Understanding Taxonomy and Metadata: What They Are, and What You Need to Know
If you’re deploying a proposal management system, you may be wondering what you need to know about taxonomy and metadata. If you’re new to content management, you may even want to know: What is taxonomy? And, what is metadata? After all, these terms sound very scientific, and you’re a content person, right?
The topics themselves are somewhat scientific, but they both apply to the content stored in your proposal library. This article is designed to convey the basics about what you need to understand about each, and how they are used by your proposal management system to manage your proposal repository.
Let’s start with taxonomy
According to dictionary.com, taxonomy is “the science or technique of classification.” It turns out that this is a very modern definition — the word “taxonomy” was first used to describe the system of scientific classification of plants and animals beginning in 1828. Since then, the word has evolved to describe the practice of classifying any set of related topics or concepts. Its scientific application has expanded to include taxonomies for everything from viruses to types of soil.
In the business world, the types of taxonomies have become vast as well. There are global taxonomies, like the International Standard Industrial Classification (ISIC) system created by the United Nations to classify employment data by economic type. This is reinterpreted in many country- or region-specific classifications. The U.S. version, originally created in 1937, assigns a 4-digit code to businesses to denote their industry. The primary usage for both is the reporting of economic data, and consistency is essential.
But many businesses have their own internal taxonomies — systems to classify everything from accounting transactions to organizational structures. These taxonomies are usually hierarchical, denoting the structural relationship between parts of the business or how financials will be reported by business unit or expense category, then consolidated into a total picture for the company.
When it comes to content, a company often needs to establish its own taxonomy or the representational structure against which unstructured content is classified in an organization. Whoa, that’s a mouthful! In plain language, it’s a classification system to sort content into logical buckets such as a nested folder structure, a format that probably everyone is familiar with.
These taxonomies are created to manage records that may need to be tracked for compliance requirements, for example, or in knowledge management systems to enable better management of organizational information and know-how. And they might be required to support the organization and facilitate the retrieval of content in your proposal database.
So where does metadata fit in?
Metadata is literally data about data. It’s an essential part of associating an organization’s taxonomy with the content produced.
There are several types of metadata, too. The three main types are descriptive, structural, and administrative metadata, and you should be familiar with each, at least at a cursory level.
Descriptive metadata is something we are all aware of, even if we don’t know that’s what it’s called: it’s basic information about documents or files like the filename, the author, and the date it was created or last modified. It’s likely that you’ve used this type of metadata recently to find a file on your own hard drive or in a shared repository like Sharepoint or Google Drive. You know it’s essential and helps you find information. But you probably also understand that it isn’t sufficient by itself to enable you to find things as quickly or easily as you’d like.
Descriptive metadata also includes keywords, which are typically assigned to files by the file creator. Keywords can add additional specificity that makes locating a particular file more intuitive. But unless those keywords are created within some type of taxonomy, they can also add confusion, as each author or contributor typically assigns their own keywords to their content. It’s also impractical to assign large numbers of keywords to each file or content element, as that may lead to bloat in the system and additional confusion for users. (More on this later.)
Structural metadata denotes the relationships between content blocks, such as chapter numbers assigned to elements within a book or long report, for example. And administrative metadata provides information that facilitates the management of content, such as access controls (e.g., who has the right to use or edit content), limitations on reuse (such as licensing requirements), or expiration or review dates.
Why is this so important to understand?
Many content management systems, including proposal systems, need both metadata and a governing taxonomy to operate effectively. The goal is enabling users to easily and efficiently find and reuse all types of content, from the essential to the obscure. Organizations deploying these systems can go far toward meeting that goal with a clear understanding of these concepts.
So, if you’re starting from scratch — or overhauling your current system — where do you begin? As you might guess from its definition, a great deal of metadata can be pulled from the original content or source document. As such, it’s a fairly straightforward task to record, enter, and use metadata throughout your system.
The trickier part is developing your taxonomy and the appropriate keywords to support it. Developing a robust taxonomy does not happen overnight. The process should include a range of stakeholders, including system users as well as subject matter experts and business managers (as explained in this great article on taxonomy design for content management systems). A taxonomy also should be revisited regularly to account for evolutionary changes in the business and the lexicon of the marketplace.
