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Proposal review: How to avoid mistakes in your RFP responses

Proposal review: How to avoid mistakes in your RFP responses

Speed or quality — you don’t have to compromise. Create an RFP & proposal review process that fine tunes your response & helps you win.

Category: Author: Helene Halliday

Helene serves as a Senior Customer Success Manager at Responsive. In her role, she builds meaningful relationships with customers and enables them to meet their goals and maximize the value they receive from Responsive. Helene is passionate about communication, leadership and efficiency.
Proposal review: How to avoid mistakes in your RFP responses

Proposal review: How to avoid mistakes in your RFP responses

Will your proposal win? From your executives to the sales team, it’s the question on everyone’s mind. However, the moment you click send and submit your RFP response, the outcome is entirely out of your hands. If you’re the proposal manager in charge of the RFP response, you might find yourself suddenly wishing you’d had more time to spend on the proposal review process.

It’s a common challenge facing proposal teams. How do you move quickly and meet deadlines while also dedicating enough time to reviewing your RFP response and ensuring you’re putting your best foot forward? It’s a constant balancing act.

Luckily, this blog is all about finding a proposal review process that works for you. First, we’ll discuss what a proposal review is and why it’s an important part of the RFP response process. Then, we’ll offer an overview of common review strategies so you can evaluate which approach is best for your team. Finally, you’ll learn tips and best practices for ensuring an effective review process that helps you get your proposals as close to perfect as possible.

What is a proposal review?

A proposal review, or request for proposal (RFP) response review, is the process of examining the content, format and messaging of an RFP response to ensure quality, accuracy, compliance and consistency. Proposal review is a standard step in the proposal process that occurs near the end of the proposal timeline.

Due to the complexity of RFPs, there are many aspects of the proposal to assess. Therefore, a proposal review is actually made up of several rounds of reviews focused on specific aspects of the RFP response.

Focus areas for RFP response reviews

  • Storytelling, cohesiveness and messaging
  • Competitive positioning and win themes 
  • Compliance and completeness
  • Pricing
  • Response accuracy and consistency
  • Spelling, grammar and brand compliance
  • Proposal format and visual elements

Each of these focus areas is important to the overall success of the proposal. And, despite each of these reviews having unique and specific focus, their ultimate goal is the same: to identify any errors to be corrected, points to be clarified or improvements to be made before the submission of the final proposal. In short, the purpose of these reviews is to make the proposal as close to perfect as possible.

Who does the RFP response review process involve?

Ultimately, the proposal manager is responsible for navigating the proposal process, including the RFP response reviews. In their role, they recruit qualified reviewers, coordinate review scheduling, provide guidance for each review team, settle disputes, seek clarification when needed and ensure edits are promptly implemented.

With so many nuanced proposal elements to consider, proposal managers depend on help from other members of the proposal team as well as stakeholders and executives within the business. Indeed, after dedicating hours to collecting, customizing and writing the proposal, a new perspective and a set fresh eyes to review the RFP response is absolutely essential.

Why establishing a proposal review process is important

It almost seems inevitable. The instant you submit your final proposal to the prospective customer, you’re bound to suddenly see an obvious error or a better way to phrase a crucial answer. Indeed, this frustrating feeling is all too common among proposal professionals. The relatable sentiment was recently shared by Jeremy Brim, proposal expert from the bid toolkit on LinkedIn.

Despite our best efforts, mistakes may happen. However, the proposal review process seeks to minimize the risk of missing a disqualifying error. After all, nothing stings more than losing an RFP opportunity over a small mistake.

Common approaches to the proposal review

There are a lot of different philosophies when it comes to proposal review. Some companies use a complex, multi-level review cycle for each and every proposal, while others find a scalable review process beneficial.

Similar to other common proposal practices like discussions of return on investment and to bid or not to bid, ideally, the complexity of your proposal review process should reflect the value of the RFP opportunity. Regardless of your specific approach, every RFP response deserves some level of pre-submission inspection ⁠— after all, if it’s worth responding to, it’s worth reviewing.

Simple two-person proposal review

Suitable for small businesses and simple RFPs, a simple proposal review minimizes the burden on your team and accounts for the most important elements of your RFP response. 

