12 steps to successful presales project management

There is rarely a second place in the tender process when it comes to the award of a new contract to a supplier, the result of months or even years of market positioning, dialogue, bid preparation, presentations and negotiations with a prospective customer during a competitive bid. For the buyer it’s a procurement process which starts with the shortlist and selection of a number of suppliers and ends with the award of a contract. For both organizations the investment is heavy; but for the seller, the outcome is usually all or nothing. This article focuses on the role of the seller in the presales phase and the importance of the project manager within the tender process.

During the tender process, procurement or bid documents are created by the buyer. These procurement documents take on different forms; however within this article, the use of RFP (request for proposal) is used as it represents the more complex type of procurement document. The RFP response by the seller is known as the proposal.

In preparation for the release of an RFP the bid team, led by the deal manager is assembled. The bid team is made up of subject matter experts from different parts of an organization and include; the bid manager, service manager, finance, legal, the solution manager and technical experts. The project manager can sometimes be found on the list of key resources, but more often is not, and typically brought in at a later stage when the need for project input to the proposal is recognized.

When a project manager is requested by the sales team, the organization usually assigns who is available at the time rather than who has the necessary presales experience to carry out the work. This approach can have a negative effect on the sales outcome, because for many organizations the project management function is a highly underestimated part of the tender process. Even organizations that have a good level of project management maturity fail to grasp the importance of the project management role within the presales lineup, and even when this is recognized, roles and responsibilities are not well defined, or necessarily agreed with the deal manager. Therefore the project manager is not empowered to perform the role to which he or she was assigned. It is therefore critical that a project manager who has the necessary experience and training is assigned to ensure a successful presales project management engagement.

In many cases a project manager is not involved at all during the proposal process until after the contract is signed. This can have huge consequences as the project manager may then be handed a project with unrealistic time and cost constraints so inevitably the project starts out in trouble and may never fully recover.

However the sales phase is managed, following the successful signing of a contract, the sales team have done their job, will disengage and move onto new opportunities. It is therefore the project manager’s job to make sure that a good and proper handover is made and that key members of the sales team are available for an agreed period of time to support the project. In some organizations this is a mandatory process but it is more of an exception rather than a norm.

The twelve steps below provide a guide that will enable you as a project manager to be more successful in presales project management.

This guide is based on medium to large IT implementation projects that can include transition, transformation (greenfield or second generation outsourcing) requirements.

Step 1: Agree your assignment responsibilities

It is important to set expectations on both sides; where the project manager expects to take on responsibility and what the sales team expects from the project manager. Responsibilities and scope of work must be agreed with the deal manager in advance in order to define activities and tasks the project manager will undertake. It is quite possible that the sales team have a different set of expectations so it is important to agree this up front.  

The below provides a guide to the responsibilities a project manager should undertake during the proposal phase:

  • Define the scope and requirements for the project phase and contract as defined within the statement of work (SoW) and RFP documentation.
  • Engage departments and teams to secure support to meet the needs of the proposal, for example; lead architect, technical design and solution managers; service lines; network, data centre or security specialists, product management, procurement, HR, contract management and rollout teams.
  • Utilize all existing organizational standards templates, processes tools and processes where applicable.
  • Follow the RFP guidelines, requirements and timelines for the tender process and participate at all internal and external meetings and buyer presentations.
  • Prepare and finalize all proposal documentation, governance, reporting, PMO and cross functions activities, schedules and gantt charts, and document and manage all risks, opportunities, assumptions and project constraints.
  • Organize and make available a shared project folder for all project related documentation, contractual documents and Q&A and responses.
  • Schedule regular status meetings with the project team to ensure they will meet agreed internal milestones and proposal deadlines.
  • Ensure all customer obligations have been identified and product and service acceptance criteria have been documented.
  • Lead project related due diligence activities to gather data that is important to help finalize the solution and costs.
  • Calculate all internal and external project phase costs and work with the deal manager to agree total project budgets and the finance manager to integrate costs into to business case.
  • Perform the necessary contract reviews together with the contracts manager and legal teams.
  • Ensure that the solution is clearly defined, is achievable and can be delivered to meet the overall requirements of the RFP in terms of time, cost and quality.
  • Gather lessons learned from the team, document and communicate them at the end of the sales engagement.

