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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The complex proposal process: Who should be involved?

The Art of Engineering is one of several publications/resources available at the Aker Solutons website.

Nicole Dufour, Business Development Manager at Wink Design Group in New Orleans, LA, posted this crucially important question on the SMPS members' listserve today:

To what extent should or do Architects, Engineers, Technical Staff, etc. participate in the proposal process? I'm involved in a discussion about this and I really need your input.

* One school of thought says that marketing should be responsible for putting together everything, including technical narratives and information for final review by project manager. In one job description, I have seen the following: Marketing should "research, write and edit proposals for final review by management, requiring only limited input on content for architecture/engineering teams."

* However, my school of thought and -- practice over the years -- has been to do this more as a team effort from the very beginning. Everyone, the Architects and Engineers and marketing department, agree at the beginning on the proposal content and each plays a role in pulling it together.

You kick off the process with a meeting with the principal-in-charge or project manager and other key team members; organize the proposal process and teams; work together to create an outline; designate which narratives or information should be provided by principal or key team members and marketing; interview principal or team members if they can't provide it in writing themselves; interact and communicate with consultants; oversee graphic design, production, etc. This also includes research, writing and editing, of course. But my point is, I see this process as a team effort.

What do y'all think?

Her posting elicited these responses. Marcia Kellog, Marketing Manager at Standard Builders in Newington, CT, wrote:

Your school of thought is correct IN THEORY, however, as you and many of us can attest to, this is not one of the best practices utilized by most design firms. Having worked on the design side of the industry for 15 years, I have found that this rate of dysfunction increases with the amount of proposals that are processed. Technical staff are scrambling to meet deadlines too, and a marketing meeting to review proposal outlines is the last thing they want to do.

My suggestion would be to review the RFQ/RFP as early as possible and make a separate sheet of crib notes, or better yet, right on the RFP page, and make enough copies to the appropriate individuals. Along with this information, I would make a list of bullet points for the project that may include, discussion points and questions that need responses, etc. Then on your cover sheet provide the project statistics along with a proposal process timeline. If you do not get any response to this memo, then I would issue a meeting invite, stressing the urgency of the meeting to get all required input so that the proposal can be as comprehensive and custom as possible.

Providing them with this information as early as possible will be helpful and provide them with a head start, so that they feel as if they do not have to start with nothing. The input you get in this meeting will provide you with enough information to begin preparing the proposal, and hopefully, others in the group will have their assignments for information gathering and narrative writing.

That's the extent of the research you should provide at this point, and it will fuel the discussion so that your marketing meeting can be productive. You can spend the same amount of time preparing boiler plate proposals, but I guarantee you that it is a waste of time and money for your firm, and the results will be realized in your hit/win rate.

Later in the day, Ellen Moore, Communications Manager, Sales and Marketing, at Aker Solutions in Houston, TX, observed:

Once a person has walked through the proposal process here, there can be NO doubt that proposal development MUST be a team effort. Our proposals require very detailed technical information, which must come from our engineers and engineering technicians; a price component derived by hours and hours of very complex costing work by procurement; the costs involved in moving people and raw materials to destinations where project work will be done, as estimated by our planners; the labor hours, attendant costs, and time required to manufacture and transport finished equipment, as calculated by manufacturing estimators; and three or four other categories of very unique-to-our-industry proposal information that must be provided by people with very specialized skills.

Then, of course, there are those of us who actually put all those pieces together,
review, rewrite, return for revision by one or more departments, then produce these proposals. There is NO WAY any proposal here could be generated without the
There is NO WAY any proposal here could be generated without the participation of all these proposal team members.

