Nine C-words you CAN use to upgrade your proposal

If you’ve ever worked tirelessly to create a proposal only to be informed by the customer that your offering was not selected, then you know you never want to hear those words again. But how can you better ensure your hard work doesn’t go to waste in the future? We’ve come up with a few C-words that a) won’t get you fired, and b) will go a long way toward securing a win.

Several years ago, I began talking with proposal teams about what I called the “five C’s.” These C-words described characteristics that I found simple and useful in evaluating the quality of a proposal, and often focused on clarity, compliance, completeness, etc.

As public sector healthcare RFPs and proposals increased in complexity (another C-word!), so did the number of C-words in our evaluation technique. To keep our proposal quality on track, we developed the following visual as a quick reference that team members could easily display in their workspaces.

We now look for a total of nine characteristics that are each extraordinarily important in convincing customers and evaluators to buy what’s offered in a proposal. We’ve grouped them into five categories related to how well we tell the story in our proposals.

The story is readable – clear, concise

Ever picked up a novel, article, or report that makes you want to give up after the first paragraph? If the proposal isn’t easy to read, your cause is lost; the agency evaluator or customer often has many proposals to read. Though it’s their job to evaluate every one, you’ve made it harder to read yours. So, the content must be clear and easy to read. In fact, the greatest compliments we have received from reviewers and evaluators are “I wanted to turn the page to learn more” and “your proposal was easy to understand.”

Keep it short – concise. That evaluator has several proposals to read: in Medicaid managed care procurements, the narrative might be 400 – 1,200 pages. Evaluators have day jobs, too. If you make those jobs more difficult by making them wade through dozens of pages to get to the answer, they may decide their experience will be the same in working with your organization – and choose not to have that experience.

The story hangs together – coherent, consistent

We separate coherent and consistent to consider different aspects of telling a story that makes sense. Coherent covers much – making sure that what you’re saying is related to the questions or requirements the state presents; ensuring that your sentences and paragraphs flow logically from one point to the next; structuring the overall response in a logical hierarchy, so the reader isn’t lost in the middle of a page wondering where they came from or where you’re going to take them next.

Consistent covers the rest – making sure that you use terms and acronyms the same way throughout the proposal; that your description of the Abracadabra System on page 42 matches the one on page 345; that the format and layout of the document doesn’t look like a ransom note.

The story is believable – credible, correct

Too often, organizations hit the easy button: “Our 17 years of experience in performing the provider management function in 5 states will serve your agency well.” Great – every other managed care competitor will have some variation on this statement. As an evaluator, why should I believe your approach is superior? Give information – details – that will make your story credible. Which large and small provider organizations have you worked with? How many calls do you field each year from providers? How many in-person visits do you make? How many complaints do you receive? What’s the trend?

Equally critical is being correct. More than one contract award has been protested and upheld because an organization claimed something – capability, experience, etc. – that was provably false by using publicly-available information. Agency evaluators – granted the latitude by the RFP to use any available information during the evaluation process – often make calls, surf LinkedIn and other sites, and more, to validate what you say in your proposal. Get it right.

The story is complete – comprehensive, compliant

A common complaint in reviews: “nice content, but you didn’t answer the question.” It might be that the answer wasn’t relevant at all; more commonly, we tell the agency about all the great things we are going to do, while ignoring that they specifically asked how we are going to do them, who will be responsible, and on what schedule. Being comprehensive is about addressing all the nuances of what’s being asked, in detail, while discarding fluffy language that focuses on superlatives and clichés about your organization’s history, experience, and solutions.

Compliance goes further in ascertaining not only that you have addressed all elements of the question and the agency’s scope of work or contract, but that what you offer will comply with what’s required, whether that’s to meet a certain turnaround time or follow a prescribed protocol for handling a customer complaint. Reviewing compliance is in itself an art: see our thoughts on the subject here.

And above all, persuasive – compelling

The purpose of a proposal is to sell your organization’s products and services to the purchasing agency. If your proposal doesn’t convince the evaluator that your approach is the best one, then you lose. Thus, you must make a compelling argument for your approach – explaining what you do, how and why you do it, who does it, and when you’ll get it done – showing proof, statistics, examples, and more. What features do you offer? How do those features address the customer’s most consequential problems in ways that are obviously superior to your competitors? This is your value story, and your proposal cannot possibly be compelling without one.

Using the 9 Cs to take a proposal from blah to AHA!

The 9-C technique does not involve an exhaustive, team-based, line-by-line review of the proposal to determine whether every element satisfies all the 9 C-characteristics. Rather, it’s a tool for proposal developers to use in creating content and for reviewers to use in evaluating the quality of that content. The diagram below shows three ways in which you can easily use these 9 C-words to improve your proposal.

The 9-C approach improves focus in an all-too-common scenario: the semi-structured proposal color team review where the leader says, “Does anyone have comments on Section 4.6.3?” And chaos ensues. It also provides the right level of focus, so we don’t get bogged down in trivial editing exercises and subjective arguments about wording.

Using this information

You may use the Optimetra 9-C approach and the image above under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. Please follow the link for license details.

We would love to help you apply the model within reviews or in developing a complete proposal; you can reach us through our Contact page or by calling us at (800) 758-9710.