Proposal manager, who is your client?

Aug 20, 2023


A firm’s approach to proposal development greatly impacts how marketing and proposal professionals do their job and how they understand their role.

With more than 11 years of experience in proposal development, I’ve seen a lot of ways of doing proposals. Like many of you, I’ve even seen the way of simply not having a way. That is, I’ve worked for organizations with a methodical process and those with no process at all. Certainly, a firm’s approach to proposal development greatly impacts how marketing and proposal professionals do their job and how they understand their role.

Regardless of best practices, or lack thereof, there’s also the internal structure to consider – I’m talking about how your organization thinks about its proposal professionals. There’s considerable nuance in how this plays out from organization to organization, but it can be useful to classify organizations based on who proposal professionals are serving.

Model A: Proposal staff are support staff serving internal clients. In this model, proposal teams serve other internal teams. A proposal manager’s client is a sales or BD lead, account manager, internal project manager, etc. As such, a proposal manager’s job is to satisfy, or meet the needs of, that internal person.

Oftentimes in this model, the sales or account lead – whomever is responsible for that client relationship – can request pursuit support. The pursuit team might be independent and/or support a variety of internal clients pursuing work with diverse external clients. In larger organizations or where pursuit support is limited, this lead makes a case for support, usually by estimating revenue and/or showcasing positioning that increases the likelihood of winning.

The proposal staff are then assigned to that pursuit to support that lead in winning the work. The defining element of this model is that the sales lead owns the proposal. It is their client, their proposal; they are responsible for winning the work and therefore the deliverable itself.

Why does this work?

  • Any process that requires the sales lead to make a case for support is a good thing. There is value in simply having to justify a “go” decision and reflect on why an opportunity is right for the firm. This keeps us away from the dangers of the chase-everything mindset.
  • Furthermore, if pursuit support is not guaranteed, this model often emboldens positioning efforts. Sales leads are working pre-RFP to figure out which pursuits are more likely to warrant support. Doing their due diligence sets proposal managers up for success.
  • Proposal teams aren’t taken for granted. Let’s call it the rule of scarcity, but when you aren’t guaranteed support, you are more grateful when you have it.
  • A sales lead owning the proposal takes some stress off of proposal managers. You aren’t alone on an island trying to hold sales and technical staff to the fire as your deadline approaches.

Where does it fall short?

  • Proposal teams are left out of the loop at crucial decision gates. Proposal staff often offer value during early positioning or capture activities, and when left out, so is their valuable perspective. In this model, proposal teams usually get involved at RFP or shortly before, when the proposal is already a go.
  • Proposal staff have learning curves that can impact quality, especially on tight deadlines. It’s no secret that it takes time to learn a client, an organization’s history with that client, and the context around the current work being solicited – time you might not have if you are brought in last minute.
  • Since proposal managers don’t own the proposals, they can lose authority. For example, if your client is the sales lead, who is to keep them from staying in the document past pens down?

Model B: Proposal staff are teammates in serving external clients. In this model, pursuit teams are comprised of proposal, sales, and technical staff, all coming together with a singular external client. As such, a proposal manager’s job is to develop compliant responses that resonate with the external client and win work.

Oftentimes in this model, the proposal staff are integrated team members routinely working with the same technical teams and on board with ongoing business development efforts. The role of proposal staff varies greatly in organizations set up this way. They might wear a lot of hats and be present in the early go/no-go decisions. They might know the client and the organization’s history with that client very well, and act as a business developer or client strategist as well as proposal manager. Or they might merely support a sales lead through capture planning and then take lead at RFP drop.

The level to which the proposal manager owns the proposal varies greatly, but the defining element of this model is that the proposal, sales, and technical staff all share the same client: an external client.

Why does this work?

  • Working with the same people and developing proposals for the same clients lends itself to familiarity and efficiency. The better I know my technical team, their solutions and experience, and their preferred ways of working, the faster I can get to work. Moreover, the better I know a client, the better I can tailor messaging and solutions to their hot buttons and goals.
  • Proposal staff are integrated into the team and involved at various decision gates. They see the bigger picture and intimately understand the business strategy of the team they work with.
  • Proposal staff can own the proposal. I’m not saying this happens everywhere, but this model is more friendly to establishing proposal staff as experts in their field with repeatable best practices. Simply put, when the sales lead is not your client, you don’t have to walk that line as carefully.

Where does it fall short?

  • The chase everything mindset prevails. When you are pretty much guaranteed pursuit support, what’s to stop you from thinking everything is a go? When the pursuit team is integrated into your team, you may lose the checks and balances of a separate team with a more objective perspective.
  • Sales and technical teams often get complacent. You knew you’d get support. You know your proposal manager is a rockstar with client knowledge. A false sense of security may lead to taking advantage of the pursuit support.
  • If proposal staff own the proposal, there may be unfair and unrealistic expectations about what they are responsible for, which can lead to less collaboration, lower quality deliverables, and stressed-out employees.

Categorizing the numerous ways of winning work into two general models requires assumptions and doesn’t do justice to the diverse roles I’m sure many of you play in your respective organizations. But it does give us a chance to discuss how our organizations are set up and who our marketing and proposal professionals are serving.

I’m interested in hearing who you consider your client to be and the advantages and disadvantages of the way your firm thinks about its proposal professionals. 

Mercedez Thompson has 11 years’ experience in professional marketing services. As a pursuit manager at PwC, Mercedez collaborates with thought leaders, marketing and sales staff, and client services personnel to develop the firm’s most strategic proposals. She was a 2022 APMP 40 Under 40 Winner.

About Zweig Group

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