September 23, 2006

Measuring What Matters

Years ago I coached youth soccer, and in the early days I often had the team scrimmage against other teams. In those scrimmages we didn't bother to keep score.

One day one of the players asked me, "Are we winning, coach?" I had to tell him that we weren't even keeping score, which led him to ask a pretty profound question: "How can we tell how we're doing if we don't know the score?"

Out of the mouths of babies, eh? Well, that's our topic this time: How to measure results in a proposal operation.

Measuring What Matters

In the previous message, we discussed some of the factors to consider in building a "proposal center of excellence." One crucially important factor that we didn't discuss was metrics.

You need to regularly take the pulse of your proposal operation by measuring both performance and proficiency. In measuring performance, you want to make sure the work you are doing and the results that work is producing are in alignment with the company's goals. In measuring proficiency, you need to define what tasks proposal writers perform and which of those tasks have the greatest impact on producing successful projects. Then you can measure whether or not the people involved have the right skills at the right level of proficiency.

Why bother measuring all of this stuff? Well, if you want to improve your proposal process, and if you want it to produce more wins and require less time and money, you have to be able to track what you're doing and measure the results. That's a basic principle of continuous improvement methodologies, and it applies to the proposal operation as much as it does to the factory floor.

To improve your proposal process in a systematic way, you must first decide what it is you want to measure. Which measurements are truly meaningful? The obvious answer would be "the win ratio," but that can actually be a misleading statistic. What if you won 30% of the deals last year, during a boom period, but the economy has tanked and you're now winning 28%. In reality, you might be having a terrific year in spite of the small drop in win ratio. It's possible that everybody else is doing much worse.

Or, to give another reason why it's risky to use win ratios as the only metric - what if you're winning all of the small opportunities and none of the large ones? In that case, your win ratio might be high but your revenues generated per proposal would be low. If you supplement win ratio tracking by measuring the percentage of dollars won as compared to the total amount for which you bid, you might get an idea of how well you did overall. But does it take into account such factors as changes in the economy? Does it distinguish between follow-on bids and new bids? You get the point. Deciding what to measure is not necessarily as easy or intuitive as it might first appear, but it is the first step.

The second step in effectively measuring results is to develop a baseline of data based on the "old" way of handling the task. I can't tell you how often we work with clients to improve their proposals and automate their process, only to find that they have no way of measuring the improvements because they weren't tracking their performance previously. If you don't know where you are, it's pretty hard to figure out if you're moving in the right direction.

The third element in measuring results is to implement a system that will collect the appropriate measures from the "new" process. This may be a matter of self-reporting on the outcome of each sales opportunity, but it could require a more structured effort, such as conducting a win/loss analyses or tracking hours of effort.
Once you have the three basics covered-you know what to measure, you have a baseline to compare it to, and you have a systematic way of capturing the data-you're ready to start. In general, I recommend that companies take a three-dimensional view of their performance, the three dimensions being financial, technical, and social.

Financial results include win ratio, and capture rate (the amount you're winning compared to the total amount available). They can also include production costs per proposal or per finished page or per dollar of business won.

Technical results are measures of work efficiency. How long does it take to answer the average RFP question? How many hands must a proposal pass through before it's approved and released? How quickly and easily can proposal content be captured, archived, reviewed, and retrieved?

Social measures focus on customer satisfaction. Regardless of whether we won the contract, what was the customer's reaction to our proposal? Did it leave a positive impression? Was it a document that differentiated us in a positive way? Win/Loss interviews can uncover some helpful insights into our current performance from the one critic who matters the most: the buyer.

At Sant, we believe in measuring results. On average, companies who implemented Sant Suite achieved an increase in win rate of 25% and a productivity improvement of 37%! You can also view an informative demo on our website at You're also welcome to call us at 888-448-7268 (USA) or +44 (0) 870 734 7778 (UK).

Creating a Proposal Center of Excellence

Centralizing the creation of complex proposals can be an excellent way to improve productivity and business results. After all, we don't hire salespeople because of their writing skills. It makes sense to put people in charge of writing that actually know how to do it.

But there's more to creating a proposal center-particularly one that embodies the principles of excellence-than just hiring a few writers. Our topic this time is just what else is required.

Creating a Proposal Center of Excellence

The term "center of excellence" is one that has become widely popular in the past few years. Its meaning is clear-a site which embodies the very best in people, skills, methods, and tools. Typically when an organization undertakes an enterprise-wide program to develop "centers of excellence," the goal is to institutionalize "best practices" in the form of consistent analytical methodologies, improved approaches to maximize value and the use of internal resources, and consistent design methodologies and implementation approaches.

Applying that concept to a proposal operation, to create a center of excellence we must identify the characteristics of the people we need in the operation, train them so they possess the right skills, and define the best practices and tools that will enable them to create outstanding proposals, as measured by revenue generation, win ratios, productivity, and customer satisfaction. (The metrics are important because a proposal center operation is not an end in itself. It's only justified to the extent it helps achieve the broader goals of business capture established by its parent organization. I'll discuss which metrics matter next time.)

Oddly, a lot of what's taken as gospel regarding how to run a proposal center is based on experiences from 40 years ago. The processes and methods that were developed by large aerospace and engineering firms for handling mega-proposals to the U.S. government became accepted, by default in most cases, as the right way to do it. So you hear a lot about "war rooms" and "storyboarding" and other stuff that, in my always humble opinion, is pretty much irrelevant today.
So what does it take to set up a proposal center of excellence?

A clear mission definition. Everyone who works in the proposal center, who contributes content to it, who calls upon it for support, or who manages it must share a common view of the purpose of that center: to increase win ratios while holding the line on proposal costs.