This process assumes that the proposal manager also wrote significant portions of the RFP. Consequently, it calls for two outside reviewers: one to check the messaging and compliance and one to read the proposal for consistency, grammar and formatting. Consider recruiting marketing or sales team members to complete these review tasks.

Proposal compliance matrix

For short RFPs with fairly straightforward requirements, a proposal compliance matrix can easily be used to facilitate your RFP response review. As you might expect from the name, the primary focus of this process is RFP criteria and requirement compliance rather than storytelling or persuasive messaging.

Thanks to the grid format, a member of the proposal team, stakeholder or executive can perform this review quickly. To facilitate deeper discussion of feedback, consider adding a column to your proposal compliance matrix to encourage reviewers to provide comments, corrections or suggestions for improving your proposal. Then, review the feedback with your team and take action to make any necessary updates.

The color team proposal review

The most in-depth approach is the color team review process. Indeed, this multi-team, multi-layer approach contains many reviews throughout the RFP response timeline. Accordingly, it’s well suited to lengthy, complex and highly-technical RFPs. For example, color team reviews are standard for businesses that primarily answer government agency and public sector RFPs.

In this model, each team is known by a particular color and is responsible for a specific focus area. While the practice of color team reviews is common, the size and responsibilities of each color team vary slightly from one business to the next. However, pink and red team reviews most frequently appear in the proposal review process.

Common color team review assignments

Pink team review

Generally, pink team reviews focus on content. They ensure that the proposal is compliant with the customer’s stated criteria, needs and expectations. For example, they might ask questions like: Is every answer complete? Does the proposal solve the customer’s needs? Are the established win themes carried throughout the content? Consider asking a proposal analyst, customer success professional and a sales team member to participate in the pink team review.

Red team review

Next is the red team review. Focused on the customer’s perspective, this team reads the review as if they were a proposal evaluator. Specifically, they ask questions like: Does the proposal tell a compelling story? Is it clear that we understand the customer’s business? Have we clearly expressed our plan for partnership? Good candidates for the red team include veteran employees, sales and marketing leaders and customer success professionals.

White team review

Sometimes referred to as white glove, this final review team reads the proposal from front to back looking for format consistency. Are the margins, fonts, headings and bullet points uniform? Does the table of contents match the following proposal page numbers? Are reference tables and data placed and sourced correctly? Were the edits from the pink and red team properly implemented? Are there any obvious printing errors? Ideally, the white team consists of detail-oriented professionals who have not yet been a part of the proposal development process.

Additional color teams

  • Blue – Outline and gap review
  • Black (Black hat) – Competitive analysis
  • Green – Pricing review
  • Gold – Edit implementation

Proposal review tips and best practices

Review tips for proposal managers

Go digital

Avoid distributing paper copies of the proposal for review. Spending time interpreting and comparing handwritten feedback is inefficient. Instead, consider using a shared document or, better yet, proposal software to centralize review notes, clarify edit tracking and streamline collaboration.

Set a schedule and stick to it

Finding volunteers to participate in the review process is typically fairly easy. However, keeping those reviewers on schedule when they juggle other duties is not always as straightforward. So, before assigning reviewers to teams, share your deadlines for feedback and get a firm commitment from them. Then, follow up as needed and be ready to call in a back up reviewer if they cannot meet the deadline or become unresponsive.

Find fresh eyes

Our brains are trained to save time. Unfortunately, this means that if you’ve written or read something once, your brain will automatically start trying to save you time by filling in words, skipping ahead and making assumptions. This is why getting a new perspective is one of the most valuable parts of a proposal review. Consequently, don’t let anyone do double duty, working both the proposal development team and the review team. Make sure as many fresh pairs of eyes review (and improve) your proposal as possible.

Provide a guide

Because many of your reviews should be new to the proposal content, you can’t assume they’ll know what they’re doing. Therefore, it’s a good idea to create and share a guide. Include a copy of the RFP with relevant sections or instructions highlighted. In addition, provide specific directions for what aspect of the proposal they should pay attention to as well as how they should provide feedback.

Best practices for proposal reviewers

Be prepared

Effective proposal reviewing takes a high level of focus. When you agree to be a part of the proposal review process, check the deadline for feedback and block time on your calendar. If possible, request and review a copy of the RFP prior to receiving the proposal so you have some background about the project.

