What do nearly all large sales have in common? OK, if you read this blog’s headline, it’s hardly a trick question.
Whether a sale began through outbound sales or marketing efforts, inbound customer queries, or requests for proposals (RFPs), nearly all customers require written proposals before making a large purchase.
Proposal management 101
Proposal management is the process of completing a sales proposal or RFP response accurately, completely, engagingly, and on time. The process typically involves multiple parties, including subject matter experts (SMEs), writers, editors, and of course, a project (or proposal) manager.
What does a proposal manager do?
If you ask a proposal manager what they do, there’s a good chance they’ll respond with something like, “What don’t I do?”
They wouldn’t be wrong. A proposal manager is part salesperson, part writer, part editor, and mostly the ringleader of a many-ringed circus. They are in charge of crafting winning proposals and creating and maintaining processes for today’s proposals, tomorrow’s, and next year’s.
Create new RFP response processes
At RFPIO, we gathered our current and past proposal managers to design a response process that’s logical, agile, and repeatable. The 8-step process builds on past wins and losses, perfection and errors, to help set you up for an increased win rate and higher profits.
- Go/no-go – Not all requests for proposals (RFPs) are worthwhile. Can you meet the customer’s needs? Do their needs align with your company’s goals and objectives? Is the deal winnable?
- Hold a kickoff meeting – Gather your response team to assign roles, responsibilities, and deadlines.
- Pen the first draft – Most of an RFP’s questions are relatively standard. You can respond to as many as 80 percent of the queries with answers you’ve used before. Note that doing as much of the work as possible, without calling on SMEs’ valuable time, will go a long way toward fostering goodwill.
- Pen the second draft – The second draft is where real collaboration comes in. Call upon your SMEs to help answer the last 20 percent or so of your document’s questions.
- Review and revise – Check and recheck your proposal for accuracy, response quality, and spelling and grammatical errors. Make sure you’ve attached all relevant documents.
- Submit your response – Submit your complete and polished reply on time, if not early.
- Save and audit your response – Continue the goodwill you’ve established with your SMEs by saving their answers for future use.
- Conduct a postmortem – Win or lose, gather your team to discuss what went well and what didn’t. Apply your newfound wisdom to future responses.
Improve old RFP processes
Congratulations on establishing a response process. You’d be surprised at how many companies play it by ear. Still, even the best RFP response needs some tweaking now and again.
- Only go after what’s winnable – Even the best-defined go/no-go process is subject to human excitement. It might be tempting to go after that big sale, but if it’s a bad fit, the wasted work can deplete morale, and having to read through a response that doesn’t fit might cause resentment on the part of the customer.
- Focus on content – Do you have a content library to store previous answers? Do you regularly audit your content library for use and accuracy?
- Define roles and responsibilities – While you can’t predict which SMEs you might need to consult for your next RFP, you can establish your core response team. Then, when it’s time to call your team to action, you can involve the SMEs and further hone roles and responsibilities.
- Get to know your key stakeholders – People’s work styles vary. Respect stakeholders’ preferred communication (RFPIO integrates with the most popular communication applications) and work styles.
- Repeat – Make sure all your improvements are repeatable. For example, if you assign a designated editor to one response, assign one to all.
Manage projects seamlessly
A response manager is, first and foremost, a project manager. It’s their job to decide whether to pursue the sale and who should be part of the response, ensure everyone has their marching orders and meets their deliverables, and record each question-and-answer pair for future use.
Project management software, especially that which is specifically designed for proposals, will help the proposal manager through each step of the project.
Set the response team up for success
One of the biggest challenges facing a proposal manager is coordinating groups of individuals who might work remotely, from different offices, and even in different time zones. Here’s how some of our customers bring out the best in their distributed response teams.
- Focus on productivity – Some people thrive on 9-5 while others work best from 7-3 or even some time in the middle of the night. Naturally, team meetings should involve everyone, and deadlines might not comply with personal work styles, but when you let people work when they’re most productive, they’ll be…well…more productive.
- Ask for help – Managing distributed workforces is nearly impossible without assistance from project management software. Strategic response management software such as RFPIO integrates with all of the most popular communication and productivity applications, enables project managers to set up tasks and checklists, and optionally enables access from anywhere there’s an internet connection.
- Build connections – Teams are built from diverse personalities and work styles. Step away from work mode once a week or so and hold team-building meetings with fun themes to help bring out people’s personalities and create bonds.
