According surveys conducted by PSMJ and ZweigWhite, the median proposal win rate in our industry is about 40%. Yet I rarely encounter firms that are doing that well (maybe the better firms aren't looking for my help?). The number is inflated somewhat by including sole-source proposals, which represent a substantial proportion of proposals submitted for some firms.
For firms with win rates in the 20s—and I know there are many of you in this category—the goal of doubling your win rate is reasonable. The best performing A/E firms boast win rates of 50-60%. Of course, you don't want to look at your win rate in isolation. There's nothing gained by improving your win rate if sales are declining, for example. I'm assuming that bettering your win rate will be accompanied by overall improvement in your business development results.
With that understanding, here are some tips for doubling (or otherwise improving) your win rate:
Get out in front of RFPs. There's a disturbing number of firms out there that devote most of their BD efforts (in terms of total staff hours) to writing proposals. What that means, of course, is that for many, if not most, of those submittals there is minimal prior interaction with the client. That's a recipe for failure. I would estimate that the average A/E firm will win less than 5% of such proposals.
But for firms where this has become standard practice, changing is no easy matter. They tend to confuse higher proposal volume with being indicative of productive sales effort. The important issue, of course, is conversion rate. It matters little how much money you invest in the stock market if you get a poor return. Likewise, how many proposals you submit is not the right measure, but how many you win (see below).
To win more, you need to get out in front of RFPs, building relationships, gathering insight into client needs, and positioning your firm as the solution provider of choice. Do you have reluctant seller/doers? I recommend recasting the sales process, making it about serving prospective clients rather than selling to them. Organize your sales team so that there is peer support and accountability. Steer conversation in BD meetings away from proposals and to sales.
Do fewer proposals, maybe a lot fewer. My client was an engineering firm that wasn't growing and hadn't been profitable for the last few years. They needed a quick turnaround on the BD front. Among my recommendations: "Do half as many proposals in the coming year." You could almost hear their jaws hit the table. But they were averaging over 11 proposals per month (with a one-person marketing staff) and winning only 26% of them.
They grudgingly accepted my challenge and we managed a 40% reduction in submittals (one office refused to go along), while raising our win rate to 46% and increasing sales by over 30%. How? By spending their time more productively. We made it harder to get corporate support for proposals; each had to pass a tough go/no go decision process. Thus we spent more time on winning efforts and a lot less on losers. We also substantially shifted the effort to pre-RFP from post-RFP, as suggested above.
Make your proposals different from the rest. That is the objective, isn't it? Yet in reviewing hundreds of proposals over the years, I've seen a remarkable sameness about them. It's as if fitting in was more more important than standing out. I compiled a 75% win rate during my time as corporate proposal manager by creating proposals unlike the competition's.
There are two areas where such distinction is readily available:
- Making your proposals prominently client centered. Most proposals feature the seller, not the buyer. RFPs help promote this by requesting more information on qualifications than about the project. But you don't usually win on qualifications, rather on having a better understanding of what the really client wants and a better solution for getting there. Hint: You can't make your proposal client centered if you haven't been talking to the client before the RFP is released.
- Making your proposals user-friendly and skimmable. Proposals are decidedly better looking than they were when I started writing them in the mid-1980s. But I don't think most of them are any more functional. A strong proposal is easy to read and navigate. It says the most in the least amount of words. If you doubt this is a significant advantage, you've probably not had clients praising you for how refreshing it was to read your proposal.
Client feedback indicates that comfort and fit are key factors at this stage (and, no, you won't find those among their formal selection criteria). Yet clients routinely put your team in a setting where they're typically less comfortable—making a formal presentation. One way to overcome this is to ask a few questions during your presentation (ask permission to do this first). This invites dialogue, a context in which most technical professionals come across as much more confident and competent than in presenting.
If you can spend most of the time talking with the client selection committee rather than talking at them, you've put your team at an advantage (if you're well prepared). Even the most polished presentation—which is often more acting than interacting—cannot compete with a great conversation. Again, you're not ignoring the instruction to make a presentation, but you're making it more interactive, which is better for both parties.
Winning the shortlist interview also depends on your advancing the narrative of your proposal. Expect to add some new insights and details to what you submitted earlier. Perhaps it's a concept design or a cost estimate. And don't ignore talking about the working relationship (everyone else will). Clients are wondering at this point what it will be like to work with your firm, so talk about it. Hopefully, you already demonstrated this in part through your service-driven sales process.
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