Identifying Powerful “Win” Themes for Your IT Proposal

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For a potential customer, the material within a proposal, at its essence, boils down to “What you can do for me” and “How much does it cost.” Around these two core elements swirl endless response requirements, such as references, approaches to key areas like Quality Assurance and Project Management, relevant experience, and many more. When putting together a proposal, much of the focus falls on making sure all of these required response elements are in place; as a result, the  focus on the two core elements of “what” and “how much” are often watered down. Using a “win” theme is one way that   companies keep that focus and write proposals that aren’t just compliant, but compelling. However, a misunderstanding of what win themes are and how to apply them to a proposal can diminish their value or make them nonexistent in your final product.



What is a Win Theme?

A win theme is the reason why your company should be awarded the contract. It is something that can be stated clearly and succinctly in your opening/Executive Summary, and then guides every part of your proposal thereafter. Win themes can be specific knowledge, qualifications, technical experience or proven approaches that make it clear that your company can successfully do the work proposed. They are the explanation of why your company or your team is awesome at what they do and why your solution will make the customer happy. Win themes emphasize improved products and/or reduced costs – things the customer wants.

How Do Win Themes Improve Proposals?

Your technical solution is your compliant response to the customer’s need, whereas your win themes are your proof that your technical solution is what the customer should want. Since a proposal is a sales tool, I would like to turn to the ultimate salesman, the car salesman, to illustrate this point. When buying a car, the salesman doesn’t point out that it has four wheels, an exhaust system and seatbelt. These are basic compliance points for a car. The salesman points out safety features, performance aspects (speed and handling), and exciting add-ons like the sun roof and luggage rack. These are what makes you want to buy the car; these are its win themes.

Mistakes/Misconceptions with Win Themes

Misusing win themes can diminish their ultimate value in your proposal. A misguided identification of the win theme can be a waste of your and your proposal team’s time. The following are some common mistakes that companies make in win theme identification:

  • Themes should not be too vague: It’s hard to commit to specifics, especially when you have multiple opinions pulling at your proposal, but vague win themes don’t say anything. “We have a Superior Technical Approach” is a win   theme I often hear, but it’s a baseless claim. Comparatively, the claim “Our   _______ makes our approach superior” might be a point of consideration that actually leads to a win.
  • Good themes aren’t “brainstormed:” You can’t just come up with a good win theme during a proposal kickoff meeting, yet that’s where they’re most often determined.  Such an approach often leads to vague, baseless and throw-away win themes. Good win themes are a result of your actual capabilities. You create them through process   improvement efforts and your corporate experience. Good win themes are the end result of your company’s efforts to be a better company.
  • Themes should to apply throughout the response: You can define a great set of win themes at proposal kickoff, but then your authors need to include those in their individual write-ups. This is what ensures those technical sections are compelling sales points, and that your overall response follows a central theme. Often, win theme identification serves the initial decision to bid on the work: “wow, we’re great!” However, that theme never makes it into the proposal, which ends up telling the customer “wow: we’re compliant.”
  • Themes don’t have to be differentiators: Keep in mind that customers may receive numerous proposals for a piece of work. Sure, you want to stand out from your competition, but some work really isn’t conducive to unique and different approaches. Perhaps the contract is for continuing existing work that’s going smoothly and to the customer’s liking. Your win theme should support the status quo, as any other serious bid would have the exact same theme.
  • Themes must align with the customer’s reality: Following from the point above,your win theme is something that your customer should want, more than something you think is great or concocted just for the sake of creating a win theme or establishing a differentiator. If your win them is not aligned with the customer’s reality or wishes, it could easily be a lose theme.
  • You MUST have a theme: Ideally, you have deep knowledge of each opportunity you bid on and are able to infuse your response with Win Themes showing your strategic advantage. But often, we bid on work based on the face value of what’s in the request for proposal and work statement. If you don’t know the back story, or can’t read between the lines, your win theme is a shot in the dark. Or maybe the bid is a Lowest-Priced Technically Acceptable (LPTA)   evaluation, in which your proposal should focus on compliance plus low cost, rather than the “wow” factor. Back to the car analogy: these proposals are similar in approach to what you buy for your 16 year old – boring, safe,   reliable, and low cost.

I Think my Proposal Has Win Themes…

You may make an effort to identify win themes and have them echo through every section of your proposal, but how do you know if you were successful? Proposals with win themes are fun to write, for everyone from the business lead pursuing the work to the technical staff providing inputs. If you have a win theme and it is coming through in the response, people will be excited about your chances of winning and proud of what your company is capable of. If you don’t have win themes, writing a proposal is likely to be a miserable chore, which all participants think is a waste of their time. Win themes can have a positive impact on how your team approaches the proposal writing task altogether.

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About the Author

As Segue’s Chief Strategist, Matt focuses on proposal development and capabilities marketing to align our experience, current capabilities, and resources with winning solution strategies. He works closely with Segue’s business leaders to build robust opportunity pipelines for each of our verticals: US Air Force, Federal Non-DoD, USN/USMC, Health IT, and Commercial/Non-profit. In addition, he is focused on capturing major IDIQ vehicles and capabilities to respond to a heavy pace of Task Order requests for proposal (RFP). Read more from Matthew Kelley