assembly. I create custom proposals to maximize win probability and don’t create proposals the same way people create brochures. Your best alternative to automating proposal assembly is to streamline how you plan the content of your proposals.
  2. Inspiring proposal writers. By far, people spend more time thinking and talking about the proposal than they do writing it. The best way to make proposals more efficient is to decrease the amount of time people need to figure out what to offer and how to write a proposal that reflects what it will take to win. While recycling narratives does more harm than good for most people, what you can do is provide suggestions, topics, strategies, and more at the bullet level. We take all those ingredients and turn them into Proposal Recipes. When they are designed well, they will often inspire ideas that weren’t found in the Recipe Library. The goal is to get people thinking more quickly so that they can come up with the right answer for the particular bid they are working on, and not to feed them the same answer every time.  Incidentally, you do not necessarily need special software to provide an inspiration library.
  3. Guiding proposal writers. The proposal process is not sequential. It is best to think of it in terms of goals instead of steps. But there are high level phases you can guide people through. And there are options you can help them consider. You can help them assess when they’ve done things correctly. A little bit of guidance at the moment of need can make a big difference. Other than creating the guidance itself, the trick to making it effective is to pay attention to the user interface. Wrap your tasks in what people need to know to guide them through it. It must not be out of sight, but it also must not get in the way.
  4. Collaboration.  The more that you need to figure out what to offer and how to present it in the proposal, the more you will benefit from collaboration software. Collaboration software should help you think better and faster as a team. The real challenge, however, is making decisions. Software can get people talking, but you still need an organizational culture that’s decisive or it won’t amount to much and indecision will eat up valuable time instead of saving it. I’ve never settled on any particular software package for collaboration. It’s not the software that matters most to me, it’s how you use it, whether everyone has it, if it’s a pain to install, and whether you can turn discussion into action.
  5. Proposal planning. There is so little software available that’s effective for proposal planning, that I had to go and build my own. Planning the content of a proposal and integrating it with quality validation is not as simple as building an outline and grabbing document fragments from a library. At least not if winning matters. Planning the content of a winning proposal involves first identifying what it will take to win, planning that proposal, managing the creation of what is needed to achieve it, and validating that what got created fulfills what it will take to win. What I’ve found is that using software to help with the planning, validation, and guidance of staff has a much larger return on investment than software to manage or assemble the files you submit. In fact, if you took the tens of thousands of dollars you might spend on proposal software and put it into rolling out a manual process for planning the content of your proposals and validating the quality instead, you’ll probably be better off. Effectively planning to win pays for itself many times over because it increases your win rate. Software for proposal production has a questionable ROI. 
  6. Reviewing proposals. Proposal quality validation can be greatly streamlined when performed online. Instead of reviews that require paper-based production and putting everything on hold while people read and comment, when the validation of proposal quality criteria is done online it becomes a checklist driven exercise that goes as quickly as you can click through the proposal. If you are stuck in the purgatory of ineffective traditional review approaches, you might be able to use a tool like PleaseReview to relieve some of the administrivia burden and make better sense of the comments.
  7. Search and retrieval. If you have libraries of files for research or reuse, you’ll need to be able to search them. The search tool hardly matters. How you organize and maintain the libraries matters a whole lot. The cost of the hours and hours you will put into organization and maintenance will likely not only exceed the cost of the search tool, it will likely exceed the value of what people find using the search tool. File library maintenance is so much easier when you quit trying to find and reuse narratives, and abstract them into Proposal Recipes. 

Is winning or cost reduction your highest priority?

It’s good to make things easier, reduce effort, and ultimately reduce costs. But automating proposals without building them around what it will take to win will reduce your win rate more than you save. On the other hand, proposal software that guides your staff to plan and execute a proposal based on what it takes to win and does it better than they can do on their own manually, pays for itself many times over.

The middle ground is software for collaboration and process. You can implement collaboration tools with little or no cost. You can improve your process for planning and executing by investing nothing more than your time.

How do you decide what to do? Ask yourself what is holding back your win rate. I’m willing to bet that not getting the input you need to know what it will take to win and an ineffective review process that doesn’t provide actual quality validation have a bigger impact than being able to look up past proposals or reduce the time it takes to assemble proposal files. I’m willing to bet that flaws in your corporate decision making culture have a bigger impact than being limited to phones and email for collaboration. Sometimes people turn to software because they think there’s nothing they can do about the real problems. And they’re usually wrong about that. But then again, it may be easier to get the Powers That Be to write a check for tens of thousands of dollars than it is to get them to make quick and consistent decisions based on well-defined quality criteria.


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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. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, 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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