What if this all sounds daunting?
This level of effort can be off-putting for smaller businesses or even for larger companies that have streamlined their staffing levels. (At DraftSpark, we do see some larger companies with specific roles, or at least a subset of responsibilities within a proposal content management role, to create and manage the organizational taxonomy and keywords or tags to be deployed.) So how does a business compensate?
This is where NLP-based AI solutions can do the heavy lifting for you. An AI-based solution can not only ingest your content, but it can also record its associated metadata automatically for reuse within the system. But even more importantly, it doesn’t require the creation of a taxonomy or a hierarchical keyword or naming structure to enable you to find your best content going forward. A technique that we’ve referred to as semantic search in this blog, more accurately “Concept Search,” allows users to retrieve content blocks based on queries that use natural language to find an answer.
This also helps protect organizations from edge cases where content has been appropriately tagged yet includes uncommon content that doesn’t fall within the keyword parameters, so it can’t be found to address unique requirements in the business. For companies with diverse business capabilities and an array of engagements with customers, this content can be critical to success. Making it easily accessible across multiple departments could make a significant difference in everything from operational efficiency and regulatory compliance to workforce management and winning new business.
Because of their capacity to absorb and categorize every type of content across an entire organization, NLP-based AI systems offer the chance to break free from the traditional structure of taxonomy and keywords. The result is a tool that automates content in the most effective way possible, without the need for your team to create and deploy your own internal metadata and taxonomy strategies. The difficult work of organizing and archiving is done on your behalf, while you enjoy the maximum level of benefits that effective content automation is designed to provide.
What Is Proposal Automation (Really)?
According to Wikipedia, proposal automation software — also known as proposal management or proposal writing software — is software…
“designed to help users develop proposals, presentations, and responses to RFPs. Proposal management software is becoming increasingly popular in companies that manage frequent and extensive proposal writing projects. Such software allows businesses to automate the more routine tasks while easily tracking multiple versions.”Wikipedia
This definition makes intuitive sense, but still leaves a great deal of gray area. After all, there are lots of ways to define a proposal. So let’s peel the onion a bit to get to a practical definition.
No matter the focus of your business, a Proposal presented to a potential customer is a strategic document, essential to the growth of the business; producing impactful Proposals is a key asset for many businesses. But what makes a Proposal successful is much more specific to its context, including your business or industry and the circumstances under which it’s generated. That means that the tasks that should be automated will differ too.
What are the major categories that Proposals can fall into? When you look at standard types of proposals, the two main categories that are cited in the industry are solicited vs. unsolicited. Solicited proposals can be further broken down into those requested formally vs. informally requested proposals. But how does that impact automation?
Formally Solicited Proposals
The process for formally solicited proposals begins with a request from a buyer, typically in the form of a published RFx (Request for Proposal, Request for Quotation, or Request for Information) or an Invitation to Bid (ITB). What’s common among these various request types is that they are typically published publicly, they outline the buyer’s need, and they kick-off a competitive process where each vendor responding must think not only about answering the questions, but doing so in a way that positions them most compellingly to the buying entity.
But the information requested in each of these formats differs fairly significantly, so how you’re going to construct your response to each will be different as well. For example, one of the most important parts of an RFQ response is a price quote, so the helpful automation in this scenario will be your quotation capabilities and marrying your quote with a short but persuasive narrative on the other factors that make your products the best (such as superior quality or short lead times).
RFP responses are typically the longest and most complex proposals that are constructed in the solicited category, but there is still a lot of variation in what is required in an RFP response based on the requestor (Federal Government vs. State-Local-Education (SLED) vs. Commercial businesses) and what product or service is being purchased.
Federal RFP responses provide companies with the least amount of flexibility by providing rigid restrictions on everything from font size to page count. And compliance with the specific requirements set out in Sections C, L and M of the RFP are an absolute must for your proposal to win the bid. In these situations, creation of a compliance matrix, mapping of the matrix to the project timeline, and control over the document construction process may be the most essential tasks to automate.
