Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The First Goal of Proposal Writing: Be Different!

Over the course of my 30+ years as a proposal manager and consultant, I've reviewed thousands of A/E and environmental firm proposals. Know what stands out? The fact that it's extremely rare to find a proposal that does (stand out, that is). It's almost as if the goal was to fit in rather than to stand out.

How can this be? Aren't we trying to differentiate ourselves? Ultimately, the client's selection team has to find a difference, a reason to pick one firm over the others. Yet in proposal after proposal after proposal, I see a remarkable sameness in style, tone, and content.

It would be one thing if firms were trying to pattern themselves after the difference makers, those few firms that can produce truly distinctive proposals. But more often what I observe is a grudging mediocrity of poor writing, weak strategy, and me-too claims of superiority. We can do better, and it's not as hard as you might think.

We've yet to experience the full impact of this pandemic's economic damage. Firms in our business are generally doing well, but getting new work is bound to become a greater priority in the months ahead. Now's a good time to start figuring out how to win more than your share of dwindling opportunities. Here are some of my proven strategies for creating proposals that stand out from the competition:

First, let me review some key differentiators mentioned in my last post:

  • Make your proposal distinctly client-centered. This, in my experience, is your best differentiation strategy. Put their interests, priorities, concerns, and aspirations front and center. The RFP usually won't encourage you to do this. Do it anyway!
  • Focus on outcomes and strategy. Don't just write about your solution and your approach. Feature the results. This is an unfortunate omission in most proposals—any mention of what the project is supposed to achieve, or what defines success.
  • Describe how you're going to deliver a great client experience. The experience of working together on the project is a substantial part of the value the client receives. Why don't firms in our business talk about this more? So you can distinguish your firm in this regard!
  • Make your proposal skimmable and easy to navigate. The selection committee will be skimming and skipping about, so what not make it easy on them? They'll appreciate it, and you'll benefit from having communicated your message more clearly.
  • Include an executive summary. This is another thing RFPs rarely ask for, but clients usually read it if one is included. And a well-written executive summary can give you the edge you need to win the job.

Get out in front of the RFP in jointly defining project success with the client. Yeah, yeah, you've no doubt heard this one before. But the majority of firms still try to sneak into the competition only after the RFP has been released. Not a good idea! In my last post, I outlined why the RFP is not a reliable source of insight into what the client really wants.

I've enjoyed good success as a proposal specialist, but I'd be the first to tell you that the most important steps toward writing a winning proposal are those you take in advance of the RFP. In particular, it's the relationship building and consulting collaboration (not selling!) that stack the odds in your favor before most firms are even aware of the opportunity.

Be fully compliant with the RFP, but don't limit your response to only what it asks for. Passive answering to the RFP is commonplace. That's when firms treat the RFP much like they would a questionnaire; they simply provide the information the RFP requested. That's a loser's tactic. I advise what I call assertive compliance where you do what the RFP asks but go beyond it where necessary to tell the story you believe needs to be told.

This would include, for example, inserting an executive summary when none was requested. Or adding a project narrative (story) when the RFP only specified a "scope of work." Or detailing the expected results of the project when the RFP was silent about desired outcomes. Assertive compliance, of course, is easier when you've been talking to the client beforehand. But even when you're not well positioned, you want to be bold enough to give it your best shot.

Frame your proposal planning with these two questions: "What does success look like?" and "How will we deliver that?" The first question focuses on outcomes, the second on strategy. If your proposal can simply answer those two questions well in the context of your project narrative and executive summary, you'll have a leg up on most of the competition.

Take it a step further with the question: "What are the needs driving this project?" Needs shape what outcomes are desired. To better align your understanding of needs with the client's, I recommend breaking needs down into three categories—strategic, technical, people. This helps combat the tendency of technical professionals to see the project only as a technical problem in need of a technical solution.

This doesn't mean you explicitly include the above questions or three levels of needs in your proposal. These concepts are first and foremost tools to help you develop your proposal strategy. But I'm convinced that I built my 75% win rate in large part on being among the very few to discuss these perspectives in our proposals—the expected business results from the project, how people's lives would be benefited, how our project approach would make things easier for the client, etc.

Make your value proposition clear. In every buying decision, there is what I call the "value transaction." This involves an explicit or implied offer by the seller to provide something of distinct value to the buyer (the value proposition), and an assessment on the buyer's part of the perceived value of that offer. Whatever the formal "selection criteria," the buying decision will ultimately be made based on how well the seller's and buyer's definitions of value align.

Here's the odd thing: Most RFPs for our services don't ask for an express value proposition, and most of our proposals don't offer one. Instead, there is usually the premise that the selection will be made based on the qualifications of the seller. But qualifications aren't value; they are merely evidence that we can deliver the value we promise (if indeed there is such a promise made).

I think it's a big mistake to ignore your value proposition and focus instead on qualifications because that's what the RFP intimated. Most firms struggle to demonstrate distinct qualifications—which ironically is why our industry has fought so hard for qualifications-based selection. Lacking any real differentiation among offerers, the default selection basis is price—which QBS has been established to prevent.

Of course, present your qualifications as convincingly as possible. But don't look there for the difference, in most cases. Instead, develop a powerful value proposition—whether requested or not—which is how you're going to deliver a successful project that achieves the results the client needs. Your value proposition is essentially that success story.

Don't just offer a scope of work; tell the story. Passive answering to the RFP typically results in information-laden proposals. The problem is that information alone doesn't make for a very compelling proposal. Telling a story does. And the story that will get the client's attention is how you're going to deliver a successful project.

Sounds simple. But the tendency is to take the most client-centered part of the proposal and reduce it to little more than a list of work tasks (often in belabored paragraph form). Don't forget that a proposal is supposed to be persuasive; it shouldn't read like a technical manual! Persuasion necessarily engages the heart, which is the particular strength of storytelling. Make the project story at its core a human endeavor, not just a technical scope of work.

As for a basic story outline, here's a what I recommend: Problem → Consequences → Solution → Results. Typically, this will be divided into two sections: (1) Project Understanding, which addresses the problem definition, goals, and challenges, and (2) Project Approach, which describes how the project will be executed. And be sure to include people and their interactions in your story!


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