One of my clients is a company that produces access cards. Until recent times, they got card orders by submitting bids or quotes, which, as you may know, are different from the actual proposals. They contacted me when they came across an opportunity to win a multimillion-dollar contract. The new RFP requirements were complex, and they faced formidable competition.

In the brainstorming process, I found that to beat the competition, the proposal had to discuss not only the benefits that their cards offered but the overall solution the company could bring to the table. This solution had to go far beyond just manufacturing and delivering the cards.

The magnitude of the required effort caught this company by surprise. They were shocked at how hard they had to work to think up a clever approach, and how much their brightest engineers had to brainstorm and iterate the solution to get it right. They were exhausted, and it was more expensive than they had hoped. In the end, they were happy to win a twenty million dollar bid with less than half a percent business development investment while going up against two Fortune 500s and a few smaller companies. Learning firsthand the difference between a solution proposal and a product proposal, however, was priceless.

Similarly, one of my clients was looking to grow from offering just IT personnel, or bodies, to priming a contract that required a well-formulated approach. All of a sudden, this client had to learn to develop original management and technical solutions, beyond just tailoring resumes and providing brief past performance references. They had to summon their direct-charge people to work nights and weekends to brainstorm and write and rob Peter to pay Paul to get it done. There was no amount of explaining the process in the beginning that was going to prepare them for the amount of work they had to do to win.

Why is it this difficult to move from proposing products and bodies to proposing services and solutions? Well, the main difference is that a proposal, unlike a typical bid, explains not only who, what, when, where, and why, but also the HOW. It is the HOW that takes a lot of work to develop. On top of that, your HOW has to be better than the competition’s HOW.

This HOW is often as important or more important than the price when the Government evaluates based on best value. Despite the common myth, the majority of the services and solutions proposals I have prepared won even though they weren’t the lowest price. It is in the product or commodity bids where the lowest price usually wins.

Solutions usually take a while to evolve they have to percolate through the subject matter expert’s minds. It is normally not a linear process despite all the clever writing aids and proposal process steps. Figuring out what you are going to do that’s different, that saves the customer time or money, gets a better quality, or reduces risk, and making a convincing argument that you know how to do it, takes hard work.

When writing a product bid, you don’t have to work quite as hard to figure out how you bundle or package your offerings, and how you service them. You already know what you have to offer, the only trick is in finding the right way to sell it to this specific customer.

Pricing solutions in a services proposal also require strategy it is not a straightforward exercise of checking what savings you can offer. You can play with the level of effort, for example, or develop creative assumptions, or devise a clever way to achieve price reductions downstream, or even buy your way in to make up for the losses later.

Your teaming choices may be vitally important in services or solutions proposals, whereas it may not matter at all in other scenarios.

Even writing the proposal is not the same level of effort for products and services. Product proposals heavily rely on boilerplate text and graphics you can tailor to the specific client needs. It is all about nailing features and benefits. You can even get great software that helps you streamline your proposal assembly line.

Solution and services proposals may start with a boilerplate, but eventually, they evolve into unique narratives and graphics that may not be reusable in the next proposal you write. Only a real expert can run your pre-proposal and proposal efforts well, to get you set up to win. There is no software that can help you write a winning solution and services proposal, only some tools to expedite a few steps.

To summarize all this, knowing the difference between product or service proposals is extremely important in winning Government business. Here are but a few examples of how this understanding can benefit you:

You can better screen proposal professionals you hire because not all proposal experience is the same

If your business is products that can be easily bundled with services, and you are looking to expand your business, you know what to expect

If you are in services and you haven’t been winning much, you may have been structuring and preparing your proposals incorrectly like the product bids, without spending much time on the solution – it may be time to scrutinize your approach.

If you have any questions, have personal experiences to share on the subject, or could offer feedback, please, leave a comment.

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