Either “Run the other Way!” or “Watch and Learn”
Connie Sanford is well known and respected within the proposal community and has presented at many APMP conferences and Pragmatech User Forums. She told us she was enjoying the questions so much that she answered 7 of them instead of the usual 5. Here’s Connie input:
Please describe your current role?
I am the Manager of Proposal Services for Kforce Professional Staffing. I manage a team of 4 – 3 full time proposal writers and a developer for our automated documents. Annually, we review about 350 RFPs and were instrumental in adding $44 million in new revenue to the Firm last year. We support a field sales force of approximately 1,500. We also have 30+ automated documents for the field to use for smaller opportunities. They used the website to create more than 1,000 proposals in 2007.
How did you first get involved in sales proposals?
I finished my BA at the ripe age of 39 and took a job as a technical writer, which was really an RFP responder – I hesitate to call it a proposal writer because they only expected me to answer questionnaires (insurance company). I was a one-man show and had no idea what I was doing, but knew there had to be more than this. I looked around on the web and found APMP and they were just about to have their Salt Lake City convention. I asked to go and my boss approved it. I was intrigued by the presentation you guys (BJ and Jon) did and felt like I’d finally found a family of people who were like me. I learned about software like Pragmatech that could make my life and our company’s responses better. I became a proposal evangelist at that conference and haven’t stopped seeking better, building better and wanting more.
Any advice for proposal people needing to get greater sponsorship from senior colleagues within the business?
My advice would be to learn to speak their language. We are ‘word’ people – all of us think and speak and even dream in full sentences. Personally, I find it difficult to text because I can’t bring myself to leave out the punctuation or misspell the words. Your executives are probably not ‘word’ people; they are number people, statistics, ratios, win rates and return on investment. You must speak to them in those terms and make them understand that your department doesn’t just ‘do proposals.’ Your department reviews (for instance) 5 RFPs per person per week, resulting in 35% win rate. Each proposal takes about 20 hours and results in $500,000 in new business. That way they can begin to quantify your value to the Firm and justify your headcount, growth, your need to spend money to send the team to conferences, training sessions, pay for certification tests or anything else. It is our responsibility first to learn to speak to them before they learn to understand us.
Every proposal professional has a favourite horror story of the proposal that nearly (or actually) went wrong. What’s yours?
We did a proposal for a State a couple of years ago. We had just acquired a new company who was already doing business with the State, but the State wanted Kforce to win the bid not just sign over the old award. It was complicated and a large document with multiple copies but after weeks working with the folks from the new company and our organization, we got the document submitted. The State called us to say our headers were wrong. They had not mentioned the header requirement in the RFP, but we would need to reprint the proposals and send them in again. We completed and delivered the new documents only to receive a call from the State that they had posted an updated RFP on their website while we were working on the second version. We would have to comply with the new RFP and its format changes, language changes etc., which meant we had to review the old and new RFPs page at a time to catch all the changes. We submitted the third versions and then heard that our contact person had retired and we would be assigned a new reviewer, which would add months to the review cycle. It all worked out … we were awarded the business, but the entire process took 18 months. Our RFPs are usually released, responded and awarded within three months.
What one piece of advice would you offer to a newcomer just starting work on proposals?
I was reading these questions aloud to my team as I was contemplating which ones to answer. They all responded, in unison, “Run, run the other way.” That has to tell you something. Now, you have to understand, my team is the best – lots of experience, iron wills, strong backbones to deal with our constituency and loads of heart. Each is doing this because they want to. This is not an easy road. There’s no book to read, no degree to seek, finally we have some certification, but still each industry is so different, each of us has to be prepared to forge our own path. It’s not for the faint of heart. So, if the newcomer doesn’t heed, “Run!” I would have to say, “Watch and learn, don’t be afraid to ask and don’t be afraid to stand up when you know you are right.”
How did you come by your belief in the importance of proposals?
Many years ago I had occasion to request other vendors’ proposals through FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) on a couple of municipalities. Even though the opportunities were for very different services, many of the vendors’ proposals were identical – word for word. Either the documents were wrong (in a couple of spots) or they were so vague, they resembled pre-printed marketing material. I knew we could do better, so I took the bad proposals to my boss to help him understand what the competition was doing and that we weren’t much better. We made some changes to our documents and won several of those new documents, got good feedback from brokers and that was enough to convince everyone else.
If you had to recommend one book to proposal managers, what would it be? (It doesn’t have to be specifically about proposals!)
Wow, there are lots of good books, but it doesn’t have to be a book. Last year, I completed Dale Carnegie’s Leadership Skills training, and it gave me so many new skills. I would recommend anything that helps you to be a leader and not just a manager. Frequently, we are ‘managing’ people who don’t need to be ‘managed.’ Our teams need to be led, encouraged, shown the way to make their jobs a career choice. They need help in creating a path to continually improve in that career. We need to go to bat for them with our superiors so they can get what they need to stay in those positions, providing important continuity to their Firms and their teams. That usually calls for more than a book.
“If buyers wrote good RFPs, they’d receive good proposals in return. In the meantime, they should stop complaining!” Discuss.
“If frogs had wings, they wouldn’t bump their fannies.” It’s not my place to complain or lament that RFPs aren’t better, they are what they are. Lots of time they’re vague and redundant, but that’s why my team is valued – we can cut through the vagueness and the redundancy using the tools we have available from our experience. Regardless, it is the client’s game with their rules – period. It’s my job to make sure that we know those rules and if we don’t it’s my team’s responsibility to ask the necessary questions to position my Firm for a win.