Step 2: Read the procurement documents and understand the tender process of the buyer

In general, the contractual procurement or bid documents are covered by the following types:

  • Request for quotation (RFQ): this requests a price quote for a specific item, service or unit (per hour, meter etc).
  • Request or invitation for bid (RFB/IFB): is used when the exact requirements and specifications are known.
  • Request for proposal (RFP): this is a request to provide a detailed proposal and would typically require the seller to provide a detailed description and price for the service or solution, together with company credentials and references.

The procurement documents will include a SoW which describes the work and activities that the seller is required to complete together with their associated terms and conditions. In addition, the buyer may release a request for information (RFI). This type of request typically does not contain any contractual information, instead it is used to collect information either about prospective suppliers or to help define what can be included later in the tender process. 

Contract types fall into three categories; Fixed price (FP), time and material (T&M) and cost reimbursable (CR). FP and CR contracts have many variable options. The project manager should have a good understanding of all contract types and be able to select the best type of contract for a project. It is also important for the project manager to know what the contract terms, conditions and legal terminology mean so that he or she can read and understand the contract.

Statements of work include: Performance type; what the final product should be able to accomplish. Functional type; what the end purpose or the results should be, and Design type; precisely what work is to be done.

The bid process can be managed directly by the buyer, or it can be managed by a third-party consultancy which can follow a particular bid management process or methodology. Be sure to conduct research on the consultancy firm managing the bid process to help with internal preparation and planning.

Step 3: Determine the RFP timeline

The RFP will include instructions and delivery times covering bidder conferences, Q&A sessions, proposal submissions, negotiations and a final contract award date.

In addition to this, the bid manager will prepare an internal schedule of activities that needs to be completed in response to the buyers requirements. This can include conceptual, design, technical and planning workshops, document reviews, internal presentations and cost calculations. The project manager will need to work to these internal deadlines so that the team can deliver the solution on time.

Note that a project plan cannot be finalized until the product or service specifications have been defined and the solution has been agreed by the sales team that meets the scope, cost and quality requirements. Therefore it is important for the project manager to develop the project proposal in parallel, and to plan ahead as much as possible, working on other project management requirements such as governance, reporting and cross functional activities. When the final solution is agreed, it can be integrated into the overall project plan and the work can be completed.

Step 4: Determine what project management support is required

Being engaged on a bid can mean working long hours particularly as deadlines approach or if the buyer’s scope and requirements change at short notice which can add significant workload to the bid team. Therefore it is important for the project manager to assess the overall resource requirements needed for project management support as early as possible in the process.

Areas to consider when assessing resource requirements include:

  • Is the project split into phases, for example; due diligence, a transition phase and a transformation phase.
  • Is there any outsourcing requirement that necessitates the support from HR, contracts, asset or license management.
  • The geographical footprint; where and which countries are the service being delivered.
  • Which product or service lines need to be engaged.
  • What elements of the bid can be delivered as standard services and what areas will require special support.
  • Are new tools and processes required to manage the service.
  • What third-party providers are required to deliver and maintain the service.
  • The level of risk identified so far on the bid.

Once the level of support is determined, the project manager needs to engage with the appropriate teams, get an estimate of the work to be undertaken and agree the internal budgets for the work to be carried out with the deal manager.

The project manager should then prepare a timeline for all project management deliverables and track the teams progress to ensure all work is delivered on time and in line with the bid manager’s internal schedule.

Step 5: Define the overall requirements, constraints, assumptions, dependencies and risks

The proposal must meet the requirements of the buyer as laid down within the procurement documents. The proposal is typically defined as a solution and led by the solutions manager or architect who has the responsibility of transforming the buyer’s requirements into tangible products and services by directing and specifying the work needed by internal teams and external providers.

The solutions manager will define the product or service and the project manager will describe how and when it will be implemented, managed, reported and delivered with a focus on time, cost, quality and customer satisfaction.

It is the project manager’s responsibility to document all constraints, assumptions, dependencies and risks identified by the team engaged in the proposal. The project manager must communicate to the entire team the need for collecting this information and provide a template to capture this information in a consistent manner.

Constraints are factors that limit the options within the RFP that can be imposed by the buyer or can be a constraint of the seller, and include resources, scope, budget and schedule.

Assumptions are things that are assumed to be true, but that may not actually be true. Where things are not known, assumptions are required in order to finalize the solution and costs. It is important to raise questions with the buyer during meetings and Q&A sessions in order to clarify assumptions and reduce them within the proposal.

Dependencies refer to the relationships between individual project activities where two or more tasks are reliant on the completion or start of the other. All dependencies must be considered when sequencing activities within the schedule in order to calculate the critical path and resourcing efforts.

Risk identification, qualification and response strategies are required to understand the overall risk exposure for the organization when entering into a competitive bid. This can include, time and investment in resources and the percentage win probability. Specific risks, both positive (opportunities) and negative (threats) uncovered during the preparation of the proposal are collected in a risks register and will require response strategies. The residual risk elements for threats are then added to the cost of the proposal in case such risk events occur.

Step 6: Gather relevant documentation from previous projects

The buyer may stipulate what documents need to be completed and even provide standard templates to ensure consistency and more efficient evaluation between sellers. Aside from this, the project manager must gather all relevant policy, process and procedure documentation available that form the standards and best practices within their own organization. Examples include, risk, change and document management, quality assurance, continuous improvement, human resource and health and safety procedures.

In addition, past historical information used on previous proposals is essential for managing future work thereby helping with the continual improvement process of project management. This information includes:

  • Previous seller proposals.
  • Tender win/loss reviews.
  • Lessons learned.
  • Project management plans.
  • Work breakdown structures (WBS).
  • Risks and risk response plans.
  • Project reporting.
  • Estimates and resource requirements.
  • Benchmarks.
  • Case studies.
  • Project customer references.

Having as much information on-hand as possible will save significant time and effort in preparing the proposal so this is a valuable and worthwhile investment that can be made at the early stages of the bid process.

Step 7: Write the response to the bid

Now the project manager has their formal responsibilities agreed, the scope of work has been determined and project resources have been assigned. Internal steps and timelines are in place and all relevant organizational assets and historical data have been obtained. The proposal can now be written.

Before starting to draft the proposal, the project manager should consider the use of words to help with the quality of the document:

  • If a value proposition and key messages has been defined by the sales team, ensure these are reflected in the response.
  • Ensure the wording clearly answers the question, it is to the point and avoids the use of marketing speak, buzzwords and jargon.
  • Use plain language (English is generally the international language for IT) as it gives clarity of thought, accuracy and avoids ambiguity.
  • Try to use sentences with less than 25 words.
  • Avoid the words guarantee as it expresses contractual promises and ensure as it indicates certainty, instead use offer; provide; promotes or supports.
  • Terms like may should only be included for discretionary acts. In general, when an obligation is intended, may must be avoided; when the act is discretionary in nature, without any obligation, may can be used. Use must if it is intended to impose a legal obligation.
  • Other terms that if not properly used, will lead to ambiguity, these include:
    • Shall imposes an obligation to act and means has to, duty to, or is required to.
    • Can often signifies the ability or capacity to do something, and in limited contexts, it can be used to imply permission. Should is used to indicate a duty, obligation or propriety of an action
    • Because is used as a conjunction to state a reason or motive. Contracts must be clear and should lay down the rules for all parties. As the term is generally used to explain motive or purpose, it does not normally add any value to the meaning of the contract terms.
    • However is an adverb and has a similar meaning to but or despite this. It is often used in the beginning of the sentence to contrast the preceding sentence and should be restricted to creative or comparative writing, as it does not contribute much to the general meaning of the sentence.

Remember all proposal documents will become part of the contract therefore it is important for the project manager to be mindful of how the proposal should be worded. Of course all documents will go through a legal review before being submitted, however it is easier to do it right in the first place rather than making changes later on; when there may not be time, when things can be missed, and when error can occur.

Contract writing is not creative writing; be clear, direct, and precise and remember always sleep on what you have written, then review it again afresh the next day.

Many RFP’s ask for the project management response to follow a particular standard like PMBOK or PRINCE2. Whichever framework is followed ensure the following points are included as a minimum:

  • Introduction and management summary.
  • Project management approach.
  • Project governance.
  • Stakeholder management and communication.
  • Project organization.
  • Roles and responsibilities.
  • Project management office.
  • Project reporting.
  • Risk management.
  • Change management.
  • Project and product scope.
  • WBS and project deliverables.
  • Project phases, milestones and schedules.
  • Test and acceptance.
  • Working locations and facilities.
  • Customer resource requirements and obligations.

