September 23, 2006

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).

1 comment:

Jeff said...

I was just listening to the podcast of this one and had forgotten how good it is. Classic.