Regularly consult the RFP

When reviewing, the customer’s RFP should be at hand at all times. Indeed, consider it your handbook, blueprint and instruction manual all in one. Because compliance is always a concern, each reviewer must understand how their feedback enhances compliance. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to the proposal manager for more information.

Provide actionable recommendations

Be kind to the proposal manager. As you review, remember that they have a big job and they’re counting on you for specific, clear feedback. For example, commenting “Need more info” on a response leaves them wondering what you mean, why you think that and how they can fix it. On the other hand, explaining “I think this question wants more information. I’d suggest we be more specific about our implementation process. Can we summarize step four here and provide our implementation guide as an attachment?” is much more helpful.

Review and win

Unfortunately, humans are imperfect, so mistakes will almost certainly make it into your proposals from time to time. However, with an organized proposal review process, you can significantly reduce risk and improve your chances of winning more RFP opportunities.

The SME role explained: Subject matter expert definition and skills

The SME role explained: Subject matter expert definition and skills

A subject matter expert, often referred to as an SME, has deep knowledge of a particular topic. Within your business, they’re the authority on the subject. They’re the go-to person if someone has questions. And as such, the SME role is incredibly valuable. But it can also be complicated.

If you’re a subject matter expert, it’s probably safe to say that your time is in high demand. Your niche knowledge is needed by many departments. From sales to marketing to proposal development, SMEs collaborate on a wide variety of projects. 

Taking on an SME role comes with both opportunities and challenges. On the bright side, being a subject matter expert means you’ll connect with people from all areas of your business. This is a huge advantage for career growth. Afterall, the more relied upon you are as a subject matter expert, the more visible your value is to the company. On the other hand, due to the number of people and projects they’re involved with, workloads can be challenging.

In this post, I’ll define the term subject matter expert and explore the SME role. From there, I’ll outline the responsibilities, traits and key skills of a subject matter expert. Then, I’ll share how to become a subject matter expert.

What is a subject matter expert?

To start, let’s define a subject matter expert. Simply put, a subject matter expert is the go-to authority about a particular topic. The term is often abbreviated to SME (pronounced S-M-E or “smee”). It broadly refers to any person within your business who has specialized knowledge on a topic and provides that insight to others. SMEs develop their deep understanding of a topic over years of experience, research or study.

Often, the SME role contributes to cross-functional projects as needed, but it’s not their full-time job. For example, a product development manager may be your organization’s subject matter expert on artificial intelligence. However, that’s not their primary job responsibility. Of course, this isn’t always the case. In large organizations, providing insight and specialized knowledge to internal teams may be an SME’s sole focus.

Examples of SME roles and areas of expertise

SME role examples | Table of SME titles and areas of expertiseAs you can see in these sample SME roles, the areas of expertise typically align with the person’s title. Because the type of information and depth of knowledge required is different in each business, the number of SMEs will vary widely. Regardless, each adds value with their unique knowledge of a particular subject.

Why be an SME?

Admittedly, being a subject matter expert is a lot of work. So, why do it? There are some major benefits to being a domain expert. In fact, it’s a great way to accelerate your professional development. In the last few years, SMEs have become more valuable than ever. 

In am SME role, you can:

  • Raise your profile with peers in your field of expertise
  • Leverage your reputation to become a selling point for the company
  • Increase your worth to the business
  • Elevate your role and be a part of strategic decisions
  • Become a trusted advisor

Subject matter expert job description

Being a subject matter expert is all about balancing priorities. Not only are you responsible for your primary job functions, but you also contribute to other areas of the business. 

As you might imagine, subject matter expert responsibilities change from business to business and role to role. In most cases, domain experts work with  product development, marketing and sales most often. Indeed, an SME may have a hand in the business from beginning to end. You’ll see in the example below how an SME might collaborate to create, market and sell a new product enhancement.

Consult with and advise product development

The specialized knowledge an SME has is valuable. As a subject matter expert, your body of knowledge can have a huge impact on the growth and vision of the company. Working with the product development team, SMEs offer insight on strategic initiatives and projects.

For example, a software company may have an SME in IT who is a data security analyst. Before building a new release, the company’s development team would strategize with the data security analyst. Together they would ensure that the planned enhancements align with privacy and security best practices. Alternatively, the SME may recommend strategies to avoid risk.

