Go Thump Your Chest!

This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310) Issue # 832
Originally published 10/5/2009

> Enjoy proposal writing and improve your proposal hit rate by identifying your firm’s value proposition.

I apologize to those who think an article about proposal writing doesn’t belong in a business management journal. However, I firmly believe all firm owners and managers should be students of good proposal writing (or good writing for that matter).  I committed to improve my writing several years ago, when I realized that firms that understand and effectively communicate their value win large, multi-million-dollar design contracts.

Sure, proposal writing is just one step in the business development process and most contracts go to firms that have also developed strong relationships with potential clients. However, clients rarely award large contracts without a solid paper trail. This means you must identify what you uniquely offer and then communicate it in good writing.

Oh, and proposal writing can be fun. Fun? Yeah— proposal writing is fun when you take a chance, pick a strong line, and thump your chest about why you are the best choice. Do you know your client’s business needs and challenges better than your competitor does? Thump your chest! Do you have a unique solution to a client’s problem? Thump your chest! Have you become singularly qualified in a niche? Thump your chest!

Writing a proposal when you know you can uniquely solve a client’s need is a fun process. To identify and effectively communicate the unique value proposition you offer your clients, follow these steps:

1) Think strategically— The ability to think strategically is an important and learnable skill. Make this capability part of your firm culture by developing a strategic proposal planning process. MacKay & Sposito, Inc. (M&S)’s process includes a simple planning meeting where we work through a series of proposal strategy worksheets to consider the needs and perspectives of the client. Example questions include:

* What is driving the need for this project?

* What are the characteristics of a perfect firm for this project?

* Why would they choose not to hire us for this project?

* Who are my competitors, and what are their strengths and weaknesses?

* Who will be making the selection (understand the personalities of the selection team, their decision process, the nature of the true economic buyer, etc.)?

Brainstorming the unique value you offer a client teaches team members to think strategically. As a result, these same individuals will begin to approach all of their client relationships more strategically.

2) Test your message— Once you have identified your unique value and before you start preparing the proposal, test the message with the potential client. Do so by starting a dialog with the selection committee about the unique value you offer.

Then, watch and listen closely for both verbal and nonverbal feedback. If you strike a chord and receive positive feedback, start preparing the proposal and thump your chest. If you perceive resistance to your message, revisit the planning process and refine your message.

3) Avoid boilerplate text— Producing full glossy proposals is an expensive and time-consuming process. I appreciate the temptation to grab a successful proposal, tweak it a bit, and submit it in response to a request for proposal. However, doing so sends the following message: Hey, client, I don’t care enough to prepare anything specific to your needs. Please hire me anyway.

By the way, if you actually feel this way about the proposal, please reconsider submitting. A sub-par submittal will almost certainly do more damage than good.

For those potential projects that fit your firm’s unique capabilities, invest the time to tailor a message that demonstrates your intimate knowledge of the client’s business and project needs. This is a sure-fire way to move to the next step in the selection process.

4) Red Team Review— You have spent hours and perhaps days pouring your blood, sweat, and tears into your proposal and are ready to submit. Before doing so, stop and get a second opinion. At M&S, we have a formal Red Team Review process that every proposal goes through before we submit.

Team members who have previously demonstrated an ability to prepare good proposals complete the review. Their objective is an independent review from the perspective of the client. Initially, this process can be intimidating, as writing can be a very personal process. However, the added step is invaluable, and if you develop an environment where team members welcome positive criticism, the quality of your proposals will soar.

If this process seems overly time consuming or cost-prohibitive, reconsider the number of projects you pursue.

Chasing fewer opportunities will focus your efforts and save valuable resources. Most importantly, your hit-rate will increase as you more effectively identify and communicate the unique value you offer in the marketplace.

Derrick Smith is a senior vice president at MacKay & Sposito, Inc. (M&S) (Vancouver, WA). Contact him at dsmith@mackaysposito.com.

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