Commercial RFPs can look like a whole other animal entirely, either allowing for creativity in submissions at one end of the spectrum, to entry of straightforward answers to questions in an Excel grid at the other end. Depending on the types of RFPs you’re seeing in the Commercial sector, the tasks to automate will again be different.
(To get a better handle on the differences between the various types of RFx vehicles, we recommend this article from the training firm, Negotiation Experts. While written to instruct buyers, it provides helpful insights for bidders into the thought process behind each type of request.)
Informally Solicited Proposals and Unsolicited Proposals
We’re grouping these two types of proposals together because there are many commonalities behind how they are developed. Informally solicited proposals occur most often when there is a buying relationship already in place, and the buyer indicates their needs to an existing supplier. Frequently it’s not a competitive situation, and the goal of the document is to reflect back to the buyer an understanding of their requirements, provide an overview of the work to be done, and establish an initial price point for the work or product set.
An unsolicited proposal, also called a proactive proposal or sales proposal, is offered to a prospective buyer as part of an interactive sales process, where the role of the document is to reinforce the sales messages being delivered.
In either case, these documents are typically constructed by Sales and Business Development teams with a more sales-oriented message. They may leverage many standard elements, but also require customization to be persuasive to the client or prospect. These types of proposals are frequently constructed as slide decks or very visually appealing text documents.
What is often important for constructing these proposals is the ability to leverage a set of modular messages that are pre-produced or easily dropped into customized templates. Integration with CRM systems to include customer-specific data could be key. And ease of use is a must.
How to Think About Whether You Need Proposal Automation
Given all the “what ifs” we’ve listed, how can you think about whether you need Proposal Automation, and if so, what type of system?
Start with understanding the work of proposal creation in your organization. Likely you’re producing more than one type of proposal (and maybe responding to Security Questionnaires and DDQs, too, which are often supported by a Proposal Automation tool). So determine your top use case and where you are experiencing the biggest bottlenecks. Repeat that same analysis for each proposal type where you are devoting significant effort in the organization. Then determine whether one (or more than one) solution will help you address your pain points.
You’ll still need to peel your own organizational onion, but you’ll have a better sense of where to start. And if this isn’t detailed enough direction, stay tuned for our upcoming guide on selecting a Proposal Automation solution. We’ll step through the process as well as talk through other considerations you won’t want to ignore.
The Best Tools for Tracking Government RFPs
As many companies work to shift their customer acquisition strategies in response to our current economic conditions, we’re seeing numerous firms turn their focus to government contracting (specifically, looking for and responding to Government RFPs). We’ve talked to companies that have served government buyers, but only as subcontractors in the past, so now they’re looking to bid on work directly. We’ve also talked to firms that are hoping to increase their work and approach Government RFP opportunities more systematically to ensure growth.
While this thinking makes a lot of sense and provides tremendous potential for hungry businesses, it can be mind-boggling to get in the game. It’s often difficult to identify the right opportunities and do so in a timely fashion, especially for SMBs that can’t afford to apply dedicated resources or teams to the task.
In order to establish a successful government business pipeline, many SMBs that have already been focused on these contracts indicate that they’re using tools to help them stay abreast of the opportunities and timelines. But there are several options available with varying capabilities, so we did some research to help companies get their arms around the options.
Here’s our list of the top tools, segmented by coverage area.
Solutions Covering All Government Sectors
This joint solution – GovWin IQ+OnVia – is part of Deltek corporation, a leader in government contract management and accounting software. The two brands started as separate solutions. GovWin began in 2007 with a focus on Federal government RFPs, and was subsequently acquired by Deltek in 2009. OnVia began much earlier with a focus on the State, Local and Education (SLED) segments, and was acquired in 2017.
The resulting solution claims it has the industry’s largest team of analysts focusing on government contracting, enabling organizations to gain a competitive advantage when pursuing business in all areas of government. In addition to providing early notifications on a variety of procurement opportunities (which you can tailor to match your business characteristics), GovWin+OnVia provides market and competitive intelligence, forecasts on activity — like their 2020 SLED Government Contracting Forecast — as well as a host of other research and information specifically tailored to an array of industries including Technology, Business Services, Architecture & Engineering as well as Construction (AEC), and more.
