Developing business acumen for proposals

Image of Pete Nicholls
Pete Nicholls

Episode Summary

Kathryn Bennett CPSM explains the importance of developing business acumen for proposals. Business acumen empowers the proposal specialist to rebalance workload and present better cases for a reduced quantity of proposals that result in higher win rates.

 

 

EPISODE NOTES

  • Kathryn Bennett CPSM explains the importance of developing business acumen for proposals. You might assume this is about writing better proposals but perhaps not for the reasons you think.
  • Kathryn identified that responding to fewer proposals better, results in a significantly better win rate, yet most company's Go/No-Go process is often swept aside when management wants to respond for the sake of responding.
  • By gaining business acumen, the proposal specialist can gather and understand appropriate business data to present s compelling case to the leadership team, on the benefits to be gained through quality responses over quantity.

Links:

Links to free tools, useful tips or offers for our listeners


  • Loopio 2021 RFP Response Trends: https://loopio.com/resources/2021-rfp-response-trends-report/
  • RFP Department Grader

About our guest


Kathryn Bennett is the Director of RFP Excellence at Loopio.
She has more than a dozen years of proposal management and technical communications experience.
Kathryn believes that every proposal manager should be able to go home at the end of a 40-hour workweek, and she's made it her personal mandate to support better processes so proposal managers don't suffer from burnout.

 

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

Pete

Greetings everyone, a very warm welcome to another edition of the Proposal Works podcast, where we're talking with proposal experts who share real stories of how they win. I'm your host, Pete Nicholls. I'm coming to you from a beautiful sunny Copenhagen in Denmark today, and I'm joined by Kathryn Bennetts Kathryn, a very good day to you.

Where are you joining us from today?

Kathryn

Yes. Hi, I'm here in new castle, Colorado. A nice rural community here in the mountains. And we similarly have a beautiful sunny day. So thank you for asking.

Pete

It looks amazing. I was Googling it, uh, Google maps and, uh, you tell me a population of 5,000 people.

Kathryn

Yes, very rural community.

Of course, the company I'm representing today is based in Toronto, but with the global workforce expanding and COVID precautions in full effect still, we are fully remote.

Pete

It's a year trapped in a beautiful place.

I'm in a prison that's a thousand miles wide. It's hell.

I've really been looking forward to this session, Kathryn. Cause I follow you on LinkedIn and I comment where I can. So our topic today, well, actually over to hold on to that, I'll give people a bit of an introduction, sorry, first for our listeners. So if you haven't yet heard of Kathryn Bennett I don't know where you've been, but Kathryn Bennett is the director of RFP excellence at Loopio.

She has more than a dozen years of proposal management and technical communications experience. And Kathryn, I know you believe every proposal manager should be able to go home at the end of a 40 hour work week, and you've made it your personal mandate to support better processes, so proposal managers don't suffer from burnout and that's such an honorable thing to be pursuing and I'm hoping that I, and others can help you in that. Nobody should be suffering now. So, um, Looking forward to exploring that with you, but the topic for today doesn't sound like it's that topic. Our topic is developing business acumen for proposals. So let's start by in your role, Kathryn, who is your ideal client today and what do they truly want?

Kathryn

Sure. So Loopio is a proposal automation software. What we do is we make it easy for you to shred or parse proposal documents. Complete your proposal quickly using a library of shared content and then export your document into the format, digital or printed that your customer is most interested in seeing.

So our ideal client right now, somebody who would really benefit from Loopio is a proposal manager who is, or, or a team that completes proposals that are struggling with resources, time, or efficiency. So you're feeling like maybe you're running through sand with your proposal processes, or you're really struggling to find the right content and to walk in and put your hand on the piece of information that you need to complete your proposals.

So if that sounds familiar, if you feel like you're spending too much time doing your proposals, we are absolutely the right fit for your organization.

Pete

So it sounds like what they truly want, if you handed them your Loopio magic wand it's that they truly want to quickly put their hands on what they need to, that allows them to save time, respond faster, those sorts of things. Kathryn, what did like that the main wishes that they would have?

Kathryn

Yes. One of the big asks that we see in the industry today, and this speaks to the burnout problem that we, you know, we kind of touched on just a minute ago is just the experience of what doing an RFP is like. So proposals have such a bad reputation throughout our organizations.