Educate and strategize with marketing

How can you use your domain expertise to drive revenue? Can it be a differentiator between your company and the competition? When you have the right people in SME roles, their knowledge can help you win business. Indeed, the marketing team can use SME insights to create content that attracts new prospects. This expertise is essential to ensure messaging is accurate and appealing.

Using our example from above, the data analyst can help create a blog that explains the importance of data security for target customers. And, how the company goes above and beyond to protect it. The IT SME can provide information and strategize ways to attract and sell to specific industries. In this example, the SME in IT could explore ways to educate prospective customers in the financial, government and legal sectors.

Respond to RFPs and win business with sales

As the authority on a certain subject, the SME plays a big role in the proposal team. Working with sales or the proposal manager, you create RFP responses. This RFP content answers client questions, shares win themes and communicates value. As mentioned above, the subject matter expert themselves may become a trusted customer contact or differentiator that helps to win business. 

In our final example, the same data analyst — an SME in IT ⁠— helps to answer customer questions about the company’s data security protocols. They  communicate how their policies are different from the competition, and how they reduce risk.

4 subject matter expert skills

To be successful, a subject matter expert must cultivate key skills outside of their area of expertise.

Subject matter expert competencies should include:

1. Time management

With so many responsibilities, time management is top on the list of required skills for a subject matter expert. Balancing your workload, prioritizing and task management will be an ongoing challenge.

2. Teamwork

By definition, subject matter experts work with a lot of people throughout the business. Teamwork is crucial to success. In fact, a recent survey reported that 86 percent of employees believe poor collaboration is to blame for workplace failures.

Learning and practicing key teamwork skills will make your interactions more successful. For instance, focus on rapport-building, listening, empathizing, respectfully disagreeing, collaboration and expressing appreciation.

3. Communication

Along with honing your teamwork skills, you must be an excellent communicator. You’re the domain expert, so from time to time it will be a challenge to explain more nuanced concepts to the team. Be sure to take your time, communicate clearly and give context when possible.

4. Knowledge management

Even if you have an excellent memory, you’ll occasionally need to locate your previous work, sources or documentation. Locating the right information can be time consuming. Accordingly, a McKinsey study estimated that workers spend 20 percent of their time searching for information.

If your knowledge is scattered among emails, notes and proposals you may be doing yourself a disservice. Centralizing and applying knowledge management principals to collect, catalog and reuse information saves a lot of time.

Traits of a truly great SME

The subject matter expert definition will fit a lot of people within your business. However, the most successful SMEs share these common traits.

Educated and experienced
You don’t become a domain expert by accident. In addition to experience, SMEs have a deep knowledge of the subject through formal education or self-guided learning. Consequently, the best SMEs are lifelong learners.

Observant and inquisitive
A great SME continually explores new ideas and trends. They are incurably curious about the matter they specialize in. Their knowledge is always deepening as they seek out blogs, updates and conversations about their topic.

Social and engaged
Beyond studying and tracking trends, the best SMEs actively participate in events, forums and social media groups that discuss their topic. They network and engage in conversations with other domain experts who specialize in their area.

Freethinking and innovative
Leading subject matter experts explore new ideas. They think outside of the box and look for innovative ways to leverage their knowledge. People in the SME role carefully consider common challenges and find creative ways to solve them.

Perceptive and cooperative
A great SME must not only understand their area of expertise, but they must also understand how their knowledge impacts the business. They see the big picture and often work closely with other SMEs.

Helpful and articulate
Freely-shared (and easily understood) knowledge is a marker of a great subject matter expert. The best SMEs know how to articulate even the most complicated concepts simply and clearly. Helping others understand is essential.

Precise and principled
From time to time, a business consults with the subject matter expert hoping to validate a specific strategy or approach. While remaining positive and helpful, great SMEs also maintain an unbiased, factual approach. Occasionally, this means they must advise caution about a planned action.

How to become a subject matter expert

If working with colleagues, being a trusted advisor and learning more about different areas of your business sounds good, you may be wondering how to become a subject matter expert. In your role, you already deliver a great deal of value to the projects and proposals you are involved in. So, you can shift to become a subject matter expert by extending that value. Here’s how.

