Tell a good story to win from behind

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Pete Nicholls
Rachelle Ray Proposal Works podcast

Episode Summary

Rachelle Ray shares real examples of how engaging proposal stories give her A/E/C clients the edge to win valuable business, even when they are starting from the back of the pack.

 

EPISODE NOTES

  • Discover how to: "Tell a good story to win from behind"

    • How clients who were initially sceptical of storytelling in proposals, have become long term clients who trust Rachelle’s approach
    • Rachelle explains how she weaves in her stories to an appropriate level, for a compliant responsive bid.
    • Examples where even Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee help her client regain a foothold in an account where other valid approaches had failed.
    • Scaling how much of a story to include, yet always establishing conflict

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


About our guest


Rachelle Ray has spent more than ten years working on proposals for Architecture/Engineering & Construction (AEC). She founded RMR Consulting after recognizing a need for flexible proposal management to address the ‘ebb and flow’ of marketing needs across the industry. Rachelle develops engaging proposal stories that position her clients as the 'heroes' or champions of the projects they're proposing on.

 

FULL TRANSCRIPT: 

https://proposal.works/episodes/tell-a-good-story-to-win-from-behind-with-rachelle-ray

Pete

Greetings everyone a very warm welcome to another edition of The Proposal.Works Podcast. We're talking here with proposal experts who share real stories of how they win. I'm your host, Pete Nichols. I'm coming to you once again from today, a very sunny Copenhagen in Denmark. It's beautiful. I'm joined today by Rachelle Ray. 

Rachelle, a very good day to you. Where are you coming to us from today?

Rachelle

Great day to you as well. I am joining from Albuquerque, New Mexico in the United States where it is also beautifully sunny and a little bit cooler than usual. Just nice.

Pete

Great to hear now. You're not always based there, are you? I understand you move around a little bit

Rachelle

I do, as a consultant, I've got a lot of flexibility, so I've bounced back and forth usually somewhere in Texas, Dallas, Austin, and various places around New Mexico. Yeah, I don't like to stay still.

Pete

Very portable. Welcome to the show for our listeners if you haven't yet heard of Rachelle, Ray, Rachelle has spent more than 10 years working on proposals in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry.

She founded RMR consulting after recognizing a need for flexible proposal management to address the ebb and flow of marketing needs across that industry and Rachelle. I love the fact that you take a different approach here from what I've heard, you develop, engaging proposal stories, that position your clients as the heroes or the champions of the projects that they're proposing, which is a clue to the title of today's show, which is to tell a good story to win from behind.

I'm looking forward to the discussion. Let's start with the first question, which is, Rachelle, who is your ideal client, and what do they truly want?

Rachelle

Sure. So, as you mentioned in my bio, I work mostly with architects, engineers, and contractors, mostly with small to medium-sized businesses in the US, and mostly on public bids and proposals like those for state and local governments or municipalities, school districts, public education, public healthcare.

So one day I might be working on a proposal for a highway widening and the next I'm working on a school renovation, I kind of get the three 60 views of the AEC industry and it's really fun. Of course, all of my clients share a desire to win, which is great. But my favorite clients are those that are willing to explore new proposal frontiers with me and by that, I mean, They like to experiment with messaging and design and interactivity, and they're open to that proposal storytelling approach that I like to take. And most often I find that those firms are the ones that end up pulling ahead in proposal rankings because they're doing something new and doing something that stands out

Pete

interesting. Okay. So it gives them a bit of an edge really of taking this different approach and that they're open to it. So you strike me as someone who wins a lot of trust in. With your clients that they're happy to go on that journey with you and they get the payback.

Rachelle

Yes. I take a lot of pride in keeping my client base small and making sure that I fit into their team as if I was almost as if I was in the house. I have a lot of clients who will just reach out to me as if I was, well, you added a signature to this document, or, Hey, what do you think of this? And just having that rapport with them also helps a lot in the proposal space because we trust each other so much.

Pete

Yeah, I bet. Part of the extended team, really. So things don't always go smoothly. There are problems with your customers. What are the problems that they normally face? What does that look like?