One way to help make sure that the proposal center has the right mission and that everyone sees it in the right light is to position it within the sales and marketing organization. Sales is bottom-line driven and sales management is used to taking an objective view of performance. Having a proposal center report through engineering, technical documentation, customer support, or some other area of the company is much less likely to provide the proper point of view. In fact, some years ago one of the big five consulting firms in Washington D.C. stunned their employees by abolishing the proposal operation entirely. Because of the way that center was set up and the reporting relationships in place for it, the center had become too much of a "copy shop," focused on getting documents out on time but not taking responsibility for whether or not those documents won. The result: a few hard-headed partners decided they didn't want to pay those kinds of salaries when they could outsource document production a lot cheaper. Ouch!

The right people. Who should work in a proposal center? Good writers, of course. At least one outstanding graphics person. But people who have sharp, general sense of business issues. People who are willing to dig and do some research to understand an opportunity better. People who are competitive by nature and who take pride in the wins.

The right training. There are lots of things a good proposal writer needs to know, but the two most important deal with (1) managing the process, and (2) producing a winning deliverable. Managing the process of getting a proposal done is similar in many ways to other complex projects, but there are some unique aspects that a proposal manager or writer needs to know, such as how to hold a kick-off meeting, how to extract information from the field sales team, how to generate consensus among all contributors regarding themes and positioning for the proposal, and so on. Producing a winning deliverable is a matter of knowing how to communicate persuasively. A lot of that is a matter of structure-saying the right things in the right order-but some of it is a matter of style-saying the right things in the right way. Both can be taught, and this kind of training should be required of all members of the proposal team.

The right methods. Writing every proposal from scratch is impossible, and it's not even desirable. Cutting and pasting proposals together from a single source file doesn't work, either. The right methods involve storing reusable components that can be selected based on a definition of the opportunity and the client, then assembled into a coherent draft document. In addition, in most proposal centers, it's absolutely vital that multiple writers work simultaneously on different parts of a large deal. Otherwise, they may never finish in time. As a result, the right methods include team collaboration, too.

The right resources and facilities. In today's wired world, it's no longer necessary to have everyone working in the same office. People can collaborate over virtual links, using Web conferencing, Web-based tools for proposal generation and management, and so on. But everyone needs high-speed, high-bandwidth access, rock-and-roll computers, and the kind of productivity boosting software that helps them operate at peak efficiency.

One characteristic of the very best proposal operations is that they use Sant Suite to automate labor-intensive aspects of the proposal writing process. Our new TeamWorks product makes it easier than ever to collaborate with others in producing a finished, winning document. You can view an informative demo on our website at You're also welcome to call us at 888-448-7268 (USA) or +44 (0) 1329 227535 (UK).

September 5, 2006

Tom's Top 10 Tips for Better Proposals

Writing a good sales proposal is a challenging task. But here are ten practical tips that will make the job easier.
The good news is that you can translate these tips immediately into action. Writing your proposals will be easier and the results will be better.

What does it take to write a better proposal?
A combination of common sense and good advice.

Here are 10 tips based on my experiences writing proposals for the past 20 years. Lets see...that's one tip for every two years? Hmmm...guess I was a slow learner. All the same, they should give you a jump start on doing a great job with each of your proposals.

1. Never title your proposal "Proposal". That doesn't say anything the client can't figure out themselves. But, oddly enough, that's what most proposals are titled. (It's a little like writing a book a titling it "Book", isn't it?) Instead, try writing a substantive title that states a benefit to the client: "Increasing Network Reliability and Convenience Through Automated Fax Capabilities."

2. Focus on your clients business needs or mission objectives first. Most people start with their company history or an overview of their capabilities, strengths, or advantages. That's important stuff, but it doesn't belong up front. What does? The things the customer cares about. Put the customers needs right up front in the Executive Summary, mirroring what you have heard from them before you offer a solution. That shows you have listened and considered their interests and are not offering a canned approach. It's a great technique to build trust and lower anxiety.

3. Avoid lengthy corporate histories. Nobody really cares. And no matter what, don't start your proposal with your company history, your mission statement, or your corporate vision. If you include any of that stuff, put it at the back of the proposal, not up front.

4. Keep your proposal as short as possible. Think thin to win. It's tempting to throw in anything and everything that might be of interest, but the decision maker can't find your key points. Also, a short proposal will usually be read first, which means all others will be judged in comparison to it. That's an advantage if you've done a good job.

5. Eliminate jargon. Make your proposal simple and easy. Avoid using your own jargon unless you are absolutely certain everyone involved in the decision process will understand it. Ask yourself: even if your contact at client organization understands all of your jargon, who else will read the proposal? Will they understand it? In fact, the only jargon you should use throughout the proposal is theirs.

6. Highlight your key points. Executives don't read, they skim. Make your document "skimmable." Use bullets, headings and subheadings, bold face type, color, bullet points, borders, and anything else that will make your key points jump off the page.

7. Prioritize your differentiators or competitive advantages. Think about what you have to offer and select a few of them, prioritize in terms of what matters the most to the customer.

8. Ghost the competition. If you know which competitors are also in deal, raise issues in your proposal that strike at their weak points. Don't disparage them or mention them by name. But if you know they have a lousy safety record, make a big deal about the importance of safety and how great your record is.

9. Quantify your benefits and payback. Quantified benefits are more convincing than generalities. Calculate the total cost of ownership, the return on investment, the potential value of improved productivity. Show the benefits graphically, in a comparison chart. If you can base the customer's positive outcomes on the things that differentiate you, you'll really have a powerful value proposition.

10. Ask for the business. Ask for it in the cover letter, ask for it in the Executive summary, and ask for it when you present the proposal. Being passive doesn't work. You have to ask.