Heart or heft - what’s your proposal advantage?

There are two approaches you can take towards winning more proposals. One is to lead with your heart, making a strong, personal connection with potential customers. The other is to lead with your ‘heft’, or superior firepower to out-gun competitors.

Which advantage you lean towards will depend on the size and culture of your business.

Heart is a natural advantage in businesses where the senior folk maintain a hands-on connection to winning business. This includes small and medium businesses, and founder-led enterprises where the people at the top radiate passion for what they can help their customers achieve.

Heft is a natural advantage in large organisations that have dedicated business development resources, such as proposal teams. This gives them an edge in pitches where glossy first impressions matter, and in competitive tenders where customers seem intent on killing prospective suppliers with paperwork.

Using your ‘heart’ advantage

Proposals are a deliberate bid to make a connection with a customer, and leave them in no doubt that they should hire you.

When reviewing proposals for companies that want to improve their win rates, I ask to see a range of won and lost proposals. The only consistent difference between the proposals that win – and those that don’t – is that they make a genuine connection with the person on the other side of the paperwork.

I was once called in by a family-run business in the facility management market. This was a business that had grown rapidly, because the founders were so committed to winning local Council contracts that they’d been in the habit of writing all the tender responses themselves.

Unfortunate, twelve months prior to our conversation, they'd outsourced this task to a technical writing firm - and hadn’t won a single contract since.

Unfortunately, no one can sell what you do as well as you can.

Here are three things to stop, start, and continue doing to build heart as your proposal advantage:

·      Stop chasing after too many opportunities you are not well placed to win. Simply by being more discerning about the opportunities you go for - and politely (and personally) declining the ones that aren’t right for you, right now – you will save your energy for the ones you really want. If this is something you tend to struggle with, check out my one-hour online program From Chance To Choice for a framework that will help you to make this adjustment in your business.

·      Start investing in an exploration of your commercial value proposition, and use it to prepare collateral that you can use in all of your submissions. If you are tired of pulling all-nighters on large proposals, a library of pre-sales collateral that truly explains the value of what you do so that customers want to buy it is the best investment you will ever make. It also means that – eventually – you’ll be able to list colleagues in the proposal effort, so it isn’t all left up to you.

·      Continue the customer conversations and relationship building you’re great at, to maintain strong positioning well in advance of any competitive pitch. Upgrade your briefing process, so you’ll get better insights and knowledge from customers that add depth to your pitch. This will also help you to find that one piece of leverage that ensures the customer is only thinking about you when awarding the business.

Using your ‘heft’ advantage

Large organisations with dedicated business development resources have an advantage in ‘heft’. You can go after larger opportunities that require more data; deliver longer, more comprehensive submissions; and pull them together much more quickly than anyone else. 

One challenge you may face, though, is the very existence of in-house resources. This can give everyone else an excuse to outsource their brain by relying on the proposal team to do the work for them. 

This means that your proposal effort could still be balancing on a very small core of people – the same as a in a smaller competitor, which is relying on its leaders to win the work.

The risk to you is that when this competitor busts out its ‘heart’ advantage, it will stump your larger business, which is actually full of pitch avoiders who are using their ‘busy-ness’ to excuse themselves from putting in the work.

Here are three things to stop, start, and continue doing to build heft as your proposal advantage.

·      Stop letting senior folk take credit for wins they have made little contribution to, other than crapping on everyone else’s work or swooping in at the end to take the glory.  Expose these ‘pigeons’ by building pursuit positioning and proposal leadership into everyone's job description, and forcing them to report on exactly what they are doing during the process – and not just at the end.

·      Start a training program that broadens pitching and proposal skills outside your proposal team. One unintended consequence of relying on a small core of proposal professionals to do all the heavy lifting is that this diminishes this muscle in everyone else. Eventually, you’ll have a majority of people who can't write or present competently on their area of expertise in a way that makes customers actually want to buy it. This is where training and coaching can be extremely useful.

·      Continue working on your proposal collateral so that it explains your commercial value proposition in a way that blows your competitors out of the water. Got a new methodology that’s way better than your competitors? Then you need to be able to explain the heck out of it. Models and graphics representing your IP and methodology are powerful, because they take time and thinking, where bullet-lists don’t.

Make sure you have concise, convincing collateral sitting behind everything your company sells, which you can quickly and easily pull out and customise for proposals. For example, one of my clients routinely needs to bid for $100 million contracts and have these submissions completed within five days. They succeed in these very detailed, very complex submissions not only because they are well resourced, but also because they are so well prepared.