Strategy vs Spaghetti: Why Strategy Always Wins

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Pete Nicholls
strategy vs spaghetti

 

Episode Summary

Caryn Kent Dean MLIS CP APMP explains setting a strategy to answer good-fit opportunities, always beats throwing spaghetti at the wall trying to bid on everything. Caryn shares real examples of the female solopreneur who defined her signature services and discovered her best niche, to the IT services company winning large $20M+ deals from 40% fewer proposals.

Episode Notes

 

  • Understand why presenting yourself as master of many things, means being master of none.
  • Understand how to begin to define your signature services
  • Hear examples of what a strategic approach and bid/no-bid process means more focus & wins

Links:

Website: www.onceuponanrfp.com
Blog: https://onceuponanrfp.com/blog/
LinkedIn Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/caryn-kent-dean-cp-apmp-bid-and-proposal-tamer-67b276/
Links to free tools, useful tips, or offers for our listeners
We'd like to offer the listeners of The Proposal.Works™ Podcast a no-cost, no-pressure strategy session. https://calendly.com/onceuponanrfp/strategy-session-proposalworkspodcastlisteners

About our guest

Caryn Kent Dean, MLIS, CP APMP, Managing Partner, founded Once Upon an RFP in 2018, after 20+ years in the industry. She has consistently created order from chaos, working with businesses to stabilize and grow their revenues. She actively participates in APMP as a Greater Midwest Chapter board member and mentor.

Heard in this episode...

"You're not saying, well, I can do anything, because honestly, that sounds like you can do nothing or you don't know what you can do. When you put your flag in the ground and say this is what I do and how I serve you, clients really respect it." - Caryn Kent Dean MLIS CP APMP

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FULL TRANSCRIPT:


Pete
Greetings everyone. And a very warm welcome to another edition of The Proposal Works Podcast, where we talk with proposal experts who share real stories of how they win. I'm your host, Pete Nichols. I'm coming to you from Copenhagen in Denmark, and I'm joined today by Caryn Kent Dean. Caryn, a very good day to you. Where are you joining us from today?

Caryn
Thank you so much for having me today, Pete. I'm joining you from the Chicago area in the United States.

Pete
So Chicago area. I understand you have a bit of property. You're not like downtown Chicago are you?

Caryn
We are outside of the Chicago area in the suburbs. We also have some property in Northwest Illinois.
That's rural and lots of space to run and get away..

Pete
Right, you're not there now. You're in work mode.

Caryn
I'm in work mode so I'm closer to Chicago today.

Pete
Great. And the weekend is beckoning. We're recording this on a Friday. Welcome for our listeners. If you haven't yet heard of Caryn Kent Dean, Caryn holds a master's degree of library and information science though, the M L I S after Caryn's name, which I understand is required for professional librarians in the USA today.

Caryn
That's correct.

Pete
Caryn is also Practitioner Certified by the APMP so the CP APMP after your name as well. And actively participates. I understand you are a board member and mentor for the APMP greater Midwest chapter.
Caryn is also the managing partner of, and I love this name of Once Upon An RFP, which I'm going to ask you about in a second.  So Caryn, you founded that in 2018, so three years into that journey. After more than 20 years in this industry, I know as well that your superpower is that you consistently create order from chaos, working with businesses to stabilize them and to help grow their revenues.
So that's going to be our topic today, which we'll get into shortly. Firstly, how did you come up with the name Once Upon An RFP?

Caryn
I think it was a divine download. I was trying to think of a business name and I really didn't want to use the word proposal because that has so many different meanings. And so RFPs are very specific.
We do specialize in RFP based proposals, as well as proactive approach proposals. But because our clients frequently work with government, it's really a way to help filter out who are the people who need us. And it's really fun when I'm networking because either people look at me like what is an RFP. Or they say, oh my gosh, I need you or I wish I'd known you five years ago when I was doing X, Y, and Z.

Pete
Great, so your RFP, you wanted RFP in the name cause you have proposals and sometimes I'll Google proposal and it's like, well, wedding proposals, we don't do those, but the ones upon an RFP, I find that just really memorable stands out and it makes you very easy to find online.
So let's move into our topic. Our topic for today is strategy versus spaghetti and why strategy always wins. So let's start. My first question is Caryn, who is your ideal client? What do they truly want?

