Proposals: How to make them a point of difference, not a point of reference

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There is a memorable short scene in the Disney Pixar film A Bug’s Life which finds two mosquitoes flying close to a blue fluorescent light. The first, more enlightened mosquito knows that the allure of the light can be treacherous and tries to warn his companion…

“No, Harry, No! Don’t look at the light!”

But the second mosquito (Harry) simply can’t resist…

“I can’t help it, it’s so beautiful…”

Harry is promptly zapped by the fluorescent light and falls to the ground.

This is a rather appropriate analogy for what happens in many professional services firms when a ‘Request for Proposal’ (RFP) or ‘Invitation to Tender’ (ITT) is submitted by a prospective client.

There are many good reasons why your firm should not respond to the request for a proposal – we recommend you read this excellent article by John Warrillow and this one by Andrew Sobel – but unfortunately, like Harry the mosquito, for many professional services firms the lure of the RFP blue light is often too compelling to ignore.

In our work with professional services firms, we are often asked to critique successful and, more often, unsuccessful proposals to give an objective view on what the firm might do differently in the future to improve their chances of securing new business.

The thing we notice most is how remarkably unremarkable many of these submitted proposals are. They all look very similar, they say the same things and regularly follow the same structure.

We acknowledge that this could be a function of the tight content requirements dictated by some procurement departments – we’ll say more on this later – but a few changes in approach could make a significant difference to a firm’s success rate.

These changes might seem a significant departure from the status quo and involve more effort, but we would ask, if you really don’t want to put in more effort to win the work, is this really a client you want to work for?

Here are four changes we suggest you make to your written proposals to give your firm the best chance of progressing to the next stage in the business development process. Two things you should do and two things you shouldn’t…

 1. DO make your proposal all about them – the client – not you

We would urge you to go and look at a recent proposal and answer this question honestly: Is the document all about us or is it about the client?

Unfortunately, too often in the proposals we see, the document is primarily about the proposing firm and has very little to do with the client. In effect, the proposal is simply a corporate brochure: all content, no context.

Typically, in the first few pages of a proposal document, the proposing firm will talk about themselves, outlining their history and their experience in the sector. The firm will list any similar client organisations they have worked with and introduce the ‘expert’ team that has been ‘specifically’ chosen for this engagement. Finally, the firm will tell the client what they need – by re-stating the RFP brief prepared by the client – and then tell them that they have the expertise to meet these needs.

Instead of simply ‘meeting the brief’ and telling the client how you will meet their identified needs, how about searching for needs that are notin the invitation to tender? How about offering your perspective on the key issues facing the prospective client’s sector? How about highlighting what some of their competitors are doing?

You have likely heard the truism: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” In your written proposal you need to demonstrate to the potential client that you understand them, their hopes, fears and circumstances.

Above all, offer some insight. Demonstrate to the client that you have done some research into their specific situation, their clients and their strategic ambitions. This is how you really show experience in a sector, not by simply stating how experienced your team is.

To help you make the proposal all about the client, we would suggest you base your document on the concept of the ‘Hero’s Journey’ in which the client is the ‘hero’, not your professional services firm. Your firm should play the role of ‘the ally’. Take the example below, which of these statements has more impact?

Option 1 – Your firm is the hero:

When combined, our expert team has over 200 years working in the healthcare sector. Our local knowledge combined with our global reach means you will have a strong partner to help you achieve your ambitions.

Option 2 – The client is the hero:

Our recent experience in the sector has found that consumers are far more willing to receive healthcare services from non-traditional healthcare providers like [client name]. Indeed, there is growing scepticism among consumers with traditional health systems.

With your unrivalled technology and analytics capabilities, specifically in the area of big data, we believe there could be significant opportunities for you as a new entrant to the healthcare market. In fact, we have already seen other technology firms, like you, starting to gain footholds in the healthcare sector and we have little doubt that you too could have success in this market. We would be delighted to help you achieve this ambition.

Of course, you should include details about your firm and the team that will be working on the document, however, this should be at the back of the document and not the first thing the client reads.

Ultimately, when the prospective client finishes reading your proposal, do they feel like the ‘hero’, or are you the white knight riding in to save them? Nobody wants to feel like they need to be saved. The client should always be the hero – make your proposal about them.

This great quote by author Rick Warren sums the situation up perfectly:

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

2. DO offer a ‘Point of View’ or Insight

Offer a point of view on the key issues facing the client that you have discovered in your scoping conversations and some thought on how they might approach these issues.

