OK, so the following isn’t about bids per se, but as an illustration of the consequences of choosing the wrong supplier for a job, this (forwarded to me by a non-work friend the other day) really made me laugh…
Read the text before looking at the photograph:
You may be asking for trouble when you commission taxidermy work from someone who is unfamiliar with the species. That was just the case for King Frederick I of Sweden in 1731.
The lion was a gift, but after it died, the pelt and bones were presented to a taxidermist who had never seen a lion. You see the result looks more like a cartoon character than the king of beasts. The stuffed lion is still on display at Gripsholm’s Castle.
What do evaluators really think of the proposals they receive from bidders? Prior to presenting to a recent UKAPMP chapter meeting alongside Steve Mullins (Chairman of Strategic Proposals), we conducted a survey to canvass the views of senior figures in the world of procurement. We posed three questions to them:
- how important are proposals
- how good are the proposals that you receive
- what advice would you offer to proposal teams.
The results were quite fascinating: in essence, proposals are clearly a vital part of customers’ decision-making processes, yet few vendors submit truly excellent documents. (Since we were presenting to the UK chapter of APMP, those who participated in the study were in the UK and continental Europe, but I have no doubt that similar conclusions would be reached from a similar survey in other geographies).
Here are my ten favourite quotes:
- “A good written proposal, in itself, might not win you business but a badly conceived and written one may put you out of the race.”
- “It is never enough to say “I’m qualified.” So is everyone else. The point is “Pick me because I’m different.”"
- “The easier the seller makes it for us the better for them.”
- “Some are articulate, really have got under my skin, are really convincing – whereas others look mechanical, dull, pre-written and could have been meant for anyone.”
- “They vary from excellent (rare) to awful (quite common), but most of them are mediocre.”
- “Your ability to do what is required of you at proposal stage reflects upon your ability to perform once in contract!”
- “Buyers are not idiots. They read good proposals thoroughly and they are not amused at fluff, being patronised, inconsistency, arrogance or shabby editing.”
- “They are seeking a reasonable deal with low risk to themselves (oh yes, and their employer).”
- “Clearly understand the problem to be solved. Then and only then can you provide the appropriate solution.”
- “If the customer wants the responses written in quill, printed on papyrus with a bow around it, please conform. Comparing proposals that don’t follow the templates requested is often a long and difficult task… and does lower the tolerance levels of those marking.”
We’ve put together a white paper containing all of the responses that we received; click here if you’d like to download a free copy (and here if you’d like to see a copy of the presentation we gave to UKAPMP). Feel free to share the white paper with colleagues – this is precisely the sort of stuff that your VP Sales needs to read to understand the importance of strong proposal management. And, as ever, we’d be fascinated to hear your comments.
What’s it like being a purchaser? As regular readers will know, I started my career in procurement before moving into the world of proposal management – and I still spent a fair proportion of my time with buyers and evaluators. I thought a few insights into life on the other side might be of interest:
1) The enemy lies within. Somewhat bizarrely, the easiest discussions for a buyer are with their potential suppliers. It’s far tougher trying to align resources, budgets and views internally. Running the procurement process is often a precarious high-wire act.
2) Powerless purchasers. The evaluation team will formulate recommendations as to which supplier to choose – but they’ll rarely sign off the decision. Making the presentation internally to the “great and the good” can be a daunting prospect. And, as a buyer, I’ll probably choose whichever bidder I think I can sell internally most easily.
3) “I’m the buyer. Stupid.” Most procurement people are acutely conscious that they know far less about the subject matter of the bid than their potential suppliers. (If this is what their organisation did, they wouldn’t need to ask you to do it for them!)
4) “Your fate is in my hands.” I have the power of life or death over your bid. Win, and you’ll get the glory and our money. So you bidders had better be grateful, respectful, deferential and nice to me. (After all, my colleagues internally aren’t!).
5) I’ll have to live with the consequences of the decision as to which bidder we choose – and those we reject. Thinking short-term, I’ll select whichever company will make me hit my performance objectives, whatever they may be. And in the medium term, I’ll want the bidder who’ll minimise the risk of things going wrong and maximise the probability of me looking like a hero. (And, incidentally, debriefing unsuccessful suppliers can be a terrifying prospect – especially losing incumbents).
