Proposals are nothing new and yet even now I come across law firms – many large, award-winning ones – still struggling with them tremendously. I know lots of bid managers in law firms, and in all honesty, I don’t envy them much.
Let me explain.
Lawyers are pressed in terms of time management and fee earning targets. This can cascade down the command chain so that, without the right tools, models and processes, a tremendous amount of work (and late nights) go into creating what end up as lousy proposals, with endless revisions, last-minute changes, missing information, schedule slippages and, at the end of it all, the inevitable round of blame and finger-pointing.
Often the challenge for lawyers is not recognising that they need to improve their proposals – they’ll know this already – but for them, it’s the headache of actually getting round to doing them.
They fully accept that their proposal development skills are not very good, or at the very least, could be a lot better. But while the art of developing quality proposals has increased marginally in line with the mainstream adoption of professional desktop publishing software such as Adobe InDesign and, of course, with the advent of the internet and information discovery and retrieval – I still see proposals that look like they herald from the dark ages. Where’s it all going wrong?
The basics: what is a proposal?
There are numerous definitions, words, phrases and acronyms used in legal services business development: ‘bid’, ‘tender’ and ‘proposal’ crop up the most often and are used interchangeably. Although they are different in detail and can mean different things to different people, from my point of view they are all much the same. I define a proposal as simply a ‘written submission in support of a business proposition’.
A proposal is simply a document in the form of an offer in writing made by a law firm, usually to sell legal advice. A proposal is a ‘define and persuade’ mechanism. A proposal defines the offer (the service) and highlights the reward for supplying it (the fee) and of course aims to persuade the client into accepting the offer. Simple enough.
But more than this, proposals are the critical end game in what’s usually a long business development process. When they are executed correctly they can bias clients towards your firm, especially if you have successfully conducted the opening game (market analysis, strategic planning) and middle game (initial contact, relationship management, information capture management) well – i.e. positioned yourself well with the client, built some trust and sold your firm and solutions well.
So when proposal development is done badly they can not only cost you the short-term opportunity but they can sour the client’s long-term opinion of your firm. The opportunity costs are too great to risk creating and submitting uninspiring, lacklustre and non-responsive proposals. Put simply, in today’s legal markets, proposals are too important to be left to chance.
The reality is, complying with the client’s request for information (RFI) or the request for proposal (RFP) is often the difference between a proposal that is successful and one that is not. This means that the proposal ticks all the boxes. It meets the requirements, answers the questions and addresses the client’s specifications for legal services to the letter.
Compliance is especially important in proposal development because clients frequently base their evaluation scores on the degree to which you have addressed their specifications, responded to their requirements and provided the information they requested.
If you fail to comply, you have failed the client’s first test. The client then asks:
- Did you listen to us?
- Can you read?
- Do you understand what we need?
- Will you give us what we need?
- Can we trust that your legal services will meet our needs?
Compliance is so basic that we should be able to assume it’s done all the time. However, all too often proposals fail this basic requirement, meaning firms fail to win the business. If you fail to be compliant, how can you expect to win? Why would you even bother to submit a proposal if it wasn’t fully compliant?
Good proposals not only tick all the requisite boxes, but they do it transparently. They are meticulous in following the client’s instructions. They are scrupulous in addressing every requirement and in the order the client listed them. They playback the client’s language and they provide aids to help the client see their compliance more easily. Good proposals make it easy for the client to give them a perfect score.
The harsh reality is, even compliant proposals can still be mediocre, especially when the standard of compliance is easily met. This makes it difficult for the client to differentiate one proposal from the rest.
To be truly successful, proposals must also be responsive to the client’s needs. Responsiveness goes beyond the point of compliance. Bear in mind that no RFI or RFP can ever fully capture the client’s intent. The client is only human after all.
We are seeing this more and more – the proposal is put out by procurement teams and they may be restricted from detailing everything that would be helpful for bidding law firms to know. Even where no restrictions exist, few RFI writers are skilful enough to convey fully not only the client’s most basic requirements but also their wider business goals, underlying concerns, key issues or core values. These wider issues need to be considered.
Often the client will also lack insight. The client will often present the superficialities of what they want but not ‘why’ they want it. As a result they generally fail to enlighten bidding firms about the more subtle and tangible factors that will ultimately lead to their decision to choose one firm’s legal services over another. It’s these hopes, fears and political concerns that will drive the client’s decision.
Compliant proposals focus on the firm’s capability to deliver what the client has specified in the RFI or the RFP. Consequently they focus on themselves as a law firm and the features of the legal services they offer rather than the client and the benefits those features provide.
Responsive proposals go further. They demonstrate how the provider will help clients achieve their business goals, not just their project or procurement goals. The latter goals are not the end. They are the means to the business end and a responsive proposal shows an astute awareness of this distinction.
What most proposals fail to recognise is that the client is not in the problem-solving business. The spend that they are about to outlay is just that an investment and their ultimate goals is to define the ROI they must get as a business.
The proposal that maps a clear path to that business goal is a proposal that truly understands what is driving the investment and what is at stake.
Moral of the tale
In the early stages of a competitive bid process clients are looking for the losers – not the winner.
Losers are the law firms who fail to be compliant and those who are not responsive to the unstated needs of the client.
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