Managing the Proposal Process

Proposals are what some might call a "necessary evil" in the government negotiated procurement market. You may have the best product in the world or be the best service organization in your industry, but those things mean little if your proposals don't win.

Proposal writing is not for the feint hearted. The process is cumbersome, tiring, and expensive. And unfortunately, too often it takes a back seat to other company priorities and ends up being done poorly.

Some key considerations:

  • Avoid negotiated procurements unless you make a complete and total commitment to proposal writing and are determined to do it right.
  • Select proposals carefully and selectively; write only the ones you can win, and write proposals that are high quality and designed not to lose. (More about this later.)
Understanding Customer Needs

An important part of your early sales efforts is (beyond selling your capabilities) developing an understanding of the customers needs.

Winning proposals are written from the customers perspective. You have to demonstrate that you truly understand the customers needs, the solutions that the customer believes are the answer to his or her problems (not your solutions), and what specific benefits the customer is looking for and how you are going to provide them.

Proposal Evaluation: How It Really Works

Understanding how agencies evaluate proposals is an essential element of successful proposal writing. You need to write proposals to make evaluators jobs as easy as possible. Give them the help they need to score your proposal high.

Many people new to government proposal writing write their proposals to win, which seems to make sense, right? In the government market, however, you should write your proposals not to lose.

Why? A committee of evaluators must wade through a pile of many proposals (often up to 20, or sometimes even more) and score them against a set of published criteria. They don't read through them, pick the most stellar proposal and declare a winner. That's not how it works. Instead, they score them one by one and compare total scores. Then they find a natural cut-off point between the qualified and unqualified companies. The fewer qualified companies left the better from the viewpoint of the evaluators, because there's less work.

The evaluators will sometimes contact the remaining qualified companies (those in the "zone of consideration") and ask them to strengthen their weak points. Yes, you heard it right. They don't have to, but evaluators may give all qualified companies a shot at bettering their score.

In short, its a process of elimination. So you want to write NOT TO BE ELIMINATED. In other words, write defensively. Don't try to hit homeruns, over-emphasizing a few points in the proposal. You wont win that way. Be consistent; cover all your bases. Its better to respond competently (even if not brilliantly) on all points, rather than nail perfectly some points at the expense of others. If you blow just one area of the proposal, youve given the evaluator a reason to knock you out.

Writing Defensively: A Few Tips

A few tips for providing the evaluator no reason to eliminate your proposal:

  • Write summaries, including an executive summary, summaries to begin chapters and sections, and topic sentences to begin subsections. A summary of a section is where you hit them with your creative ideas, themes, and solutions. Headings, diagrams, checklists and summaries all promote understanding.
  • Present cross-reference matrices that make it easy for evaluators to see where you have covered every requirement in the RFP.
  • Don't boast. Instead, make simple declarative statements about your company, its capabilities and its people. Back up each statement with verifiable evidence -- e.g., reference to past performance, staff accomplishments, etc. Don't make promises without specifics on how you plan to keep those promises.
  • Present what the evaluators want to hear, not what you think is best for them. Don't get fancy and over-propose solutions that they don't want or understand.
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses and your competitors strengths and weaknesses. Offset their strengths and exploit their weaknesses.
  • Present the evidence that your supporters on the evaluation committee need to justify their scoring.
  • Don't hide your weaknesses. Instead, address them head on and negate them as much as possible.
Proposal Organization and Management

The advice "Only write the ones you can win" may seem trite, but that's exactly what you must do. Select carefully and write the proposals for the procurements that you have pre-sold.

Management should focus on making the best possible bid/no bid decisions. Make a decision based on what you learned about the customer and the competition during the sales process. If the decision is bid, commit 100% to writing an effective proposal.

The best way to win is to start as early as possible in making the bid/no bid decision and starting the proposal itself. If you wait until the last possible moment, you will probably lose. You can bet someone out there has gotten the jump on you.

Choose your proposal leader carefully. This person should be an experienced proposal writer/manager and know the most about the customer. If you cant find this all-in-one superstar, go with the experienced proposal writer and support this person with the people who know the customer best.

Have the proposal leader prepare a proposal outline in the greatest possible detail. Not enough can be said about the importance of a detailed proposal outline. It will become the guiding framework for managing the project and for the writing process itself.

Selecting the best possible staff (technical/scientific/operational) to write the solution sections of the proposal also is critical to success. These folks need to be taught the customers requirements (if they don't already know the customer) and be able to develop and write the solutions to meet the requirements. Chances are they will not be experienced writers. Use the detailed proposal outline to guide their efforts and to show them exactly what is expected of them in organizational structure, content, and format.

Plan the proposal project in depth. For large projects, its a complex undertaking involving many people. This involves organizing project tasks, assignments and proposal content in as much detail as possible.

Company management should be involved in all aspects of the proposal project. They should monitor writing status as the proposal progresses and personally review the content and quality of the results.

In summary, management must make a commitment to each and every proposal the company writes. Assign the best people to write the proposal and support them in every way possible. Give the proposal leader the authority and resources to produce a winning proposal.


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