Rachelle

Yeah. Yes. If only it could go smoothly every time. Many of my clients are smaller businesses, they don't generally have either large marketing departments or even significant marketing budgets. Some of them don't have budgets at all. Many only have one, maybe two dedicated proposal people if they have anybody at all. So the most common issues that I see with my clients are lack of strategy in their proposal development or loose or just non-existent proposal processes. And both of these problems create challenging proposal environments at best.

And at worst, they just tank their win rates. So sometimes I'll start working with a client and I'll ask them. What are our win themes for this proposal, or what are our core strategies? And I find out that they either have no idea what I'm talking about or they do, but they just, that's not how they write their proposals.

They don't have a strategy in mind. So when I start working with them to implement those core strategies, I take this storytelling approach, which I will hopefully get into later. We'll definitely get into it later. And it does so much to rally the team because it gives them an identifiable strategy and theme to rally around and a clear path to winning, which is super motivating. And it just transforms the whole proposal process,

Pete

Cool, the mistakes. It sounds like, I guess they just don't know what they don't know to some degree, to begin with. Like how do you do a proposal strategy? And so that then leads to maybe making some mistakes. So my next question really. What mistakes do you see them make or things that they have tried that really just don't work out?

Rachelle

There is one very consistent mistake that I see across almost all of my clients and it makes my skin crawl. It drives me crazy. So if you're listening, please don't do this. But a lot of times they'll come to me and say, Hey, Rachelle, we have this go by. It was successful. We won this contract. So we can probably just repackage this proposal for this other client and it'll be fine.

Like they won't take a lot of time, a few hours tops. And I guess the logic is that winning a proposal for one client will be a winning proposal for another. And maybe sometimes you get lucky if that works out, but most often it's just a recipe for disaster because a client will see you right through that.

And it'll lead to huge mistakes too. I've seen proposals submitted with the wrong client name or that identify issues like. We will have the steel structure in place within two months, this project doesn't have the steel structure. So that's a small problem and that's just not only a losing proposal, it's just, it's damaging to the relationship with that client, but everybody does it.

And I don't know why.

Pete

Wow. It was just like the shiny things syndrome that like this, this shiny proposal we won and it was fantastic. Let's just spin it up and throw it into this bid as well.

Rachelle

I guess I have not figured it out. Sometimes it's a capacity thing. They go, we've got seven proposals going. So we'll just cut corners on this one because it's good enough. But at that point, you might need to work on your strategy, be more strategic about what you're going after, but,

Pete

yup. Okay. So we've got a key mistake there that really just doesn't pick up a previous proposal. It might've won in other circumstances, but it's fraught with danger too. Plug that in and expect that a client's going to think that you have written that new proposal all for them.

Rachelle

Yes, they'll see right through it just don't even try.

Pete

Well, let's get into some real-life examples of ways that you have helped, Rachelle. What are some examples of what you've done?

Rachelle

Sure. I actually have two examples of a micro and a macro example, but to give a little bit of context first.

I want to talk about the proposal storytelling approach because it's maybe familiar, but maybe completely, like, what are you talking about, Rachelle, which I come across a lot. So what happened for me to stumble on this is that early in my career, I kind of did what I think a lot of people do and that's responding to RFP questions in isolation.

Like you have a question, you answer it. This is you're asking me about the budget. Here's my budget narrative. You're asking me about my schedule. Here's my schedule narrative. And I started thinking like, this is kind of tedious and kind of boring for me to write. It has to be the same for whoever's reviewing it.

And so I'm kind of a creative writer hobbyist, and I thought, well, how can I mesh these things together? And instead of looking at an RFP as a series of questions to be answered in isolation, like I was before, I started looking at proposals a little more holistically as stories that have plots and themes, and characters.

And so through that storytelling lens, it became a lot easier to transform these kinds of boring documents into these engaging things that the client could connect with. So for specific examples, I once worked with this engineer who was really highly regarded, he worked on these major major projects, and it would have been really easy to write about him as like you know, this guy is great at delivering projects on schedule and on budget. And he's done X, million square feet of this specific project type. But we were kind of like, well, you know, our competitors could also say that they deliver projects on time and on budget and they probably are because those are important things.