That being the case, and given the trackable costs involved in proposal production, I
simply cannot understand how senior managers can overlook the chunk of change they pay annually for proposals -- especially for proposals their firms lose. Immediately, many of these managers will say that the more time technical staff spends working on proposals, the higher the cost. I beg to differ. If the managers of the technical staff are on the ball and supervising effectively, a planned approach and use of SCHEDULED (and therefore, limited) time on the part of the technical staff can create both a winning proposal AND an acceptable labor cost for their work on the proposal. Unfortunately, what I observed hundreds of times over the years is that technical staff (engineers, in my case) were assigned to develop technical input for proposals. Very few engineers (in my experience and observation) like or want to do proposals. Most believe proposal work is not important, or at least, not nearly so important as project work. Many engineers believe so because that is the attitude and behavior their managers emulate. Their managers believe it because they see and emulate the behavior of their managers -- the senior principals or officers of the firm. The result? Engineers assigned to the proposal find every imaginative excuse NOT to work on their assignments until the last 36 hours before the proposal goes into production, OR until the poor Marketing Coordinator starts beating on them. Then, at the last possible moment, the engineers -- possibly inspired by a motivating visit from their manager, who just heard from the Marketing Manager -- finally start working, and spend from 10 to 20 hours doing work that really should have taken perhaps 6 or 8 hours.

I know this, because at a previous employer, when overall marketing costs rocketed to 10% of the firm's annual revenue, and the hit rate plummeted in the same year(going back to the issue of very expensive losing proposals), the senior officers put their collective foot down. One of the new rules they mandated was that each practice area manager MUST attend every proposal kick-off meeting if that proposal would require input from one or more of their subordinates. Moreover, thosepractice area managers were accountable for the number of hours each approved on his or her subordinates' timesheets for proposal work -- which, by the by, began being charged to the unique number assigned to each proposal, eliminating a lot of payday "dodge and weave." Any total in excess of 10 hours charged on one timesheet to one proposal number and approved by that engineer's manager bought the manager theopportunity to explain to the firm President WHY that much time was required by one person.

Of course this precipitated MUCH wailing and gnashing of engineer teeth. BUT, in short order (about 3 months), I noticed a significant change for the better: Engineers
assigned to develop technical input for proposals were actually meeting 65% of their internal deadlines. Amazing! And, the quality of the information they provided was noticeably better. And, in about another 3 months, we began to win projects for which we proposed. And -- because we monitored proposal preparation costs VERY closely -- we began to see a noticeable decline in the cost of technical labor hours allocated to proposals. And, although the engineers still did not like doing work for proposals, they were complaining less.

Human nature being what it is, various proposal team members embrace their assignments with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Of course there are team members who push the limits of everyone's patience and goodwill. Of course deadlines are missed without good reason. Of course we who make proposals feel that back-to-the-wall is a chronic condition. And we do wonder at our own stress, extreme pressure, frustration, and ingratitude on the part of our internal clients. BUT -- in the last 12 months, we have wracked up a significant win rate. In the last 16 months, the cost of our proposal making has stabilized and is more easily managed now. There IS growing awareness among my firm's senior management about the importance of the proposal process AND the contributions of those who labor in the Proposals group. Those are all significant improvements.

Yes, we certainly do have proposal TEAMs here. And, as in families, although you frequently do not get to choose who your relatives are, you might as well make the best of it, because you are all in the same boat -- at least for the duration of the proposal.

Clearly, this dialogue shows the important challenges and business decisions involved in preparing proposals and competing for important, complex, and challenging projects. Marketing here encompasses a range of issues -- the dynamics of internal communication, the actual expertise of your company's staff (both technical and marketing), and the subtle and not so subtle internal and external forces that go into the ultimate decision-making processes. Clearly, you need to be successful on several levels to achieve marketing success, including knowing which RFPs to answer, and, then, once the "go" decision is made, how to respond in the most effective and compliant manner possible.

This is not the stuff of amateurs. It is expensive and risky, but vital to your business success. And the thoughts here show why, if you belong to an AEC business doing this type of high-end stuff, you should be a member of your local SMPS chapter. You'll have a network of peers for support and, in many cases, for joint ventures in preparing the complex submissions and winning the sophisticated projects that require more expertise than your firm alone can handle.

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