Identify and grow your expertise

The first step to become a subject matter expert is to identify what topic you’re uniquely knowledgeable about. Hopefully this is immediately clear to you. If not, start by thinking about your role. What do people come to you to ask about? Are there any work-related topics you enjoy learning about? How would expertise in a specific area deliver value to your company? 

Once you’ve identified your area of expertise, it’s time to dive in. No matter how niche, there’s assuredly a wealth of information about your topic available to explore. With a simple online search, you’ll find free resources, peer networks, forums and more about your topic. As you deepen your knowledge, consider how it applies to your work. Now, share your relevant insights when appropriate with your colleagues. Becoming an SME doesn’t happen overnight. Just be patient and persistent.

Make yourself available for sales conversations

It’s no secret that getting in the door can be a challenge for your sales team. But for you, a domain expert, it might be a lot easier. Ian Altman, a strategic advisor and keynote speaker, discussed the value of including an SME in the sales process saying: 

“SMEs provide a valuable resource to discuss industry trends, share best-practices, and delve into detailed discussions about how one solution might perform better than another. Whereas traditional sales professionals have noticed increased challenges in getting in front of customers, SMEs are welcomed into the room with open arms.”

Your knowledge could open the door for your business’s next big deal. Make yourself available to the sales team when strategic opportunities arise. With this in mind, be ready to talk directly with customers and share your passion for your field of expertise. There’s no substitute for human connection.

Communicate clearly and share your preferences

When you’re brought into a project, be realistic and transparent about your prioritization and workload. For example, when responding to RFPs with tight deadlines it’s important to communicate how the proposal team can support you and when they can expect your input.

In addition, proactively share your work process and preferences. If you handle your primary responsibilities in the morning and prefer to manage your SME role via email in the afternoons, let your team know. This insight will allow your colleagues to better understand how you can successfully work together.

Understand your role

Like many SMEs, you probably struggle with overextending yourself in an attempt to be helpful. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned habit can quickly lead to burnout. It is always tempting to lend your assistance when you see an opportunity to help. I recommend using a RACI matrix as a guide for project participation.

If you know from the beginning what role you play, you will be less tempted to volunteer for additional tasks. So, as projects come your way, remember and respect your role in the process. Be an expert in your area and trust others to be experts in theirs.

Offer feedback and be a part of go-no-go conversations

While you understand the excitement of sales, you won’t have time to waste on unwinnable opportunities. When a project or request for proposal is received that heavily intersects with your domain expertise, review it with the sales team during the bid or no bid discussion.

Use your knowledge to ask questions and proactively uncover problems or concerns. Granted, you might not make the final decision, but your input helps determine if the opportunity is a fit for your business. Your respectful and thorough feedback will go a long way to help educate others for future decisions.

Be the voice of reason

As the SME you must often set realistic expectations. If you pursue a new strategy or win a bid by overpromising, it rarely works out well. By delivering accurate information on a project or in a proposal, you set the stage for success. This approach protects the company from risk, establishes a reputation for honesty and builds a foundation for future growth.

Become a mentor

Help others develop their skills in your area. Keep your eye out for colleagues who show a keen interest in your domain. Sharing your knowledge and guidance to create more domain experts can be incredibly rewarding. As they deepen their knowledge, they can put what they’ve learned to work and help lighten your burden.

Do more with a centralized knowledge library

Eventually, you’ll probably field the same questions over and over again. From product development projects to RFPs, it’s wise to have easy access to answers and input you’ve shared before.

While some SMEs use spreadsheets or cloud-collaboration tools, our favorite tool for knowledge management is RFP software

With an RFP software solution, you can store, categorize, tag and reuse your most common answers. Then, empower your proposal and project managers to use this as a self-service tool. Using the software, they can select and customize your response, but give you final approval to ensure any updates are accurate. Storing knowledge this way ensures you add value to your business even when you’re not immediately available to answer questions.

Additional SME resources

The importance of subject matter experts cannot be understated. When internal and external teams recognize your expertise, knowledge and professionalism, they will want to work with you. As a subject matter expert, you can play a significant role in the sales process, product development and the business at large. 
If you’re interested in more resources about and for subject matter experts, start here:

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