Thursday, February 26, 2009

Proposals: How David Slays Goliath

The most amazing proposal win I've been associated with came during my time as corporate proposal manager for a national environmental company. We started at a terrible disadvantage with the client determining that our qualifications didn't even merit receiving the RFP! But since it was an existing client, we were able to pull some strings to get a chance to compete. Then applying some of the strategies I talked about in my previous post, we came from nowhere to be selected from an impressive field.

The opportunity was a multiyear, $30 million operations and maintenance contract for 40 groundwater remediation systems across the country. The RFP had been sent to the who's who among O&M companies. By contrast, we didn't even have a distinct O&M practice, although we had performed these services at several sites as part of our remediation business. Setting up a separate business unit, which we proposed to do in our proposal, would be necessary to offer competitive overhead and billing rates.

This was the backdrop as the proposal team gathered on a Sunday afternoon to outline our strategy. We couldn't win this, we concluded, unless our proposal was radically different from the other firms. Following are some things we did to climb out of the hole we started in:

With long odds we took more chances. Simply following the RFP wouldn't be good enough. We needed to change the game. So we varied from the scope presented in the RFP. We suggested that the best strategy was moving these sites to regulatory closure as quickly as possible. They didn't need just an O&M company, we proposed; they needed a firm that could help them reduce their liabilities and cut their costs while maintaining these sites in the interim. That bold departure from the RFP catapulted our firm from the back of the pack to the leading position.

We leveraged our client knowledge to show how we could build an effective working relationship. While surveys indicate that clients place high value on "the experience" of working with service providers, few firms ever address this crucial aspect in their proposals. We did. Since we knew their preferences, their peculiarities, their systems, their experiences with us and other firms, we were able to describe how our working relationship would minimize their time and trouble. The other firms apparently said little about the relationship with the client.

We delivered the most concise, clear, and compelling proposal. The client told us they were immediately intrigued when they opened the box containing copies of our proposal. It was bound in half-inch binders; everyone else's arrived in one- to two-inch binders (after all, it was a $30 million proposal). They opened our proposal to find 30 amply illustrated, skimmable, hard-hitting pages that described a starkly different approach to these sites than what they had asked for. The other firms mostly filled their proposals with information about their qualifications (which, by the way, were way better than ours!). But we edged them out by focusing on the client.

We planted doubt about our competition. Our initial proposal accomplished what we hoped; it changed the game. The next round, which included both site-specific and cost proposals, pitted us against one other finalist. They were short-listed in large part because their parent company was another consultant. Our scope redefinition had eliminated the pure O&M firms. With our competition now clear, we planted several not-so-subtle-but-discreet questions about the other firm in our second proposal. For example, we noted that we had an integrated consulting/operations team without the inherent conflict of interest our competitor would seem to have (while their consulting firm would be pressing for closure, their O&M subsidiary would be motivated to prolong operations). As we proceeded to final interviews, the client sent us the questions that each finalist needed to be prepared to answer. Interestingly, most of the other firm's questions came right out of our proposal!

Normally I don't advocate writing proposals against such long odds. But there were a number of reasons why we believed this was worth a shot. In this poor economy, your firm might find itself similarly in competition for work where you are at a clear disadvantage. Certainly this is no time to play it safe. Hopefully this story will inspire you to consider what bold steps your firm might take to tilt the playing field to your advantage. The strategies will vary, but the basic principles remain the same: Focus on the client and present your message in clear, compelling fashion.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Proposals: Two Chances to Shine

The objective, don't forget, is to be different. That's stating the obvious, of course. But in reviewing hundreds of proposals over the years, I've noted a remarkable sameness about them. It's as if fitting in was the goal rather than standing out.

If you consider the latter a priority, let me suggest two things you can do to distinguish your proposal from almost everyone else's: (1) make your proposal prominently client focused and (2) make it skimmable. There are obviously many facets of writing a successful proposal, but if you do these two well, your proposal will grab the client's attention.

Client Focus

The client, not your firm, should be the centerpiece of your proposal. That means that you lead with an assessment of the client's needs and issues followed by your proposed solution, execution plan, and expected outcomes. Your qualifications then serve primarily to validate your ability to deliver what you have proposed. The client's foremost question is almost always, "What can you do for me?" rather than, "Are you more qualified than the others?"

I realize that RFPs often request a qualifications-laden submittal. But beware of slavish devotion to the letter of the RFP. I've yet to see one that adequately explained the client's needs, concerns, priorities, and goals. I know from talking to clients over the years that the true selection criteria are typically obscured in the solicitation. They ask for qualifications because that seems an objective basis for evaluating firms--after all, that's what our industry has campaigned for, right? The problem is that qualifications rarely distinguish your firm from the rest, and often you're at a disadvantage if qualifications alone are used to select.

