February 15, 2008

Lose Early

A recent TV show titled The Biggest Loser focused on people who lost huge amounts of weight by exercising and dieting. Only in America would this be prime time entertainment…

For proposal writers, there’s another meaning to “biggest loser.” The biggest loser is the proposal that finishes second. That’s our topic today.

When I was in Copenhagen last spring, Jens Agerskov, managing director of Dencore, made a very perceptive comment. He said, “Winning fast is great. Winning slowly is good. Losing fast is all right. But losing slowly is unacceptable. The biggest loser is always the proposal that finishes second.”

I think he’s exactly right about this. After all, if you compete for business and get knocked out right away, you’re done. You won’t put any more time or resources into the opportunity. You’ll move on to something else. But if you make it past the first round of cuts, you may need to revise your proposal into your best and final offer. Or the next stage of the competition may require you to develop an oral presentation and rehearse your team for hours in preparation for your final shot at winning.

Regardless, you’ll be putting in lots more effort and spending more of your scant bid-and-proposal budget in pursuing the deal. And if you don’t win, your loss is literally more costly than somebody who got knocked out right away.

A client in London shared a story with me recently of being invited to bid for a major piece of work. It was a multi-million pound opportunity, so they assembled a large team and worked for six weeks on the proposal. They submitted their proposal and were pleased to be invited to the next stage of the process, a formal presentation. They put together hundreds of slides and rehearsed for days to be ready. They arrived at the client’s site filled with excitement, thinking they had a real shot at winning the business and displacing a major competitor in the process. But as soon as they put their title slide up on the screen and stood up to begin their pitch, the head of the client’s decision team interrupted them, saying, “Thank you so much for coming today. We just want to make it clear that we don’t intend to actually change vendors this year. However, we are very interested in hearing what you have to say. So please, go ahead!”

Talk about sucking the air out of the room!

My client estimates that besides the six weeks of effort, they spent in excess of a hundred thousand pounds putting their proposal and presentation together. And they never had a chance!

The ugly reality is that clients will sometimes invite us to submit a proposal even though they have no intention of buying from us. Their actual motive might be beating up their current vendor on price, or learning what’s new in the industry, or simply creating the appearance of due diligence, even though they already have decided who will get the contract. One thing is certain: we never had a chance.

One way to avoid this kind of disaster is to qualify opportunities ruthlessly. Make sure you have a real opportunity to win—that the client has a budget, that the competition is fair and open, that you match up to the key criteria the decision makers will use, and a few other factors. And continue to qualify and assess as the deal moves forward.

Another way to minimize the negative impact of bidding for work you can’t really win is to use a proposal automation system. That way, you spend far less time putting out a decent proposal and/or presentation, so your loss is much less. (Of course, a better reason for using a proposal automation system, or at least the one available from Sant Corporation, is that it incorporates best practices and will increase your win ratio.)

Put the two together—effective qualification and maximum efficiency from automation—and losing slowly will be slightly less painful.

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