5 Tips for Hiring a Proposal Consultant

Additional proposal expertise during the busy season can help boost win rates.

Proposal activities in the government market generally peak in the summer months. The requests for proposals that we have been waiting for all year seem to drop at that time. To handle the peaks and valleys in proposal workload, get additional proposal expertise for must-win procurements or get a fresh view on how to present their solutions, companies reach out to proposal consultants. When you need help from proposal consultants, here are some things you should keep in mind.

A typical proposal can take a dozen or more people to develop over a 30- to 45-day period. During this high-paced activity, you can supplement your own staff with consultants. Proposal consultants include proposal managers, volume leads (technical, management, past performance, and price), subject matter experts, technical writers, coordinators, graphic artists, editors, and production specialists. Each specializes in a different aspect of the proposal-development process, so before you start looking for proposal consultants, determine what skills you need to augment your proposal team.

Engage the consultant early. Proposal managers should be selected and engaged before RFP release. Working tasks pre-proposal, before RFP release, is one of the best ways to raise your win probability and level the workload that occurs when building a proposal. Though a desktop publisher may not be needed until the last week or two of the proposal, engage them early to get the best ones and allow ample time for them to get up to speed on requirements. If you give consultants a running start at their assignment, you’ll end up with a better end product.

We consistently misuse the term proposal manager because we call every person who manages a proposal a proposal manager, without regard to their management experience or proposal expertise. We recognize skill levels in other management categories, but unfortunately, when it comes to proposal managers, we don’t differentiate their seniority and just call them all proposal managers. Things to look for when selecting your proposal manager are:

  • Management expertise. The size of the deal often drives the level of management expertise needed by the proposal manager. Like task leaders, some proposal managers do a fine job managing a five-person proposal but don’t have the management expertise or leadership skills to drive a large, complex proposal for a multi-hundred-million-dollar deal to victory in a highly competitive market.
  • Proposal expertise. It takes more than years of experience to develop expertise in the proposal field. Expertise is gained by working on demanding assignments in highly competitive, complex proposals. Just being member of the team does not qualify someone as a proposal expert. If a proposal manager is leading main-thrust proposals for a major company, then presumably that person is managing proposals at the highest end of the competitive spectrum and would have more proposal expertise than someone who is leading proposals in a smaller business competing in a set-aside market. It’s like being an all-star in Little League versus the pros – there is generally a world of difference.
  • Agency experience. There are similarities among most proposals written in the federal market, so while it is nice to have agency experience, it is not essential. Proposal managers tend to be more generalists, but some specialize by market segmentation (e.g., defense or civil agencies) and a few develop expertise in specific agencies after having done multiple proposals for those agencies.
  • Domain experience. It is essential that the proposal manager have some understanding of the contract work to be done. Good predictors of this are an undergraduate or advanced degree in a related field, on-the-job work experience in that industry, or experience gained writing proposals for companies in that field.
  • Professional commitment. A professional commitment to the proposal field is important and separates out those who are really accidental proposal consultants, just filling time between other assignments. A professional commitment is often demonstrated by training in proposal development processes and tools. One of the best commitments is participation in industry organizations such as the Association of Proposal Management Professionals.

Low cost does not prevail. If your company is hiring a consultant, presumably it’s because you need someone with real experience and expertise. This is the time to pay for someone who has the qualifications you need to get the job done (and win the proposal). The old adage “You get what you pay for” is never truer than with consultants. Determine exactly how much experience you need, and pay for the person with that experience.

Once you select your proposal consultant, have an expectations-setting meeting as the very first thing you do. It is important to set expectations early in regard to job responsibilities, personalities and working styles, and lines of authority. Clearly communicate the consultant’s roles, responsibilities, and reporting relationships to the proposal team. The consultant needs the real authority to set schedules and meetings and obtain resources with the complete and transparent backing of the sponsor.

Don’t undermine the consultant by ignoring requests to provide requested resources, facilities, and equipment, and don’t set meetings for the proposal team without discussing with the consultant first. Support the consultant in his or her leadership role. With the right consultant and your company’s support, everyone should see the proposal moving on a clear path to victory.

This article was originally published August 2, 2010 on WashingtonTechnology.com.