Unclear road ahead

Dealing with Bad RFPs – Part 2

Dealing with difficult RFPs is part of the proposal process, but it doesn’t have to make your life difficult! See Part 1 for additional tips for writing great proposals no matter the RFP.

2) Decide which — if any — questions to ask the owner agency.

Once you’ve hashed out all your questions, review the list to see which remain unanswered and decide which questions to ask the owner agency. Not all questions benefit from being answered! For example, team members may want to have a leave-behind for an interview. Asking whether leave-behinds are allowed risks being told no, but leaving that question ambiguous creates an opportunity for the interview.

Of course, this type of decision-making needs to be done ethically, and proposal writers should not take advantage of a poorly constructed RFP — this will only make your team look bad and risk harming everyone’s reputation in the long run.

3) Read between the lines.

Bad RFPs are usually the result of rushed copy-pasting, not nefarious intent, so using the RFP to infer the owner’s real goals and needs for the proposal is fair game. Look past the typos, ignore the irrelevant text obviously pulled from another RFP, and focus on the RFP’s underlying message.

Make use of the evaluation criteria and project description/context to determine what they’re “really” looking for. Firm personnel who have worked for the owner before are also a valuable tool in solving some of these discrepancies — and sometimes they can have off-record chats with people who know the project to save face for everyone.

4) Use your best judgement.

The RFP calls for a lump-sum cost proposal and a per-task schedule, but the RFP is for an on-call/as-needed/task-order program management contract. One of these things is not like the other! So go with the one you know will be true — the on-call contract — and do your best to shape the cost proposal and schedule to support that component of the RFP. (This is an example of a question you SHOULD ask if possible! But with short turn-arounds or very difficult owner agencies, sometimes you just have to make the call yourself.)

A tangled mess

Dealing with Bad RFPs – Part 1

Sometimes, proposal writers just have to work with bad RFPs.

Requests from owner agencies that don’t make sense, that contradict themselves, that ask for way more and way different information than most proposals do.

And sometimes, owner agencies don’t make good use of the Q&A process to address these kinds of problems in a meaningful way. Occasionally, rather than redline and revise troublesome portions of an RFP, some owner agencies dig in their heels and stand by their confusing requests without much clarification (or sometimes their responses to questions serve only to add more layers of unnecessary complexity!).

That’s not to blame owner agencies, though. Just like proposal coordinators, they work under budget and time constraints, too. In a perfect world, owner agencies would have the time and money to conduct thorough reviews of their RFP to catch inconsistencies and clear up ambiguities before proposers even have to ask questions about them. Very few owners have this luxury!

As proposal writers and marketing coordinators, we also have a limited amount of time to turn out a responsive, compliant proposal, no matter how confusing or difficult an RFP is. Let’s look at some strategies for writing solid proposals even with a bad RFP.

1) Discuss concerns internally first.

At the kickoff meeting, work with your team to generate a list of questions, inconsistencies and concerns about the RFP. Proposal writers’ questions will be more about the proposal submittal, while technical team members may have questions about the contract, the scope, the schedule or other elements related to the project.

While generating your list, work together to determine answers to your questions without involving the owner agency. Sometimes cross-referencing other sections of an RFP can help answer questions, and sometimes the firm’s history with the agency will light the way forward.

Check out Part 2 here!

Kicking Off Proposals Effectively — Part 3

We discussed creating a proposal outline and a “NOTES” document to prepare for the kickoff and what typically goes on the agenda for a kickoff. The last element to successfully kicking off a proposal is leading the kickoff meeting itself.

Especially for proposal coordinators working in remote set-ups and leading meetings by phone — like Peak Composition usually does — it’s critical to be assertive from start to finish. The kickoff meeting is possibly the only time you’ll get your whole team on a call at one time (although hopefully most of them will be there for red team review), so it’s important to make sure you get the team to address all agenda items in a timely manner.

