First, determine whether you are a candidate for reusing proposal content. Sometimes it can take longer to tailor past proposal content than it would to write something from scratch. Taking shortcuts can cause you to lose your proposal. In past articles we developed a model and a checklist to help you determine whether reusing proposal content make sense in your circumstances.
If your proposal is organized according to outline instructions provided in the RFP, it may not be structured properly to address the next RFP. If the requirements provided in the Statement of Work are different, then the topics addressed and the level of detail will be wrong.
If the RFP does not specify an outline, or if it only does so at the highest level, then you can organize your proposal for reuse. The best way to approach this is to break it down into topics or responses to questions that have broad applicability. Details that are specific to a given customer reflect options that do not apply to every proposal, or are not broadly applicable should be put under separate headings.
Files, fragments, software, databases, or what?
Until you have hundreds of topics, you may not need specialized software to manage your reuse library. With less than a dozen folders, each with less than a dozen documents, containing up to a few dozen related topics you can quickly get to a lot of reuse material. Then, because of the way you have organized it, you can quickly copy and paste it to where you need it.
The real challenge isn’t search and retrieval. The challenge is setup and maintenance. By the time you get to the end of this article you’ll probably realize that you can’t just store your past proposals “as is” and expect to be able to conveniently reuse them. The steps below describe what you need to do make your previous proposals ready for reuse. It won’t take a lot of effort, but it will take some.
Maintenance is the real problem. Every proposal reuse project that I have ever seen undertaken by anyone anywhere suffers from maintenance issues. The problem is, how do you capture new information created on future proposals and use it to update the documents in your reuse library? Most people don’t. Some try, but it’s difficult to do at all, let alone well. At best most attempt a quarterly or annual refresh. That doesn’t capture all the new information, but at least it captures some.
Maintenance is the reason that most companies just give up and create a library of previously written proposals that can be keyword searched and leave it at that (even though it will do more to harm future proposals than to help them). How do you get out of this Catch-22? First, keep the number of topics in your library tiny. Not just small, but tiny. Edit them for reuse and maintain them well. Don’t attempt to have everything that might be useful in your reuse library. Only keep the most common topics.
Preparing proposal content for reuse starts with understanding the context
A well-written proposal is written for a context that is unique to that customer, offering, and competitive environment. Every sentence reflects what matters to that customer in that circumstance. Even though the proposal contains some of the same topics as all of your other proposals, almost every sentence has been placed into a specific context. If you reuse it “as is” it will reflect the wrong context. It will work against you. Instead of reuse improving your proposal, it will result in a proposal that is worse than one written from scratch.
If you are going to build a reuse library, you have to solve this problem as well. If every proposal contains a different offering to a customer with a different set of needs in a competitive environment with new players and positioning, this would be a good time to reconsider whether you should even attempt a reuse library. But if each RFP contains the same organization, the same requirements, and the same evaluation criteria, you might be able to pull it off.
The trick is to separate the context from your response to the requirements. But be forwarned — if you don’t do this extremely well, it will result in less effective proposal copy. To separate the context you need to address your win strategies and themes in distinct places. It helps if you have extremely good layout skills, because you need to visually communicate what matters well, so that when the customer reads the narrative they still think it’s speaking directly to them.
To repurpose your previous proposals, start by identifying the context they were written for. Look specifically for where they addressed the previous:
- Evaluation criteria
- Points of emphasis
- Win strategies and themes
Then remove that text, leaving behind a narrative that doesn't attempt to address what really matters to any given customer. Instead, insert placeholders so that the future proposal can add what matters to the specific customer to the details from your reuse library.
Placeholders, variables, and flags
To make sure that people update the variable parts of the narrative, you will need to insert placeholders for search and replace, and flags to draw attention to items that need consideration. So take your previous proposal and identify:
- Names (your company, team, customer, etc.)
- Any other variable items
Then replace those with variable names. Use special characters (for example: “[*Customer*]”) so that you can globally search for the labels and replace them with the new names or values.
Then you need to flag certain items that need to be reconsidered with each submission:
- Flag dates and numbers that may need updating in the future
- Flag examples that may not be relevant to future proposals
- Flag any assumptions made in the past proposal that will need to be confirmed in any future proposals
- Separate or flag anything included in the proposal just to achieve RFP compliance
Again, you can use special characters to draw attention to them. Just make sure that before you send the proposal to the customer you do a final search for the special characters to ensure that all placeholders, variables, and flags have been updated.
Getting results from proposal reuse
When you are done, you will have files that are safe for reuse. The placeholders, variables, and flags are not there for automation — they are there to make sure that the proposal is updated to reflect the new context. If you find that converting a previously written proposal into one that is ready for reuse is a major effort, it may be an indication that the type of proposals you do aren’t suitable for reuse.
The problem is that similar is not the same. All of your proposals may be similar — they may address the same topics. But that does not make them the same. Sometimes the effort to extensively edit something that is similar ends up being more than it would be to write the proposal from scratch. If you fall into this category, then maybe it’s not reuse text that you need, but just inspiration to help writers know what to include in their responses without trying to give them all the words to use.