March 9, 2010

Why Great Proposals Lose

Sometimes you do everything right but it all comes out wrong. You write a fabulous proposal and you still lose. Here’s why it happens.

That is our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Why Great Proposals Lose

Shouldn't quality be rewarded? Shouldn't an outstanding effort be crowned with success?

Well, maybe in Hollywood, where happy endings are required, but in real life it doesn't always happen that way. Sometimes you produce a great proposal and it still loses. It's beautifully written. It has terrific graphics. The win theme is creative and strong. And what happens? Nothing. It doesn't even get down-selected to the final two or three. What's up with that?

What's up is that your seemingly great proposal might be doomed by a fatal flaw. And just as is true of those Shakespearian heroes and their fatal flaws, the consequences for your proposal are tragic. Here are some of the most common flaws that can doom your magnificent effort:

• Weak qualification of the opportunity. The proposal was well written, true, but there was never a deal there in the first place.

One of my clients in London received an RFP from a global technology firm. Overjoyed by the size and scope of the opportunity, my client assembled a top team who worked for six weeks to respond to the complex and difficult bid document. They even spent £100,000 with an outside graphics firm to create fantastic illustrations and slides. But when they arrived at the prospect's headquarters to present their proposal, they were told, "We're so delighted you chose to respond, considering that we don't actually intend to change our supplier this time around."

Ask yourself three questions: Is the client serious? Can we be competitive? Can we win? If you can't answer these questions honestly, throw up a big yellow flag. Otherwise, you may be in for a case of proposal heartbreak.

• Not understanding the business drivers. You can be 100% compliant to the RFP and 100% a loser if you don’t understand the client's real needs. The RFP almost never discusses the business problems that lie behind an opportunity. So your proposal, which does a great job of responding to the technical requirements, may be missing the point completely.

Suppose a bank discovers they have a serious problem with the security of their accounts, particularly in regard to on-line banking functions. They issue an RFP, seeking help. Do you think they will indicate exactly what the problem is, how serious it is, how many customers are at risk? No, no, and no. RFPs can quickly become public documents, so any revelations about leaky security could damage the bank's reputation, create panic among customers, and possibly send the share price plummeting.

• Failing to leverage lessons learned. Have you had previous engagements with a client? Have you received a debriefing after submitting a previous proposal? If so, you may have valuable insights that will enable you to personalize the message. Unfortunately, the so-called lessons learned often go into long-term storage and are never looked at again. It's surprising how many companies invest millions of dollars in CRM systems, but don't use them to store information or insights into decision makers, corporate culture, or other factors that could strengthen the next proposal effort.

• Pitching to people who aren't there anymore. If we have a long-standing relationship with a client or a government agency, we might find ourselves unconsciously slipping into a traditional pattern. We know what they want. We know how they like us to organize our bid. We share experiences and assumptions, so we don't bother to spell that stuff out. "They know that," we say. "We don't need to mention it." What we may fail to notice is that those people have moved on. Some of them retired. Some were replaced. Maybe a few of them transferred to new positions. And as a result our usual way of proposing may not work anymore. I recently worked on a huge proposal to a government agency, one that was deemed a "must win", and kept getting "advice" from the old timers about the way that agency liked things done. What they weren't acknowledging was that six months earlier the entire command structure in t hat agency had been replaced and the culture was totally different. Happily, we ended up pitching to the people who were there, and I got word a couple of weeks ago that the proposal won.

There are probably a few other reasons why otherwise great proposals lose. But I suppose you could argue that if a proposal was hampered by one of the fatal flaws I've listed above, it probably wasn't all that great in the first place.
If you're looking to eliminate hidden fatal flaws and produce truly great proposals, give us a call. We have the software, the training and the processes to help increase your win rate. And how great would that be?