And many of us have built our entire careers on this and to, to, to see the reaction and that people have, when you say, Hey, I've got a proposal, can you help me? The groans and the moans and the, you know, the challenges that people face. Really what we're trying to do is help improve the proposal experience from a lot of different dimensions.

So what does that look like? It means that we're helping Loopio and other automation tools like ours help to improve win rate, help to improve the efficiency of your organization, and help to lower your risk. So what do I mean, when I say lower risk, in some instances, proposals get sent out with the wrong information.

Right. Whoops, we have the wrong customer name or whoops. We included the wrong legal provisions for this customer and the implications to your sales cycle and your reputation, and even your personal performance as a proposal manager in those instances is enormous. That's a massive impact if you get it wrong.

So really we're, we're looking for organizations that are wanting to improve their win rates, do work faster, improve the experience of proposals themselves and lower their risk and responding.

Pete

Fantastic. So it sounds like they are that magic wand is a solving it's improving the win rate and the efficiency, and if it solves the risk as well, all of these things also relate to not having to work right through the weekend and kill yourself doing these things.

It's like a proposal manager. If writing proposals, is there art, you don't want them to have, have to suffer for their art?

Kathryn

Absolutely. Well, and the reason let's be honest, the reason I got into proposal software, is because I put myself in the hospital working at a previous company, I was working 80 hours a week, 70, 80 hours.

You know, it would burn in the midnight oil and the candle at both ends and all of those cliches. And it put me in the hospital and I know people who have been working on proposals through active labor. I know people who have worked on proposals in their honeymoons, so this type of self-sacrifice isn't required.

And we're going to talk a little bit about how business acumen can support your ability to avoid burnout today, I have a personal connection to that, and I think it's really important that people realize that there are tools out there that can help you keep yourself safe and support the business goals that your organization has.

Pete

Yeah, I was horrified when I first heard that from your Kathryn of, uh, responding to a proposal while you're in labor that, uh, these tools help significantly to that. So that really leads us to my second question, which is the problems that people normally face. How do they end up in that situation? It sounds like an untenable situation. So what are they normally facing? Paint the picture. What does that look like when you're in it?

Kathryn

Great. So proposal managers, and again, I want to relate this back to business acumen. So, here's, here's the thing, proposal managers, we are typically English people, composition people, marketing people, right?

We're not really trained in data analytics or business savvy, but a lot of folks in sales or other parts of the organization might have as a part of their academic or professional heritage. Right. So as a consequence, we really struggle to articulate the reason why all of this work is a bad idea.

So we keep getting the organization's leadership to come to us and say, we need to do more work. We need to do more work because more work to them means winning more work, right. And without the appropriate business acumen and understanding how to properly measure what our department is doing, we end up.

Unable to advocate for ourselves and under a massive pile of work that we don't know how to get out from under. So I would say that the key to being able to mitigate a lot of these problems in many organizations is being able to talk data and tell stories to your managers about why the workload not only is bad for your health, but that's one part and it's not always something that gets a lot of sympathy, but why it's bad for the business.

Pete

The mistakes that people would make, I guess it's if they don't know that those solutions are a pathway out of where they are, what kind of mistakes do you see people make when they're just trying to deal with the situation? What do they do and try to do that? Just doesn't work out for them.

Kathryn

So folks aren't empowered to say no. There's, uh, we, we hear a lot of times about the go-no-go process, right? As many folks who are listening to this podcast will already be familiar with what I go, no go is. And you will almost certainly be familiar with the ways in which people can game a go-no-go.

If they really want to do the work, they're going to escalate it to your chief revenue officer, your VP of sales is going to escalate it, maybe even to the CEO and say, this person is standing in my way and there is a barrier. And this farm is preventing you from putting money in your pocket. So here's how, here's how proposal managers can counter that kind of argument by coming with their own data and describing what a winning bid looks like. So if we're able to arm ourselves with the information that can tell a better story than the people who are trying to pile more work onto us. Then we're able to advocate for our departments and actually provide better business value because our data will be correct and simply chasing every piece of work that comes along is not the right, the right method.

Pete

Yeah. And have you seen people do something that they thought might solve it, like digging their heels in or, or whatever, and that actually made the situation worse?

Kathryn

Oh, absolutely. There were some situations in which, um, a previous organization. There's all we can, this is a can't miss bid. We have to bid on it and we can't sacrifice anything else that we're currently working on because it's all really good work. Well, when, in situations like that, then you need to call it a pinch hitter. You need to call on a consultant. You need to get some extra, extra manpower, like physical people behind this work, because it's extremely difficult.

