Poor Proposals Faster

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Pre-written content’s a particular passion of mine: I implemented my first proposal knowledge base back in 2000, and I’ve been learning how to do it well ever since! 

Most organisations’ content libraries merely enable them to write poor proposals faster.  Here’s my nine-step plan to managing content in a way that truly adds value. 


Focus and clarity on what’s stored in the system 

Bring some science to the process. Don’t dump everything into the library: we need to be more client-focused than that. 

Review what is in the RFPs received from your customers. Group similar requirements together to generate a list of Frequently Asked Questions. And set some targets: “Great answers to these 120 questions will get us to first base on 65% of a typical RFP just by extracting the right content from the library.” 

It’s not about having answers to everything. There is a tipping point of diminishing returns when comparing the effort to create and maintain a library with the effort to craft if afresh on live bids. But your RFP-driven data will show you that. 


Content owned and developed by the real experts 

Being identified as an SME who owns content in your organisation’s library should be a real badge of honour. 

In our benchmarking research, more than 75% of the top performing proposal organisations have a library in which content is “owned” by the relevant subject matter experts: it’s not “the bid team’s” content. If you’re the expert, it’s your content. And the onus sits with you to make sure it’s as good as it needs to be. 

Our role, as bid and proposal people, comes in helping SMEs to display their messages persuasively and professionally in the proposal shop window – the content library. 


Truly excellent writing 

BJ Lownie, who founded our company 36 years ago, uses a wonderful phrase: “A great proposal is a joy to read.”  

The pre-written content in your library’s going to be re-used again and again (perhaps by salespeople who aren’t naturally gifted writers). So that content has to be brilliantly articulated – perhaps the best there is. There are tests of great proposal writing: 

  • Customer-centric – does this resonate with the typical client’s real hopes and mitigate their fears? 
  • Conversational, not stilted or overly formal 
  • “So what?” – always trying to tease out the benefits 
  • At every turn, answering “What do we do better?” than the competition 
  • “Prove it!”, with evidence.  After all, “You would say that, wouldn’t you?” What do clients, end-customers, industry analysts, the trade press say about you? 
  • Speaking with one voice – aligned with agreed style guidelines, so the proposals drawing on the pre-written content library feel like a coherent story, not the random jottings of disparate enthusiasts in the business. 


Creative, high-impact design 

“People see what it looks like before they read what it says.” Yet I, for one, often fall into the trap of using the standard proposal phrase of “pre-written content”. 

When it comes to the re-usable content in your library, it’s not just about the words! It needs to be brilliantly designed, with graphics that can be easily tailored.  


All content peer reviewed 

When working on live proposals, it’s good practice – which I hope you follow! – to let a fresh pair of eyes see a near-final draft of your content. A peer review – or, if you like your bid jargon, a “red team”. 

So it always amazes me when teams just drop content into their library without it first having been constructively challenged. Reviews are just as – even more – important for material that’s going to be re-used so often. You need to hardwire a robust review process into your pre-written content development process, with all new material tested by relevant colleagues with fresh perspectives, to ensure it is as good as it can be. 


A skilled, senior curator 

Content doesn’t develop itself. Content certainly doesn’t manage itself. You need someone skilled to conduct the orchestra of SMEs here – and to keep them on their toes! 

Experience suggests the most successful bid organisations have ring-fenced resources to manage their content libraries. Folks who won’t get dragged off onto working on that deal with an urgent deadline, taking them away from keeping on top of the content – because live bids always take priority, right? Well they shouldn’t! 

Your content curator needs the right skills and experience in content management and bidding – along with great organisational savvy. It should be one of the most senior administrative roles in the proposal function. 


Always up to date 

It only takes one piece of content to be wrong for a salesperson to lose confidence in the system (and, therefore, in the expert who owns the answer). 

It can only take one woefully weak answer to lose the deal. Or one outdated description of your capabilities to win you a deal you can’t then deliver without considerable pain, risk or cost. 

The moment you write a piece of content, it starts to drift out of date. Too often, there’s a mindset of “Wait for the database admin to send out their annual review reminder”, which can result in apologetic emails saying: “I’m sorry, that’s been wrong for months. I’d better fix it.” That’s a sign of a broken system. You need to establish a culture where the content you own will always be up to date. 

To quote my erstwhile colleague Andy Lynam, who (like me) has built and managed many of these libraries: “Building a knowledge base isn’t like creating a beautiful sculpture that, once crafted, can simply be admired forever. It’s much more like creating a beautiful garden. It’ll be perfect for just a day or two – then it’ll start to deteriorate unless it’s loved and looked after.” 


A closed loop from live deals 

At times, someone working on a live deal will find an opportunity to improve the content in the library or fill a gap where you don’t currently have an answer. 

You’ll craft something better, or develop an interesting new flavour of the vanilla content in the library. After every bid, there’ll be content for you to glean and clean. 

You’ll get client feedback flagging answers which can be improved to a higher competitive standard. 

Everybody working on bids has a responsibility to feed back in whenever they see a chance to improve. It’s not the bid team’s library. It belongs collectively to everyone who uses it! 


Written for many clients: read by one. 

And then, of course, it’s about educating everyone using the library that cut and paste is the enemy when extracting content. You want this to make work quicker for them – but not too quick.  

It has to be “cut and paste and tailor– to this client, this opportunity. At the least, specific names, dates, locations. Their colours in the graphics? Mirror their language and question structure. Write a lead-in sentence that resonates with them by playing back their specific needs. 

Implementing – and maintaining – a library of wonderful pre-written content is a fundamental enabler of proposal success. Doing so enables you to develop better proposals, quicker: to win more, and win more easily. We’ve been striving as a profession to find the best ways to do this since the first proposal content management software appeared on the market over 25 years ago.  

How well do you do?! 

This article was written by Jon Williams.

Jon and his team work with clients worldwide to help them establish winning proposal capabilities and to capture major deals. He has built and led numerous bid and proposal centres; managed, reviewed and benchmarked countless proposals; worked in over 35 countries; and trained many thousands of course participants.

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