Importantly, if you haven’t been involved in any scoping conversations – or the client hasn’t invited you to meet with them before submitting your proposal – don’t submit a proposal. You will not win and are simply being used as a yardstick.

We are aware that some procurement departments have tightly structured communication policies that don’t allow proposing firms to discuss ideas or communicate with the potential client before the proposal is submitted. If this is the case, think hard before responding.

How can you possibly understand the scope of the project? If you are not able to have a conversation, how can you truly understand the potential client’s objectives, critical success factors, expectations or current situation? A good working relationship is based on ongoing dialogue and communication. If this is banned from the outset, maybe this isn’t a client for you?

There may be people reading this article thinking that we are being naïve because proposing firms can often be penalised for offering anything beyond what is asked for in the RFP. This is a fair comment, and there is a fine balance between showing how you will meet the needs of the client – showing that you have listened – and offering new insight.

However, as a professional advisor, your duty should be to ‘advise’ your clients, not let them dictate how you should do your job. As long as you are not offering a procrustean solution, we would advise all firms to offer a point of view in their proposals. Again, if the potential client will penalise you for showing ingenuity, is this really someone your firm wants to work with

A quick word on incumbents: If you are the incumbent firm already working with this client, you have no excuse but to highlight any key issues the client has faced during your relationship and how you resolved them, as well as offering a point of view on the issues the client will face in the coming years. As the incumbent you should have comprehensive insight and details about the inner workings of the prospective client and you should illustrate this knowledge – and use it to differentiate yourself.

This being said, if you are the incumbent and are being asked to retender, it might suggest problems in your relationship with the client that need surfacing.

3. DON’T ‘tailor’ your proposal using ‘Find and Replace’

Many people tasked with drafting proposals in professional services firms will be well aware of the following keyboard shortcuts to help them write a new proposal: CTRL+H, CTRL+C, CTRL+V and CTRL+F.

Here’s how these shortcuts will typically be used in drafting a new ‘tailored’ proposal within a professional services firm…

i. Use your archive to find previously submitted proposals that closely match the new opportunity – usually for organisations in the same sector.

ii. Open the document that most closely matches the new opportunity, give it a new file name, hold down CTRL+H (Find and Replace) and substitute the name of the previous potential client with the new potential client. Don’t forget to use ‘Change Picture’ (Right Click) to replace the company logos.

iii. Return to the other existing proposals – with sections you are fond of that match the new brief – and make liberal use of CTRL+C (Copy) and CTRL+V (Paste).

iv. Finally, and critically, use CTRL+F (Find) to double-check there are no more instances of the original organisation’s name remaining in the ‘new’ document. There is a significant risk involved if you miss out this final check – there can be no greater error than including the wrong company name in the new document.

The new proposal is almost finished and completely ‘tailored’ to the new prospective client.

While we may be exaggerating for effect, in our experience this order of events is not too far from the truth in many firms where time constraints are great and proposal submission deadlines are met at the very last minute. We also recognise that if firms have previously submitted proposals for similar opportunities then it is sensible to refer to existing documents when writing new proposals.

However, simply copying and pasting without specifically adapting your content to the prospective client’s context/situation/issues is not a good strategy, for two main reasons…

Firstly, the client can tell. More often than not, organisations can tell if a proposal has been recycled. If the client thinks that you have put little effort into the proposal, then you are unlikely to be taken forward. Likewise, if this is the level of effort you are willing to put into gaining a new client, do you really want them? If every organisation is unique, then so must your proposal be.

Secondly, while it is very rare that you will win a contract based simply on a proposal – it is often one of the first steps in the business development process – this is still an important touchpoint or ‘moment of truth’ (see Jan Carlzon) where a client makes a judgement about your firm.

Everything your firm does makes an impression, and this undoubtedly includes your written proposals. They help your brand stand out and set your reputation. They tell a story about your firm and perhaps more importantly, they influence the stories that other people tell about your firm.

If you’re going to put proposals into the world, then they have to match your brand, reflect your values and reinforce your reputation. They have to influence the stories that people will tell about your organisation in a positive way.

If your proposal appears generic, standardised and off the shelf, then this is the impression that will form in the mind of the client. Your firm is better than this.