Most proposals that don’t have a six-month lead time only need an hour to kick off. I just move through the agenda and take notes in the “NOTES” document. If the conversation gets off track — which is totally fine, even useful and productive — I make sure to follow that new conversation through and then go back to the original item to make sure it has been fully addressed. Check in with all attendees occasionally to make sure everyone has a chance to air any concerns. Confirm any decisions before moving on to the next topic, and jot down any issues to follow up on and with whom.

Proposal writing consultants often come into a proposal with little to no knowledge of a firm’s employees or their experience, so employee names and project names can be confusing — especially over the phone. I take really good notes using the information I can gather and then I follow up with another phone call or email with the project manager or in-house marketing coordinator to confirm spellings and check for resumes and write-ups. This approach ensures the kickoff meeting stays on topic and respects everyone’s busy schedules.

After the kickoff ends, it’s a good idea to turn your notes from the meeting into a follow-up email to the whole proposal team. Include the decisions made about personnel (an organizational chart would be even better), subconsultants, project experience, the proposal schedule and writing assignments. This is a good chance to get correct name spellings and to make sure your interpretation of the meeting is the same as everyone else’s — plus, you get assignments in writing!

Kicking off proposals effectively gives you and your team the greatest chance of success in turning out a competitive, compliant proposal. Take the time to prepare and follow through on the kickoff, and you’ll be in great shape!

Teaming Org Chart

Kicking Off Proposals Effectively — Part 2

Every proposal kickoff is different, even when you’re working with the same team from proposal to proposal. So, rather than having a hard and fast list of items to discuss for every kickoff, it’s best to draw from a collection of possible items and prepare an agenda for each kickoff right before it happens.

I cover most of these items in each kickoff:

  • Teaming: Who will be subconsultants/subcontractors? Who has contact information to reach out to subs? What roles will subs fill? Should names from sub firms be shown on the organizational chart?
  • Personnel: What roles are required? Who will fill these roles? Who has their resumes? How much updating do resumes need?
  • Past experience: What types of projects should be discussed in this proposal? What projects would show the firm’s experience the best? Are these projects recent enough? Are there good project photos? Do these projects have strong references?
  • Proposal schedule: Do we need a pink team review? When should text from writing assignments be returned? Who should be involved in pink/red team reviews? Are there any vacations or other projects to be aware of and schedule around?
  • Production: How much time do we need for production? Who can oversee the process? Will the body be printed in-house or elsewhere? Who will print covers and tabs? Do we need time for proposal materials to be delivered?
  • Writing assignments: Who will write technical sections? Who will complete forms?

These are just the minimum items that need to be discussed in the majority of kickoff meetings. There are many other topics that would be appropriate to discuss during the kickoff, such as good “go-bys” or samples to pull text from; themes or messages to infuse into the text; questions about the agency or the RFP; SWOT analysis items; or critical project issues that affect how the proposal is pitched.

We already went over the importance of the “NOTES” document in making your proposal kickoff great. You can simply add your kickoff meeting agenda to the document and send it to your team before the meeting so everyone’s on the same page!

RFP Outline-2

Kicking Off Proposals Effectively — Part 1

Key to a successful proposal effort is a successful kickoff. This meeting — no matter how long it lasts — is where the team first determines the shape and needs of the effort. Without a good kickoff, it’s pretty hard to reach the goal.

A strong kickoff is the result of pre-kickoff preparation. For the proposal manager, this preparation involves reading the RFP, particularly the elements related to the proposal and the general scope of the project. It’s a good idea to read some of the more technical components of the RFP for anything out of the ordinary (Five full-time materials testers for a 100-foot segment of sidewalk repairs? Is that a typo or is there something else going on with this project?) to raise for discussion.

