As If By Magic: the key to effective proposal resourcing

Article published in the Institute of Sales and Marketing Management "Winning Edge"

I am always amazed how little resource some businesses allocate to proposals. It’s as if they believe in the proposal pixie – that lesser known species that lives under the stairs and magically produces proposals overnight. Proposal pixies are well known to exist on a diet of cold pizza and precious little respect.


Conversely, I know of a small business that has been remarkably successful at winning government business without having to rely on the last minute appearance of the proposal pixie. Every time a key public sector Invitation to Tender (ITT)[i] arrives, the board members block their diaries out to ensure they give the response their undivided attention. That’s how important it is to them.


Setting the context


Everyone would love to win business without having to compete or write a proposal. This is unrealistic, especially in the world of complex, solution sales. Proposals have to be developed, but not by magic.


Compelling proposals are the result of solid business practice. Cobbling together bits and pieces of people’s time as and when required is not the answer. If you are now saying to yourself, “that’s OK, we have a proposal team”, ask yourself if the team is fully integrated into your sales process. If not, as shown in Figure 1, you may have a virtual “brick wall” syndrome. This model is not healthy for winning business because there is no continuity or cohesion.

Companies that integrate the proposal development step into the sales process - Figure 2 – stand to gain the following advantages:

  • Your customer sees you are a unified team
  • Your proposal reflects the win strategies and visions your salespeople have created
  • You will be less inclined to respond to a ‘blind’ ITT – one that you were not expecting – as you will accept that a relationship with the customer is a pre-requisite of developing a winning proposal. 

Senior sponsorship


Every process needs board sponsorship, a champion to hail the benefits, encourage adoption and secure funding for people and facilities. Research shows that proposal development can cost up to 7% of the value of the contract[ii].


Companies that accept proposal development as a valuable activity fund the time required. They allow their staff dedicated time to work on their proposal tasks and do not expect them to turn into proposal pixies in the evening and at weekends.


As well as sponsoring the process, senior staff need to sponsor the actual proposals: 

  • To help qualify the opportunity – should we go ahead or not?
  • To gain top-level buy-in to the win strategy – if there is debate over the solution or the price to win, the sponsor needs to help arbitrate
  • To gain access to the best resources
  • To help determine priorities if there is contention over people’s time

With senior support, the time and effort required to produce a winning proposal becomes visible and important. Without it, the proposal manager must beg, steal and borrow.


The proposal team


Proposal teams vary in size based on the profile of the task, but there are always specific roles even if the same person wears more than one pixie hat. First, you need a ‘core team’ for continuity throughout:

  • The Manager: the person who plans and manages the production of a winning proposal – one that complies with the customer’s instructions, is easy to read and evaluate,  shows understanding of the customer’s requirements, reflects the win strategy and looks professional. The Manager will ideally be a proposal professional but must, at a minimum, have project management skills.
  • The Solution Specialists: key people to lead the solution design, the delivery approach and the commercial deal. Their task is to pick up the vision created by the sales team (unless they have been part of that team) and develop it fully either personally or in conjunction with colleagues. They will report to the Manager for the duration of the proposal development.

In addition, you will need:

  • Contributors: people to write and create diagrams. They may be dedicated professionals or subject matter experts giving a few hours of their time.
  • Reviewers: the Manager will schedule several reviews to check the proposal is developing according to strategy and plan. A range of Reviewers is needed, and the Manager will determine who, why, what, when, where and how.
  • Approvers: senior staff who will sign off the different aspects of the proposal.

It is also helpful to have administrative and technical support for proposals. People who understand processes and systems, who can help order stationery and couriers, who can format documents, and test and fix equipment and software – they can make the proposal development job immeasurably more efficient. I know from bitter experience how things can turn out without them.


Have a plan


The great thing about a plan – the schedule the Manager produces at the start of the proposal development process – is that it shows you who is required to do what and when. It reveals that you will not need everyone for the whole exercise.


With a plan, you can move away from vague requests such as:


“I’ll need someone over the next four weeks to write some stuff about project management for a proposal.”


Instead, you will be able to say with authority:


“Starting week commencing 2nd June, I’ll need a project management expert to join a proposal core team for four weeks. I need the person to develop and document our approach to delivering an ABC solution for company XYZ. I will need about 50% of their time per week.”


This precision allows the whole business to plan more effectively and support the proposal activity – without a pixie in sight.


Have a budget


It makes good business sense to record the time spent creating proposals. Just as you have a budget and headcount for marketing, sales and every other function, why not for proposal development? Whether you have dedicated staff or you use a percentage of people’s time, it is important to know the time you spend winning business is proportionate to the profit you will make. With good planning, you can start to understand budget and resource requirements.


It is also worth measuring success rates. With good metrics, you can make better decisions and adjust behaviour and resources to improve performance.




Finally, don’t forget that resources extend beyond people. The Manager will decide whether to physically co-locate the team in a dedicated proposal room or whether a virtual team model will work. Sometimes it will be a mixture.


Technology supports almost every stage of the proposal development process. Whether office-based or virtual, the team needs software to plan, write and draw; communications for telephone calls and to transfer and share documents; and production equipment to print and bind. Timely and reliable provision of this technology is essential.


We must not forget the traditional tools of the trade – flipcharts and pens, folders and dividers, and packing materials. Even with technology to do almost anything, we still rely on these basic things from time to time.


Lessons to learn


Proposal development is a key step to winning business, not a necessary evil. But, pixie dust doesn’t exist. To increase your win rates remember six important lessons.

  • One, hook the pixies up with the rest of the team
  • Two, choose the best opportunities and allocate your best pixies to the job in daylight hours with your support and blessing
  • Three, sort out your pixie hats and remember they can wear more than one
  • Four, forget the magic and have a plan
  • Five, allocate a pixie budget and measure their success – and don’t forget to recognise their good work
  • Six, create a great working environment – real or virtual, but not under the stairs.


[i] Invitation to Tender or ITT is the term used  in the article to describe any formal request from a customer for a proposal

[ii] Research by APMP Center for Business Development Excellence


‘Pixie’ image courtesy of Boians Cho Joo Young at





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