After highlighting the important sections of a request for proposal (RFP), a process I discussed in a previous post, I distribute those sections to the various departments for review. These sections typically contain information the company must adhere to if they win the business, such as pricing methodologies they must follow or contracts they will need to sign.
This information should be distributed as soon as possible so your company can:
- Decide if they want to respond (99.99% of the time, they will);
- Submit any questions about the requirements to the requesting organization by the deadline listed in the RFP, either for clarification or to request that a requirement be modified (99.99% of the time, they will not modify a requirement); and,
- Expedite any processes that need to occur before submitting the proposal, such as applying for any necessary certifications required for the contract (e.g., licensed to operate in a state) or determining if any positions (e.g., a project manager) need to be filled to accommodate the project.
Once this information is distributed, I begin the process of creating the proposal template, which includes placeholders for all of the required information, as well as establishing the branding and formatting of the document. I’ll discuss that process in a later post. In this article, I want to discuss how I approach submitting questions to internal content experts for responses and why this is one of the most important aspects of your proposal writing process.
While additional information will be included in your proposal, such as organizational charts, company overviews, pricing, and product documentation, the bulk of the proposal will consist of questions and answers, which will require you to engage with internal content experts who will provide responses. These experts are typically assigned by the head of a department as your main contact person. Examples of departments include information technology, human resources, implementation, and product management. Your interactions with content experts can set the tone for the proposal writing process and determine how stressful it is for you and them.
In my experience, there are typically two ways proposal writers work with content experts, which can be an instance of having to choose between the lesser of two evils:
- You can send content experts questions as early in the process as possible so they have the maximum amount of time available to work on responses. This approach can be problematic because while they have more time, they have more questions because you haven’t had an opportunity to populate responses with information from previous proposals or from the proposal database, if you are lucky enough to have one. This approach can cause issues because content experts may recognize questions they have answered in the past, and they will want to know why they are answering the same questions over and over again.
- You can create the proposal template, format it, populate it with as many of the responses as possible from pre-existing information, and then send the remaining questions to content experts. This approach can cause issues because, while the content expert has fewer questions to answer, they have less time to work on their responses.
Being a good partner to your content experts is vital to a successful proposal writing process. Most content experts are simply trying to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities, and their responsibilities can’t be put on hold because an RFP is received. If you don’t take this perspective into consideration, you will be viewed as a person who is adding a large amount of work with a short deadline to their already overwhelming schedule. As a proposal writer, you should do everything in your power to help ease the burden on your content experts. This includes requesting the least amount of work from them and providing them with as much time as possible to complete it, which is why I recommend combining the two approaches outlined above.
As an example, a section of questions may be specific to call center operations. I copy that information into a separate Microsoft Word document, as well as any additional relevant content, such as if the RFP outlines specific ways a call center must operate. I create the separate Word document because I only want to send the content expert the information relevant to them, which helps simplify their work. Less information will feel less overwhelming. I then attach that document to an email.
In the body of the email, I give a brief overview of the project, outline the deadlines, and let them know that the attached document, at this point, is simply for assessment purposes. I ask that they review the content and let me know if they have questions they would like submitted to the requesting organization for clarification. I also let them know I’ll be sending an updated document at a later date with as much information populated as possible, so that they can review the existing content, modify it if needed, and provide answers to blank questions. This process provides several benefits, including:
- Alerting the content expert to the project so they aren’t surprised when you request information from them with a short deadline;
- Giving them an opportunity to review the content that affects their department since they will be required to adhere to the contract if it is won;
- Providing them the opportunity to submit questions to the requesting organization in case they need clarification to provide you with responses; and,
- Letting them know that you are working to answer as many questions as possible with pre-existing content, which will lessen the burden on them.
In most organizations I’ve worked for, the sales process drives the company. Nothing is more important than sales, which includes proposals. I’ve seen proposal writers use that leverage to impose huge amounts of work on content experts under very short deadlines because it meant the proposal writer didn’t have to be organized or strategic with their process. Yes, the proposals were always submitted on time, but it was at the cost of creating a hostile work environment between the proposal writer and the content experts. When I’m working on a proposal with a short deadline, I feel overwhelmed at times, but that is just part of the job. Your company has no control over when an RFP is received, when it is due, and how much work it will be, so you are at the mercy of the process; however, you can control how much work it is for others in the company, so you should strive to simplify the process for your content experts.