Proposal Selection: Less Like the Bachelor, More Like Speed Dating
By Katie Wilcox
It’s officially proposal season here at Onspring, and the requests for proposals (RFPs) are starting to stack up. I’ve learned a lot about business proposals, having my hand in hundreds over the years. When you produce a few proposals a year as opposed to a few a day, it’s easy to adopt some common misconceptions about your potential client or partner. While you are likely to spend countless hours crafting the perfect response, your recipient will not and cannot spend the same amount of time considering and appreciating it. Even in the most basic of business scenarios, they will have at least 2-3 offers to consider, all while maintaining their normal operations. Instead of starting a long, laborious and thorough review to truly assess if you are “the one” for them, they spend their first few passes of your document looking for reasons to write you off. “Next!”
Not getting to that next phase can be hard to swallow, especially when you think you’ve put together something really great; however, a lot of proposals I’ve seen are simply aiming in the wrong direction. A perfect swing aimed at the wrong target is still a miss. Here are some helpful strategies I’ve picked up over the years that can get you on the right track:
1. Do what they ask.
If the recipient has provided you an RFP document, follow their instructions explicitly. It can be hard. Sometimes they’ll ask you to use a hideous font or ask you a question you are not comfortable answering. As much as you may hate it, suffering through a page of responses in the required Comic Sans font is a better fate than being rejected for not following the basic instructions.
2. Keep it appropriately short.
When those 3 to 300 proposals are dumped out in the conference room, motivate the team to grab your thin, sleek document instead of arguing over which unlucky soul has to read the 500-page, tiny font encyclopedia. In your responses, include enough information to appropriately answer questions and clearly outline what you will and won’t do. Let that be enough and then call it a day.
3. Address the needs of a varied audience.
Your RFP may be read by an initial reviewer, a procurement or finance professional, a technical contact, maybe even (if you’re lucky) a business executive. These readers have vastly different needs and goals when reviewing your proposal.
- A reviewer is looking to make sure you have met the RFP requirements. Is your response easy to scan and follow? Is something glaringly absent, right from the get-go?
- A finance professional is looking for contractual and cost terms. Did you explain these items clearly and in one place, or will readers have to hunt for one-off terms and fees?
- A technical professional is looking to eliminate the low performers and narrow the options down as quickly as possible so they can ask more detailed questions. Have your answers inspired enough competency and confidence to move into the next phase of review? Do your responses show a respect for the technical individual’s role and an understanding of the key terms and concepts? If he or she walks away without being confident you can do what they need, you have not won them over.
- An executive may only read the executive summary. Have you crafted an appropriate summary that gives him or her the gist in one concise section? Have you demonstrated an understanding of the company and its current needs, thereby inspiring a decision in your favor?
4. Focus on the recipient.
It’s easy to talk about your own company, products, services and goals. But, your recipients want to know how the proposed solution will impact them. You are asking them for something, either their support or their money, so make the case why their lives will be better if they choose you. You may love your company history, but that’s not the number one thing they are looking for in your document. (Please don’t open a proposal with the story of your company’s 20-year journey from a garage to an office building unless the RFP demands it!) As a good rule of thumb, do a check of your company name vs. the name of the recipient. Does your name outnumber theirs? If so, your document needs a rework.
5. Get comfortable with waiting.
If a company has gotten to the proposal solicitation stage, they are in the selection process for the long haul. When you ship that document off, you may be on pins and needles awaiting the response. Understand they are not in a hurry. While it’s okay to follow up monthly, do not contact them every week. Settle in and be willing to play the long game.
These are just a few strategies to help you rethink your proposal responses. Do you have others that have proven helpful? Post a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts!