To Whom do I Outsource? (Part 4 of 9 in Outsourcing Proposal Development)
Now your work becomes much more difficult. Who is the right choice for outsourcing your complicated and important proposal?
There are many sources out there for finding proposal consultants. The professional association for proposal development and management is the Association for Proposal Management Professionals (APMP). APMP has various national and local resources to help you find proposal consultants. See www.apmp.org.
Individual consultants – that is, solo practitioners or “lone guns” – can be outstanding in a variety of situations. They may be an acknowledged expert in a very particular area that is relevant to your proposal effort (for example, using a specific system to perform care management). They can also be helpful when you just need one or two people to augment a proposal effort.
However, individual consultants can have drawbacks. If a disaster strikes – a death in the family, or a serious illness – they may not have any way to provide a ready alternative to complete the work. They also may not have appropriate general and professional liability insurance, information technology backup and security measures, and other infrastructure. While you’re not paying for those things, that means you are also assuming the risk if something goes wrong.
There are also various consulting firms that will conduct proposal development. Without naming individual companies, I will categorize them as follows:
- Large business development firms that have specialization in proposal development. These companies have a good track record; however, in our experience, they are great in some industries and not so good in others.
- Large and medium general consulting firms. In some cases they say they will do proposal development.
- Small to medium-sized consulting firms specializing in a particular industry. Mostly, these are management consulting firms, but they may advertise that they do proposal development.
- Small to medium-sized consulting firms specializing in business development. These are firms that have chosen a particular subset of industries for which to pursue business development and proposal development.
You can find any of these organizations through a variety of ways: exhibits and networking at trade shows; general networking at professional organization meetings; networking with colleagues in the industry; searching on the Internet, and so on.
The advantage of working with a consulting firm – a company that is more than a sole practitioner – is that they will probably have some of the necessary tools and infrastructure already available. Thus, if there is a problem, the firm usually assumes responsibility – and has the wherewithal – to fix it.
Once you have identified some candidates, how do you choose the individual or firm best suited to your needs? First, you will need to clearly define your needs, and communicate those to the consultant. A good consultant will usually not want to sign up for a project where they don’t have the specific expertise you require, so they will self-select out. Second, you’ll need to ask some pointed questions of the consultant: what’s your background? What experience do you have in working on similar projects? How successful have you been for other clients?
On this last question: unfortunately, despite several firms that trumpet “our win rate is X%!” (with a suitably large value of X) , win rate isn’t everything. Consulting firms can’t always tell whether they are working with a client that has a strong solution, competitive pricing, and good customer relationship – at least not until they are well into the bid process. So, a firm may have some losses on its record. You will need to probe beneath the surface to understand more about why a consulting firm was or was not successful. Don’t be surprised, though, if the firm refuses to provide this information, particularly if they only work in one industry – yours. Remember that they have an obligation to protect the confidentiality of their client’s information, and you would expect them to do the same for you.
You should also ask the consultant to provide references. If you run into a roadblock here, it might be for a good reason: the consultant’s most important references may also have some interest in the same procurement, but don’t happen to need the consultant right now. However, they won’t want you to have that consultant either.
Beyond asking key questions to help clarify the consultant’s skills and abilities, you will simply need to trust your judgment. What kind of rapport do you establish in your initial meetings with the consultant? Does it appear that you will have a good working relationship with the consulting team during the project? Remember that things will just become more stressful as the proposal reaches the final days, and if you have a contentious relationship at the beginning, it will probably get worse.
Here are a couple other items to consider during selection:
- Is it necessary to issue an RFP to consulting firms? While the quality of the proposals you get might be indicative of the kind of work the firm will do for you, the problem is that proposal schedules are often short. By the time you finish with the RFP process to select a consulting, the procurement you are interested in will be nearly over. However, you might consider issuing an RFP – with general questions – if you plan to form a long-term relationship with a consulting firm to work on several bids, and none of those bids are active right now.
- What kind of project should I do first? Sometimes the best thing to do is to dip a toe in the water. Ask a consulting firm to provide an editor, or strategy expert, or Red Team reviewer first. That way, you don’t spend as much for the first project, and can evaluate the firm’s general performance. Expand future engagements if you are happy with the results.