Caryn
My ideal clients are small businesses that work with other businesses and government frequently, small businesses from solopreneurs up through about 11 million US in revenue and from, you know, a single person operation through maybe about 50 people have the same struggles. They want to serve. They're not always clear about how they serve and they're wearing too many hats in their own businesses to really focus on that business development and proposal life cycle. And because of that, they have inconsistent revenues and they'll go through cycles of, I want a proposal. So now I'm doing the work and then, oh, dear this contract is about to end. I need to bring in more revenue. So let's find as many RFPs as possible within our niche and get those out there so we can work on our next project.

Pete
Right. So a sudden flurry. So they're wearing all these hats and trying to deliver, I guess sometimes maybe over-delivering just if they really want to add value and then suddenly panic, we need to win some new business. So I think you've touched on my second question then let's explore that a little more, which is. What are the problems that they normally face? What does that look like? What is that at the coalface when you see that happen?

Caryn
I think the two biggest problems that I see at my clients face are they're trying to do everything for everyone, and they're trying to wear all the hats. And when you're trying to develop a stable business or a growing business, those two things are very distracting and preventing you from doing anything well.

Pete
So those, those hats, uh, can we expand on that a little more than what, what are the main hats that you see them swapping between?

Caryn
So I see a lot of small businesses who have their executives or client delivery teams actively working on proposals and not just responding to them, but finding the opportunities, pulling together the strategy on how to respond, pulling together the solutions, pulling together the pricing and writing the proposals themselves. And that's not their area of expertise. So they do their day job. And then at night, they're figuring out, okay, I need to win new business. How am I going to do this? And that's when they put on their proposal writer or proposal manager's hat and tried to do that jump too.

Pete
Right. So kind of a Jack of all trades master of none a little bit, because you ended up really spread. Yeah.

Caryn
That's a great way to say it.

Pete
Well, so let's, let's go to question three then to explore that a little deeper because, uh, I, I guess if they, if they try some things that have you seen some, some mistakes made where they've tried things that just really haven't worked out?

Caryn
Yes. So a lot of my clients are in it professional services or consulting. With professional services there tends to be a very clear niche. And in terms of the work they do, whether it's legal or accounting and exactly how they're served their clients within those, that niche, the organizations in which I see this being a problem more, is those it, and also consulting folks because they can do a lot of things.

But what do they specialize in? And it's really hard to have a conversation with a client about how great you are at what you do if you can't actually say, this is how we serve our clients, this is why it's great. And this is how you'll benefit. So by helping our clients focus in on the things that they do best, and that also light them up, helps them actually serve clients more effectively.

That leads to happier clients, more strategic proposals that win business and buy more strategic proposals I actually mean fewer proposals for things that you don't do, and that aren't in your area of expertise and more because you've gained a reputation and the know like trust factor in the area in which you are experts.

Pete
It sounds like there are areas where they will add a lot more value. And then there are areas where they just do a lot of delivery. It takes a lot of time. The client may not see much value at all from those things.

Caryn
or the projects don't go as well, because they don't have the right people in the right roles. And when they have their own team members wear too many hats, that's where you have project risk and delivery risk and that can lead to revenue and reputation risk.

Pete
Yeah. Yeah. So I think now we need to get into some of the real-world stories and I, and I know commercially there's only so much you can share Caryn, can you consider a real-life example of what happened and how you helped?

Caryn
Absolutely. I have two different kinds of examples. I'd actually like to share. One is the solopreneur who left corporate to do consulting within her area of expertise, which is corporate training. For several years she primarily worked with her prior employer, delivering the training as they asked and delivering the training that they asked for with COVID because all of their training had been in person that opportunity dried up. When we started talking, I asked her what her signature services were and the answer was, well, I can do anything in corporate training. And so we worked with her to develop her signature services proposal so that she created, had a document from which to talk with her prospects about what she's really brilliant at so they can start the conversation. Yes. I work in corporate training. I couldn't do anything you asked me to do. However, these are the things that I specialize in. Let's talk about your company, the challenges that you're facing and how I can help you resolve those, and what I can deliver.