And there was a situation in which one time I was doing 17 bids in a month, um, which doesn't sound like a lot, but they were all enterprise-level, you know, enterprise-level, government bids. And, and one came in that we just simply couldn't respond to. And I, I wouldn't be surprised if we won one out of the 17, because we, because you can't, if you're spreading yourself thin and you don't have like rock-solid processes, we, I mean, they were, ours were pretty good, but they weren't rock solid.

Then you're going to have quality problems. And, and that's just the fact. So there has to be a ceiling that you put on. What you have to do is identify how many hours it takes for you to complete an RFP, how many people need to be involved, and then work backward to determine your capacity. And once you reach that capacity, either you have to add more resources into the system in order to complete your work, or you need to figure out what can be sacrificed, because if a bid is that important then smaller bids should be able to be cut in order to make space for it.

Pete

Yeah. So in that, that, um, that's a great example. Thanks, Kathryn. The 17 that by just simply pushing that actually reduced the ability to win any of them. There's a picture that comes to mind if you know the movie Aliens 2, I'm a big fan and that's my favorite one and Ripley. They're just coming out of the cooling tower and she's told to ease off the throttle. Ripley, you’ve blown the transactional. You're just grinding metal. It's kind of that scene, you’re grinding metal. You're not going anywhere, even though the engine is roaring, you're done. So, um, a vivid image of what it takes to try and win 17 proposals and then to lose them as well has got to be pretty disheartening.

Kathryn

Oh, well, when it comes, I think it's really important that point you bring up the fact that we didn't win most of the proposals, right. There's a study out and I don't know who, if anybody on the podcast is a fan of Dan Ariely, he's a marketing researcher, like social-behavioral, and economist.

Right. Okay. So he did a really interesting study and maybe we can link it in the show notes or maybe we can get it out to folks in association with this, but he talks about how destroying someone's work after it's done leads them to have extremely low morale. So what he did was he took these robots and he made everybody sit there and the study participants would build the robots and they get paid for it.

And in one case they would display the robots on a beautiful shelf. And in the other case, they would immediately disassemble the robot in front of the person and then hand them the parts back to, to build the exact same robot over and over, so they watch their work be destroyed. And it was something like the folks who had to watch their own robots get torn down only did like a quarter of the work as compared to the people who probably had their robots displayed.

Right. So if we think about it, it's the same connection. When we lose proposal after proposal, after proposal, the morale hits like that's a, that's a surefire way to get your whole team to turn over because we want to win.

Pete

Yeah. Yeah. I've, I'm sure I've read that. I think Dan wrote predictably irrational. Maybe there are a few of these human behaviors and yet to see what you've made gets destroyed. Yeah. I mean, I still hate the person who kicked over my sandcastle years ago and uh, yeah, I'll get him one day. So let's look at where you've helped Kathryn. What's the situation where, okay, we've, we've painted a pretty bleak picture there. So what can it be like where have you helped? And what's some examples of that?

Kathryn

Yeah. So one of the, one of the, the greatest impacts that I have with a very simple study that I did early in my career, where I would like to emphasize that the best way to have a business impact is to measure, tell a story about the measurement and then present that to your leaders about why it impacts either their bottom line or their resource allocation.

So collect data, tell a story about it presents. So, what I did was very early on I noticed at the end of our proposal processes, we were always rushing, rushing, rushing, trying to assemble the information, and in some cases, even submitting it through online portals within the hour before it was due. And I felt intuitively that there was something with the win rate that was going wrong for those proposals, where we were rushing at the end.

So I captured it. I said, okay, are we making any edits to this proposal within 24 hours of the due date? And if yes, then I put a checkmark in there, then the no checkmark after three months or after maybe a quarter, I took the information and I synthesized it and I found that those proposals that we were submitting within 24 hours of the due date, where we were still making edits at the last minute, we had a 60% lower win rate.

Yeah, huge, huge difference. So I took that to the office leader and I said, Hey, you know when we're making these last minute and that's what we're doing is introducing errors and in fact, in some cases, I could show him, look, we accidentally deleted an important paragraph. Oh, we missed the legal form that we needed to be, or the formatting was wrong because we insisted on pushing those edits so late.