The above provides a guide only as the contents and structure will vary from RFP to RFP but be sure when writing the proposal that it follows a chronological order and addresses all requirements contained within the RFP.

Step 8: Determine the project costs

When the solution has been defined and the final scope and timelines established, project management costs can be prepared and delivered to the sales team for inclusion into the overall price delivered within the proposal.

As described within step 4, the project manager needs to obtain costs from the various internal teams and external providers engaged in the process. In addition, the project manager must prepare costs that are derived from the work breakdown structure (WBS) and the resource breakdown structure (RBS) which includes resources for people, equipment and materials.

People costs are calculated based on FTE (full time equivalent) values and internal rates defined by job categories and experience levels. The project manager includes these factors together with the WBS and calculates the activity duration to come up with the overall costs for the project management work to be completed. These costs are then presented to the deal manager in order to gain acceptance.

Note that it is the deal manager’s job to prepare the most competitive proposal towards buyer, and the project manager should expect to be challenged on the costs. It is therefore very important that the costs have been prepared thoroughly, have a high level of quality, and can be justified down to a work package level if required. This will help secure the required costs for the project work. However, if costs do need to be cut, by having defined work packages, it makes the process of reducing work effort transparent. If a particular work package is removed from the costs it can be documented, and highlighted accordingly. A risk can then be added to cover the exclusion of that activity if required.

The overall project costs, sometimes referred to as onetime costs (as they only occur once during the project phase of a contract) are added to the overall costs. They are then prepared by the finance manager, added to the business case and included into the proposal.

Step 9: Ensure quality assurance

Organizations whether they are a matrix or projectized usually have a process for checking the contents, quality and providing approval of their proposals before submission to the buyer. This is usually done during the production and assembly of the proposal through structured reviews managed by the bid team.

Final reviews often include peer-reviews which is an important part of quality control and is a process by which the contents of the proposal is reviewed by a subject matter expert, usually within the same department performing a similar function.

Note that it is important for the project manager to make sure that the peer-reviews are carried out correctly and where necessary go through more than one peer reviewer. In complex proposals where there is significant time pressure, reviews may be conducted quickly and key information missed.

Important quality tools to use in the review process include:

  • Quality checklist – this is a checklist of items to inspect or steps to be performed that reference predefined acceptance criteria.
  • Continuous improvement – which involves identifying small improvements in quality based on previous bid responses where lessons learned can be applied.
  • Total quality management (TQM) is a general term where employees focus on finding ways to improve business practices at all levels within an organization.

The scrutiny of the peer-reviews usually depends on whether the bid is a binding offer or a non-binding offer. A non-binding offer is a bid that shows a buyer’s interest in purchasing an product or service, but it does not create a formal contract between the buyer and the seller. A non-binding offer establishes a contractual negotiating framework between the buyer and the seller as they work toward a definitive purchase and agreement. A binding offer is a contract between both parties that is legally binding and enforceable by law.

Following all departmental reviews, the combined offer is usually presented to the organization’s board members by the sales team, where the details of the RFP and proposal as explained. The structure of this can include; the customer profile, the proposal scope, contents and strategy, market positioning, competitive analysis and the organization’s ability to deliver. The business case incorporates resourcing, timelines, the delivery model, partners and third-party support, pricing, ROI, contract and legal terms plus associated risks and opportunities.

If the RFP and the proposal are accepted by the board, it is then submitted to the buyer. Each subsequent iteration of the proposal will go through the same process. For example, the RFP my go through an initial non-binding submission, followed by a binding offer, followed by a best and final offer (BAFO) before the buyer makes a final section on which seller to choose. In some cases it is possible for the buyer to choose more than one seller and divide the contract between different bidders. This can happen when one seller is stronger in a certain field or has better knowledge or coverage in a certain geography. This is another reason why breaking down the RFP into clearly defined components or work packages and costs is important as it allows the buyer to carefully review all deliverables, and if a seller is very strong in one area but weak in another, they may not be ruled out of the bid by the buyer.

Before the submission of the bid, the project manager should read the entire proposal to be sure that all aspects have been considered and integrated into the project plan and schedule.

