Proposal writing is full of ups and downs. Pulling together a proposal is a lot of work, but the truth is, it’s all speculation. Not every proposal is a winner, despite all of the time and effort you and your staff may have put into it. Proposal post mortem can help you learn why didn’t your proposal win, and what you can do about it.
There could literally be a million reasons why the issuer didn’t select your proposal, but the biggest reasons are the most obvious ones. Plan, policy, previous relationships, and price account for most proposal failures. Let’s look at each one individually.
The issuer didn’t like your plan. This could happen if the reader doesn’t understand your plan, or doesn’t understand how your plan is superior to other proposals they received. It could also happen if your plan simply doesn’t meet the issuer’s needs. Plan failure can also result from inexperience. If the issuer doesn’t trust the proposer’s experience, or has reason to believe that the plan won’t work, you’re not going to convince them otherwise.
Avoiding plan failure requires research. Learn as much about the issuer’s needs as possible and focus your plan on meeting those needs. Ultimately, the RFP is about them, not you. While they want you to help them, they also want you to demonstrate that you understand what they want or need. They want you to prove that you understand their problems first.
Most proposals focus on the proposer and how good/talented/resourceful the proposer is. While demonstrating your abilities is one aspect of a proposal, it shouldn’t be the primary focus. The proposal should focus on how well the proposer understands the issuer’s requirements, and how the proposer’s plan fully addresses the issuer’s needs. This is especially true when you’re proposing a customized solution.
Proposal post mortems can help you determine how well your proposal identified and addressed the issuers needs. You may find that you highlighted your solution well, but your solution didn’t address the issuer’s most pressing problems.
Some issuers release RFPs because their purchasing policy requires it. They may not be able to sole-source a purchase. They may have no-bid spending limits. Or they may be required to seek cost proposals every X number of years. In this case, the RFP becomes a compliance tool for purchasing. This situation is tricky because in most cases, the purchaser already knows who they intend to issue the contract to. Proposals from other suppliers simply become documentation to prove that they followed their organization’s purchasing process.
Here, your proposal has a minimal chance of winning, no matter what you do. The only possible way to challenge an incumbent bidder in this situation is to beat them (significantly) on price. Even that’s not a sure-fire solution. Sometimes organizations – or more aptly people within organizations – have comfortable business relationships with their suppliers. They don’t want to give up the relationship and they’re not going to let a few dollars get in the way of that.
The best way to avoid a “policy” failure is to recognize these situations when you find them. Talking to the purchasing department may or may not be sufficient. Do a little research on the incumbent bidder. How long have they had the current contract? Has the contract been renewed, and if so, how many times? What products/solutions does the incumbent offer? Will the organization encounter significant transition costs to your solution if you don’t offer the exact same product/solution that the incumbent does? Who bid on the contract last time it was up for grabs and are they bidding again this time? Can you find other evidence of an ongoing relationship with the issuer and the incumbent? If so, think long and hard before investing your time and effort into this kind of proposal.
Proposal post mortems provide a great opportunity to examine the bidding process. Were there clues that might have shed more light on the proposal process? If so, note them so you can avoid these situations in the future.
Similarly to policy failures, your proposal can fail on the basis of previous relationships. The issuer may have a cozy relationship with the current vendor. We just discussed that kind of “previous relationship.” The other kind of “previous relationship” is based on bad experiences. An organization that’s been burned by a bad supplier will not be keen to repeat the experience. If they have an acceptable working relationship with their current vendor, they may be loath to give it up, even if you can provide something better.
The reluctance to change is a natural human behavior. You’ve got some sales work to do if you want to give your proposal a fighting chance. It’s not enough to understand what they like about the current vendor. You also have to understand what went so terribly wrong for them in the past. Whatever it might have been, it can really sour your chances to propose a better or more cost-effective solution. You need to find out what they’re afraid of, and what their limitations are before you can convince them to move in a different direction.
Case studies included as part of your proposal can help. If you can show the issuer that you’ve done this before, or that you’ve helped similar organizations, you may have a chance. References that show your solution in action can also help. (Especially if your references are in the same vertical/sector.) Talking to the right people in the organization can also help. This may not be possible if the purchasing officer controls all communications with bidders. This is one reason that the initial bid conference is very important. Prepare yourself ahead of time with questions about current and past solutions. It also helps to learn about the organization’s long-term goals or their “bigger picture.”
Most people believe that price alone is the controlling factor in a winning proposal. If you come in with the lowest price, you get the contract. Except that doesn’t always prove true. If you’re selling a commodity, the lowest overall price wins. If you’re not selling a commodity, many other factors can combine to outweigh the lowest price.
Even in non-commodity markets, the buyer must consider any transitional costs they’ll incur by switching to your solution. Your solution might have the lowest entry costs, but if ongoing or transitional costs are higher, your lifetime costs may exceed those of other solutions. Further, if your solution makes it difficult to switch to another product or solution later on, they may avoid your solution altogether. This situation commonly arises for customized software purchases. Buyers don’t want to be trapped by a particular solution, especially when transitional costs can reach into the millions.
Competing on price is tough because someone can always go lower, and price-sensitive customers aren’t known for their loyalty. Lowballing your price doesn’t do you or the customer any favors either. If you have to cut corners, you won’t make money and the customer won’t get what they want. However, if you consistently lose on price, examine your cost structures to find out why they are high. You may also be able to add value to your proposal, which makes your not-quite-the-lowest-price bid more attractive.
Why conduct proposal post mortems?
One mistake that bidders consistently make is not conducting proposal post mortems. Finding out why your proposal wasn’t accepted is the only way you can improve your process. Most bidders also don’t investigate how close their proposal came to the winning bid. You know what you put into a proposal, but the real value is in knowing what others got out of it. Take the time to contact the issuer and talk about where your proposal sailed and failed. These conversations can help you avoid making the same mistakes in future proposals.
If you’d like more information about proposal writing, or conducting proposal post mortems, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at (734) 961-0408.
Photo Credit: Alex Proimos, via Flickr