Passionate about – proposals

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I’m guessing we rather coined the phrase “passionate about proposals”. It’s been our corporate strapline for decades; it was the title of the book I published last year with my dear friend and colleague BJ Lownie. So, when I was asked “What are you passionate about right now in the bid and proposal world?” for this issue of BQ, my answer is fairly simple. “Proposals”.

Let me explain. I moved from procurement to proposal management twenty years ago this summer, because I saw so many bidders struggling to produce compelling submissions. As someone who wrote outside work, and was well-trained in how evaluation teams operate and think, I saw a chance to develop my career along a new and more interesting path. (More seasoned readers may recall the famous TV series ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ – set in my home city of Liverpool. I guess I was echoing the main character, Yosser Hughes: “Gis a job: I can do that!”)

And I remain absolutely passionate about the role that proposals play in a great sales process – and frustrated by the way they’re overlooked in so many bids.

There’s the widespread job title ‘bid manager’. Absolutely, that role’s key. If you define the ‘bid’ as the end-to-end campaign to capture or retain a contract, then it encompasses a huge host of activities – which, of course, need some seriously skilled management. Understanding and working out how to best influence the client. Building the right team. Meetings with the client’s procurement team, business decision-makers and more. Detailed work designing the right solution. Cost modelling. Risk assessment. Demos. Site visits. Proofs of concept. Negotiations. Internal governance meetings.

Oh, and developing a brilliant proposal that’s a joy to read.

See, if you’re responsible for the overall campaign, I’d argue that – in most cases – it’s very hard to also manage the proposal brilliantly. Time simply doesn’t allow for you to lead both brilliantly at once, especially in that critical window when the document needs to be produced. And the skill sets are very different – yet I so often hear that (for example) “Our bid managers are OK at writing”, as if ‘good enough’ is good enough to win in such a competitive world.

Or, worse, there’s the line I heard from a sales lead recently: “The proposal doesn’t matter. I’ll ace it when I get to the pitch.” Well, my friend, you may not even get to the pitch. And why wouldn’t you want to “walk in as first of three, not as one of three”, as an esteemed CEO once said to me.

Give me the same team, with the same solution and the same commercial model. Telling our story more powerfully and persuasively in the proposal will increase our scores in the evaluation, and hence improve our chances of winning business. It’s “simples”, as a meerkat or prime minister might say.

And the impact of getting this wrong? I’ve long argued that the proposal function is the job protection and creation engine for many companies. Did anyone see this BBC News item in February? “More than 450 jobs are at risk at a site belonging to one of the UK’s largest meat processing companies”. The reason: “We have been notified of a decision in respect of a tender process with a key customer. The outcome is not what we had expected and clearly we are all deeply disappointed by this news.” How terribly, terribly sad for those affected – very possibly, because of a poor proposal?

Our research shows overwhelmingly that the bidder who comes out on top when the proposal is evaluated is likely to go on to win the deal – and that organisations that improve their proposal capabilities win more overall. Too many sales and bid teams focus too little on proposals.

And that’s why I get so passionate about proposals.

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 thirty countries; and trained many thousands of course participants.

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