So we got to talking. And I just, I happened to be working with him on, um, like a 40, under 40 awards and we were talking about his background and I found out that he had spent like a year working in construction before he moved to engineering, and he did that to understand how the documents that are produced in an office by the engineer are read by the field crew, the contractors. And I was like, why didn't you tell me this? This is your story. And so we adjusted his resume to talk about that and tell the story of this guy who spent his time working in construction so that he knows exactly what the contractor is looking for and he has cleaner documents because of it, which ultimately means fewer schedule hiccups and fewer change orders, which means we stay in budget because the documents are cleaner. We don't have to have requests for information or back and forth between the engineer and the contractor. He just knows. And like your competitor's not going to say that that's a really unconventional way to go about things. Um, so we told his mini-story within the proposal story and it was just, it changed everything. It was fantastic. And it was, it made him so much more memorable.

Pete

So for him quite a differentiator position, then, having come from construction before going into engineering, I'm curious then of how you weave that in. Is this something that goes into the cover letter? Does it come into the early part of the proposal, like the executive summary or does it just show up through all of the questions? How do you weave that story through what normally? Probably a pretty boring question-by-question response.

Rachelle

It kind of depends on the proposal and what are other strategies for this particular resume, when we were working on it, we really worked hard on his specific resume. And then some of the proposals we worked on needed that schedule and budget control upfront in the cover letter so we did talk about your project manager is he's better than anyone else because he has experienced that no one else has because of his construction or his time on the, on the construction side of things. Um, and others, we kind of just kept it a little bit tucked away like you get to his resume and be like, Oh, Hey, wow, that's cool. And then we'd weave it into the schedule and budget narratives and say, you know, we understand what clean documents are supposed to look like. And we don't just say clean documents because we are really proud of our quality control process or whatever, you know, you normally talk about. We know what a clean document is because we know what a field document looks like because our project manager has been on that side of things.

So it kind of just depended on how hard we needed to hit that. But we definitely started with his resume and then kind of radiated out wherever it needed to be.

Pete

Fantastic. So you've given him a character. Do you go to the extent where that character has a name or like you just stick with his real name is, you know, he doesn't get a Disney character name?

It's not a story.

Rachelle

No Disney character name? No, I mean, I guess it would depend on the client. Maybe if we were working with some, a little more fun, but he was kind of doing some technical things that might not have gone over as well.

Pete

So you've given this character a story. He's the story of the contractor who became the engineer and therefore can deliver a unique differentiated value proposition compared to someone who doesn't have that experience. So that's a great real example where there was a story around that person. What would another example be Rachelle of where you've used stories that have helped?

Rachelle

Sure. That was kind of a micro example. I've got a good more macro example, I guess, would be the term. And that's when I worked with this company that was struggling to secure work with a local client. They'd worked with them before, but it had been almost 10 years, I think since they had put in a successful proposal. And so they brought me in and they said, we don't know what's going wrong. We debriefed. And we found out that there were some issues with our past projects and we thought we were addressing those in our proposals, but the client keeps telling us that we just don't understand them. We don't get them. And we don't know what to do with our proposal. And so I kind of, I went through their previous proposals and looked at them and they weren't necessarily doing anything wrong. The client had a goal and they were saying, Oh, we do all these things to meet that goal. Like we understand that sustainability is really important to you, look at the 15 sustainability projects we have and it wasn't working. And so we strategized their story and kind of flipped it a little bit. So instead of putting them as the hero, we made the client the hero and kind of made the firm the supporting character. So instead of having them, you know, identify a potential challenge and show how they'd solve it better than anyone else, we talked about how the firm could support the goals of the client in a different way. Like the sustainability thing specifically, this client has worked on sustainable projects from the very beginning. They've been doing it for 25 years. They did some of the first lead projects in their area. They're hugely committed to green building and the client has these big goals for cutting energy consumption and water consumption by like 50% in the next 10 years. It's a really lofty goal. And so we wrote about the client's sustainability initiatives. Like we put their mission on there in our proposal. We talked about the projects that they'd already done, which seems odd to say, Hey, you know, you know what you've done, we're just going to talk about it. But we kind of wove in almost casually, just, Hey, you did this project and you use water-conserving fixtures, by the way. We've done something similar on this project and we took it this step further. Maybe we can talk about that for your next project. And then we moved on. It was very subtle, you did this. We can do this. We can also do this and then move on. So to be a little bit nerdy. We made the client Frodo and we were Samwise and, you know, everybody knows that Frodo's the hero of the story, but there's no way he would've made it to Mordor without Sam. So it worked. That was the first successful proposal they'd had with this client in 10 years when they got a contract with them and were able to start rebuilding that client relationship. And it was just flipping the story on its head and taking that approach specifically of how do we tell this story?

Pete

That's a fantastic story. I mean, I was joking before about the Disney character name. And yet you do with the stories in, so there's a Lord of the rings theme. So Frodo was the customer in this situation, probably a little more sustainable than most of the characters around Mount doom. And it, I guess it resonated that. Well, it sounds like it stood out to them because he had been trying for so long to get back into that account and nothing was working and, fundamentally, you change the game with a story. And I think you've mentioned to me, Rachelle, when we were talking the other day about him coming from behind because certainly, he wouldn't have been the only bidder on those projects. So did you get, some feedback then around that who they normally would have been using and he was able to come back in and re-establish himself?

Rachelle

Yeah. So this was a little bit weird. It's a very weird contract. It was actually for something like 12 different distinct projects and then like three on-call contracts and then were all rolled into one proposal, which made it really difficult to propose on one specific project, because you're like, well, I want to do them all.

I don't care which one you give me, just give me one of them. And this particular client, they attract everybody in, in the area. So. 2023 firms will go after a project with this client. I mean, they had 10 projects in the three on-calls. So about 13 of them. So about half, we'll get a contract. We scooped up one of the little on-calls, which was great because it was a good foot in the door to reestablish with the client.

Because sometimes you look at these on-calls and they're just not glamorous. You know, you want the big ground-up school, the 60,000 square foot portfolio Moneyshot project. And we were like, Nope, we're the supporting character. We will do whatever you need us to do. And that's worked out really, really well for them because it's positioned them now as the reliable options.

So when the next round of contracts come out, they're in a much better position to beat out those other 12 firms and be at the top for the money-shot projects. Because they've worked so hard in the last, you know, five or six years on these little supporting projects that they can now move into that leadership role, which is great.

And that's the feedback that we got after we debriefed the win was that you got the perfect contract for you. This is exactly what you need to do. And in the next to go flip it around.

Pete

So your client being Samwise Gangi in this scenario is a supporting character. What do you see will happen in the next bids then Rachelle? Do you, do you keep that theme going? Do you keep any hints around Samwise and Frodo in there? Or what do you think you'll do next?

Rachelle

I think that because they will have built that reputation now with the client, they will repair that relationship and they've changed their position. They're no longer coming from behind. They no longer have to bridge this gap of, we don't understand you. We don't get you. They now have this beautiful portfolio of admittedly small projects. I think they still need to stay in the supporting character role, but I think maybe they can move up to a larger role, and in this case, I don't know whom I would move up to a past Sam, but they would need to position. We want to move them out of the on-calls and into one of the larger projects, the more significant ones. So they would need to talk about their capacity and ability to do that, and change that story a little bit and take more of a lead on, not just we understand, but we understand and have worked specifically with you. So you know that we know what you need.

Pete

Yeah. So in the examples you've given, it sounds like you're using this story to change it up either. You've got the individual that needs more of a story based around themselves. Like the first example, you gave us. And then in the second one, it was more about the circumstances you need to change something because everything that this client was trying to get back into this local customer, just wasn't working.

What's that show where that, if you don't like the way the table is set, turn over the table. So change it up, put a story in there. What would be a clue to you that you need a story? If you have some other examples of bids that you've worked on, where do you think? But is this a good fit for a story or maybe a better question? Rachelle is actually when, when would you be inclined to want to tell the story, but you'd hold back and you kind of keep the boring line?