Plans are available for Federal or SLED support, and free trials are available. Pricing is not published by the company. Users do rank the product highly; you can check out their comments on G2.
EZGovOps also covers both Federal and SLED opportunities. They position themselves as the “affordable force in government market intelligence.” Founded in 2010, they are not newcomers to the category either. They have strong reviews, a broadly functional solution with solid features, and flexible plans. Their client list includes many strong mid-market businesses as well as some marquee names.
The company offers a 5-day free trial and plans that range from $1,995 – 5,495 annually. Their pricing and functionality at each tier is transparently listed on their website. EZGovOps seems to be a good option for midsized companies looking to cover both Federal and SLED opportunities.
GovSpend also covers the array of Federal and SLED opportunities with a focus on providing alerts and data on Bids & RFPs, procurement opportunities, government contacts and more. According to their website, more than 80% of government purchasing occurs without an RFP process, so their database is designed to help businesses tap into this potential.
The product is clean and easy to use, and they also offer a free trial before signing onto a plan. Their customer list includes a variety of well-known brands.
The new kids on the block are BidSearch. This recent market entrant provides a solution that is modern-looking and easy to use. It is a narrowly-focused solution providing RFP and opportunity identification without a lot of bells and whistles or additional market intelligence. They do state that they cover over 100,000 opportunities including those from some Canadian provinces in addition to comprehensive coverage of the U.S.
BidSearch offers extremely reasonable pricing options. (Dare we say cheap? Maybe super-affordable is the right terminology.) They offer a 14-day free trial, too, which seemed to be the most generous in our research.
Another newer player in the field is DemandStar. While the company is new, the team is not, bringing prior experience from OnVia and the tax solution Avalara. They promise access to opportunities from over 500 government entities with national, state, or county-level subscription options. They also indicate that some subscription options are free, so this newer, hungry business may be an ideal choice for cash-strapped businesses to get started with a solution.
Despite the contemporary name, BidNet has been in the business of providing government business intelligence since 1983. Like many of the competitors, a key piece of their offer is Bid Alert, which is driven by their proprietary technology, as well as customer profile development to help companies better understand the buying organizations.
Like GovWin IQ+OnVia, BidNet offers vertically-specific coverage for industries including IT, AEC, and professional services, but they also cover less common verticals such as Sports & Recreation and Clothing & Accessories. Their client list appears to include both mid-market and SMB companies.
While many vendors who began with a SLED focus have expanded into the Federal arena, a few solutions are sticking to their more local approach to government coverage.
Vendor Registry serves over 400 public agencies and over 70,000 vendors across the United States. Their focus is cities, counties, school districts, utilities, higher education, airport authorities and other municipal government agencies. Similar to some of the comprehensive offers above, Vendor Registry hand-codes bids and RFPs from these entities and delivers timely bid alerts to vendors with matching products and services in order to facilitate commerce nationwide.
A division of eRepublic, GovTech Navigator has taken the unique approach of focusing exclusively on State and Local IT contracts and EdTech information. This focused approach appears to offer a compelling value proposition while still keeping costs reasonable (their plans start at only $2,500 annually). At the same time, their site displays testimonials from some of the big names in IT, including CA Technologies, AMD, and Alcatel Lucent. Plan pricing and functionality appears to scale at reasonable levels, and the base plan, although only available for a single user, still offers reasonable functionality. If your business is IT-related (including anything from peripherals to services), this may be a good option for you.
Avisare brings a unique mission to the category, with the goal of connecting Local Governments and Tier 1 contractors (those submitting $100M + bids) with small, diverse businesses to make it easier for small businesses to compete effectively. Their solution uses technology to move beyond NAICS codes to categorize businesses for more accurate matching of government opportunities, whether direct or as subcontractors, with their SMB customers.