6) Making it up as I go along. Only a small minority of purchasers have ever been trained in writing RFPs and leading evaluation workshops. I’ll copy and paste, I’ll use the last document I wrote; it was probably good enough then, and it’ll probably get me through now.
Cynical and jaded? Moi? No wonder I prefer working in proposals!
[Those of a sensitive disposition, look away now!]
I ran an event recently for a group of purchasing managers, discussing the proposal process – and sharing thoughts on how they could engage bidders more effectively and write better RFPs. (The unofficial sub-title of the course is “What Jon wishes he’d known when he worked in procurement”!)
The conversation turned to proofreading, and one of the buyers shared her most embarrassing mistake in this regard. She’d just led the evaluation team on a major tender, and was presenting to the Board with their recommendations.
She clicked onto the slide titled: “Weighting and Ranking” – only to find that she’d accidentally swapped around two very important letters….
It reminded me of the all-time worst proofreading error I’ve seen in a proposal – which, fortunately, was noticed at the very last minute. The team was bidding to a major city’s “Mass Transit Authority”. Some content contributors had decided to merge the two words together – “Masstransit”. And a document manager, tight for time, had simply accepted the word processor’s recommended correction.
The result? All the way through the proposal, the bidder had referred to the customer as the “M*sturb*te Authority”.
It’s always fascinating to hear from those on the buying side. I started my career in purchasing before switching to proposals, and still spend as much time as possible with those who evaluate our documents, listening to their views. (Actually, it strikes me that there’s an important question to ask proposal consultants hoping to work with your organisations: “When did you last have a paid engagement with purchasing folks, or publish research based on their views?”)
That’s why I was delighted when Kevin Treeby, Director of Procurement for the House of Commons, agreed to give the keynote presentation at the recent conference, “Taking proposals to the next level.”
I sat at the back of the room, noting down as many of his comments as I could. Here are a few of my favourites:
“We have a fear and distrust of people who sell us things.”
“I hate people who shuffle the answers” and whose proposals don’t reflect the structure of the RFP.
“Don’t tell me it can’t go wrong. Tell me what you’ll do if it does.”
“Don’t hold anything back” from your proposal to your presentation. “There’s no such thing as a nice surprise in a bid presentation.”
“It all comes down to confidence” in the bidders and their teams.
“Many buyers are frightened – I daren’t risk a legal challenge.”
And finally, one I particularly loved. “This is a great game, people – enjoy it!”
The recent UKAPMP conference was a triumph for the organisers: an excellent programme, extremely well-attended, in a high-quality venue. (My congratulations to Richard Jenkins, Frances Campbell and the rest of the organising team, as well as to Pat Thomas as UKAPMP CEO for overseeing the chapter’s success).
I particularly enjoyed the presentation by Jack Paine, Director of Procurement at the Department for Transport. He emphasised that whilst his team has an obligation to seek the most advantageous economic solution, “that does not mean that the cheapest price wins”.
He went on to explain that:
“We start with deliverability, then we look at price… It is no good me buying something on behalf of the taxpayer that is not fit for purpose.”
Great ammunition, this, for those working with sales colleagues who dismiss the importance of strategy and value, in favour of “it’s all about price.”
I also loved Jack’s anecdote of the worse line he’s seen opening an Executive Summary:
“Inn every aspect of our business, we seek ultimate quality.”
Our dear friend Sheilagh Douglas-Hamilton is one of those rare folks whose career has straddled senior roles in both purchasing and proposals, with great success. She’s been back in the world of procurement for the past few years, but we still end up debating proposal issues together on a regular basis.
One recent discussion concerned the role of the Executive Summary. Sheilagh fired the following across to me the following day by email, and was happy for me to share it here:
The purpose of an Exec Summary? To blow me away so I can say, “Yes! Yes! Yes! They really do understand my business and what I want!”
A good Exec Summary “shows that not only do you understand my requirements, but why you are the one to deliver them.” It should provide “a clear, concise summary telling me at a glance, in easy to understand language, why your offering is the best.”
And here are Sheilagh’s views on the characteristics of a successful Executive Summary:
1. Beautifully written
2. Nice language – no mistakes please
3. Clear concise and compelling
4. Tells a story
5. Is short and punchy
6. Makes no more than three pitches
7. Makes me want to read the rest of the document to find out more
8. Doesn’t contradict the main body of the text!
I always find this sort of input from an experienced evaluator’s perspective really useful. How does the Exec Summary of your most recent proposal fare against her criteria