So then what happened was we created a policy and we created project plans that helped us move that deadline up and as soon as we stopped making those last-minute edits, our whole office started seeing more success on RFPs. Wow. Simple, simple. But if you have a gut feeling and you don't have the measurement, you can't get buy-in from leaders. I had to, I had to show the actual statistics.

Pete

So bring the data. So, uh, I guess that brings us back to that, that business acumen. Can you think of any other situations where business acumen has helped you or somebody else that you've been working with Kathryn of that, the data or other examples of business acumen?

Kathryn

I just want to give a shout-out to one of my colleagues and a supervisor in one of my old jobs, his name's John Graves and he's at Terracon consultants. And what he did for me was early in my career he sat me down and we reviewed profit and loss statements for every office in our division. And then we built a plan to help his office achieve the goals that they needed and to appropriately allocate resources to the other offices within the division for RFPs so that everybody could achieve the goals that they were trying to get for the quarter. Without that two or three-hour session early in my career, I never would have understood the fund or understood the financial impact that comes with proposals.

So, what I would say is that that profit and loss discussion drove me to try to understand the overall impact that proposals have had on every business that I have since worked for. So, what is the impact of a loss? How much does it cost to win or to lose? Right. How much return per dollar spent on marketing or per dollar spent on proposals are we actually getting back? And it's driven me to think about measuring things beyond just the win rate. So how much revenue can we expect this year from proposals? How much revenue do we think we're going to need to have for retaining customers through proposals? What does the market even look like for our business and how much could we conceivably capture through formal procurement?

These are all, if you think about it, scientific research questions that proposal managers are very specially positioned to answer. And we often don't realize we think of ourselves as, oh, well we are just writers. No, no. We have the ability to influence so many major business decisions to understand the market in really unique ways.

And if we take the time and if leaders will also take the time to educate proposal teams about the, what, the expectations and the financial impacts, then I see, I see a transformation in our industry.

Pete

Yeah. Well, the empowerment that gives them, it gives, you mentioned earlier that people don't feel empowered to say, no, we're not going to respond to this bid because it just goes up the tree and sales get what they want.

And you're told to do it. What about empowerment, of being able to ask the questions and say, I want better visibility of the financials. I want to understand the bigger picture. How does somebody who hasn't done that before overcome that barrier and feel empowered to ask that?

Kathryn

Sure. I think that to be honest with you, working for an employee-owned company gives you an advantage in this case, right? Because if you are a partial shareholder, you have a right to see the financials. And they will be there, so that was part of my luck in my first real dedicated proposal job in this way. But you don't have to work for an employer or a company in order to ask for that financial impact or enrichment, ask to be trained.

So not only can you ask for information internally, but you could also seek external information because of external training. Just through project management or through a business school so that you could understand general profit and loss statements. I would also just ask your, they just ask your supervisor and explain why it's bring that, bring us a solid case about why it makes sense for you to know what the financial impact of your work is.

Because if you're not even able to quantify how many dollars your proposals are bringing in the door, then, then your department is really going to lack direction. I think it's just as easy as asking your supervisor. And if they say no, then go educate yourself and come back and then explain why it makes more sense, seek some outside education and then, and then come back to them and make some recommendations and see what, see what happens.

Pete

Certainly given what you said about burnout. Um, I picture people who are just struggling to get all of the responses answered and then would love to maybe have the time and the bandwidth to ask and, and lend these other things. From the people that you've seen in that backs to the wall burnout situation what's the first step. Is it just talking to your supervisor that you actually want to take on more in the form of learning? How do you start that?

Kathryn

First step? If you're in the mud like that, what you have to do first is set a ceiling on your capacity and it has to be a hard ceiling. It has to be, we are not doing more than 10 RFPs in a month.

Or we're not doing more than 20 or however many it, like, what does your capacity look like? That means you have to know how much time it takes to complete an RFP. So there is, I'm sorry to tell you that if you're in the mud, you're going to have to get a little deeper and you're going to have to grab it a little bit more and I'm a competitive, strong woman, like a competitive, a competitive strength athlete. And one of our sayings is to embrace the suck. So if you're in that situation, you've got to dig in even harder and you've got to figure out exactly how long does it take for you to complete an RFP and then you can put a ceiling on it.

If your company is resistant to you, putting a ceiling on your capacity, I would seriously consider finding other work.

