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What to Look for in a Proposal Specialist

November 23, 2020
November 23, 2020
You can use four key factors to determine if a proposal specialist will best suit your needs.

Selecting a Proposal Specialist

Proposals are the lifeblood of companies that depend upon contract-based revenue. Without winning proposals, a company will not perform contracts, and without contracts, a company will not survive.

A client once told me hiring a proposal specialist is like choosing a heart surgeon. You do not know the right questions to ask – all you know is that you die if you do not choose well. I thought about his witty words, and they prompted me to write what you should know before hiring a proposal specialist.

There are four key factors you should consider when hiring a proposal specialist:

  1. Breadth and Depth
  2. A Process-Based Solution
  3. Flexibility and Adaptability
  4. Experience

Breadth and Depth

Proposal development requires many different skill sets, disciplines, and writing.

In proposal skillsets, there are:

  • Leaders
  • Coordinators
  • Writers
  • Editors
  • Formatters (desktop publishers)
  • Illustrators (graphic artists)
  • Reviewers

Subject matter disciplines include:

  • Technical and engineering
  • Management
  • Financial
  • Commercial
  • Offsets

Proposal documents include:

  • Executive summaries
  • Win themes
  • Responses to requirements
  • Responses to evaluation criteria
  • Plans
Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

Your proposal specialist should cover all the above categories and should have redundancy in every category. Even if you are hiring for a single skill (writing, for example), something could happen (and sometimes does happen), and you need a backup resource to finish the job. Over the past 30 years, EXA associates have been called to jury duty, gone to the emergency department, responded to family emergencies, and been stranded in widespread travel stoppages. In every case, EXA reassigned a qualified resource to complete the work after a minimal delay. Your proposal specialist needs the breadth to cover all the bases and the depth to deal with situations when they occur.

A Process-Based Solution

When a construction company builds a bridge, it doesn’t just start welding sections together. It applies a rigorous process of understanding the requirements, defining the specifications, designing the structure, and selecting the construction method before the bridge’s first piece goes into place. Requests for Proposals (RFP) can be extraordinarily complicated and broad, and developing proposals require a similarly rigorous process.

The people who work on proposals and manage proposal teams must understand the proposal process and their role. Ask your prospective proposal specialist to show you their process. You may not understand every detail, but the overall process should appear sound, complete, and achievable.

EXA has a proposal process called The EXA Way, which defines all the steps a bidder follows before first contact with the RFP to beyond submitting the proposal document. We practice The EXA Way on every proposal we lead.

Flexibility and Adaptability

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

Proposal planning is essential to success, but ironically the plan will not survive the proposal. A proposal plan starts to fail upon first contact with the proposal development. No matter how well you prepare and organize your proposal plan, events will overtake it. RFP schedules and requirements will change. A more in-depth analysis of the proposed solution will uncover hidden challenges. Misunderstood or overlooked requirements will come to light. Partners and suppliers will reveal new obstacles. Changes to the bid team will thwart established tactics. And in the catch-all category, things will happen.

A proposal plan is like a football playbook that has set plays and formations. With no playbook, no one on the football team knows what to do, just as without a proposal plan, no one on the proposal team knows what to do in connection with the rest of the team. But every football coach knows the playbook is not a cake recipe – while the playbook is essential, following the playbook does not guarantee success. Like a football coach, a proposal leader must anticipate, respond to, and adapt to internal and external forces, and the leader must continually adjust the plan as events dictate. A well developed, continually updated, and executed plan maximizes the team’s chance of success in proposals and football alike.

A proposal specialist must understand and practice proposal planning. The specialist must also understand how to evolve plans throughout a proposal development effort. A proposal leader must be firm yet flexible and must follow and maintain a fixed plan that continually changes.


The proposal specialist needs to know what works, and equally importantly, what will not work. This wisdom comes from years of experience.

Except in rare circumstances, the proposal specialist does not need to be experienced in the proposal’s subject matter because it is not the proposal specialist’s job to verify your bid’s technical content. If you engage a proposal specialist to support writing, then that writer should be well versed in the subject matter.

The proposal specialist you hire should ensure:

  • Your bid includes every required element in the correct quantity, manner, format, and location
  • You respond to every bid requirement, but it is up to your subject matter experts to determine if those responses are accurate, complete, and correct
  • The proposal document is visually appealing, well organized, easy to navigate, and well written

While this sounds easy, complex proposal leadership is convoluted and time-consuming. Your proposal specialist should have experience leading no fewer than three, and ideally at least five winning bids of equal or greater size and complexity as the one you are pursuing.

EXA’s win ratio on major proposals is very good – over 60% – but I do not recommend using a win ratio to assess a proposal specialist’s experience. Bids are usually lost over price or technical score, both of which are typically beyond the proposal specialist’s control. A win ratio of 20% deserves closer examination, and a win ratio claim of over 80% demands intensified scrutiny.

It is more instructive to ask if the proposal specialist ever led a bid that lost evaluation points because of the completeness, organization, or readability. EXA writes into its client contracts the right to attend bid debriefing meetings between the procurement authority and EXA’s client so that EXA can learn if it contributed (positively or negatively) to the outcome of a proposal evaluation. EXA has never been the cause of a client’s bid loss.

In conclusion, selecting a proposal specialist does not need to rely on guesswork or chance. You can use four key factors to determine if a proposal specialist will best suit your needs. Companies that rely on contract revenue should consider these factors when selecting a proposal specialist.

EXA is Canada’s leading firm specializing in Capture and Proposal Leadership.

From small, strategic bids to programs over $100M, EXA leads pursuits of all sizes with 30 years of experience.

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