Friday, February 13, 2009

Tired Yet of Mediocre Proposals?

Back before Christmas I got caught up in the spirit of the season and sent a catchy postcard to about 15 area firms offering to do a free lunchtime seminar on proposal strategies. I even offered to review one of their proposals in advance so that I could make specific recommendations as part of the session. Would you believe that not one firm took me up on the offer? I would.

I've helped A/E firms with a wide range of issues, but one that I seldom get involved in is proposals. That seems odd since I'm arguably more credentialed in proposal writing (and interview prep) than anything else. I spent years as a corporate proposal manager for a couple of national firms and compiled a win rate of 75%. But I don't think the disinterest is about me. It's a widespread lack of urgency about the need to improve in this area.

There seems to be two primary reasons for this. One is low expectations. Many firms seem to think they're doing about as well as they can. The industry median win rate is reportedly about 40%. Yet I've had firm principals argue that the 20-30% they're winning is "more realistic." If I or someone else has had better success, well, that was in another market or--whatever.

The other reason I often hear goes something like, "We're already doing a pretty good job with our proposals." This despite the 20-30% win rate? Obviously, the two excuses go hand in hand. If the current results are as good as we can reasonably expect, then we must be doing good enough. Circular reasoning, is it not?

A big factor in this overly optimistic assessment is that most principals seem to think their proposals look good. To be sure, the eye appeal of the average proposal has improved dramatically since I first started working on proposals in the 1980s. That's largely because firms have hired marketing professionals who know something about graphic design (not to mention basic grammar). But good looks are overrated. The more important qualities of an effective proposal are (1) strong content that is (2) presented efficiently. In these areas, I've not seen that much improvement over the last 20 years.

Perhaps the economy is eroding away some of the misplaced confidence. Just in the last two weeks, a couple of firms have asked me for help with their proposals. But my point in writing this is not to vent frustration about my lack of proposal consulting opportunities. I do well enough (do I now convict myself?) without working on proposals, which frankly aren't all that fun to work on anyway. My greater concern is that firms are missing out on an important opportunity.

If the standard for proposals in this industry is generally mediocre (and I think it is), then the opportunity exists to do better than your competitors. According to data collected by ZweigWhite, the top firms in overall financial performance average 50-60% win rates. Most proposal consultants boast win rates of 80% or more. Do you see an opportunity?

When RFPs are fewer and wins more crucial, can you afford to remain satisfied with the status quo? Doing better proposals is relatively low-hanging fruit compared to the other business development challenges you face. Doing fewer losing proposals is even lower-hanging fruit. The latter is probably your easiest option for reducing business development costs. Where to start? Well, in my next blog post I'll discuss two traits of effective proposals that are quite rare in our industry.

1 comment:

  1. Mel - I couldn't agree more. We'll be tackling this monster soon enough.