The time you spend reading the RFP also gives you the chance to put together an outline of the proposal and gather all the proposal requirements in one place. I use a file called PROPOSAL NOTES to track the most important proposal items for the length of the pursuit. Here’s a list of the information I compile in this document before the kickoff:

  • Client name
  • Agency name
  • Project name from the RFP (including any project numbers)
  • Due date and time
  • Pre-proposal meeting date, time, location
  • Deadline for questions
  • Contact for questions
  • Location of addenda or Q&A responses
  • Submission information (labels, address, etc.)
  • Proposal information (number of copies, number of original/signed copies, binding, sheet size limitations, page limitations, single-/double-sided printing, etc.)
  • Evaluation criteria
  • Potential questions to ask the agency
  • Other notes and meeting minutes

After this information sheet, I create a table that outlines the proposal body according to the RFP instructions and evaluation criteria:

This outline is invaluable because it contains every proposal-related requirement from the RFP in a single, easily understood table. No need to flip through the RFP over and over again with this table handy. And if you use it throughout the proposal — as you should! — you can simply add meeting notes, emails, and to-do lists to the document so everything critical to the management of the process remains in one place. This document becomes even more useful when you save it in a shared folder where everyone involved can access it, even if not everyone updates it.

Peak Composition offers easy strategies to prep personnel resumes before the RFP drops!

5 Tips for Great Personnel Resumes — Part 2

The bane of every marketing coordinator’s existence is personnel resumes. Somehow, they’re never up to date — they always seem to be missing that one key piece of information that would help the resume really hit an RFP’s requirements.

But resumes don’t have to be the worst part of the proposal writing effort — a little elbow grease during downtime between proposals can make it easy to tailor personnel resumes for any proposal. Here’s the rest of my five tips — plus a bonus tip! — to make personnel resumes manageable and easy to maintain before and during proposal season.

4. Key Words

Resumes can be a great resource for developing organizational charts, even if you’re not experienced in the construction or engineering work of your company. When personnel resumes use industry-, agency- and project-specific language — such as CM/GC, value engineering, hot mix asphalt, or flyovers — it’s easy to go into Windows Explorer or Dropbox and search for these terms to find personnel with the right experience. You might even consider adding a “key words” section at the beginning of each resume for internal use to make searching for the right people with the right experience even easier.

5. Different Purposes

To make proposals even easier to put together with the right people and experience, consider the different roles that individuals play on projects and shape resumes to reflect those purposes. This might mean creating two similar but separate resumes for an engineer who does a lot of structural design but also specializes in roadway geometry. The construction inspector who has experience as an assistant project manager might also have an “Inspection” and a “Project Management” section on her resume or — if she has many years of experience — two separate resumes.

Bonus: Certifications and Trainings

Tracking certifications and trainings for project personnel can be a real time-suck, but these are critical for many projects involving construction inspection, materials testing or environmental components. If your firm doesn’t already use an accessible, easily searchable spreadsheet or database to track these, you can easily create your own spreadsheet for marketing purposes. Include columns for personnel name, certificate or training name, expiration date, and date of enrollment for certifications or trainings that are scheduled. And, again, formatting this spreadsheet as a table makes it easy as pie to sort and search for easy input into resumes.

Don’t forget to check out Part 1!

Maintaining personnel resumes doesn't have to be difficult. (credit: canstockphoto)

5 Tips for Great Personnel Resumes — Part 1

The bane of every marketing coordinator’s existence is personnel resumes. Somehow, they’re never up to date — they always seem to be missing that one key piece of information that would help the resume really hit an RFP’s requirements.

But resumes don’t have to be the worst part of the proposal writing effort — a little elbow grease during downtime between proposals can make it easy to tailor personnel resumes for any proposal. Here are five tips to make personnel resumes manageable and easy to maintain before and during proposal season.

1. Interviews

The best source of information is project personnel themselves. Don’t hesitate to call them or go find them in the office to find out more about their certifications, trainings, and projects. And when you track them down, be sure to push for details. Many construction and engineering professionals are humble about their work and find it difficult to talk about their successes. Don’t be afraid to ask for details about what these pros did to make sure projects were completed on time, under budget or with added value.

