Winning the Business

Getting the Right Answers From SMEs

3 key steps to obtaining the most valuable information for your proposals

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Having access to a subject matter expert (SME) is not enough to craft a winning proposal. SMEs are often not a dedicated resource in our team, so it is our job as proposal managers to learn how to make the most of the time SMEs are able to allocate to the business development and proposal side.

Learning how to ask the right questions to get the answers we need to make bid/no-bid decisions, craft successful technical approaches, and understand our customer’s pain points can increase our team’s win rate. SMEs can be involved in each stage of our proposal pipeline by:

  • Meeting with prospective clients and understanding the requirements of upcoming proposals.
  • Helping us determine if an opportunity is technically viable well before we deploy our resources to pursue it.
  • Assisting us in crafting a technical solution that sets our proposal apart from our competition.

Expecting SMEs to craft proposals or come up with technical narratives is not a realistic use of their time and experience. Just because an SME has a wealth of knowledge does not necessarily mean he or she can convey it in writing. This is where proposal managers and proposal writers can work with SMEs to get an understanding of the topic, ask the right questions, and craft a winning response free of clunky jargon for the prospective customer.

Just because an SME has a wealth of knowledge does not necessarily mean he or she can convey it in writing.

How to Get the Right Answers

  1. Build a relationship with your SME. Just like in any other business context, the relationship you have with your colleagues is important to getting things done efficiently. Find a way to understand what is important to your SMEs and what kind of working style is best suited to them. Would they rather answer your questions by email, in person, or over the phone? Are they comfortable writing down bullet points for you, or would they rather take a stab at writing paragraphs to get you the information you need?
  2. Tailor your questions. Once you know your SMEs’ working styles and you adapt to them, you can start tailoring your questions to their preferred methods. Part of tailoring your questions is also coming from a place of true curiosity. It isn’t enough to say, “Did you read the RFP’s statement of work? What do you think we should do?” The answer to such a vague question is not going to be helpful for anyone involved. Instead, take time to read the requirements and ask pointed questions about the areas that have not been generally covered in previous proposal efforts (e.g., new processes, different technologies, emerging customer requirements). A better question would be, “I see the customer has a requirement for X on page 37, section 5.3, and we have not previously responded to that. I did some research and found out that Y is the industry standard. What are your thoughts on this? Can you walk me through what this means for the customer and why they’d be asking for X?”
  3. Follow up. In a perfect world, tailoring your questions would be enough to get a winning write-up. In the real world, however, new questions may come to you in the middle of writing a section, understanding a process, ensuring that the solution complies with the statement of work, and/or explaining the benefits of a technical approach to your customers. In following up with your SME, practice active listening and relay back your understanding to the SME to ensure that when you are writing the response free of jargon, you can explain the benefits of the solution to the customer.

Adriana Wilson is a proposal coordinator at LGC Global, a Detroit, Michigan-based federal contracting company. She can be reached at

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