Step 10: Prepare the customer presentation

The buyer will probably request all sellers to present their proposals and explain how they plan to deliver the requirements as stated within the RFP. The buyer will stipulate the time allocation and how many of the sellers representatives can attend the meeting. Key focus topics will broadly include; the sales team, scope and requirements, solution and technology, technical architecture, project implementation transition and transformation, service management, service levels, reporting and pricing structure.

The project manager will more than likely be asked to prepare a presentation towards the buyer to explain the project implementation phase which will form a part of a total presentation. The presentation should be prepared in a logical way following the structure of the proposal. The presentation should be:

  • Well written, clear and concise and not overly complex with too much text.
  • Include key messages as defined by the sales team.
  • Ensure the who, what, when, where, why and how of basic problem solving is included.
  • Contain a level of content that is equal to the amount of time the presenter is allocated (backup information can be put to the end of the presentation).
  • Include plenty of time for Q&A.
  • Of high visual impact and good corporate design (the entire proposal should be prepared by the PMO, marketing department or external agency to ensure a high quality look and feel).
  • Rehearsed, planned and well timed.

The project manager should ensure that the project implementation part of the presentation follows the solution. It is not a good idea for the sales team to push the project implementation section to the end, a typical approach that does not work in practice, so make sure it is included in a logical sequence.

Remember first impressions count and the project phase is the first and most important step following contract signature. The buyer needs to gain the confidence that a seller, led by a project manager, can meet the objectives of the work that needs to be carried out.

Step 11: Down selection and best and final offer

In selecting a seller, the buyer may invite 2 or more sellers into the final round of the bid phase to start contract negotiations.

A BAFO is used when the buyer’s evaluation team believes that the price could or should be better or when some elements of a proposal are confusing and need further definition. It is also used to obtain additional information that will provide a larger point difference between competitive proposals.

The shortlisted sellers are provided detailed questions related to their proposals, or informed of those parts of the proposals that are deficient. The sellers are given the opportunity to resubmit their proposals and have the opportunity to improve their offering and eliminate unacceptable conditions contained in their original proposals. The amended sections are then re-evaluated and re-scored according to the evaluation process defined within the RFP.

It is important for the project manager to understand this process and to make the most of this opportunity by getting more detailed information from the buyer, gain further insight into their needs and concerns and adjust the proposal to meet these requirements.

The BAFO submission by the seller is the final stage in the process which will not be subject to subsequent negotiation. From this, the buyer will make their final decision.

Step 12: Complete a win/loss review and lessons learned

Once the buyer has made their decision, for the successful seller, the next steps include planning, preparation, due diligence, assembling the project team and the drawing up and signing of a legally binding contract. In order for the seller to move forward quickly with this activity, a letter of intent (LOI) may be signed between both parties which formalizes the purchase process by setting out the terms and conditions of the agreement. The LOI outlines the general plans of the agreement before the legal terms are finalized. It is not a contract and cannot be legally enforced; however, it signifies a serious commitment before a full contract is drawn up.

For all sellers, it is important to carry out win/loss reviews which are formal sessions where the buyers provide feedback to the seller on what went well and what could be improved upon during the RFP process. The review is initiated by the sales team and should always be conducted by a third-party, not by the seller, and certainly not by the team who managed the bid. Bringing this impartiality is critical as it allows the buyer to be completely open in their feedback during a review meeting. A win/loss review is often overlooked, particularly by the successful seller, but it is important to recognize that capturing the reasons for a win is just as important as capturing them for a loss.

The project manager must be engaged in the win/loss review process and provide input into the questions to be raised by the seller to the buyer. The project manager should also conduct an internal lessons learned review to gain insight from the entire team on the learning during the RFP engagement. A win/loss review is different to lessons learned; a win/loss review is external and provides feedback from the buyer and lessons learned is internal and provides feedback from the project team. The project manager should then collate the documentation and ensure it is shared appropriately within the organization and project management community.

For further information on presales project management, you can visit my training course on Successful Presales Project Management or visit my website IT Project Management.

David Farthing IT Project Management Consulting Services has been featured in DesignRush as one of the Top IT Outsourcing Companies for project management 2022.

You can also visit my Digital Marketing blog at my Brandall Agency website and read the latest article on how to build and manage a successful brand.

David Farthing
IT Project Management

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