Rachelle

I tried to use the story method as much as possible, and it just, we do scale how excessive the story becomes. But I do have a lot of clients that go after some government contracts where they kind of want the cut and dry.

But I still take elements of that storytelling. Like there's always going to be a conflict, right. There's always going to be a challenge that the client has. And so you might not be telling the same kind of stories that we were talking about in previous examples, but you can identify those, those challenges and then talk about solving them, which is a story. And just the way you deliver that would change in this case. So like, I have a client that works with a government agency and they work with them a lot, but they, before we started working together, didn't feel like their proposals were very engaging, they were kind of these walls of text and boring like documents. And sometimes they won, sometimes they didn't, and there's not really a whole lot you can do to change the boring wall of texts because of the specifics of the RFP parameters. So we focused on that conflict challenge, storytelling, and, you know, right in the front cover letter, when we got rid of their form letters and, you know, Chuck, the, our firm is pleased to submit and we have X number of years of experience with similar project types. And we started with your organization, and need somebody to solve this problem. So in this case, it was your organization needs somebody who can navigate three really complex, unique stakeholder groups to make this project successful. We know how to do that because we've done it with you before. And that was our first line.

We understand this is your problem. We are the only ones who can solve it because we're the only ones who've done it before. And so we get to keep that kind of form ugly proposals style, but we change how we're delivering the messaging and it might not be the same kind of storytelling about the engineer who is a contractor. It's a little bit more formal, but the idea of the story and the conflict and the hero, the client is the hero is still there.

Pete

I can hear the conflict there, in suggesting you have a challenge that you're facing. And you need us. You need me as the winning bidder to face that challenge with you. And that sounds like a very bold, more confident way instead of the classic, we're very pleased to submit our proposal. Please have a look and bestow some business on us. So let's go from that then into the next questions and great examples there. Rachelle, thank you for sharing those, talking about the conflict and the challenge. Let's look at your background, Rachelle, for a moment then of some challenges that you've personally faced and how you overcome that and tell the story where you're the hero for a change. What's the challenge you faced and what did you learn?

Rachelle

Oh my gosh. There are just so many and you flipped it on me and I'm just not prepared for this.

I guess one really big challenge I faced when I set out as a consultant was, you know, kind of the working remotely and pitching this story idea that really nobody knew about or nobody talked about, which is insane cause people do talk about it, come across several other consultants who have their own storytelling or their own way of implementing storytelling and proposals. But everybody I came across, all the clients I was starting to work with were like, what are you talking about? And then not being physically present caused some issues with the trust. And this, this is pre-COVID. So then COVID happened. And that was not a problem anymore, which is a great silver lining, I guess.

But the storytelling thing was really difficult to sell for a while. And it was really, it was kind of a good thing because it helped me to identify the clients that I was going to work really well with. And those were the ones who were willing to take the chance and toss their form letter or change their proposal designed to, you know, put our messaging front and center and, and really just changed the way they did things completely. Some of them would be like, well, we've done wind theme training. We know the IFB P the issues features, benefits, proof method. And we do that every time and it just doesn't work. So we just stopped and I would have to ask them like, to do it again with me and the ones that took the chance are now just clients for life. I guess almost all of my clients have been with me from the beginning and those are the ones that took the risk on me. And my proposal story pitch, and it's just, it's worked out. It was a huge payoff on both ends for me to kind of break convention and really sell this. And for them to trust me to completely come in and tear up their proposals and turn them on their heads. So challenge, solution, I guess.

Pete

Well, I, I'd say hats off to you for having the faith in your commitment to what you wanted to achieve, and you needed to find the folks who would build enough trust with you to go with you on that journey. You've changed the game for them. And to me, that sounds like really, that's your story? You're the hero of that story? Because you face the challenge. How am I going to help these clients when in situations where they're just not winning today and they need to put some faith in me and I'll show them now you've proven that. So at least for any new client that came along, that was saying, Hey, Rachelle, does this work? Sure. You've got plenty of examples there where you've, you've changed it up with your storytelling. And got them into the bids. So you strike me as someone who is very passionate about helping people win and be flexible in the way that you do that. So what is it about what you do, Rachelle, that you find most fulfilling?

