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More than just an acute response to a specific RFP, a proposal is a marketing, research and customer retention asset. The bidding process is a chance to foster strong client relationships and improve organizational understanding of the challenges your clients are facing now and will face in the future. Proposals proactively resolve potential account management issues with current clients. The data obtained during bid writing can increase the value of research and development (R&D) efforts, create a compelling company value statement and, finally, win future business. This makes even a losing proposal a winning value proposition.
How can a proposal do all that within the average RFP turnaround time of 30 days? The key is in the project management approach, aka the proposal strategy, or capture management plan. This includes engaging sales leaders to actively participate in proposal development.
How to Build Client Relationships via the Bidding Process
Use the RFP process to foster a strong client relationship. Proposals provide a legitimate reason to contact a client multiple times: on RFP receipt, during the pre-bid, after RFI submission, as addenda are issued and after bid submission. Contact the RFP issuer as soon as the bid is released to establish a point of contact for questions. Request a meeting during the bid process. Follow up at regular intervals after the bid is submitted and, even if you are not the winning bidder, after the project is awarded and work commences.
Use the Proposal to Understand and Solve Clients’ Challenges
“Describe your understanding of the project” is a common RFP requirement. If a project is out to bid, your client likely has a problem it cannot solve internally. What that problem is may be described in the RFP, but it is not fully fleshed out. Here is where you have an opportunity to win future business.
Start by developing a list of keywords/phrases describing key challenges facing the client and the market they operate in. As you read through the RFP, look for keywords and key statements. Use the results of your research to draft your RFIs. Quiz your sales teams for information gleaned from their contact with the customer. Use the information gathered to craft your understanding statement, which should be placed first in the proposal’s executive summary. Finally, share these results with your R&D team.
Use Proposal Information to Increase R&D Outcomes
RFPs represent a unique opportunity to improve R&D outcomes. The actual RFP, each client interaction and the RFI responses provide insight into what a client’s market needs and will need. This is true even if a bid loses. If it does, request a post-mortem or a follow-up meeting with the client. Ask if you can bring a member of your R&D team with you. During this meeting, ask the client questions about what they liked and disliked about your proposal, including how it met and did not meet the challenges they are facing in their industry. Supply your R&D team with this information so they can use it to fine tune their product/service strategy.
Demonstrate Your Competitive Value
Each proposal should include an explanation of how your organization’s product or service is superior in long- and short-term value in comparison to your competition’s. Begin by creating a simple chart with your company name and the name of each competitor across the top. In the rows below each company name, briefly describe the features of your respective solutions. Include everything.
After you have completed the chart and deleted anything that is repetitive, you will have a clear list of what you do that your competitors do not and vice versa. For each item, draft a statement describing how it benefits the customer. These are your feature and benefits statements. Include the feature and benefit statements in your proposal. Share the chart with your R&D department.
Proactively Resolve Client Issues via the Bid Process
Never assume that just because a client hasn’t said anything specific that they are 100% happy. Likewise, do not assume you will be given preference or automatically win a bid, just because you are the incumbent provider. Take advantage of the proposal process to do a complete internal audit of the products and/or service the client has been receiving and their overall satisfaction. Compare your results to the information included in the RFP. Address any real or potential issues in your proposal. Simply state the problem or potential problem where it is most relevant and describe the measures you have taken to solve it. Report all your findings back to R&D and account management so they can adjust their respective approaches.
Engage Your Sales Teams in the Process
The key to successfully using the proposal process to benefit your entire organization is engaging your sales teams. It takes time and effort to work with sales teams to implement an effective capture management strategy in a bid. Because a sales team’s charter is to, well, sell, often they are pursuing the “bird in hand”: the prospect with an immediate need. We’ve all heard the refrain: “I don’t have time to focus on [the proposal]. Don’t you have boilerplate for that?”
Facilitate the sales team’s involvement in the proposal process by streamlining the way they interact with clients. If you are asking the sales representative to send an email, draft a customizable, copy and paste version for them to use. If you are asking them to submit RFIs, have the RFIs already drafted on company letterhead and ready to submit before you give them to the sales team. Ask your sales teams targeted questions to get them to tell you what they know about the client and the client’s industry. Finally, whatever you ask your sales team to do, be willing to do it yourself. If you expect them to work after hours, at least make yourself available via email or cellphone when you know they will be working. Providing sales teams with support throughout the bid process will result in them working harder with you.
Win or lose, every new RFP represents a valuable opportunity to foster client relationships and develop a deeper understanding of key market segments your organization sells to. By effectively managing the proposal strategy and engaging your sales teams, you can make every bid a winner, even the ones that (technically) lose.
Cristina M. Miller, CP APMP, is a freelance editor and proposal strategist typically found with a cup of coffee in one hand and a dog-eared RFP in the other. She manages bids for mid-to-large sized businesses and lives in New England with her husband, son and two (former) rescue dogs.