The real selection criterion is: Who is best prepared to serve the needs of the client? Obviously the firm that has already built a relationship and who understands the client's issues has the advantage. The strength of your relationship and understanding should be the foremost factor in determining whether you should submit a proposal, not your qualifications. I have often overcome significant disadvantages from a qualifications standpoint by writing the best client-focused proposal. Here are some ideas how to do that:
  • Always put the client-centered content first. Never, ever start your proposal by talking about your firm. It's fairly common for firms to make the "Firm Overview" the first section of their submittal. Don't! But, you protest, the RFP specifically states that Section 1 should address the firm's qualifications. To counter that occasional instruction, I always include an Executive Summary that briefly and convincingly presents the client-centered core themes of my proposal.

  • Don't automatically default to the order in which the RFP lists proposal contents or selection criteria. I know this sounds like heresy to some, but I've had consistent success swimming against the tide of proposal dogma. Unless the RFP explicitly tells me to write the proposal in a certain order, I will go with the structure that best delivers the message I believe the client really wants to hear. Of course, if I've been talking to the client in advance, I know what that message is.

  • Make sure you address the all-important "why" behind what the client is requesting in the RFP. I'm amazed how often firms simply ignore this, even when they have ready access to the client. I want to know the client's motives. Answering the why helps me understand what questions I really need to answer or what problems the client really wants me to address.

  • Share your thought process. Just as you should know the "why" behind the client's RFP, the client wants to understand why you picked the solution and approach you did. Or why you didn't pick another viable option. Clients want to know what you're thinking, even if you're not ready to give a definitive answer or recommendation. This helps position your firm as more than just a design practitioner or service provider, which are increasingly becoming commodities, but as a valued advisor and strategist.

  • Use personal language. If you're seeking to connect with the client through your proposal, you want to avoid the usual stuffy, impersonal tone. Did you know that the word "you" is the most persuasive word in the English language according to several studies? By all means, use it in your proposal. Client-centered content is critical, but don't neglect delivering it in personal terms: "Here is what we will do for you..."

With few exceptions, our proposals are prepared as if we expect clients to read them word for word. They don't, of course. They skim, they skip, they hunt for specific information. Force them to read to find what they're looking for and they may well miss it even if it's there. Skimmability is the key differentiator that no one talks about. That's not to minimize the importance of good content. But you have to make that good content readily accessible, or it could be for naught.

As I noted in my previous post, proposal design in our industry has taken a quantum leap in the last 20 years. At least in terms of appearance. But we haven't advanced the ball nearly as far in terms of functionality. You see, great design isn't just about aesthetics; it's about facilitating the communication process. I'll take a proposal that's an easy read any day over one that just looks stylish. So will the client. Here are some suggestions for making your proposals more skimmable:
  • Present your content at two levels: Skim and read. Think of the modern newspaper. You can spend a few minutes skimming it to get the gist of the news, or spend two hours or more reading the articles in depth. That's how your proposals should be designed. For design ideas, study the publications you find particularly user friendly. USA Today and Consumer Reports are two of my favorites.
  • Highlight all your key messages at the skim level. Put them in bold headings, supported by figures, bullets, simple tables, pictures and captions—using the same design principles that allow you to skim the news in your newspaper. If you want to be really innovative, use headlines rather than the usual topical headers that are typically used in proposals.

  • Use the old journalistic convention of the inverted pyramid. This involves putting your most important information first. I already mentioned ordering the sections of the proposal from most to least important (client- to firm-centered). Within sections or subsections, summarize the essence of that portion of the document in the first paragraph, with subsequent paragraphs ordered from most to least important content.

  • Use custom tabbed dividers to help the client navigate your proposal. Seek to understand how the client handles your proposal during the review. Many don't work their way from front to back. Based on what you learn about the client's review process, create custom tabs that make it easy to find what they're looking for. One Navy reviewer told me that they usually spent less than 30 seconds on the initial screening of submittals. Think about that; if they didn't find what they were looking for you could be out of the running in less than a minute!

  • Make ample use of graphic elements. A general guide that I've used is at least one graphic element (figure, simple table, picture) per page. Obviously, you want to portray your core messages graphically as much as possible. This is a very efficient way to communicate key points.

  • Don't dilute your message with too much text. The vast majority of proposals I've seen suffer from excessive verbosity. That only increases the chances that your core messages will be overlooked. Say what needs to be said to make your point, and nothing more.
Try these strategies out on your next proposal. They're simple in concept, but not necessarily simple to implement. You'll have to work at it, but the results justify the extra effort. Remember, you want to stand out! In my next post, I'll share a real-life example of how putting these ideas into action resulted in a huge win.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Tired Yet of Mediocre Proposals?

Back before Christmas I got caught up in the spirit of the season and sent a catchy postcard to about 15 area firms offering to do a free lunchtime seminar on proposal strategies. I even offered to review one of their proposals in advance so that I could make specific recommendations as part of the session. Would you believe that not one firm took me up on the offer? I would.

I've helped A/E firms with a wide range of issues, but one that I seldom get involved in is proposals. That seems odd since I'm arguably more credentialed in proposal writing (and interview prep) than anything else. I spent years as a corporate proposal manager for a couple of national firms and compiled a win rate of 75%. But I don't think the disinterest is about me. It's a widespread lack of urgency about the need to improve in this area.

There seems to be two primary reasons for this. One is low expectations. Many firms seem to think they're doing about as well as they can. The industry median win rate is reportedly about 40%. Yet I've had firm principals argue that the 20-30% they're winning is "more realistic." If I or someone else has had better success, well, that was in another market or--whatever.

The other reason I often hear goes something like, "We're already doing a pretty good job with our proposals." This despite the 20-30% win rate? Obviously, the two excuses go hand in hand. If the current results are as good as we can reasonably expect, then we must be doing good enough. Circular reasoning, is it not?

A big factor in this overly optimistic assessment is that most principals seem to think their proposals look good. To be sure, the eye appeal of the average proposal has improved dramatically since I first started working on proposals in the 1980s. That's largely because firms have hired marketing professionals who know something about graphic design (not to mention basic grammar). But good looks are overrated. The more important qualities of an effective proposal are (1) strong content that is (2) presented efficiently. In these areas, I've not seen that much improvement over the last 20 years.

Perhaps the economy is eroding away some of the misplaced confidence. Just in the last two weeks, a couple of firms have asked me for help with their proposals. But my point in writing this is not to vent frustration about my lack of proposal consulting opportunities. I do well enough (do I now convict myself?) without working on proposals, which frankly aren't all that fun to work on anyway. My greater concern is that firms are missing out on an important opportunity.

If the standard for proposals in this industry is generally mediocre (and I think it is), then the opportunity exists to do better than your competitors. According to data collected by ZweigWhite, the top firms in overall financial performance average 50-60% win rates. Most proposal consultants boast win rates of 80% or more. Do you see an opportunity?

When RFPs are fewer and wins more crucial, can you afford to remain satisfied with the status quo? Doing better proposals is relatively low-hanging fruit compared to the other business development challenges you face. Doing fewer losing proposals is even lower-hanging fruit. The latter is probably your easiest option for reducing business development costs. Where to start? Well, in my next blog post I'll discuss two traits of effective proposals that are quite rare in our industry.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Why That Dog Don't Hunt

If the current economy won't motivate senior professionals to get out and sell more, what will it take? Not different circumstances, but a different mindset. I've been trying to nudge principals and PMs into taking a more active sales role for years. In most cases, they're fully on board in terms of the need-to. What they lack is the want-to.

There's no mystery why this is. When I do sales training, I usually start by asking for general impressions of salespeople. The responses are overwhelmingly negative. Probably unfair, to tell the truth. But the perceptions persist, and most technical professionals want no part of it. That's not why they went to school, some will complain.

Here's the odd part. When I ask what it is about salespeople that turns them off, I typically hear the following: They talk too much. They don't listen. They don't really care about me. They're focused on their own needs, not mine. Now take one of those same technical professionals on a sales call and what do you normally see? Too much talking, too little listening, too much focus on the seller.

We may not like it, but isn't that what selling's all about? Not necessarily. There's a better way. I had to discover it years ago when I finally admitted I hated selling. Funny thing was, I was a business development manager. That was my job. I was reasonably successful, but it wasn't all that satisfying. There were too many times that I felt I was wasting the client's time.

I had received considerable sales training and read a lot on the subject. I knew my craft well. But in sales, doing things right is no substitute for thinking rightly. Why? Because our motives and attitudes color the transaction, for both parties. Buyers resent the perceived self-centered motives of most sellers. Sellers default to the caricature of the stereotypical salesperson because they're acting rather than interacting.

So I recognized the need to overhaul my thinking about selling. Same for most technical professionals who are asked to sell. The secret is to stop selling and start serving. Sounds simple, but it's not. It involves a heart transplant, where you begin to care more about the client's needs than your own. It's not easy, but it sure is satisfying. Now your want-to has caught up with the need-to.

How can you promote such a change in your firm? Keep in mind that most A/E firms are probably not equipped to make such a nuanced transition. So if yours can pull it off, you'll be in rare company. Isn't that what differentiation is all about?