Rachelle

I think you actually just nailed it with the flexibility. One of my favorite parts of consulting is getting to work with just all of these different personalities and trying to figure out what the best way to work with that personality is. And that was, you know, extra difficult or made extra difficult by this pitching of the, my approach and the unconventional nature of it. And I just, I love working with different individuals who, like, I know that I need to give this one a false deadline because he's going to need three extra days to get me something. Or I know that if I start a narrative, even though I'm not as technically inclined like I don't have the engineering background, I can only fake architect so far, but if I start this and give bullet points and I give it to this individual, she'll fill it in and just my favorite part is figuring out what I can do to meet them and become helpful and be their supporting character. Like they are the hero of the process and how can I support how they work and their work style, understanding that almost all of the people I'm working with are not marketing. They're not trained in marketing. They're not proposal individuals. Their project managers, architects, and engineers or general contractors who are working on billable projects and proposals are often kind of these annoyingly necessary things that have to happen, but they don't dedicate the bulk of their time to it. So having someone like me who comes in and just makes it as easy as possible, because I understand that and I understand how they work and when they work, I just that's my favorite part is figuring out how that happens and what the magic is.

Pete

And helping them win by the sound of it. You would get great satisfaction when you get that. So I was thinking that you were Samwise Gamgee but I think you might be Gandalf actually.

Rachelle

Hahaha, yes, I'll be Gandalf, I love it!

Pete

Yeah. Yeah. And it's done kettlebell rock and, uh, That's been a lot of fun. Thank you for sharing the stories so much today. Rachelle, I know you have some resources that you're sharing. We have some links in the show notes, just for the recording, then any valuable tips and resources that you want to share, that the listener can take away and can use today.

Rachelle

Things that we've kind of already touched on, but they're just so important. I would like to see them again. And that first and foremost one is don't repackage a proposal. I don't care how successful it was. I don't care if it was for the same client and their RFP is exactly the same. Please remember that there's always a new story and you can copy out sections. You know, you can have your, your library of narratives, but make sure that you're always crafting it to fit the client and their new story or the new client and their new story. Take a chance on the proposal story mindset, and start looking at your team as a cast of characters.

One of my favorite tests for figuring out if you have a good story for an individual on their resume is to change their name. So if you have something that says like Dan is an excellent project manager who delivers projects on schedule and on budget 100% of the time. If I change Dan out for Stan or Jan, it still makes sense, then you might not be telling the right story and you need to dig a little bit deeper. So Chuck that and try again.

And finally again, just remember that all stories, all good stories have conflict and that conflict is something that you need to identify as a proposal writer. That's your job is to figure out what that is, and then position your firm to battle it, whether it's as the hero or as a supporting character.

And remember that conflict is not always project-based like projects don't have problems. People do, so look at what the client stands to lose or gain by overcoming that conflict.

Pete

That's awesome. I think tremendous guidance. I think it might be daunting for folks who haven't really taken the storytelling approach. So I'm thinking for those people in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry, for people to reach out, to connect with you, Rachelle, what's the best way for people to reach you.

Rachelle

Definitely connect with me on LinkedIn. I am constantly talking about the proposal's story mindset, how I approach it. I have tons of resources on it, on my website. So definitely recommend that I am always, always open to making new connections and talking about proposals and myself proclaimed proposal dirt. And I will talk about them all day long. So please, please, please send me a message. Don't be afraid. I have made some of the most amazing connections that way. Just, just reach out if you have questions.

Pete

We'll have the connection for exactly that for your LinkedIn profile in the show notes, and also a link to a generous sharing, you have a free InDesign short, which is quite an extensive group of assets available for those who use InDesign that you've shared on the link, which we'll have in the show notes as well.

So once again, thank you so much for sharing your story, Rachelle, thank you for your time today. It's been a lot of fun.

Thanks again, Pete. Always a pleasure chatting with you. It's great to be here.

Thanks for sharing. Bye bye.

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