How to Develop Strong Win Themes For Your Proposal

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Win Themes Are Reasons to Buy—But Are They Your Customer’s Reasons?

Experienced proposal managers know that proposal win themes are the key benefits you’re bringing to the customer’s RFP. But as so often happens in the haste of proposal development, win themes can be afterthoughts. You offer them as guidelines for in-house reviewers but not as an early inspiration for authors. If section authors don’t have win themes top-of-mind as they’re writing, their descriptions of your solution will miss the targets.

You may find it challenging to find time to brainstorm win themes early in the development process. But generating and testing these reasons to buy will help you nail the core business needs that motivated the RFP in the first place.

Here’s the Biggest Mistake You Can Make in Drafting Win Themes!

Quite simply, hastily crafted win themes will read like bullet points from your company’s sales literature or website. Yes, your leadership and marketing team continually assess and refine your firm’s value proposition as a worthy competitor in your industry. But reasons to buy that are derived from your sales messages are solutions in search of a problem!

Challenge Your Win Themes

To win the hearts and minds of your customer’s evaluators, you must begin your thinking from the opposite direction:

What core business needs in the customer’s organization motivated the program or project this RFP requires?

As we’ve counseled regarding so many aspects of capture management, starting early will always yield insights and competitive advantages. Intelligence from industry days, RFIs, DRFPs, and customer interviews will deepen your understanding. 

But no matter when your team begins to challenge your win themes, here are some questions that should help you test your notions of what the customer truly needs and wants:

What’s Broken?

What processes in the customer’s operations aren’t working? What results are not being achieved as defined by its essential business mission? BD pros refer to these issues as hot buttons or pain points. But if you wait to investigate them until after the RFP drops, government regulations will bar the customer from discussing them with you. 

Certainly, you can submit questions via the Q&A process, but you won’t get any inside information. For one thing, the customer must provide any answers with all bidders, so there goes any competitive advantage. And secondly, contract officers won’t share subjective reasons at all–which might be just as important as explicitly stated requirements. 

For example, the government COR may have trouble communicating with the incumbent PM. Do you know why?

What’s Changed?

The rapid pace of technological change is a given. Are the customer’s systems outdated or soon to be obsolete? Financial circumstances can also change abruptly. Have agency or department budgets suddenly been cut back? The answers might seem obvious, but the customer’s future plans for allocating resources might not be.

What’s Possible?

Does your company or your industry now offer improvements or innovations that could be disruptive changes for the better? And, considering the inherent risks of innovation and disruption, do you have tested ways of mitigating those changes? Government agencies are conservative by nature, but everyone wants “a new idea that’s stood the test of time.”

What Do You Understand That Your Competitors Don’t?

It’s not just what you intend to deliver but also where and how you plan to deliver it. Not to mention how your win theme frames the results in terms of the customer’s operations. Here’s where your insights and competitive advantages get leverage. 

By asking what’s broken, changed, and possible, you’ll have a clearer picture of your targets. You can aim the features and benefits of your company’s value proposition directly so that your win themes hit the core business needs that motivated the RFP.

So What Is a Well-Formed Win Theme?

Win themes fall into one of three categories: 

  1. Discriminators and differentiators
  2. Common themes based on strengths
  3. Turnarounds and ghosts 

Discriminators and Differentiators

These advantages set you apart from your competition. Perhaps you’ve got a track record of building LEED-certified buildings or a prominent government agency uses your technology. You don’t need to be the only company that has this differentiator, but there should only be one or two others. 

Above all, this differentiator must matter to your customer. If you’ve won “Best Place to Work” in a prestigious HR journal five years in a row, it’s important to ask whether this testimonial really matters to your client before making it a pillar of your proposal. 

On the other hand, if you’re an industry-recognized leader in protecting your clients’ data and your customer has cited privacy concerns as a hot-button issue, you’re looking at a powerful win theme. 

Common Themes Based on Strengths

Talking about your non-unique strengths may sound counterintuitive. The government expects any qualified bidder to bring them. But remember that your win themes tackle how you’re going to get from the bidding stage to the signing stage. You’ll get there by demonstrating that you meet the customer’s requirements.

It’s a checklist process. If your win theme states that you meet all requirements, you must know for sure you haven’t missed any. And, because your win themes show you understand the customer’s key concerns, you also show you’ve addressed requirements thoroughly and adequately.

For example, consider an RFP requirement for a schematic diagram of a particular component. Or a flowchart of a required process. The author might think that pasting the required illustration into the section answers the mail fully. But the accompanying narrative and figure caption should emphasize the win theme and the benefit. 

If you don’t know why the customer wants to see the internals, you’re really missing the point!

Ghosts into Turnarounds

There’s no need to shove your past failings in a closet and shut the door forever. On the contrary, there may be an opportunity to make them win themes if you’ve taken steps to address the problems. So resurrect your ghosts and turn them around! (Or, in the jargon of proposal management, turn your lessons learned into best practices.)

Customers like knowing that a vendor has experience dealing with challenges and has already developed the technologies and processes to manage them. That’s why people typically favor companies that have been around for a long time. Those vendors have already dealt with catastrophes. Their experience mitigates the chances of future failures, even when unforeseen events threaten results. 

When a vendor has strategies for tackling problems, customers feel confident knowing they’ve got experienced people working for them.

Traditionally, the government values past performance—with lessons learned that have been turned into best practices. But also be aware that past performance, in itself, is not necessarily proof of future success. Rather, it’s most powerful as a mitigator of risk.

And What Makes a Win Theme Effective?

A strong win theme will:

  • Emphasize the features that deliver the benefits. You thus demonstrate that your solution is both specific and effective.
  • Avoid technical jargon. Non-subject matter experts within your customer’s organization — and particularly some of the early evaluators — might not know these terms.
  • Offer specifics — and proofs — instead of the generalizations that your competitors might use. For instance, if you mention your excellent customer service, provide some statistics from feedback surveys and performance metrics to back up your claim.

Win Themes Provide a Roadmap for Your Entire Proposal

Short and sweet — if your authors understand your customer’s core needs — as echoed in your win themes — their descriptions of your offer will not only meet requirements but also solve the fundamental problems that motivated the RFP. And if your competitors are just regurgitating bullet points from their sales pitches, your proposal will be the one to hit home.

If your company needs more training in win theme developments so your proposals can have a higher win probability, take a look at our Government Proposal Win Themes and Win Strategy Training.

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