Proposal Basics: Tips for Interviewing Subject Matter Experts

Interviewing SMEs

Subject matter expert (SME) interviews are a critical component of the proposal writing process that every proposal team member should master. Unlike traditional research, interviewing is a social process that some people find incredibly intimidating. If you’re not a social butterfly, the idea of meeting with just one SME—let alone a whole team of them—may be downright scary for you. However, if you’re prepared, there is absolutely no reason to be afraid. How can you prepare yourself and ensure that you ask the right questions? Just follow these tips for capturing important information throughout the proposal-writing process, and you’ll be off to a great start.

 

1. Do Your Homework

Proposal background research starts with a review of the proposal world’s “Bible”: the RFP (or RFQ, RFI). You may have absolutely no knowledge of a subject when you start a project, but by the time you finish reading the RFP for it, you’ll be a junior-level SME yourself—both for the project and the subject it revolves around. I knew what patents were before I read my first United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) RFP, but by the time I finished reading, I’d obtained an entirely new vocabulary. (Who knew “prior art” meant published patents rather than graphics? Not me!) Establishing your lexicon for a project is a fundamental first step in making sure you’re prepared to interview SMEs. You’ll need to research key phrases, client-related news stories/analyst reports, related government publications, and other background information to ensure that you understand the material and related lingo, at least on a basic level.

 

2. Prepare Your Interview Questions

Plan on spending at least 2-4 hours doing research to get your feet wet on the subject matter, vocabulary, and required proposal content. As you read and research, a number of questions should arise naturally. For instance, as I read USPTO’s Patent Classification and Reclassification RFP, I started wondering how we would identify the right personnel to perform plant versus design patent classifications. The two areas obviously require backgrounds in the different areas of science and design, but what specific educational and work experience would qualify someone to assess patents in those areas at an expert level? I made a note: “Ask SMEs for the ideal qualifications job candidates should possess for each major class of patents.” Voila! I had my first question. However, since SMEs normally don’t think like recruiters, it’s usually better to ask an SME for the name of a specific person who would be good for a particular role. Look up that person on LinkedIn or pull their resume from your company archives, and then use that as a “go-by” to locate ideal candidates, review their resumes, and understand additional nuances of the requirement to which you’re responding. You should also continuously refer back to the RFP requirements. It’s easy to stray from what’s in the RFP when talking to experts who are passionate and more concerned with “doing it right” than they are in-tune with the requirements for a solicitation. Preparing interview questions in advance will help you and your SMEs stay focused.

Ideally, SME interviewing should take place after an initial proposal outline has been drafted. It’s almost guaranteed that you’re targeting SMEs who are in high demand. It won’t help you or them if you aren’t laser-focused and extremely conscious of their valuable time. It will help tremendously if you know from the start what areas you’ll need to cover with them. You can use both the RFP and the proposal outline to help you prepare a list of questions like these so you’re ready:

  • What are the tools and steps you will use to perform the work?
  • What is the proposed workflow?
  • What measures will ensure that the work is performed completely and on-time?
  • What are the practical steps to ensure quality on a daily basis while maintaining a fast pace of operations?
  • How could you fail at this work? What could go wrong and why?

Your questions should also include topics that give you information about the company’s history, past performance on related projects, and any knowledge they have of the incumbent or competitors that could be leveraged to their benefit, as well as discovery questions—e.g. new information that will help you better understand the project and potential approaches to performing the work.

 

3. Start a Conversation with Your SMEs

Set up 2-3 hour sessions with individuals or small groups of SMEs to discuss each proposal section and how your firm will meet the requirements for it. For instance, when I met with the SMEs for the USPTO contract I mentioned earlier, we spent most of our first day together discussing the technical volume. I asked the SMEs questions ranging from how different types of patents are classified to what processes they would use to assign classification work to their employees to what skills are needed to perform that work and more. Over the course of the day, I didn’t come anywhere close to learning everything I needed to know to write the technical requirements section of their proposal, but the notes I took during our conversations gave me a solid starting point to begin writing. Once I started writing, I discovered holes that required additional follow-up with the SMEs.

