Win by losing: how to turn failed business proposals into opportunity

Let’s begin with a quote:

"Sometimes you eat the bear ... and sometimes the bear eats you.” - Preacher Roe

As good as your sales proposal might be, you can’t win them all.

But chalking up an “L” is not the end of the world. It's only fruitless if you let it. 

Here’s another quote:

“We win or we learn.” - John Kavanagh

We must learn from our failures. Otherwise, what's the point? 

In the context of a failed business proposal, that means asking the prospect why you lost.

Many ignore this opportunity. People rarely seek criticism or feedback. Our egos are too fragile. Our minds don’t like the reminders of our losses. It's unpleasant.

Boo hoo. 

If you don't complete the feedback loop, you'll miss a vital opportunity to improve. 

Let’s say that taking on board customer feedback nets a ten percent improvement on future proposals. After ten failures, you’ll have a proposal that’s 100 percent better than the first.

It’s a subjective measure, I know. But it's a good way to conceptualise the benefits and take the process seriously.

The cure: organise a debrief meeting with the evaluation committee.

Usually there will be one on offer. If not, nine times out of ten, they'll agree to one if you ask. 

My personal experience... 

I've written hundreds of proposals. And I’ve been on the losing end of dozens of debrief meetings. 

At first I gained low value feedback. The advice I received was too vague, or not actionable. I didn't know what to ask, so I didn't get the right information. And I didn't know how feed it into a useful continuous improvement cycle.

It's difficult to elicit good advice. People will accentuate the positives to make the meeting go smoother. I don’t know how many times the customer has said, “Your bid was really good! It was very well written! It just didn't have what we were looking for.” 

That’s fine, but it's just not useful. You need to dig deeper.

Before you can ask the right questions,  you need to follow these basic rules: 

  1. If you wrote the bid, attend the debrief. No proxies / assistants! You’re not above criticism. 
  2. Track every win and loss in a spreadsheet with the following columns:
    • RFT/ID
    • Win theme
    • Your price
    • Winner
    • Why did they win?
    • Winner's price
    • Lessons learnt
    • Process improvements.
  3. Maintain a lessons learned register for your company's sales/ bid process. Lessons that aren't fed into continuous improvement cycles are useless to your business. (Turn lessons into process improvements, update quality checklists, etc.)
  4. Bring a notepad to take notes during the debrief meeting. 

What's next? You've added continuous improvement into your sales processes. You've arrived at the debrief meeting with your notepad in hand. You're prepared. 

Here are the right questions to ask: 

1. Do you have advice on how we can improve our proposals in the future? 

You MUST ask this question first. Not only is it the most important question, but it also lays the groundwork for every other question you want answered. 

Here's why it works. 

  1. People always feel more valued when you ask for advice rather than an opinion. Everyone asks for opinions. Few ask for advice. 
  2. It frames their response in the context of an imbalance. They're the superior benefactor, preaching from the mountaintop. People like to feel important.
  3. No one likes giving bad advice. It just feels wrong. By asking for advice instead of how they felt, you'll cut through the B.S of empty opinions. Empty calories.

It's so powerful. But no one does this!

Go figure…

2. What do you remember about our proposal?

The answer to this question will tell you if your your win theme resonated with the evaluation committee. 

The quicker they answer, the more likely your win theme was on target.

If it didn’t resonate, you might need to work on making it more persuasive next time. Here's a good book to help you with this.

3. Did our proposal lose on price?

Discussing price sometimes makes people uncomfortable. If you're dealing with government clients, often the debrief panel is reluctant to share their information on the winner's price.

To counter this, trawl the awarded contract notices online. Then track it in your spreadsheet. Was your bid too low? Too high? Start building data to help you position your price for next time.

Sometimes you lose because of the dreaded 'value for money spreadsheet'.  This is where lower quality offerings win because of budget versus risk ratio. The higher risk, inferior quality proposal comes out on top - but only because it lowballed on price.

In this case, you bid may have lost because quality was not the determining factor. 

If you think this has happened to you, take on feedback with caution. It's now suspect. Your bid could have been the best. Criticism and feedback might be smoke and mirrors. But if you've positioned the conversation by asking for advice, the risk of this is low.

You'll also get better at identifying low value feedback over time. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

This happens all the time. Sad, but that's life.

4. Why did the winning bid win?

This question is great. It's your chance to reverse engineer the win theme of your successful competitor. Which message resonated with the evaluation committee enough to tip the scales to your competitor?

Use it to course correct if needed. See how your competitors position themselves.  Beat them next time.

There are plenty of opportunities to gain value from debrief meetings

But make sure you do it the right way. Make sure the feedback will be useful to your business. Track the results. Embed continuous improvement into your bid / sales processes. Frame the debrief conversations as a means to receive advice from your prospect. Then ask the right questions. 

Until next time,


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