When I was at school, I read my way through all the Sherlock Holmes stories, instilling in me a lifelong love of the genre and the annoying propensity to solve the mystery in TV crime shows before my husband.
Now, as a proposal and BD process consultant, one fun part of my job is to apply Sherlock Holmes’ powers of observation to the task of unravelling what is happening in businesses either to make them successful in bidding or to undermine that success.
And the most telling clues are always in the final product – the proposal.
Yes, I can tell that one section was written by a French engineer (from the sentence construction, the use of “of the” and the choice of standard acronyms), but I am much more interested in what each proposal tells me about the processes that produced it.
Following Holmes’ guidance, here are some ways of understanding what your proposal reveals to me – and, consciously or unconsciously, to the customer – about you and your approach to them.
BBC and Hartswood Films
“In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backward.”
Anyone who has attended a Shipley workshop will tell you that you can’t embed customer focus in a proposal unless you have first done the work to identify what the customer is interested in. So scanning a proposal for customer focus indicators tells me a lot about the activities that have gone before.
If the writing is seller-focused, that tells me one of two things – that the bidder has either not done their work with the customer, or has not communicated that work adequately to the proposal writers. Guess which one of these conclusions the buyer is more likely to draw. They will think they have received the generic proposal that all prospects get. If they have had conversations with BD about their needs, they will also be disappointed that they were not listened to.
Sometimes the writing is superficially customer-focused, but the proposal doesn’t respond to the customer’s needs by linking their anticipated benefits to aspects of the solution. From this, I can conclude that:
- The writer understands the principles of customer focus
- The capture lead has developed a strategy
- That strategy has not intentionally been carried into the solution design
These characteristics indicate that the business is not working as a team to put together a responsive proposal. The writer is carrying the responsibility for embedding customer focus but without the materials to really craft a strong message. The capture lead has worked on key messaging but not the further step of how to demonstrate alignment through all aspects of the solution. The design team produce and describe the best solution they can but are not involved in discussions about delivering and articulating key benefits.
To the customer, without analysing any of these factors, this is a proposal that is hard to discriminate from competitors.
A proposal that demonstrates customer focus by delivering strategic messages that are built around customer benefits is a clear indicator that the bidder has a mature business development approach. The customer responds positively to this proposal because it is talking their language. To produce it, the seller has not only engaged with and listened to the customer, but has designed their solution and planned their proposal to ensure that content, presentation, and messaging align with customer expectations.
Village Roadshow Pictures
“Never trust to general impressions … but concentrate yourself upon details.”
Once I have reviewed the overall strategic and customer focus of a proposal, I read it more closely to understand if it has answered the questions posed by the RFP.
In proposals that give the overall impression of compliance, I sometimes see that certain specific questions are not answered, or are answered so vaguely they are meaningless.
The customer is entitled to see non-compliance as either a lack of attention to detail or as an arrogant disregard for their stated goals. Neither of these are qualities they are likely to embrace.
A number of possible gaps in the proposal process can allow this to happen.
- The team has not been through a proposal section planning and Pink Team review process to confirm the content necessary to provide a compliant response
- There has been no Red Team review to confirm that each section is compliant
- The RFP has not been thoroughly reviewed before deciding to respond, and the team does not have the capacity to answer the question, but hasn’t had time to recruit the relevant expertise
- The inadequate response has been left in because the bidder is unable to comply and hopes to “fudge it”
The first two gaps, if the proposal is a substantial document responding to an important opportunity, are indicators to me of a business that does not take bidding seriously enough. Pink Team and Red Team require the business to invest time and energy into putting together, monitoring, and approving a proposal that best represents its strengths and capabilities. They are the collective endeavour that recognises the importance of proposals in sustaining both revenue and reputation.
The third and fourth items in the list indicate that the bidder is not selecting opportunities strategically and in line with a clear understanding of their place in the market. A business makes a strong bid/no-bid decision when it understands the compliance requirements and is sure that it can or will meet them. It also respects the customer enough to know that a non-compliant proposal can be eliminated from the competition.
Village Roadshow Pictures
“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”
Our intuitive brains pick up so much information from “the little things” that they influence us in ways we barely even notice.
Once I apply an analytic lens to a proposal, however, I bring to the surface those small factors that contribute to a win or loss.
Let’s start with the quality of the writing. Misplaced punctuation, spelling errors, unfinished or disjointed sentences – on the face of it, these disrupt the reading experience and make it hard for the evaluator to extract meaning. That is reason enough to review your process and make sure that you factor in the time for an editorial review that you missed last time.
At a deeper level, these mistakes also indicate that the team is not approaching the process of proposal development with sufficient planning and strategic understanding of what is required to win. They are trying to fit existing material together instead of writing with logic and persuasion to answer the customer's questions.
Another detail that evaluators will notice includes discrepancies between numbers or statements in one part of the proposal and another. Inconsistencies reflect a proposal that is being written before the solution has been agreed and documented. As the solution evolves, already-written sections need to be reviewed and aligned with new content, and this is hard to do, doubling the work for the proposal team. It is much easier to write a consistent proposal if the solution is well understood and is frozen at a point before the team has prepared draft responses to every section.
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?'
'To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.'
'The dog did nothing in the night-time.'
'That was the curious incident'.”
Like Sherlock Holmes, readers can be alert to, and draw inferences from, the absence of something they expect to see or hear.
A proposal that makes claims unsupported by proofs might indicate to an evaluator that there aren’t any, but to me it is the sign of an organisation that doesn’t review and capture success stories from projects.
The absence of an explanation of how the bidder has arrived at a price point may be a missed opportunity to communicate a value proposition. It is also frequently the result of a capture effort that has not invested in understanding price-to-win options, the trade-off between cost and capability, and the necessity to design to a price point.
Not having a coherent methodology can lose you points in the evaluation. It is also typical of a business that has not refined and documented its processes as an investment in the product or service it is delivering.
20th Century Fox
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.”
I may be able to draw many conclusions from reading a proposal, but I also try not to judge until I have considered them in the context of each business and the many people and processes that make up a functioning organisation. As well as reading proposals, I meet with individuals who work in bids and explore all the other sources of documentation that contribute to a capture before deciding where a process step might need to be adjusted or added to increase the business’s overall win rate.
The key value of assessing proposals is to understand whether the nominal business development and bidding process in any organisation is resulting in the winning proposals that it is supposed to produce. Reading a few proposals can help to identify the broken links in the chain of activities that make up the business development lifecycle.
In the process, you also gain some insight into how the qualities of your document can bias your prospective customers for or against you.