Their unique mission doesn’t end with how they’ve structured their solution — they also donate a portion of their profits to the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). Their vision is compelling. They could be the solution that smaller, unique businesses need to get their foot in the door.
The cadillac of all the solutions we reviewed is Bloomberg Government or BGOV. This solution is geared towards government affairs professionals as well as government contractors, all at the Federal level. In addition to providing data on opportunities, their offering includes a rich set of information and analysis that supports businesses more broadly. While an impressive looking solution for the policy-oriented business or professional, if your main goal is to find RFPs and opportunities, this tool may not be the best fit for you.
Also new to the scene is Federal Compass, founded just last year by industry vets. They promise to take a different approach than competitors, while still providing up-to-the-minute opportunity information. Their solution purports to take a “personalized” approach for each company, using both historical performance information along with incoming Federal signals to help clients craft a winning strategy for serving Federal customers. They’re also offering integration capabilities prominently, taking a more cutting edge tack than the competition.
While new, their strategy does seem unique, and with free trials available, they may provide some extra “secret sauce” to early adopters looking to get into Federal with a more customized mindset.
Lower Cost Options
There are two companies that enable businesses to search across databases of Federal, State, and Local RFPs without a contract, GovernmentBids.com and FindRFP. While these offerings require that you initiate the search, they might be an excellent starting point for businesses to get a better understanding of the array of opportunities in the marketplace that are applicable to their businesses. Each company also has paid subscription offerings which extend their search functionality with alerts and other valuable tools.
At the end of the day, you can always decide to do it yourself using free government tools. SAM.gov is the Federal government’s interface for searching all information on contracts and sourcing. Much of the site is still in beta (thus the current name of beta.SAM.gov), but it consolidates former disparate sites run by the government. It’s pretty daunting for new users.
Similarly, States and Local entities must make their sourcing decisions public, so contract records and RFPs can be found without a paid service. The challenge is doing that efficiently. We recommend that any company seriously considering doing business at the SLED level on an on-going basis invests in a tool. Your return will be realized quickly.
And of course, when you’re responding to RFPs, don’t forget to explore how DraftSpark can help you be more efficient!
A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Confusing RFP Response Terminology
If you’re new to responding to RFPs — whether you’ve just joined a team experienced with the process or your company has just started looking into RFPs as a potential revenue source — some of the language used in the RFP industry can be quite confusing!
If you’re part of an established team, you’ll be able to learn from your teammates. You also may have access to some of the comprehensive resources offered by the Association for Proposal Management Professionals (APMP), particularly their Body of Knowledge (BOK) which includes a glossary.
But even if you have this comprehensive resource, there are numerous examples of industry jargon that are not included. Plus, if your team, experienced or not, is doing the work manually, the terms around automation may be equally as confusing. We’re going to walk through the key “terms of art” and tools that you’ll want to know for success.
Let’s start off with an obvious question:
How do you automate RFP responses?
This answer is complex, and depends greatly on how large your RFP and the subsequent response is, what industry you’re in, who the final client is, and how short or long the turnaround time is. A point of particular consideration is how customized your response will be. RFP response automation can include these activities:
- Cataloguing / managing all of your proposal material in a proposal database
- Scrubbing of prior proposal content
- RFP shredding
- Creation of a compliance matrix
- Suggesting answers to proposal questions
- Managing workflow
- Enabling collaborative proposal writing
Software solutions that support some or many of these activities can be classified as RFP Response Automation software, or sometimes as Proposal Automation software (which is technically a broader category that includes tools that support the creation of any type of proposal, not just those created in response to an RFP).
What is the RFP response process called?
The gold standard in the industry for the RFP response process is known broadly as the Shipley method or process. Technically the Shipley Business Development Process, this 96-step process was developed by Shipley Associates to codify the steps a business should take in serving Federal government clients. The process actually goes well beyond the activities associated with RFP response, although about two-thirds of the steps fall into their phases of Proposal Planning, Proposal Development, and Post-Submittal Activities.
