Monday, March 28, 2011

What Is Your Proposal's Core Theme?

The best proposals have a story to tell. That's the proposal theme, a central narrative that presents the key benefits your firm has to offer. It's the unifying storyline that weaves all proposal elements into a cohesive message. Proposal experts say that a compelling theme is the most important feature of your proposal.

Yet you'll be hard pressed to discern a theme in most technical service proposals. Most appear to be a loosely-related collection of information presented in fill-in-the-blanks fashion in response to the RFP. They are often prepared by multiple writers who have made too little effort to define a common thread among their individual contributions. The results come off as piecemeal and unfocused.

That's your opening. By presenting a clear theme in your next proposal, you can separate your firm's submittal from the pack. When I reflect back on the most rewarding (and surprising) proposal wins in my career as a proposal manager, the common element in all of them was a strong core theme. Here are a few examples:
  • National contract for O&M of groundwater remediation sites. Against long odds, we took a bold approach, diverting somewhat from the RFP by offering a strategy for moving as many sites as possible to regulatory closure rather than simply maintaining their operation. Our theme was a game changer that eliminated most of our competition and positioned us as the front-runner. For more of the story, check out this earlier post.
  • Open-end environmental services contract for a major airline. Lacking any airport experience, the theme of our proposal centered on how we would provide the client superior service. We knew that four of the five incumbents were not being renewed due to service problems. "Why is no one else talking about this?" the client asked in the interview, "You guys are the only one and this is the primary issue."
  • Regional wastewater collection system. The County faced the expensive prospect of having to pump and haul wastewater if the collection system wasn't in place in two years. So we naturally focused on the schedule in our proposal. Other firms did as well, but none went so far in defining creative technical and management strategies for shortening the schedule, nor did anyone provide as much specific proof that they could deliver.
  • Civic and performing arts center. Our firm was local, but not as credentialed in this type of project as several of our competitors. So the theme of our proposal centered on our superior knowledge of both the client and the community. We outlined an elaborate process for engaging key community "influencers" in the design process. To make up for any perceived technical shortcomings, we assembled a top-notch team of subconsultants, plus described how they too would interact with the client and community.
The above examples may not sound all that different to you compared to the usual "selling points" included in A/E firm proposals. The key difference is in execution. A proposal theme infuses the entire document while the familiar key messages or "hot buttons" are often limited to a few scattered mentions (e.g, in the executive summary).

What technical professionals, and even some proposal specialists, often overlook is the fact that proposals are more likely to be skimmed than read from cover to cover. A few isolated selling points easily can escape notice, while a proposal theme--presented appropriately--is readily evident. Below are some suggestions for developing and presenting your proposal's core theme:

Start by uncovering the client's real needs and priorities in advance of the RFP. Defining the right proposal theme depends on your understanding of the project from the client's perspective. Last week's post offered advice on what questions to ask during the sales process that will provide your firm with that insight.

Identify your proposal's core theme. This is not your firm's biggest point of differentiation, per se. Keep the focus on the client, not your firm. So your proposal theme in essence defines a distinctive benefit your firm can offer the client. In the examples above, these included (1) a better program strategy with substantial cost savings, (2) a distinct client experience and working relationship, (3) an innovative approach to meet a critical, tight deadline, and (4) a collaborative approach to reach consensus with diverse and crucial stakeholders.

Determine how each major proposal element will tie in with your core theme. These elements are often prescribed by the RFP. But you can distinguish your proposal by making them all resonate with the overall theme. If you have multiple writers contributing different parts of the proposal, give each a clear vision and outline that enables them fit their parts into the central narrative.

Present your theme in a skimmable manner. Skimmability is the overlooked proposal differentiator. Hardly anyone does this! Use graphic elements, bullets, boldface headers, custom dividers, and an economy of text to make your core theme readily discernible, even to the reviewer who skims large portions of your submittal. Indeed, a compelling theme can draw the reviewer deeper into your proposal and encourage more detailed reading.

Proposal themes are a relatively simple concept to grasp, yet just challenging enough in implementation to leave out most of your competitors. I've seen many a proposal, even by the largest, most reputable firms, that lacked a coherent theme. Here's a prime opportunity to help level the playing field.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, when dealing with state or local governments on projects requiring remediation proposals, no matter what theme you use to construct a proposal, it pretty much comes down to the lowest bidder getting the contract. Everything else in the proposal is pretty much only window dressing.