And if there are some customized training needs in there too, we can talk about what those are, but I kind of equate it to walking into a restaurant, asking for a menu and they don't give you anything and say, well, we can make you anything. It's confusing. You don't know what to ask for. And you might not walk out happy with whatever you did order because it just wasn't what you wanted or what they were good at.
So it's really serving your clients. Well, when you, you know, put your flag in the ground and say, this is what I do. This is how I serve you. And I think also clients really respect it. When you say this isn't exactly in my wheelhouse, but I know someone who's really great at this. Let me connect you with them so that they can help you with this piece and then when you're ready or you need these other services, I'd love to work with you.

Pete
Yeah. Like I, I can relate to this. Um, Wanting to be particularly as a solo solopreneur where maybe a level of nervousness there that look, I'm completely reliant on my own resources here and I don't want to say no to anything in particular, so whatever you've got, I know I can do it, but that clarity of signature service. So when you describe signature service, Caryn, are you talking like the equivalent of the restaurant saying these are our chef specials, right? And so for her in, in the strategy versus spaghetti, what was her spaghetti?

Caryn
Her spaghetti was I can do anything corporate training versus she's really passionate about developing women as leaders and helping them find their voice, and we were able to write her signature services proposal in a way that highlights and shows her beautiful energy around that service. Knowing that her clients have other needs as well. She also has several coaching and other training programs available to her that she's experienced with training. So we narrowed down what she can do to those three areas. And she's actually quite brilliant. She offers an initial consultation and assessment at no cost so that she can help her clients hone in on what they need. But with the signature services proposal, she gets to have a conversation starter.

Pete
Fantastic. Well, I love the topic of women in leadership. It's certainly very topical now helping to restore and right, right that balance, I say restore, it never really was balanced in the first place. Was that so women in leadership, what effect have you seen that make, on, on her having clarity around her signature services, what differences that made for her now?

Caryn
It provides confidence in terms of how you talk about what you offer with your clients. You're not saying, well, I can do anything because honestly, that sounds like you can do nothing or you don't know what you can do. So when you're able to say, you know, this is how we do things, these are the services we're brilliant at and then we offer and here are the benefits and tie them into the client's specific problems they're able to really bring in more business and be a lot more strategic about who they're talking to. Yeah.

Pete
Fantastic. So, um, that sounds like she has a strategy now she can strategically position her strengths. So yeah, we can do these other things, but really? Yeah. This is what we're best at. And I guess then the case studies flow from that you've got customer testimonials. Great. Well, that's a great example. So that's a solopreneur, which went from, I guess, a COVID sudden panic, which probably made things better than they would have been if she didn't have the panic. Cause she could have run on as she was for a long time.

Caryn
She could have because the business was coming to her, but now she gets to do what she loves instead of what she's being asked to do. Yeah. I think that serves everybody in the long run.

Pete
Yeah, that's fantastic. Now you said you had a second example as well Caryn.

Caryn
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of whom we serve. I worked with an IT company that very successful for about 20 years. Their revenues are multiple seven figures. However, they have experienced that cycle of bid on a lot of things to win the work, bid on a lot of things in the work, and there were times at which they would be bidding on work that wasn't even in their market. So they had nobody in that area that knew them. Somebody just found the RFP on the internet and they were going to invest in responding to it, even though they had a very slim chance of winning because they didn't hold any diverse certifications in that state and they didn't know anybody, they had no reputation there. So there were other scenarios in which they'd bring up RFPs for software systems that they could develop but there were vendors that had systems that were specifically designed to serve that purpose and they were going to be up against those vendors.


And so by helping to engage them in the process of strategically deciding why they should really bid for something versus the spaghetti approach of, well, I'm just going to throw a bunch of things out there and get a lot of proposals out there and see what sticks. They were much more effective at solving that problem of stop-and-go revenue.

Pete
What was the, oh my gosh moment there where they realized we're not doing things terribly clever here, we're running after things that are hard to win? We're running after things competing against products that have already been built. What happens to change that for them?

Caryn
So, what was the impact of making that change?

Pete
Well, it sounds like they'd been doing this for a while, bidding on things. So what happened at like 12 o'clock on a Tuesday that, that caused them to say, we can't keep going like this. Was there a compelling event?