2. Spreadsheets

Track everything! Spreadsheets are a resume writer’s best friend. Not sure when you last updated a resume? Check the spreadsheet! Not sure if this resume has been reviewed or edited? Check the spreadsheet! Add a “notes” column to track any other issues with resumes, and format your spreadsheet as a table to make sorting and organizing easier.

3. Project Write-ups

Resumes and project write-ups should be developed hand-in-hand. Every project write-up should include a list of personnel who worked on the project, their job titles, and what they did, and these project write-ups should appear on personnel resumes with some tailoring to the individual’s contributions on the project.

See the rest of the list in Part 2!

Using the Hemingway App

I had a chance to try using the Hemingway App (and its beta version) while doing some writing for my clients last week.

For me, just knowing that the Hemingway App exists was almost enough to help me keep my writing precise and concrete, like Papa himself would want. But the app did help me find long sentences quickly, and it was nice to see adverbs and passive voice in case I wanted to do anything about them.

This app is great for writers who are working on making their sentences shorter and more precise. It provides a way to get instant feedback on sentence length and complexity without having to ask someone else for input (and without having to hope Word understands what you’ve written). I used the app to help me make sure I was writing simply in passages that would later be translated into other languages. The simpler the original sentence, the easier the translation process will be.

But the app is not a panacea — you still have to use your own writing talent to improve those red- or yellow-highlighted sentences. And you definitely have to use your own judgement. Not all passive voice is bad, not all adverbs add bloat, and sometimes a well-crafted but long sentence is more effective.

Still, as a reminder to aim for simplicity and clarity in your writing, the Hemingway App excels.

Improving Your Writing with the Hemingway App

I just came across this really great tool: The Hemingway App.

Named for Ernest Hemingway, a writer known for his precise, staccato writing style, this app aims to help you make your writing more clear and succinct. It highlights long and complex sentences so you can split, shorten, or trim them. The app also shows you instances of adverbs and passive voice, which can sometimes make your writing clunky or awkward. And it provides an in-app editor so you can immediately see how much clearer your edits have made your text.

I’m excited to see how this helps me in my own writing! Check it out!


Organizing Your Work: OneNote on Your Desktop and Online

If you’re drowning in a sea of sticky notes or an ocean of paper notebooks, you’re not alone. We all often feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information that we have to keep straight on a daily basis — and then we’re expected to remember that information weeks, months, or even years later!

Sticky notes get lost or tossed too early. Notebooks become frayed with overuse, stained with coffee and tea. You flip through the pages to find that one thing you wrote down — what? three weeks ago? — but skimming and scanning takes too much time. That phone number you wrote down for the accountant is smudged — is that a 4 or a 7?

If you use Microsoft Office software, you’ve probably seen OneNote in your list of programs, and maybe you’ve opened it a few times to see what it’s all about. But if you’re still using paper to organize your thoughts, take notes from meetings and phone calls, or manage your ever-changing to-do list, it’s time to give OneNote another look.

Here are a few quick strategies you can use to make OneNote part of your work life:

  1. Set up notebooks for your major projects. And inside each notebook, add a new section for major tasks within each project, and add new pages for each meeting, brainstorming session, document outline, or whatever else you take notes on.
  2. Create a To-Do List as the first section of each notebook. This to-do list can act as your dashboard for a project, letting you know at a glance what tasks are still outstanding and what you’ve accomplished so far. Highlight your list, click on Home, and from the Tags section, add “To Do” checkboxes to make it easy to show what you’ve finished.
  3. Organize pages in a section. You can drag and drop individual pages to put them in a new order, and you can right-click a page to make it a sub-page within a set of pages.
  4. Use the Search box to find a keyword. Search any part of your OneNote application — all notebooks, a certain notebook, a certain section, or a certain page. Save time that you’d normally spend flipping through pages and skimming for keywords by letting OneNote do the searching for you!