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Playing proposal defense vs. playing proposal offense

Plus 5 ways to prevent disaster

Sometimes you have all the advantages. Sometimes a proposal is yours to lose. And while you can easily lose if you make mistakes, it takes more than a good defense to win.

Playing defense in a proposal means compliance. It means giving the customer exactly what they asked for. It requires understanding the RFP and not making mistakes. I have seen proposals lose after spending a great deal of time scrutinizing the text, only to accidentally leave out a copy of one form. A simple oversight, right where you weren’t expecting one, can ruin all the care you put into everything else. It’s enough to make a production manager paranoid.

But compliance also means addressing everything the customer expects to see, in the language they expect to see it in. Compliance means mentioning everything, even when the RFP is 300 pages and the proposal is limited to 25 pages. That’s enough to make a proposal manager even more paranoid. It doesn't help that compliance can be subjective and open to interpretation.

You need detailed, disciplined quality assurance procedures to avoid losing due to noncompliance:

See also:
  1. You need to make sure that everything the customer requires has a place in your proposal, and make sure that place is where the customer expects to find it. Your best guide for this is the RFP. However, RFPs can get complicated. Creating a compliance matrix is crucial. Just make sure that your compliance matrix is valid. It doubles the effort to have someone thoroughly review and validate your compliance matrix. That effort is worth it if you don't want to lose.
  2. You also need to create a production checklist. A compliance matrix alone is not enough. While the issues are similar from RFP to RFP, you can’t recycle this checklist. It must reflect the particular RFP precisely. Every document that must be included should be itemized. Every production requirement for every document should be detailed. It should be impossible to overlook anything if you follow your production checklist. Don’t forget to validate your production checklist.
  3. Don’t forget to prepare a production checklist for the pricing and business volume. Last minute pricing changes happen. If you don’t already have the checklist to accelerate quality assurance, mistakes can happen. Mistakes in the pricing volume have a very high risk of proposal failure. 
  4. For the written portion of the proposal, to avoid mistakes you need quality validation instead of subjective reviews. You need to validate against defined quality criteria instead of relying on opinions. Those quality criteria should itemize and validate everything that puts you at risk of losing. Be careful to construct your quality criteria to catch mistakes. If there are a lot of things that could go wrong, you'll have a lot of quality criteria. This is a good thing and not a hassle — if you don't want to lose.
  5. You should also review more than just the document. You should also review your decisions. You make dozens, if not hundreds, of judgment calls and trade-off decisions in preparing a proposal. If you’re playing defense and trying to avoid mistakes, each and every one of them should be double checked.

Playing proposal defense vs. proposal offense

You can avoid losing due to mistakes. But that may not be enough to win. Compliance alone is not enough to win.

If the opportunity is yours to lose, that’s only true if your advantages make it into the proposal. If it's yours to lose and your proposal doesn't establish your advantages in the document, then you are not better than any other proposal.  If you can’t articulate your advantages in the proposal in a way that maximizes your evaluation score, then no matter how important you think they are, your advantages literally amount to nothing. If you only play defense, you can end up with a fully compliant proposal with no mistakes and lose because someone else scored better. 

If an opportunity is yours to lose, you need to turn your advantages into the highest score in writing. The good news is that if your advantages are real, this should be relatively straightforward. If the opportunity is yours to lose, your strategy might be to avoid risks while articulating your advantages without making any mistakes. This is how you avoid losing.

However, if you are bidding at a disadvantage you might have to take risks in order to achieve the highest score. If you are bidding at a disadvantage, your best (only?) chance of winning might include taking on risks that could cause you to lose. This is because companies with an advantage won't take those risks, they'll play it safe, stay on defense, and create an opportunity for you that might just pay off.

If the opportunity is yours to lose, everyone else will be taking risks to overcome your advantages. If they make a mistake, well, the odds were against them anyway. So even if you're writing a low risk, defensive proposal, with a high win probability you need to defend against high risk attempts to steal your win away from you.

In the end, there is very little difference between bidding to not lose and bidding to win. The real difference is the amount of risk you're willing to embrace and where you put your focus. The nature of risk is that it can’t be eliminated. It can only be managed. All proposals have risk. Even the ones that you think are yours to lose. 

Let's discuss your challenges with preparing proposals and winning new business...

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.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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