Five Common Proposal Mistakes You Might Be Making—and How to Remedy Them

As ever-busy business development, capture, and proposal professionals, it’s easy to get caught up in the everyday and overlook some common mistakes that may be hindering our effectiveness in winning business. These mistakes include starting too late, documenting capture information insufficiently, making sloppy bid decisions, holding premature proposal kickoffs, and failing to plan for the unexpected. This week I examine how these common problems could be negatively impacting your win rates and present key tactics for remedying these critical issues.

Starting Too Late
One common problem we see with proposals is starting the business development process far too late. Remember that building a relationship with your customer and understanding their underlying concerns takes time. Without solid customer relationships, you won’t have the opportunity to understand their programmatic concerns or determine what really keeps them up at night. Further, you won’t be able to develop solutions to meet their needs and vet those solutions prior to the RFP release. Once the RFP is released, the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) limits customer interaction, so it’s too late for effective opportunity shaping and solution vetting.

Long-term planning provides corporate awareness of upcoming opportunities aligned with strategic goals. Once opportunities are targeted, Capture Managers should begin gathering customer, opportunity, and competitive intelligence. By starting early, you’ll have sufficient time to build critical customer relationships and document competitive intelligence—which will significantly increase your chances of winning.

Insufficient Capture Documentation
Another common problem we see with proposals is insufficient capture documentation. How often have you entered the proposal phase with an incomplete or nonexistent Capture Plan? I’ll use the analogy of baking a cake. If the ingredients you put into the batter are rotten, or you leave out a critical ingredient, what kind of cake will result? If the capture information feeding your proposal is similarly bad or incomplete, you can expect a comparable proposal product.

Therefore, a key thing you can do to increase your win rates is to be more diligent about documenting your capture intelligence. An effective Capture Manager builds the approach and win themes around intelligence gathered and documented during the capture phase. The Capture Plan is a critical document for transferring knowledge of the customer, opportunity, and competition to the proposal team. By documenting the capture intelligence in a solid Capture Plan, you’ll improve the quality of content that makes it into your proposal—which will ultimately increase your probability of winning.

Sloppy Bid Decisions
A third common business development issue is making sloppy bid decisions. Making smart bid decisions can be hard for many companies because it is so difficult to ignore the sunk costs that have gone into a pursuit. However, smart executives will not discount the opportunity costs of developing and submitting a proposal with a low probability of win. Remember to reassess the bid decision once the RFP is released and, if necessary, during key proposal reviews. Critical questions to ask include:

  • Does the opportunity fit your business plan?
  • Do you have an excellent customer relationship?
  • Do you understand the customer’s goals, issues, and requirements?
  • Do you have/can you get the people to support the requirement?
  • Do you have the required experience/past performance? Can you team if not?
  • Do you have the required corporate commitment and resources?
  • Do you have a committed proposal team? Can you augment your staff with consultants if not?

With a live RFP, if the answer to any of the above is NO, you should think long and hard about whether you should really be pursuing the opportunity at hand. In addition to lowering your overall win rate, consistently pursuing opportunities with low probabilities of win is an ineffective use of resources, which can burn out your staff, lower morale, and result in increased proposal staff turnover.

Premature Proposal Kickoff
A fourth common proposal mistake is holding a premature proposal kickoff meeting. We’ve all been there: the RFP drops, and suddenly everyone wants to hold the kickoff meeting—immediately. However, rushing too quickly into the kickoff will leave you ill-prepared and starting off on the wrong foot. This can result in a disorderly proposal process with critical time wasted on rework, which can leave you scrambling at the end.

Setting up a proposal infrastructure and creating realistic plans are critical to a smooth and low-stress proposal process. This planning process—including setting up a collaborative workspace or tool, establishing a contact list, defining roles and responsibilities, developing a schedule, and preparing the kickoff materials—usually requires 10 percent to 20 percent of the total RFP response time. Taking the time to set up a proposal infrastructure and establish realistic plans will foster a much smoother proposal process, decrease rework, and reduce the total effort required in the end.

Not Planning for the Unexpected
A fifth common proposal mistake you might be prone to making is forgetting to plan for the unexpected. In addition to establishing dates and times for key proposal milestones (Blue Team, Green Teams, Pink Team, Red Team, and Gold Team), you should keep 10 percent of your available time in reserve to manage unforeseen events, such as a system crash, family emergency, or client crisis that requires immediate attention. To establish the proposal schedule, work backwards from the delivery date. Make sure to schedule sufficient time for final editing, production, book check, and delivery. Building in sufficient time for both the expected and unexpected will help prevent stressful last-minute scrambling at the end.

Final Thoughts
As ever-busy business development, capture, and proposal professionals, it’s easy to get caught up in the everyday and overlook some common mistakes that may be hindering our effectiveness. However, you may be setting yourself up for failure by not starting early enough, not documenting clear capture plans strategies, making sloppy bid decisions, kicking off too early, and/or not planning for the unexpected. To improve the effectiveness of your opportunity pursuit process, make sure you start early so you’ll have sufficient time to build critical customer relationships and document winning capture materials; consistently reevaluate changes in competitive circumstances and ensure you're making smart bid decisions; take time to properly plan and prepare for the kickoff to set your proposal team up for success; and build in roughly 10 percent of your available time to manage unforeseen events and plan for the unexpected. These steps will facilitate a much smoother proposal process with a clear, documented strategy. Further, these efforts will ultimately decrease rework and reduce the total effort required in the end—which will all work to improve your opportunity pursuit effectiveness and help to increase your overall win rates.

Written by Ashley Kayes, CP APMP
Senior Proposal Consultant, AOC Key Solutions, Inc. (KSI)


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