Clients don’t read proposals?

On too many occasions to count, I’ve had someone say to me, “Colette, clients don’t read.” The truth is that clients do read our proposals and marketing collateral; they just don’t read everything. These feelings of disconnect stem from the reality that we don’t necessarily know which parts clients are reading. I believe the sentiment “no one reads” comes from a place of exhaustion. Who has the time and resources to customize every response to an inquiry or RFP? 

A revealing McKinsey & Company article references a study indicating that more than 25% of a “typical knowledge worker’s time” is devoted to searching for information. That’s a quarter of your day devoted to just securing potential content to use in a RFP response. Searching for information typically takes you online and potentially on an exasperating journey through that rabbit hole you call a marketing drive. If you are lucky, your firm has CRM technology in place to assist with client relations, but has this system been sufficiently populated and tagged? Now consider for just a moment that you have the luxury of focusing on only one effort at a time. It’s after 11:00 AM before you have even begun the process of analyzing and using that information to make the case for your company’s qualification for a job.

The answer is to rethink your writing efforts in quantifiable terms. 

Strategic Approach to Customization of RFP Responses

Early in my career, New York City’s tight-knit community of marketers for the architectural, engineering, and design community provided me with a steady diet of practical advice, tactical approaches, and empathy. The young writer Colette is also indebted to organizations like the Society for Marketing Professional Services and Matt Handal’s “help everybody everyday,” sources for both inspiration and reality checks in an industry where available resources do not always match high expectations.

I learned that customization is not reinventing the wheel each time. Rather, it is making strategic decisions in advance concerning effort level and weighing the ROI each time you meet a new challenge. 

Back to the McKinsey & Company article, which argues that in the age of powerful online search engines, social media, and smart content/document-management systems, “analytically focused knowledge workers” are better off with a hybrid approach to accessing information: combining structured technologies and processes with free access to information resources. If you are someone who routinely collaborates with a team of subject matter experts and is often required to be creative in your problem solving, you need a certain amount of autonomy to effectively respond to specific, sometimes unpredictable, client requests. But, you also need help and, ideally, a few parameters—prior to investing time and resources.

So, what does this strategic approach to customization of RFP responses look like? Keep in mind that most proposal and media efforts are composed of three ingredients: one part boilerplate, one part tailored boilerplate, and one part original content. Rarely is this an even distribution of time and effort, nor should it be. Depending on the amount of resources you feel the writing deserves, each “third” can be adjusted. For example, during the RFP kickoff meeting, I like to assign a letter rating to the effort based on what the principal-in-charge has shared about the success rate, client relationship, and, ultimately, the profitability of a project: “A” for majority original content, minimal boilerplate; “B” for majority tailored boilerplate, minimal original content; “C” for all boilerplate.

The objective is to go into the RFP response process with an understanding of where, when, and how much to invest. The goal is to have for each effort a tailored plan, not necessarily a fully tailored response. 

Using workflow technologies as our model, we know that the most effective content management “tools” are implemented with consideration for how knowledge workers actually do their jobs. A rigid, prescribed approach to proposal writing risks silencing the informal conversing and questioning that can result in language that feels authentic to a client. However, a structured approach—combined with the ability to override automated decision-making, when needed—is the right combination of support and autonomy. More important, this kind of flexible, yet structured, approach ensures that specific expertise is being applied to specific challenges or concerns communicated in a RFP.

Avoiding the Land of the Lost Writing

Efficient (and effective!) customization is also about systematically building upon past writing efforts. Bid packages and press kits should be based on a “kit-of-parts” system that responds to the immediate requirements of a client or media request by creating content in advance and putting systems in place that free-up principal and staff members’ time now and in the future. 

Significantly, a kit-of-parts approach is based on the following premises: you create foundation pieces that are later tailored or repackaged for specific requirements and, in concert, you continuously look for opportunities to create foundation pieces from specific efforts. 

This approach is about keeping the content that you and your collaborators (firm leadership, subject matter experts, public relations specialists, etc.) labored over out of the Land of the Lost Writing, e.g., buried in past proposals, brochures, and articles. That level of investment should keep working for you indefinitely or, at least, until the writing loses relevance and not you lose the writing.