As you might have guessed from its length, this process was designed to support the intricate requirements of companies vying for multi-million dollar Federal contracts. Because this process is frequently too complex and impossible to staff for organizations not doing this type of business, you’ll see many truncated variations of the process. Often consultants and process providers indicate that their method is based on the Shipley process, but tailored for the types of organizations they support.
What are Color Team Reviews?
Color Team Reviews are a series of team or management reviews that occur at specific points in the RFP response process. Each color-coded review has a specific purpose in order to ensure that the proposal is developed in compliance with the requests of the RFP issuer and in a manner that best positions a company to win the bid.
Sometimes the color of the review helps indicate its purpose, for example, the Green Team Review covers the pricing aspects of a proposal, and the Gold Team Review is the executive review of a completed proposal to ensure it’s submission-ready. Some of the other color reviews, however, are not as intuitive in their naming. If you need to understand the full array of these reviews, AOC Key Solutions has published a useful guide to color team reviews on their blog.
What is RFP shredding?
RFP shredding is the process completed by many organizations to thoroughly read, understand, and highlight the information contained in an RFP and also the requirements for the response. We’ve also heard professionals call this process “bursting” the RFP. For Federal Government RFPs, which have a uniform structure as specified by Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), the focus is on Sections C (the Statement of Work), L (Instructions and Guidelines), and M (Evaluation Factors), in particular.
When completed manually, many organizations actually use colored highlighters to designate content in different categories, like questions that must be addressed in the response, timing information beyond the due date like due dates for vendor questions, or budget requirements.
Why’s it called “shredding”? We haven’t found a definitive answer to this question, but we’ve heard that the term came from the appearance of the highlighted doc, because it looks like it’s been shredded (even though it’s still technically in one piece)!
What does it mean to scrub a Proposal?
When companies enter their completed Proposals into a content library or database, they frequently go through a process of “scrubbing” the content. This process removes client- or solution-specific information from the text, like company names, pricing, names of assigned staff, and sometimes information like acronyms. It might be more aptly called “redaction”. Here’s an example of some scrubbed content:
The goal of scrubbing is to ensure that when proposal content is reused, inappropriate information or details are not accidentally included in new responses. Scrubbing alone doesn’t guarantee that you won’t make errors. But when scrubbing is done well — particularly with visible handling of removed information — you and your team will have reduced the risk significantly of making an embarrassing mistake with new proposals that you deliver.
How do I know when to start using RFP response software for my team?
If your team is working manually, and you are constantly struggling to meet deadlines or complete other assignments, it’s probably time to start thinking about an RFP automation tool. This even applies for teams of one!
DraftSpark.ai is an RFP Response Automation solution that helps teams host their proposal library, shred new RFPs, find their prior content and automatically populate a new, first draft proposal. It also supports automatic scrubbing of content in prior proposals. We also make it easy to collaborate during the proposal writing process and manage the tasks and timeline in a unified interface.
If you’re online researching how to create RFP responses and how to be more efficient with the process, this may be another indicator that it’s time to adopt software. A platform will save lots of time, and the benefits could far outweigh the costs!
Have more questions? Think we missed some terms? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know! We’d love to add to our list and publish updates for our audience.
3 Simple Steps for Beating Your Competition and Winning Your Next RFP Bid
Last week, we published How to Prepare Your Team to Win Competitive RFP Bids. As promised, this week we are returning with Part 2 on this topic — how to set up and manage this process. We want to reiterate that this is written with smaller teams in mind, so employs tools and methodologies that are easy to follow and also cost effective.
The technique we’re recommending is an adaptation of the competitor analysis framework that many entrepreneurs follow when establishing their companies. That more detailed approach is outlined in a fabulous post on the Buffer blog, How to Perform a Best-in-Class Competitor Analysis.
The difference between that approach and what we’re recommending here is that the information in our analysis is more focused on the information that will be most useful in the head-to-head competitive arena. The company-level information can still be helpful for Sales and Bid teams, but it will have less impact on your daily work than the product or service-level details we focus on.
So on to the how.
Creating Your Information Tracker
Step One of creating your evergreen competitive analysis is to set up your “information tracker” and determine where it will be housed. You’ll want to capture and maintain all the information in a place that is easily accessed and updated by every member of your team. The natural place to do this is in a shared, online file. We recommend an option such as Google Sheets or the online version of Excel via Microsoft 365, or other options on the market.
