Winning the Business

Setting Up Shop

Year one of a new proposal department

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As startups, companies may respond to RFPs with ad hoc teams, but as companies mature, they tend to centralize RFP management. This ensures greater consistency of message and proposal quality, while allowing operations or sales staff to focus more on their core functions of growing the business. When your company has recognized the need for an internal proposal department, consider these tips in your first year, and your company will soon recognize the new department’s value.

Know Yourself

Think of yourself as an entrepreneur within the company. Are you good at managing change? If you’re an introvert, are you ready to push through the people-related challenges of starting a new service department? If you’re an extrovert, can you handle the solitary hours of working through the text? The success of your new department will depend heavily on you. Shore up your personal weaknesses to ensure the strength of the department you’re building. If you need other champions in the company to complement your skills and interpersonal style, look for others who believe a proposal department will result in better outcomes for your growing company. Understanding the people around you and how you can effectively work with them can be just as—if not more—important as understanding your own tendencies.

Set Appropriate Expectations

You’re not exactly starting with a blank slate when you’re starting a new proposal department. You’re dealing with companywide expectations, agendas, and resources that need to be defined and managed. Start asking these sorts of questions in your job interview and keep asking them as you ramp up in the position:

  • Who’s your direct supervisor? What about dotted-line supervisors? What support and demands can you expect?
  • Will you be a proposal department of one person, or will you have a team?
  • What do your internal customers expect from a central proposal department?
  • What other duties are likely to be assigned to you, and what’s the priority ranking?
  • What, if any, responsibilities will you have in pricing decisions and communication?
  • Will you support only new business, or will you also cover re-bids of existing business?

Be a Hunter-Gatherer

Your company has been communicating about itself for a while. Track down prior RFP responses, proactive sales proposals, PowerPoints, brochures, policy manuals, employee courses, podcasts, blogs, press releases, and other materials. Look for the most useful materials and set aside the outdated. Also request resources for yourself: phone conference or webinar ID, access to company reports and data, training opportunities, content management solutions, software, and whatever other tools you think will be helpful.

Be sure to document your processes to reinforce the structure you’re building for your new proposal department.

Work the Network

Build relationships with your subject matter experts, especially if you’re new to the company. Identify people who can help you succeed.

  • Find out who else tells your company’s stories and what messages resonate with essential audiences.
  • Make appointments with top sales and operational leaders to learn about their experiences with RFPs.
  • Discover the sources of truth for company data and develop a cadence for refreshing the information you receive.
  • Build relationships with people throughout the organization. Everyone there is an expert in some facet of your company, so learn to chat. Don’t hide at your desk.

Coordinate on Goals

Make sure you understand where to focus your efforts.

  • What are bid/no-bid parameters on RFPs?
  • Which products or services should be prioritized?
  • What other projects should be pursued in downtime between RFPs?
  • Are you also responsible for information security questionnaires, vendor registrations, or other customer requests?

Target Key Text

In the early days, you’ll have to roll with whatever you can throw together. Over time, you’ll want to develop essential text to be your gold standard:

  • Company stats, experience, and ongoing expertise
  • Bios of key leaders
  • Overviews of each specific product or service
  • Any premium products or value-adds you offer
  • Graphics, maps, photos, and attachments

Measure Success

In year one, the most important metric is 100 percent on-time delivery, but you can start developing reasonable baselines in other areas:

  • Bid/no-bid rate
  • Internal satisfaction rate
  • Start to completion time
  • Win rate

Don’t Expect Too Much

Year one goes quickly. You will plan well but still not get everything done. Congratulations, you’re (probably) human. Be ambitious with your plans but stay flexible. You’re charting new territory, and you’ll need to correct your course many times. Be sure to document your processes to reinforce the structure you’re building for your new proposal department.

Build for the Future

As year one closes, reflect both alone and with your key internal customers. What’s working? What’s not? How was year one different than expected? What should be prioritized for year two? Are you ready for more resources, staff, or responsibilities?

Year one is a wild ride. You manage numerous changes in your company and in yourself. Well done, and good luck with year two.


Kathy Baker is a proposal writer at SpecialtyCare Inc., a Brentwood, Tennessee-based health system service company. She can be reached at kathy.baker@specialtycare.net.

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