By Mark Lester, Vice President of Business Development
Operations were my sole focus for the first dozen years of my professional career. I operated satellites, planned air combat missions, troubleshot aircraft navigation systems, engineered and tested next-generation soldier systems, conducted missile defense tests, and orchestrated intelligence gathering operations. So, when my boss asked me to step away from my customer to write a proposal for a new program the customer was inheriting, I was perplexed.
I was focused on customer service and not selling them something from ‘corporate’. A number of questions rushed over me… Was I value-added to the delivery team? What about the big deliverable deadline looming? Didn’t we have a proposal team to write proposals?
My boss quickly realized my dilemma and told me to not worry about the proposal. He switched topics and we had an hour long discussion about the customer. I was back in my comfort zone. We talked about the customer’s challenges and demands for meeting new regulations; how we were making some people and process adjustments to address new emerging needs; how my coworker had an idea for a new tool to help streamline meeting the new regulations, etc. My boss took copious notes, asking me to explain how we were meeting the customer’s needs and what outcomes we were achieving. Ahhh, my boss ‘got it’—no more silly discussions about proposals, but rather a great discussion about the customer and delivery.
At the end of the conversation, my boss handed me his notes and stated “You just wrote the first draft of the proposal.” The bulleted notes were scribbled against a proposal outline the Business Development team had developed from the solicitation. He went on to explain that successful proposals are all about the customer and solving their problems. It was all there—an understanding of the customer’s environment and challenges, our approach to finding the people, processes, and tools to solve those challenges, and quantitative examples of expected outcomes based on previous experience. Since it was organized against the RFP, it was compliant but admittedly still needed some help on being compelling.
This wasn’t what I expected from proposal writing. I agreed to clean up some terminology to ensure it was consistent with the customer’s terms and to create a short flow diagram to show how the new tool would fit into the customer’s processes.
We won the proposal. In fact, our customer said it wasn’t even a close decision despite us being more expensive because our proposal showed we ‘got it’—we got his new mission and personal vision and provided a detailed approach on how we would solve his problems. As a bonus, the proposal write-up largely served as our first deliverable—a program plan. I learned then that the most successful proposals are customer focused, and that those who know the customer best play a vital role in designing the proposal that will win. Who knew customer service would be disguised as a proposal?