So first, why not a spreadsheet uploaded to a shared folder in Box.com, Dropbox, or the like? We don’t recommend this alternative in order to guarantee that everyone is using the best, most recent information and there are no lags in getting updates out to the entire team. If users or contributors need to download the spreadsheet to update it, or decide to keep a local copy for easy use, it’s not difficult to envision how these downloads might multiply, each copy containing different sets of information. Keeping one shared document in one central place will mitigate this risk.
Next you might be wondering why a Google Doc or an online PowerPoint might not work? After all, you certainly don’t need many (or any?) of the spreadsheet functions to capture the competitive information you’ll collect. Here there are 3 key reasons for our recommendation:
- The spreadsheet will help you structure the collection and presentation of information in a way that is fairly easy to understand. And it can grow flexibility with your activity. If you learn that tracking another feature is key, you can easily insert a new row at the appropriate spot, for example.
- Using a spreadsheet makes it easier to sort or compare where you stand among the competition. If you’re competing with 3 other companies on a particular bid, you can easily reorganize your spreadsheet to focus on those three.
- The multiple sheets within a workbook enable you to track different aspects of the market on separate tabs such as product or services features on one and pricing and contract specifics on another. You could add a cover sheet that pulls in summary information from a variety of tabs. You can even decide to track each separate competitor on its own sheet, although setting up comparisons in this case requires a bit more effort.
(These are the same reasons that many organizations still issue RFPs in Excel format, for what it’s worth.)
Initial Information Requirements
Next, you’ll want to set up the various sheets to begin collecting the information that will help you best understand the market overall, each competitor individually, and where you fit in the landscape.
Focusing on your product or offer is clearly the right place to start, and you’ll want to keep things simple initially. You’ll know from conversations with prospects what the key features are that they are concerned about. Start by listing each area/feature in the first column of the sheet.
Then, place your key competitors’ names at the top of the next several columns so you can start to complete the grid. Again, we recommend starting with 3-5 so as not to overwhelm your initial efforts. You’ll know which names come up again and again in competitive situations.
Populating the Initial Information
Assigning the task(s) of compiling all the information at your fingertips today may be shared across the team, but you’ll want to place one person (or one person per competitor) in charge of the process to ensure that the work gets done. A goal date will also keep the team focused.
Much of the information you’ve spec’d out in your document may already be known by someone on your team. Spend 15 minutes at the beginning of your next team meeting to compile it in real time. Maybe even treat it like a trivia contest to keep things fun and the group engaged.
Then have those assigned with the task(s) of completing the sheet begin their research to compile the rest of the information. A great place to start is (not surprisingly) your competitors’ websites. We encourage you to go beyond the surface information, looking at blog posts and case studies to gather more nuanced information. Other great sources include third party review sites like G2 and Capterra, if you compete in the software arena; competitive data aggregators like Crunchbase, Owler, and the like; and general news outlets, if there is coverage of your business category.
Going forward, a great method to keep up on the latest with your competition is to create Google Alerts for each of the key competitive companies. This will deliver information to your inbox daily or weekly on new information including product or press releases, job postings, funding announcements, and more. To set up an alert, go to https://www.google.com/alerts and type in the name of a competitor. Then click “Show options” to select the frequency at which you’d like to receive information, specify other criteria like the source language of the content, and enter the email address where you’d like to receive the updates. Then click “Create Alert” and you’ll start receiving your updates as soon as new, relevant information hits the web.
Now you’re on your way! From this simple start, the categories of information you collect will naturally grow and mature just based on what you’re learning constantly from your research and your conversations with customers, prospects and partners. You’ll be in a stronger position to write that Win Theme on your next RFP response.
How to Prepare Your Team to Win Competitive RFP Bids
Teams that currently have excess bandwidth due to slower than typical business conditions in the “new normal” have been turning their attention to training opportunities and knowledge improvement. It’s also a great time to catch up on those foundational projects that never seem to bubble to the top during typical business periods, things like creating or maintaining policies, procedures or guides for internal use.
