Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Proposal Specialists Need a Bigger Role

Working on a proposal for many technical professionals is a distraction from the billable work they prefer. It shows. The technical write-ups in most proposals I see look like an afterthought. Putting aside the weak writing, I too seldom read the kind of project insight befitting the firm's obvious talents. Instead, a generic rehash of a previous proposal's writeup too often suffices.

Who cares enough to raise the bar for proposal quality? Many firms have proposal specialists who by job description should want to push for improvement—and most I meet indeed do. But most also seem to lack the authority or influence to make a big difference. They may go to conferences or read articles about proposal best practices. But they find these ideas difficult to sell to their technical colleagues.

I've been there and understand your struggles. Yet I eventually earned the right to overhaul the proposal process for the national firm where I served as corporate proposal manager, radically changing the look and content of our proposals, and compiling a 75% win rate (nothing builds credibility like winning!). I succeeded not in spite of being a proposal specialist, but because I was one. The change can come from nowhere else.

Sound contradictory? It shouldn't. Who better to change the process and the product than one who has the specific expertise? The problem with most proposal specialists I've worked with is that they either (1) lack the expertise needed or (2) don't know how to leverage it. Let me offer some suggestions from my experience on how proposal specialists can enlarge their role and make a real difference:

First, become the unquestioned proposal expert. Let me be honest; most proposal specialists are not viewed as the consummate proposal experts in their firms. They may be recognized as the best at grammar or graphic design, but not as gurus of developing the winning proposal strategy. Until you acquire that reputation, your perceived role will likely be limited to "proposal coordinator and window dresser." That is, take something raw, organize it, and turn it in to something more attractive and readable. Unfortunately, those proposal qualities alone are commonplace these days.

Focus on function, not form. Don't settle for the role of merely prettying up the product. The primary benefit of good document design is not enhanced appearance but better communication. I meet few proposal specialists who seem to understand this connection. For example, do you strive to make your proposals more skimmable? Do you know what number of characters per column width is best for readability? Do you know how long it will take the client to read your submittal at the average adult reading speed? Do your proposals have a clear theme or discernable storyline? Do you know what makes a proposal persuasive? Having the answers to such questions helps qualify you as the unquestioned proposal expert.

Get feedback from clients. Nothing drives change in the typical A/E firm like direct input from clients. My early breakthroughs as a proposal specialist came as a result of the extensive feedback I gathered through interviews with clients. Thus the changes I proposed weren't just coming from me, but from clients. Unfortunately, it's harder to get good client feedback today than it was 30 years ago. Many are reluctant to be totally honest because such feedback has gotten some clients in trouble in the past. Some don't know what advice to give because the selection process is much more subjective than they want you to believe. In recent years, my best insights have come from former clients who don't have to be so guarded anymore.

Become familiar with the technical issues in your proposals. In the early years, I had the benefit of a decade of civil engineering work experience, so I understood much of the technical content of our proposals. But when I moved to the environmental consulting business, I found myself mostly ignorant of the technical issues and solutions. I closed that gap in large part by sitting in proposal strategy sessions as various technical options were discussed and debated. I also read a lot about these topics, talked about them with my colleagues, and attended technical sessions at conferences. This is a critical threshold for any proposal specialist wanting greater influence; you've got to understand what your firm does if you want a bigger role on proposals.

Earn the credibility to refine the technical parts of the proposal. I'm not suggesting that you need to be helping define the technical approach (although I've had many opportunities to do so). But you should be able to recognize how this is best communicated to the client. My guess is that most proposal specialists do only minor editing of the technical portions of the proposal. When I starting winning three-fourths of the proposals I led, I was rewriting these sections. Of course, it took several years of building my reputation as a proposal expert and gaining my colleagues' trust. But they eventually learned that it made perfect sense to have the team's best writer write the most important parts of the proposal. And interestingly, their own writing improved over time after seeing what I did to their drafts—which meant less rewriting on subsequent submittals.

Cultivate your strategic thinking skills. As I've written about before, most clients see their needs as more than a technical problem. In most cases, nontechnical strategic issues are driving the project. But many technical professionals tend to focus on the technical issues without giving appropriate emphasis to nontechnical matters. Most marketers and proposal specialists, on the other hand, are better at seeing the bigger picture. They may be more attuned to the critical nontechnical aspects of a project. The best proposals put technical issues in the context of broader strategic and personal needs. Thus the best proposal specialists bring this perspective to the team. You may find, as I have, that your lack of technical expertise can be asset, enabling you to bring a fresh perspective that could well turn out to be your proposal's competitive advantage.

The opportunity to develop distinctive, attention-getting proposals is relatively low-hanging fruit for firms willing to break from the pack. Who best to lead this transformation? Talented and influential proposal specialists. If that's your aspiration, hopefully this post will serve as inspiration. If you'd like to learn more about my experiences in making the transition, don't hesitate to give me a holler. 

No comments: