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.

No comments: