Ask the Proposal Doctor – Waiting by the phone

Strategies for working effectively with subject matter experts

Dear Proposal Doctor,

One subject matter expert (SME) in my company has the bulk of the information we need for the technical proposal. It is all in his head. This person is very busy with clients all day and keeps telling me that he will write the sections assigned to him at night—and that he will meet the deadline. We are a week into the writing period, and so far, he has produced nothing. He is inaccessible all day and often does not answer his cell phone in the evening. I have left messages every day for the past week— sometimes several a night—but he has not called back. Panic is setting in. Please help!

Waiting by the Phone

Dear Waiting,

First, let’s face facts. This SME is not going to call you. So don’t bother waiting by the phone. Now, let’s go to the underlying assumption in your letter, which is that you cannot get the proposal done without this guy. Can someone validate that? Is this person really so brilliant and indispensable? Says who? Has this person written proposals before? Can anyone show you what he wrote? It might be that he is not producing because he can’t or doesn’t know how.

If it turns out that he is not the only person in the universe who can write this section, you will probably have an easy out, since your SME will likely be happy to be let off the hook. Get rid of him, or change his role and ask him to be a reviewer. If your SME is, in fact, the only person who can do the work, you have no choice but to escalate. I know this guy is important and so very busy, but he is not, after all, President of the United States. He reports to someone. There is a manager or supervisor above him. That is the person whom you should be calling—not to complain, but simply to express concern that the SME is out of touch.

Then, get real. It is a truly rare professional who can deal effectively with clients all day and churn out beautiful proposal prose for several hours in the evening—in fact if you know such a person, please send me his or her contact information. I have never met one!

So consider another way of interacting with your SME. Set up a time to talk to your SME every evening and interview him to get the information you need, or have an experienced proposal writer conduct the interviews. Either way, I strongly recommend taping the conversations. There are a lot of people who are much better at explaining something verbally than they are at writing it down.

I also have some advice for you on your next proposal. It sounds as though this person did not have a clear understanding of your expectations in the first place, and you appear to have waited and hoped for the best for an entire week. Hope is not a method. Think about that once you get through your current crisis, which I know you will, once you see the situation for what it is.

All Best,

Wendy Frieman, The Proposal Doctor