How to manage winning proposals
While proposal managers are pulled in multiple directions, the primary goal is always to create winning proposals. Here’s how our proposal managers do it.
Optimize the proposal management plan
Many, if not most, proposal managers don’t have the luxury of designated proposal teams. In fact, their roles and responsibilities might vary. Many are part of a sales team, and a salesperson is often expected to oversee an RFP’s completion.
Still, small companies without designated response teams or response managers can compete with enterprise companies by following a well-designed process.
- Learn to say “no” – Small and medium-sized businesses (and even enterprise organizations) need to conserve resources, which means saying “no” to RFPs that are either unwinnable or unfulfillable.
- Call for help – Most proposals require input from multiple parties. In other words, it’s more than OK to admit you can’t do everything alone. Call on your sales team and other SMEs to help you complete your proposal. Sales teams may not like responding to RFPs, but they should remember that they have tremendous revenue potential.
Define team roles and responsibilities
A response process should begin well before you receive your first request. You should have a regular team with backups in case someone is unavailable. Additionally, you should know your SMEs, their expertise, and, hopefully, their schedules.
Once you receive an RFP, hold a kickoff meeting to clearly define every stakeholder’s role and responsibilities.
Establish the building blocks of your proposals
Response managers aren’t rewarded for originality. Their job is to win bids, and the most efficient way to do that is to reuse and recycle past content, or at least some of it.
Establish proposal building blocks by utilizing and customizing resources such as white papers, internal training, boilerplate libraries, and so on. You can also pull content from previous proposals.
Your recycled content is not generic and boilerplate, such as with a press release. Edit or add to it to suit your customer and the specific project.
Once you’ve identified building blocks, store them in a shared folder, collaboration tool, local drive, or response management software.
Organize knowledge systems
Not long ago, companies stored their documents and much of their knowledge in metal boxes called file cabinets. Okay, yes, we all still know what file cabinets are, but we also know that they are highly inefficient for distributed and siloed workforces.
A well-organized knowledge system enhances collaboration, breaks down silos, and boosts productivity. It also makes RFP response much faster and more efficient.
Record your question-and-answer pairs after you submit each response, and regularly audit your content to ensure it’s valuable, current, and accurate.
Format your deliverable correctly
Your prospect won’t read your proposal.
The last thing you want to hear, especially after spending hours, days, or even weeks crafting a beautifully written proposal, is that the customer won’t even read it.
That doesn’t mean you’ve wasted your time—far from it. A well-formatted proposal makes it easy for customers to find what they need quickly. Here are some tips:
- Use the right font – Serif is the easiest to read.
- Justify left – Justify on the left and use ragged formatting on the right.
- Use portrait orientation – People are used to reading documents in portrait orientation.
- Double space – Double spaces between sentences are easier to skim.
- Limit paragraph and sentence length – More than 3-5 sentences per paragraph is overwhelming, as is more than 20 words per sentence.
- Use graphics and images – Pictures break up dense text and make it much easier to follow.
- Avoid reds, greens, and grays – Many people are color blind and can’t distinguish between reds and greens. Grays and other low-contrast colors are difficult to read.
- Use headings – Headings and subheadings let readers know where to find the necessary information.
- Define acronyms – You can use acronyms, but you should first define them. Request for proposal (RFP) is one example.
- Avoid internal references – Don’t make your reader search with statements like “See question #18.” At the very least, summarize the answer and direct the reader to one that’s more detailed.
- Include a table of contents – Many proposals are 100s of pages long. Prevent frustration by directing customers to what they are looking for.
- Follow the 3:1 rule – Avoid the hard sell by referring to the prospective customer’s company about three times for every time you mention your company. This is especially important in executive summaries.
- Proofread – Run your copy through a grammar checker to ensure correct punctuation and grammar.
- Use a one-third/two-thirds layout – Use one-third of the page as a sidebar for relevant information, such as key metrics.
- Standardize your formatting – Your stakeholders might have their own ways of working, which is fine, but be sure to bring their content into your standard formatting to create a cohesive style instead of a jarring “patchwork quilt” effect.
- Use your customer’s logo (maybe) – If you have permission and a non pixelated, high-resolution logo that meets their branding guidelines, attach it to your proposal.
- Include white space – Space your content so the pages aren’t too dense.
