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:
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:
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:
In addition, you will need:
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.
[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 FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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