Ok, these items might not bubble to the top just because of time — they may seem like they’re not the most fun projects on the planet either. But if you take the right approach, that doesn’t have to be the case. (More on this later….)
In our RFP process guide, Developing a Powerhouse RFP Response Process for Your Small Bid Team, we presented the idea of maintaining an “Evergreen Competitor Review” to support sales and bid teams in smaller organizations. If you haven’t read our guide (yet!), you might be asking yourself, what is an Evergreen Competitor Review?
An Evergreen Competitor Review is a competitor analysis, performed to track key elements of their businesses and offerings. These are items you’ll need to understand in order to compete effectively against them. In particular, understanding their latest product or service feature sets will be indispensable to your ability to effectively differentiate your offer from theirs.
The “evergreen” part is a designation that this is information that is up-to-date today and, more importantly, is actively updated continuously. This part may sound both daunting and unnecessary. We don’t believe that either is true — with the right techniques, you can manage to update this information continuously. And with some ingenuity, you can also reduce the pain and maybe add some fun while you’re at it.
But first, we wanted to share why this is necessary. There is a great deal to be gained by organizations that do a better job of understanding where they fit in the marketplace at all times.
Positioning Yourself to Win the Bid
In AOC Key Solutions’ comprehensive eBook on developing a proposal plan, the section on Win Strategy begins with “Win Themes and Discriminators.” Discriminators, as the word suggests, are the features of your offer that are uniquely different from the features your competitors offer. A thorough understanding of the competition will enable you to clearly articulate your unique benefits so that you can stand out.
You might be thinking that this can easily be updated at the time you’re writing your RFP response. But you may want to reconsider this thought when you turn to Win Themes. AOC Key Solutions defines Win Themes as “messages that contain a feature, claim, or benefit that addresses some critical or major issue of concern to the customer that are likely to resonate with the proposal evaluator” (the bolding is mine).
That means that the critical moments leading up to the preparation of the proposal document should be about understanding the customer’s perspective thoroughly. While their requirements may be written in the RFP they’ve issued, there may be nuances or details that will only come out through a more thorough analysis of the customer’s needs.
Some of these details may be gathered in conversations that your sales team has with the prospect, particularly if they’ve been able to develop close relationships prior to the publication of the RFP. But other details may need to be gleaned from reading press releases or earnings statements, or understanding where the customer stands in their end market. These efforts may prove time consuming, and they are critical to get right.
Taking a developed competitive map and marrying it with the latest perspective on the customer will provide you the best chance of articulating smart and compelling Win Themes in your subsequent bid.
Why Should My (Bid or Sales) Team Create This?
If you’re part of a larger organization–even if your Bid team or Sales team are small–you may be thinking that creating and maintaining an assessment of the competition and marketplace is actually someone else’s job. After all, you might have a corporate strategy team who is responsible for tracking stats and publishing reports. If you do, take advantage of their work by all means! But beware complacent thinking that this gives you enough information to perform your work effectively.
Here’s why it’s important that critical information is collected by your team:
- Every group who is working with and influencing customers should have intimate knowledge of the various factors and inputs that your prospect might be considering when reviewing your proposal. Treat the work done by your corporate team like you would any other third party data source, digesting it and keeping it at your fingertips.
- You’re the team that’s in the market and talking to customers, so you’re in the best position to capture the most accurate information. Compile what you’re learning from trade shows, partner conversations, prospect meetings, and your other interactions as it happens.
- Don’t be caught out not knowing a key market development. The last thing any team wants is to lose a bid based on an erroneous “fact” or misstep in a presentation that leaves the prospect questioning the overall authority of what you’ve presented because you’ve missed a detail, change, or advancement.
Having the most current knowledge at the ready will position your team and your business best for capturing the win.
Stay tuned for our next post on this topic, 3 Simple Steps for Beating Your Competition and Winning Your Next RFP Bid. This post will present steps and techniques that are easy to set up and straightforward for your team to follow — and can be fun, too.