Caryn
Well, I think it was a series of my asking them questions. When you work, I've worked in big companies that respond to proposals too, and a really solid bid, the no-bid process is so critical to make certain that you're not spinning your wheels and burning out your resources. And by burning out resources, I refer to both your investments in each of those proposals, because there's a cost. There's also a cost and health and a cost in burnout. So, you know, there are a lot of things that don't go well when you're literally just in reactionary mode. And I have to find out an RFP response to here are a bunch of things and moving forward. So as you can be strategic about whoa, what opportunities you're going for. And there's a lot of public information about what opportunities will be coming for bid soon, or what systems haven't been updated in X number of years, because the last time that had a contract for that was 10 years ago.
So how can you use that information to engage who your end-user would be? Who the decision-makers are and get your foot in the door before that RFP even drops?

Pete
Yeah. And influence it ahead of time. It sounds like too many folks are responding to things where they had no influence. What would you say the difference with that bid no-bid process in place there? What impact did that have on them? In terms of how many bids they were running out before versus how many they would run out now. And the, and the win rates is any change there?

Caryn
They were responding to fewer RFPs. And winning more of them. So they actually had an increase in revenue and they weren't necessarily putting less time into proposals, but they had professional support with their proposals. And there were only going after strategic opportunities.

Pete
Do you have a sense for maybe a, that they were responding to like 50% less than I used to before? Is it, is it very significant? The change?

Caryn
I want to say it was like they were responding to about 40%.

Pete
40% of what they responded to before.

Caryn
Yeah. So about a 60% decrease. But they were so much more strategic and they were investing the time where it needed to be invested, which was crafting really compelling client-focused proposals that don't focus on the company, making, writing the proposal, but focuses on the client, their problem, how you can solve their problem and why you're the best choice.

Pete
So actually winning more business from 40% of the proposals than what they responded to before the change. And in the team in terms of the stress and so forth, did you see any, any change there? The folks who were having to do all those responses?

Caryn
I think so because a lot of their subject matter spritz, we're also doing client delivery and their principles were managing client relationships. The fact that their proposal was moving forward with our support throughout, from the moment that RFP dropped and we vetted it and put into place a strategy for delivering that proposal, that's compliance and on time. They didn't have to worry about it. They knew where we needed their support because it's their area of unique brilliance and it's their business and they need to be involved there, but otherwise, they weren't answering the forms. They weren't answering the basic questions about their business and what their employer identification number is. We took care of that and we also would take care of working with finance. If financial statements were needed or getting a, an, a certificate of insurance if one with that client's name had to be included with the bid.
So we took care of a lot of the busywork, but also the strategic setup for the opportunity so that we're getting the information we need from them. And they're engaged where they need to be engaged, but the majority of the burden isn't on their shoulders, we're working with them and we're taking most of that on ourselves because that's what we do and that's what we love.

Pete
So for a company of that size. Then seven figures, it services. How long did that change take from them? Maybe the fear initially of what do you mean we're not going to bid on everything anymore Caryn, are you crazy?

Caryn
Right

Pete
versus, yes. This is the way, how long did that take?

Caryn
Honestly, it's about a two-year process because we're addressing a lot more than just their bid, no bid decision. What we're doing is creating their unique proposal ecosystem so that they're bidding on the right things. They're talking to the clients before the bidding opportunity comes up so that they're already known. And perhaps providing value before that RFP even drops. And then I think a big part of the process is helping them understand they don't need to do it all themselves and engaging and helping them develop an understanding that investing in a solid bid, no bid proposal process and the team is an investment in their growth and stability, not an overhead cost.

Pete
Can you share then over that two year journey, do you know what, what, what impact it has had on the, on the company overall.

Caryn
overall, they won about 20 million worth of business with my support. They were multiple year contracts because of the long duration of the public sector, procurement systems. And the fact that COVID did hit some of those are still either waiting for decision or postponed, but just that 20 million of multiple year contracts and just being able to take have a sigh of relief that, okay, we know this money is coming in and now we can be more strategic about everything else. Really had a positive impact. Whenever we were involved in proposals because they did throw. Some spaghetti at the wall still and there were still occasions where somebody found an RFP and they wanted to respond to it. Even with that happening, they were much more successful when we were involved.

