The first of six success strategies I teach in my proposal workshop is "Never trust the RFP." I started offering this advice years ago because I was concerned how many relied on the limited information in the RFP for shaping their proposal strategy rather than gathering the needed insights directly from the client in advance of the solicitation.
More recently, my chief concern about RFPs has shifted to their tendency to mislead most proposal writers into believing that the firm's qualifications are the primary basis upon which clients make their selection. This perception is rooted in qualifications-based selection protocols, which specify that qualifications rather than price are to drive the decision. But in reality, trying to win consistently based mainly on qualifications is a fool's errand.
That doesn't keep many of us from continuing to try that approach. After all, the RFP told us so! Why would we dare not trust the RFP? Because my 35 years of talking to clients about how they review our proposals and make their selections has given me a more nuanced view of what they're really looking for than what is specifically spelled out in their solicitations. As former client Gary Coover puts it in his book Secrets of the Selection Committee, "It's all about us [the client], not about you [the firm]."
Like all buyers, clients choose us based on their self interest. Whichever firm they perceive is best able to meet their needs is the one they will select. So how you will deliver success should be the focus of your proposal. Your qualifications are only the evidence that you're able to fulfill what you have promised.
How Before Who
It's common for A/E firm proposals to be saturated with self promotion, even in the sections that are supposed to be devoted to addressing the client's interests. Consider this excerpt from the technical approach section of one of the world's largest A/E firms. Specifically, this is the introduction to a subsection on "Project Management":
- Staffing a project with a strong management team is critical for project success. Our Project Manager (John Smith) will lead and oversee the project teams for both the BCRTA Station and Amtrak Platform workstreams. (John) is a licensed architect and senior project manager with recent experience leading teams for FTA-funded multimodal bus and rail transit projects involving complex stakeholder groups. He led the (ACME) team for the (Maximus Transit Center) that won multiple design awards, achieved LEED Gold certification, and is loved by the community.
The remainder of the Project Management write-up further expounds on John's qualifications, as well as those of his deputy project managers. Missing from this subsection? Any mention of how the project will be managed.
This is similar to my experiences providing support on proposals for indefinite delivery-type contracts. I consistently advise proposal teams to write a strong description of how they manage and staff contracts with multiple, often concurrent, projects at multiple locations. But what I usually get is a focus on who will be managing the work, not how.
This is missing the boat, especially with federal agencies that are often particularly interested in your project-related work processes. Makes sense. If you can't describe how you do it, why should the client be impressed with who you've chosen to do the work? There's an old adage of selling that applies here: Don't tell the buyer how qualified you are, demonstrate it!
Crafting Your Value Proposition
It's understandable why A/E proposals rarely articulate a clear value proposition. RFPs don't ask for one. We don't talk about it much in our profession. Common definitions of it can be a bit difficult to grasp in practical terms.
A value proposition is a promise to deliver specific value to the customer. So what does that mean in application? Various elaborations of the generic definition have been offered. For example, it should be relevant, it should resonate with the buyer, it should differentiate your firm, it should be provable, it should be quantifiable. Not helpful?
The best way I've found to communicate the concept of a value proposition to A/E audiences is with this simple graphic:
Solution is a term we're well acquainted with in this industry. But unfortunately our notion of value tends to stop there. Outcomes are the results that are enabled by our solution. Benefits are the client value derived from the delivered outcomes. Clients may say they hire us for our solutions, but what they are really buying are the associated outcomes and benefits.
The following illustrates the use of this value proposition framework on an actual proposal (although the results are abbreviated for this example):
The main advantage of articulating your value proposition in this matter is that it describes the results that define the terms of project success. Clients ultimately hire you to deliver outcomes and benefits, not services or solutions. But this conclusion is remarkably uncommon in our industry, particularly on the engineering and scientific side of the business. Want evidence? Read your project descriptions to see how seldom they describe the results you delivered.
By the way, the best value propositions are developed jointly with the client prior to the RFP. You shouldn't find yourself in the position of having to guess what success looks like for the client. In the example above, we worked closely with the client on the value proposition. So there was little uncertainty about what the winning strategy looked like.
Where to Put Your Value Proposition in Your Proposal
If your value proposition is to be the focus of your proposal, you can't just refer to it once or twice. Since it's rarely mentioned in RFPs, this is one of the first hurdles A/E firms face in including their value proposition. They're reluctant to go beyond what the RFP expressly requested.
This is a problem primarily for firms that haven't already uncovered the terms of success. In the example above, there was no mention of a value proposition in the RFP. Consequently, we were the only firm to include one, and we knew exactly what they wanted. It's hard to lose a proposal under those circumstances!
Here are my recommendations about where to make reference to your value proposition:
- Executive Summary—This captures the essence of your proposal, so obviously you should at least briefly summarize what constitutes success for the project.
- Project Understanding—This section should outline project goals (outcomes and benefits). Usually, I will also describe challenges to achieving those goals and how we will overcome them.
- Project Approach—This obviously is where you describe the actions involved in delivering your value proposition. Don't just provide a task list, but actively connect your actions to achieving the outcomes the client wants.
- Qualifications and Experience—Despite my claim that we tend to overate qualifications, don't assume that I'm suggesting that you neglect preparing a strong presentation of your capabilities and experience. One of the best ways to enhance your qualifications is to link them specifically with elements of your value proposition.
Weaving your value proposition into various parts of your proposal is a proven winning strategy. But I still have trouble persuading many of my colleagues to follow this advice. The qualifications-centered approach to proposals is so entrenched that most seem to be stuck there, even if they agree with my ideas in concept.
Here's a clue: If your value proposition essentially amounts to "hire us," then you need to go back to the drawing board. It's rare that hiring a specific firm is critical to client success. Yet that's the common assertion. Does that work sometimes? Of course, because it happens so frequently that clients probably ignore it. But there's no evidence that identifying your firm as "uniquely qualified" helps you win the job.
On the contrary, I find it dishonest and insincere. Why not focus on what matters to the client? In January, I wrote an article in this space entitled "The Problem With Qualifications-Based Selection." One client—a project manager with a state DOT—responded with this comment:
- "I completely agree, we are always looking for a team that took the time to identify the risks, think outside the box, and communicate the value they can bring to the solution. This is not always the team with the most years experience!"
That's hardly an isolated perspective; I've been hearing similar comments from clients for many years. Can you clearly communicate the value associated with your solution? It's not merely a marketing tactic; it's also central to your ability to develop high-value, outcomes-driven solutions that clients want.