The mentality that you have to capture everything you need to write a proposal during your initial SME interviews will put unnecessary pressure on you, so check that notion at the conference room door. Your initial interviews are just another phase of research that should give you a foundation to begin writing. Hopefully you’ll find this first stage of interviewing less intimidating if you think of it as what it really is: starting a conversation that will further the discovery process. Make sure your SMEs understand that you’ll need to schedule additional sessions to finish this process. You should also record these knowledge-gathering sessions in case you miss something important your SMEs have said. Listening to interviews after you’ve digested your notes may give you additional insights.

 

4. Begin Writing & Identify Additional Questions

Once you begin writing the proposal using the notes you took during the initial capture process as a guide, additional questions will arise naturally. Inevitably, you’ll realize you don’t have enough information to round out each section and present a strong case for why your firm is the ideal awardee. Note what information you need to complete the proposal, and make a list of additional questions for your SMEs. Don’t let the gaps hinder you from continuing to write. Just highlight the parts where you need more information, write out specific questions, and keep going. Once you have a list of additional questions, it’s time to follow-up with your SMEs.

SMEs often face a challenge when trying to translate their deep understanding of a subject or process into plain language that a proposal evaluator can quickly understand and relate to, and from which they can draw value and benefits. Your contribution as an SME interviewer is to bridge that gap. Iterations between writing and filling holes through additional conversations with your SMEs is where the magic happens.

 

5. Follow-up to Fill the Gaps

During the USPTO project, I emailed my SMEs daily to get additional information that I needed to complete the proposal. We also met by phone individually and as a small group daily, but emailing made the most sense when I had specific questions to fill gaps in the proposal, because a couple of the SMEs spoke English as a second language and needed time to process and respond to my questions. You may find that in-person meetings or another communication method works better for you. Remember, your SMEs may spend their days in a lab, in a secure facility or on a customer site, so meeting them where they are both literally and figuratively can pay huge dividends. Expecting SMEs to conform to a rigid proposal schedule that totally disrupts their routines and locks them away for days on end is unrealistic.

There’s no right or wrong way to perform follow-up interviews, as long as you get the information you need when you need it. You have to use the methods that make the most sense based on the responsiveness of your SMEs, the timeline for the project, and other factors like language barriers and work schedules. If you’re tight on time and your SMEs don’t respond to emails quickly, call them to get the answers you need. If that doesn’t work, schedule a meeting or setup a conference call. There are many ways to communicate today, including web meetings (with or without a webcam), emails, conference calls, text messages, in-person meetings, and more. Test out options until you find the ones that work best for you and your SMEs.

As you follow-up with your SMEs, ask questions that will add sizzle to your proposal by incorporating a story dimension that livens up your content, like a journalist would. A story has a set-up (when, where, and with whom it happened); a complication (some challenge or difficulty that had to be overcome); and a positive resolution (how we came out of it as heroes). Many SMEs have a hard time thinking of interesting stories, so you may need to draw them out. To get your SMEs to open up, say something like: “it must have been hard to…,” or “how did you feel when…” I try to get more of the juicy details by specifically focusing on what I think would captivate the reader and make dry, boring content come to life.

 

6. Review Your Drafts with the Group and Fine-Tune the Proposal

Once you’ve filled the gaps in your proposal with additional information from your SMEs and feel like it’s fairly solid, it’s time to get input from your SMEs on what you’ve written so far. Provide them with an electronic copy of the proposal, and have them edit and comment on it using Track Changes and Comment features in Microsoft Word. This works best as an iterative process. If you have time for serial SME reviews, where one comments and edits, then passes the revised document to the next person to review, that may work best for your particular circumstances. This is unusual though; most likely, you’ll be under time pressure and will need to coordinate receiving and compiling comments and feedback from multiple SMEs simultaneously. Once you have feedback from all team members, you can approve or decline edits as necessary and incorporate new content based on everyone’s comments.

When you’re ready for a final review, schedule another in-person meeting with your SMEs, if possible. (You could also do this with a GoToMeeting or another virtual collaboration tool.) The ultimate setup is to get your SMEs in the same room, far from distractions, with the proposal posted on a wall so it can be seen in its entirety. Read each section out loud to the group, preferably with the proposal displayed on-screen so everyone can see it and read along with you. Invite your SMEs to jump in anytime you read something that concerns them or that they feel they can strengthen by contributing additional information. At the end of this process, your proposal should be in good shape for the last rounds of formal reviews.

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