Pete
Well, I guess that leads me into my next question. You've given us two really good examples. I love the contrast between the two there's a solo preneur, or then you're those people wouldn't be in the corporate roles, or maybe COVID has taken them out of corporate roles, establishing themselves and having needing the confidence as a solopreneur to have their signature services.
And then you've applied what sounds like this signature services approach to a much larger firm. They couldn't change overnight as your, a women in leadership roles coaching. What is it about these situations that is most fulfilling for you? Caryn? Why, why do you do what you do?

Caryn
Do what we do because we love having a positive impact and creating opportunities for our clients and also their clients. When our clients become more successful because they're being strategic. Whether it's by not saying they can do anything in a certain area of work or by only responding to the opportunities that are truly a great fit for them. And ideally, they have a relationship with the clients already. Then that strategy leads to growth for their organization I think more peace of mind in the fact that their organization is going to be more stable and then they're delivering better for their clients and their clients get somebody who's truly expert at the work that they're sitting on.

Pete
Can I ask then, what is it about that that floats your boat?

Caryn
I like solving problems and I guess I've always been somebody who liked making order out of chaos. And so not everybody is wired as I am and a lot of the proposal professionals who I've become friends with and who also worked through my organization were just really genius's going, we're really good at making things work and figuring things out. And we have a, a formula that we apply and this work lights us up.
You know, I kind of equate it to, we take tests every day or we write giant university projects every day, because there's a rubric, there's some research you have to do, but in the end you're not going to win the business if it's not both compliant and on time, but also compelling. So if we can get all of those things that in there, and really help our clients shine so that they can really serve their clients and do the work they do in the world, then I don't know. It's full circle, happiness.

Pete
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I can see. And just from the times that we've spoken to date Caryn, that you're making a better for other folks and the workloads that these proposal teams face as well. There's a human side to it. You've been at this for some 20 years. So can I ask you during that time, what challenges have you personally faced that you think has helped you here that you've had to overcome?

Caryn
I think the biggest challenge for me has been I'm what we in the us call the sandwich generation. I have kids who are still at home and need me and elderly parents who are as time goes on needing additional support. And for me establishing my own consulting business has been really freeing in terms of being able to support my family and do the work I love. Because one thing I get to do as a consulting company is make certain that we are always mitigate the risk of something happening to somebody. So that. We can make certain that person is cared for and the work still gets done. I think sometimes in corporate, we just pile on more because the work's there and there aren't necessarily more people and it doesn't cost my clients anymore to have additional hands on deck, but it allows somebody to pick up a ball when it gets dropped and for no out of no one's fault, just because things happen.

Pete
So that challenge, uh, imagine because everyone you see in these corporate roles generally that are doing the proposal responses is working really hard to get the proposals in and the number that they're juggling at any one time. So hopefully over time that will be addressed and, uh, the fact that you reduced like that, that figure 60% less for IT services, a whole lot of work that doesn't need to be done. So you get to do the enjoyable part. Well, so that's been real enlightenment for me today. That what strategy versus spaghetti looks like because you do untangle that in clients. Yes. Do you have some valuable tips or resources that listeners could take away and use to help them today?

Caryn
One of the resources that we have on our website is called 50 states of opportunity. And one of the biggest challenges when you are developing your business development process around the public sector, business, especially state and local is they all have different systems. And so there are 50 states in the United States and every one of them has its own procurement system. So this is a one-pager where with links to all of the current procurement websites. So if you want to check out and see what's required for getting business from that state, the link is right there. No need to get lost on Google.

Pete
Right. Fantastic. So, I mean, you're easy to find you just Google Once Upon An RFP and to look for the 50 states of opportunity on there. So that's been fantastic, Karen. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you today. What, what's the best way for people to connect with you?

Caryn
I'm on LinkedIn. I love that platform and connecting with other professionals as well as connecting other professionals with one another so that they have more opportunities. I am also on the web. So we've got our website www.onceuponanrfp.com and you can reach us.

Pete
Fantastic. Thank you so much, Caryn Ken's Dean. Thank you so much for your time.

Caryn
Thank you for having me. It's been a fun conversation. Cheers. Bye-bye bye.

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