October 25, 2010

Paper or Digital

groceries: paper or plastic? I even did research on the Web to figure out which was the right choice. Talk about confusing! I finally just gave up and now I bring my own—cloth, thank you.

But there’s another choice we face with our proposals: paper or digital? We know which is greener. But which is more effective?

That’s our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Paper or Digital

Would you prefer to submit your proposal as a printed document or as a digital file? Perhaps more important, which format do your prospects prefer?

We're at a flex point in proposal writing, I think. Traditional methods have involved writing a document, printing it out, binding it and putting it between nice looking covers, and then delivering it—usually multiple copies—to the prospect.

Many RFPs still specify that you must submit hard copies. State and local government agencies often require a paper submission.

But increasingly, RFPs call for digital submissions. At the simplest level, they may require that you submit your document via e-mail or that you upload it to a Web site. At a more complex level, they may require you to fill out Web-based forms.

I believe that at some point in the next few years, proposals will be true digital documents—more like Web sites than Word docs. They will feature embedded video clips, hyperlinks, search capabilities, and other functionality that will make them interesting and easier to use. That kind of development is inevitable, I believe. But will it be a good thing? I honestly don't know.

Each of these modes of delivery has advantages and weaknesses.

Traditional paper-based proposals have the familiar form factor that all paper-based documents have. They're easy to skim, easy to flip back and forth in and easy to score. You can write notes in the margins, you can fold down the corner when you see something interesting, and you can underline or highlight stuff that you want to remember.

On the other hand, with paper-based proposals, a lot of trees have to die. Right now I have a single copy of a proposal written to the state of New York, which required paper-based submissions. The proposal consists of three volumes. Each volume contains over 500 pages of text. Each volume is bound in an elaborate three-ring binder, and each binder is housed in a slip case cover. This proposal is so big; I had to clear an area of my desk off just to house it. Reading it is pretty much a nightmare. And how much do you think it cost—both in terms of dollars and carbon footprint—to deliver multiple copies of this thing to Albany?

Digital proposals save paper, save transportation costs, and can be delivered to the prospect almost instantaneously. There's no need to make multiple copies, because the prospect can simply forward your digital version to whomever needs to see it. You're probably creating the document digitally; using Microsoft Word, so delivering it digitally eliminates an extra step in production.

But digital documents can be difficult to work with. If the proposal has been saved as a .PDF file, which it probably should be, the reader will have extreme difficulty annotating it. Skimming digital documents can be very difficult, too. And when you deliver a document in native Word format, its appearance can change (and never for the better) if the recipient has the Normal template set to something unusual. In fact, you may have problems delivering the document if the client is using an older version of Word (accepting .doc files) and you're producing your proposal in a newer version (such as a .docx file).

The next generation of digital delivery sounds pretty exciting. The ability to embed video, to create hot links to Web sites outside the proposal, and the opportunity to use advanced search technology, hyperlinks, and a more creative interface all sound pretty cool.

But there are a whole host of issues associated with the use of technology that will have to be addressed. In the public sector, it's unlikely that such submissions will be accepted for a long, long time, because they usually require the least technically advanced mode of delivery—in part to keep the playing field level and in part because that's all they can handle. Even if you're dealing with a technically sophisticated clientele, we've all had problems from time to time getting a video to open, a photograph to display, or a page to load properly. What happens if your evaluator has similar problems? Do they simply mark your submission noncompliant and move on to the next one?

What do you prefer? Would you rather produce a paper-based document or do you prefer to submit via e-mail? Or are you excited about the prospect of creating a true Web-based submission?

In the meantime, you know that whatever the future holds in terms of delivery, our tools will simplify the process. From our early days, when we first generated proposals in Word, WordPerfect, and AmiPro, until our latest versions when we can build them from components in multiple media and deliver them the same way, we have tried to take the hard work out of formatting and make your deliverables as crisp, professional, and consistent as possible.

October 19, 2010

Keeping Score

The premise of open book management is that employees will make better decisions if they understand how those decisions affect profitability. In The Great Game of Business, Jack Stack argues that workers need to know what the measures of success are, should be expected to improve the numbers by taking action in their own area of responsibility, and should have a direct stake in success or failure.

It all makes sense, yet surprisingly enough many companies have no idea what their win rate is, have no idea how long it takes on average to close a deal, and don't know what their best source of leads is. If you're not tracking that stuff, you're playing shortstop with a blindfold on.

Metrics matter. That’s our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Keeping Score

For years we have claimed that our proposal automation tools increase effectiveness and improve efficiency. A recent survey of several hundred Sant clients shows that those claims were completely justified. On average, our clients' win rate improved by 33% and they reduced the time required to create a proposal an average of 42%.

Unfortunately, there were quite a few clients who were unable to participate in the survey. Why? Because they had never measured their win rate before, so they had nothing to compare it to. And they had never tracked how much time goes into creating a proposal, so they didn't know how much time they were saving.

If you want to improve your proposal process, if you want it to produce more wins and spend less time and money along the way, you have to track what you’re doing and measure the results. That’s a basic principle underlying all continuous improvement methodologies, and it applies to the proposal operation as much as it does to the factory floor. Likewise, unless proposal writers and managers know how they're doing, they won't see the need to get better. If nobody is tracking my batting average, why would I bother to take hitting practice?

One of the first steps an organization needs to take is to decide what it is they want to measure. Which measurements are truly meaningful? "Win ratio” is the obvious first answer that comes to mind, but we all know from the experience of the recent recession that win ratios can be very misleading. If you won 30% of the deals in 2008, when the economy was still pretty healthy, but only 26% last year, after it had really tanked, does that mean you had a terrible year? In reality, you might be having a terrific year in spite of the small drop in win ratio. It’s possible that because of the recession, 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 would be high but the average revenue generated per proposal would be low. If you supplement win ratio tracking by measuring the percentage of dollars won compared to the total amount for which you bid, you might get an idea of how well you did overall.

Other factors might include the ratio of new business won from new opportunities compared to new business won from existing clients. If you have a high renewal rate but are struggling to win new business, that doesn't bode well for your market share over the long term.

Deciding what to measure is not necessarily as easy or intuitive as it might initially appear, but it is the first vital step.

The next step is to gather a baseline of data. After all, if you don’t know where you are, it’s pretty hard to figure out if you’re moving in the right direction. In organizations where the proposal effort is centralized, or where there are controls placed on proposals so that none of them are issued without being reviewed by legal, finance, or senior management, it's a fairly straightforward matter to start tracking results. But in organizations where sales people are able to submit proposals without any further review or approval, tracking the actual win ratio may require a crystal ball or a Ouija board.

The final step is to develop a process for tracking results going forward. Assuming that you have tweaked the system in some way, you will want to know if that tweak has improved your win ratio or reduced the time required to finish a proposal. But unless you have a systematic way of gathering the data, you'll never know for sure what's working and what isn't.

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 managing based on the numbers.

At Sant, we believe in measuring results. But why wouldn't we—our results have been terrific. We're happy to share references and case studies to show you just how good they've been. And you can see an interactive, Web-based demo of our software in action on our site, santcorp.com.