Change the focus. You have to stop focusing on your needs (i.e., budgets, metrics) and shift the emphasis to clients' needs. In this tough economy, are you following their market trends or yours? Which do you talk about in your sales meetings? Which motivates you to call on clients? I'm not suggesting that you ignore managing your business, but that you keep why you're in business (to serve clients) at the forefront.

Change the terminology. Have you ever considered how much of our sales terms relate to conquest? It's about winning, competitors, pursuits, capture plans, and overcoming objections. Do these sound like service-oriented words? Don't dismiss the power of the words you use. They convey more than meaning; they shape perceptions and influence attitudes. If you want people to think differently about selling (i.e., serving), you need to speak of it differently.

Change the approach. Sales training typically starts (and ends) here. Most of today's sales literature and training programs stress a client orientation. But it's not simply about tactics. Pretending to care is easily distinguished from actually caring. But if you can begin to successfully change motives, you'll want to learn compatible techniques for working with clients. Changing both attitudes and aptitudes is required to truly succeed at what I call service-centered selling.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Simple Ways to Show You Care

In my last post, I noted that the most important quality of a great boss is genuine concern for those who work for you. If you really care, employees will generally be forgiving of other shortcomings. Unfortunately, this trait is not as common as we'd like. What is often diagnosed as a lack of people skills may more accurately be called a lack of people concern.

Then there are those of us who do care, but don't show it often enough. For us, we need constant reminders to set aside time in our hectic schedules to invest in others. Build relationships. That's the bedrock of becoming a great boss. Here are a few simple but profound things bosses can do to show you care:

Write personal thank-you notes. In talking to hundreds of employees about workplace issues over the years, I can confirm what you already know: Expressions of praise and appreciation are in short supply. By all means, tell your employees how much you appreciate their contributions as often as possible. But there's something about written thank-you notes that means even more.

Celebrate employee birthdays. It's not the birthday per se that really matters. It's simply a convenient date to in effect say, "You're special to us." Take the employee out to lunch and use that time to say thanks again, and to ask how things are going and what you can do to be more helpful. You might also want to have some kind of group celebration involving the office or department.

Involve staff in key decisions. One of the more uncaring things firm management can do is to make a significant policy or procedural change without consulting staff in advance. If you want the change to yield positive results, you'll fare much better when you proactively engage the people who ultimately have to make it work. Furthermore, involving employees in such decisions communicates that you value their input and care about how they might be affected.

Create time to talk about nonbusiness matters. Relationships built exclusively on business-related interactions are limited, even in a business setting. With pressing deadlines and pressure to meet utilization goals, you can inadvertently squelch the informal, personal conversations that help build stronger working relationships. Plus research has found that friendship at work is a highly valued workplace asset. Intentionally set time aside for personal interaction (which leads to my next point...).

Host periodic potluck lunches. Perhaps this is a Southern thing, but I associate potlucks with being great times for fellowship. Buying pizza or sandwiches for the group may seem to create the same kind of setting, but I've found there's something about potlucks that introduces a more personal, homey atmosphere that most employees appreciate. Doing this occasionally is a welcome break to the more common "business lunch" derivatives.

Help them achive work/life balance. I commonly hear complaints from my fellow baby boomers that today's younger workers aren't as devoted to the job as we are. Perhaps they noticed that the web of work-induced stress, broken homes, and neglected priorities was a steep price to pay for making a living. Interestingly, studies are finding that adding work/life balance enhances productivity and profitability. Even us older workers are seeking more balance in increasing numbers. Bottom line for bosses: Show that you care about your employees' private lives, and help them (rather than discourage them) in the pursuit of that elusive balance.

Be sensitive to employees' personal issues. The fact is that problems at home typically create struggles at work. Few people can effectively compartmentalize matters of the heart. This isn't to suggest that you need to try as boss to solve your employees' personal problems. But you should be understanding and compassionate. Sometimes that's as simple as just taking some time to listen. Keep in mind that if an employee approaches you to talk about a personal matter, you have gained his or her trust and respect. Don't forfeit it by being too busy or distracted to show you care.

Conduct periodic "stay interviews." Why is it that in many firms the only time employees are really asked what they think about their employer is when they're heading out the door? Don't wait until the exit interview to uncover problems. A great boss will regularly ask employees how things are going and are on the alert for those unspoken signals of disengagement. But it might be wise to have a third party check in occasionally, in case there are problems with the boss that the employee doesn't want to talk to the boss about.

In these trying economic times, we need to step up the caring quotient. I've heard of companies that are driving their employees hard to meet their targeted metrics, as if all that's lacking is a little more effort. That's a bit like starving your horse and then beating it because it doesn't run faster. Great bosses realize that storing up goodwill with their employees is one of the best ways to weather a recession. That's not to say that cuts might not be necessary. But tough choices don't necessarily negate the priority of showing you care.