From Favor-Doers to Proactive Partners

5 ways to transform your SME relationships

Subject matter experts (SMEs) are the lifeblood of an organization. As the go-to sources for in-depth knowledge on specific topics, SMEs tend to be busy professionals who play many different roles within their organizations. One of those roles is arming proposal teams with the information needed to write accurate and compelling proposals that win business.

Proposal professionals’ SME relationships can make or break their work. If your SMEs aren’t prioritizing your inquiries, then your proposals aren’t putting your company’s best foot forward.

Consider your own SME relationships: Are your SMEs proactive and responsive partners? Do they consistently treat your inquiries with urgency and give you the full context needed to write winning proposals? Or do you find yourself down to the wire with a looming deadline, practically begging for the information you need? Maybe you’ve grown accustomed to your inquiries landing on the bottom of your SMEs’ to-do lists.

Proposal professionals’ SME relationships can make or break their work. If your SMEs aren’t prioritizing your inquiries, then your proposals aren’t putting your company’s best foot forward.

Most of us fall somewhere in between, with a mix of responsive, rock star SMEs and those who can hardly give us the time of day. In any case, strengthening your SME relationships results in stronger proposals—and makes your life easier. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Start at the top. Getting resistant SMEs to prioritize proposal-related inquiries is much easier with support from leadership. Try doing proposal “road show” presentations with key business leaders to explain your roles and needs from their business areas, or schedule informal meet-and-greets with upper management. The goal is to ensure that the leaders of key business areas understand the importance of proposals and how their personnel (i.e., your SMEs) support the proposal function and help your company win business. Once you have buy-in from leadership, SME priorities will follow.
  2. Train SMEs and set clear expectations. Are your SMEs aware that they’re considered proposal SMEs, and do they know what that means? An ounce of education is worth a pound of partnership. Take the time to train SMEs on their roles—help them understand how their contributions impact your company’s ability to win business and explain what your team needs from them. Try one-on-one training sessions with key SMEs, team education, or informal lunch-and-learn presentations. Set time frame expectations up front and make sure you’re giving SMEs adequate time to respond. If you regularly partner with an SME, work out a service-level agreement that everyone approves.
  3. Survey your SMEs. Feedback—it’s the breakfast of champions. It’s difficult to improve your SME relationships if you don’t understand where the gaps are. Take the time to assess the ways your team is engaging SMEs. What you find may surprise you. Perhaps that chronically evasive SME is frustrated because he or she is answering the same question repeatedly. To improve that relationship, you can implement a process to ensure new data gets added to your proposal library—the first time. Maybe a surly SME is feeling underappreciated. You can address that by building a robust SME recognition program.
  4. Give context and ask for the same in return. To get the most accurate and relevant information from an SME, you need to provide the right amount of context. This will differ depending on the request and type of information needed. Too much background can be overwhelming—black and white questions are fine for simple inquiries, but more nuanced questions require more context. Make sure the SME understands why you’re asking and what you’re trying to accomplish. Consider all the ways to give SMEs key pieces of context: Is there a way to provide them with access to your proposal system? What about including them in your workflow? Could you involve critical SMEs in strategy or storyboarding discussions?
  5. Show appreciation and recognize top SMEs. A little bit of gratitude goes a long way. Let your SMEs know that you value their contributions. If an SME goes above and beyond, call to express your gratitude. Consider a quarterly SME recognition process to acknowledge exemplary SMEs—this could be an announcement on your company’s intranet or a thank-you card signed by everyone on your team. More visible forms of acknowledgment can encourage other SMEs to adopt positive behaviors.

Alison Coon is a proposal development leader and Karen Kosloff is a proposal content manager, both at The Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America. They can be reached at and

SME Tips

Engage interns and new hires. As part of their training, have them interview top SMEs and collect feedback on what’s working well and what needs improvement.

Try something new. Have someone outside your department objectively assess your team’s SME engagement and help build an action plan.

Get creative. For newer personnel, complex products, or tight turnarounds, consider appointing an “SME captain” on the proposal team who can guide or answer questions before reaching out to an SME.


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