Pete

Yeah, I guess that's the key, isn't it? You've uh, you, first of all, got to accept that you've got to take on the extra work to take that, that step because you're in a reactive position so you've got to go proactive and proactive is initially going to be harder, but to get to the other side of that, there's the win. This has been an amazing session, Kathryn. Thanks for sharing that. So far, you're such a passionate advocate for the proposal industry, and, uh, and I love the fact that you clearly want to make it better for the people who work within it.

So I'm wondering, what is it about what you do that you find so fulfilling?

Kathryn

Oh, well, I love being a product advocate for Lupita for so many reasons. Number one, because I think technology is the future. Automation is the future of all work, right? It's a tide that's unavoidable. And unless you surrender to it and get on board.

You're probably going to not have very much fun in the rest of your career. So I'm personally really excited. So not only is tech in the proposal space, really exciting part of the job today, but also Loopio is just an amazing company. And I would say this for proposal writers out there, find the company that you love, find the people that are around you that resonate with you.

And, the work will follow, right? Like there's, there's always a job that, but find the company first because that's, this is the first time I've ever done that in my whole life that I went to a company and I said, this is, you know, I see myself being here and how do I make that happen? And we developed a path and Heidi, oh, you know, before I knew it, I was, I was in a role that really, really suited my needs.

So, yeah, that's why, that's why I'm so happy is because my coworkers are amazing. My company has a strong vision for what proposals can look like in the future and we empower proposal professionals to do their job better and to take the rest that they need so that they can be more effective.

Pete

Yeah, empowerment. I can hear it. It just weaves through everything that you do, Katherine. So those have been amazing tips that may cause people to rethink perhaps where they are or how they're handling things today. And if they feel really overwhelmed, I hope we've helped people with those tips. What other tips you, you shared with me a link Katherine to a document that's up on the Loopio site. There's a 2000, uh, 2021 RFP response trends report. Can you tell us a little about that?

Kathryn

So every year Loopio puts out a response trends report for the proposal industry. In 2020, I actually used this benchmarking report to seek additional headcount in my department. So the document is about 60 pages long.

It has a complete picture and benchmarking survey for folks throughout industries. So that you can understand how your proposal team stacks up against others in the response space. So you can look at metrics that other folks are measuring. You can look at the staffing levels that other folks have, how many RFPs they're typically responding to and see where you fit in that spectrum.

I highly recommend checking this out for anybody who's trying to get a better understanding of the state of the industry. And again, we do that every year. We also have some really exciting new tools coming out, Loopio out is releasing an RFP department grader to help you understand, um, exactly how your proposal department is functioning and to help you troubleshoot the parts of the process that could be improved. So keep an eye out for that in the coming weeks.

Pete

Fantastic. Well, thank you. I'll make sure that we have the link to that RFP response trends report in the show notes, people can click a download, and I guess that's a challenge to the listener. If you've heard this and decide you want to take some proactive steps, pick up some additional business acumen and be able to have the more influential, empowered conversation with your boss or whoever can help you to change things, start by reading that trends report and see how different companies and organizations are stacking up.

Let's wrap it up there. I think we've covered a lot of ground. And, uh, I look forward to having you on the show again in the future Kathryn. I'm sure we'll find more to talk about. So on that note, I'll just say, first of all, it's been an absolute pleasure talking with you today. What is the best way for people who want to reach out to you, Kathryn? And by the sound of it, you've got headcount and Loopio is a great company. So if people want to come and work for you, how should they reach out and connect with you?

Kathryn

Absolutely. We are expanding recently after having received it. $260 million round of funding. So absolutely we are expanding headcount. Please check us out at Loopio.Com. The best way to get a hold of me personally is here on LinkedIn. My handle is ‘Kathryn Bennett writes’ so linkedin.com backslash ‘Kathrynbennettwrites’ all one word. I'm happy to have personal conversations with folks. So reach out to me, DM me. We'll get you on the calendar and have a chat.

I'm happy to direct anybody to appropriate resources and to have personal conversations with them as well.

Pete

Well, we'll make sure we put the LinkedIn link in the show notes there for people as well. So, Kathryn, thank you so much for your time.

Kathryn

Thank you.

Pete

And a quick note to our listeners. Thank you also for joining us today.

So if you personally enjoyed this episode of the proposal works podcast, please hit subscribe, have listened to some of the other shows and even leave us a rating. We'll love you forever. Thanks for joining us. See you next time.

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