One of the best proposals we have ever seen was by a firm of accountants in response to an opportunity to tender for, what appeared on paper, a standard audit contract for a wallpaper manufacturer. The winning accountancy firm submitted a proposal in the form of a wall paper samples booklet with each new section printed on a different sample of wall paper.

It’s easy to understand why this firm won the contract. They ‘wowed’ the client by demonstrating effort and originality and massively enhanced their reputation and brand. The requisite content was covered of course, but the approach was completely personalised.

4. DON’T list your fee rates

You will, most likely, have heard the old adage that when a procuring firm receives your proposal, the first thing they do is to turn to the back page: “Fee Rates.”

While this is certainly not true for all potential clients, if you genuinely believe that this is true for the majority, then why are you entering in the first place? If you honestly believe that the prospective client is simply making a decision based on price, don’t enter.

You are lowering yourself to the level of a commodity and you are simply taking part in a ‘reverse auction’ to the bottom, where the lowest price wins, and this is definitely not a bidding war that a self-respecting firm should want to win.

Our simple advice to professional services firms? Stop listing fee rates in your proposals. Of course, you should offer a value-based price for the engagement, which means you must be able to specify and quantify the value of the engagement.

In an excellent article entitled ‘Transparency is for windows, not pricing professional services author Tim Williams of the Ignition Consulting Group begins (we’ve highlighted for effect):

“The last time you bought a new pair of shoes, did you first demand to know the costs that went into manufacturing them? It seems like a ridiculous question because buyers rarely (if ever) have visibility into the costs of the seller. Except in the professional services business.

Most professional firms have been marching down the path of cost-based compensation so long that it seems normal to answer questions about salaries, overhead, and even profit margins, but it is decidedly not normal. In no other industry — outside of classically-defined commodities— does the seller disclose their costs in this manner to the buyer.”

Many Request for Proposals (RFPs) or Invitations to Tender (ITTs) ask professional services firms to list their fee rates by seniority, and firms oblige willingly. We strongly believe – like Tim Williams – that this has to stop.

Professional services firms should instead price the engagement honestly based on the outcome/output of the project and the value that will be created by the engagement for the client.

Your value is created by your ability to use your knowledge, experience, reputation, expertise and skills to provide the outcome the client seeks. Not how many hours you will be allocating to the project.

A proposal is a primary mechanism to illustrate this value. How do you do this? By offering insight, making it all about the client and by showing that this proposal has not simply been recycled from a previous opportunity.

If you demonstrate the value that you will bring well enough throughout the proposal, you should have no hesitation in putting a figure to your efforts.

If you are not offering a commodity product, don’t act like you are. Don’t base your price on what you think others will charge or what you think the client will be willing to pay.

Again, you might think we are being quite naïve because often the prospective client demands to know fee rates in their RFP and if you don’t list your fee rates, then you will have no chance of progressing at all. We would argue that it is up to the professional services firm to rebalance the buyer/firm relationship.

As Tim Williams succinctly puts it, when dealing with procurement:

“Remember, you’re the seller. Whose job is it to change the dialogue? Sellers are in control of not only what they charge, but how they charge… You do not have to be a hostage to either their process or their methods. You’re the seller, and you get to decide how you charge. The buyer can decide not to do business with you, but they don’t have the power or the right to tell you how you should price and sell your services. 

The buyer-seller dynamics in most agency-client transactions are an aberration in the business world…You are under no obligation to be “transparent” about your costs… Procurement asks for this information because they can, and they will keep asking until they get a ‘No.” 

It’s time for your firm to say “No.”

You decide: A point of difference or a point of reference?

For most firms, making these suggested changes to proposals will be challenging but worthwhile.

By making your proposal all about them – not about your firm – you give the prospective client a story they can believe in and retell to their boss and stakeholders, that goes well beyond the attributes your firm will bring to the project.

By challenging the client and helping them to think differently, you begin to illustrate the value you will bring to the engagement. Your proposal should offer a point of view, not simply a point of reference.

By making the proposal unique – not just recycled – you uphold and strengthen your reputation with the client and what’s more, you prove to your workforce exactly what you stand for which is quality, originality and excellence.

By clearly articulating the value of the engagement, you don’t position yourself as a commodity but instead encourage the client to concentrate on the value you bring.

Finally, we invite your firm to think of it this way: if you do choose to fly towards the RFP light like Harry the Mosquito, are you simply replying to a request for a proposal, or are you framing your response as a request for a partner? The latter means a very different type of approach and the first, perhaps none at all.