Deliver an organized RFP response
Your proposal should be skimmable, but it should also invite the reader to evaluate whether you can fulfill their needs. Write your proposal to draw the reader in and keep them with you.
- Reassure the reader – As my grandmother often said, the devil is in the details. But if you want the reader to get to the details, you’ll have to reassure them that you know what they’re asking. Summarize the customer’s requirements very early in the document.
- Detail each step – Lay the proposal out so the customer can follow the buyer and customer journey. Tell a story and avoid jargon.
- Build your content library – Each proposal is an opportunity to add to your content library. In turn, your content library should hold a wealth of reusable information and documentation for future responses.
- Use proposal management software – Your proposal management tools should help you manage the project, find relevant content, and standardize the proposal’s format.
How to improve the proposal management process
Now that you know what an excellent proposal management process looks like, the next step is implementation. Advanced RFP response software is designed to enhance, refine, and simplify your process, freeing you to produce more bids using fewer resources.
Upgrade your content management
RFP software helps you organize your ever-evolving content management system by letting you manage content by tagging it and assigning it to projects. With RFPIO, you can assign star ratings so your best content can rise to the top.
You should also regularly audit your content for relevance, use, and accuracy.
Leverage RFP management dashboards
Track your project’s progress with an RFP response management dashboard that provides insights at a glance.
Scale your response management process
Some weeks you have one project on your plate, and others, three or more. RFPIO lets you scale to your needs by allowing unlimited user access with each project.
Integrate AI into your proposal management solution
Think of artificial intelligence (AI) as a team member that never tires and always has a great attitude. Leverage it to help you answer up to 80 percent of an RFP. It can also analyze the RFP to help you with the go/no-go process, analyze win-loss opportunities, and help perfect your formatting.
Using proposal management software
RFPs are becoming much more common than they were in the past, and mere humans have a tough time keeping up. Proposal management tools help organizations respond to more bids in less time.
The advantages of bid proposal tools
The best bid proposal tools are designed by proposal managers to help manage each of the eight steps in the response process. Streamline your process with the following:
- Project management – Track each team member and workflow through project management.
- Content management – A great content management system is more than a repository. It should leverage AI to point you to the most appropriate content and help keep the content library current.
- Collaboration – It’s almost impossible to go it alone when creating a proposal, and there’s a good chance you don’t share office space with some of your teammates. Today’s bid proposal software should include powerful collaboration tools.
- Integrations – Most organizations use customer relationship management software, communication software, project management software, and others. Advanced bid proposal tools integrate with most of the tools you already use.
- Business intelligence and analytics – Use insights to help determine what you can do differently in the future.
Selecting proposal management software
We consider a few features essential when looking for software to help with proposal management.
- Import/export capabilities – You might receive an RFP in a Word document, Excel spreadsheet, or even a PDF. Look for software that lets you import the document into a standardized platform that your team knows and then exports it into the customer’s preferred format.
- Content management – Look for an intuitive single source of truth for all of your company knowledge and documents.
- Integrations – Your proposal management platform should enhance your existing tech stack, not weigh it down. Look for software that integrates with the tools you already use.
- AI assistance – Intelligent software points you to the best content, does much of the work for you, assigns questions to SMEs, and analyzes past responses and future opportunities.
Streamlined proposal management with RFPIO
RFPIO is mission-critical software for companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Zoom, Visa, and many, many more. Its advanced proposal management features include:
- Import/export capabilities – Import each document from your customer’s preferred format onto your desired working template. From there, export the finished document back to the customer’s format before submitting the proposal.
- Content management – RFPIO offers the industry’s most advanced AI-based content management system. It will answer as much as 80 percent of your document and help you keep your library free from ROT (redundant, outdated, and trivial content).
- Integrations – RFPIO seamlessly integrates with more than two dozen of the most popular business applications.
- AI assistance – RFPIO’s continually-learning AI tool helps you maintain and utilize your content library and generate analytics to help you win more bids and demonstrate value to executives.
TeamDynamix, a cloud-based IT Service Management and Project Portfolio Management platform, has seen a 300 percent increase in RFP volume over the last three years. When shopping for software to address the rise in volume, they looked for scalability and efficiency.
With RFPIO, TeamDynamix met the 3x increase and reduced turnaround time by about 40 percent, allowing them time to perfect each response and maintain consistency.
Hop on a free demo to see how RFPIO can help you win more bids and boost revenue with fewer resources.