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Proposal Management Best Practices, Part 1: Define Your Win Themes And Your Discriminators

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Cheryl Smith



3 min

When it comes to proposal management, there are a lot of moving pieces to manage, and organization shouldn’t be the thing that keeps your proposal from winning the bid. 

The internet, personal computer, and email have revolutionized the way we work proposals. We no longer have to wait to share information; we can communicate it in just a matter of seconds. We no longer have to wait to access information, which makes team communication a lot less time-consuming and frustrating. Some things, however, remain the same. 

Take for example, the efficacy of “process.” According to APMP's 2019 Industry U.S. Benchmark Survey Report Executive Summary, 70% of the organizations that APMP members serve have established “best practices.” Only 23%, however, say those are working well, and 59% say these processes are only working somewhat well. 

Want to do better? Then get your proposal process off on the right foot, while keeping your team communication and collaboration going strong. 

Over the next nine blog posts, we’ll share best practices for an effective proposal management process.

Establish your Win Themes

Proposal writing is really about telling a story. And your story is all about how your solution solves the problem. Win themes are the messages you use to tell your story.

Win themes are the messages that guide evaluators and promote the value of your solution. Artfully woven throughout your proposal, your win themes can turn a merely compliant proposal into a compelling one that keeps evaluators reading, not just skimming.

Effective proposals usually have one or three win themes that are focused on what the customer cares about the most – performance, innovation, etc. For example, if your win themes are built around performance, they might include:  

  • What performance outcomes should the customer expect?
  • What do the performance outcomes look like in the eyes of the customer?
  • How do the performance outcomes benefit the customer? 

    Sharpen your Discriminators

Proposal writing is also about differentiating your story. Discriminators work hand-in-hand with your win themes to differentiate your story and help it stand out from the competition.   

Discriminators are features of your solution that acknowledge the customer's needs and differ from the competition. Done right, your discriminators grab attention, demonstrate a sharp contrast between you and the competition, and keep evaluators focused on the value of your solution. 

Discriminators are also very specific and directly align with the customer's stated outcomes, such as performance, innovation, etc. They also rely heavily on competitive research and intelligence. And even small differences can answer the "why us" question evaluators are asking - and separate the selected vendor from competition pack. For example, if your win theme is performance, they your discriminators might include: 

  • How do your experts build effective working relationships with their customer counterparts? 
  • How does your experience impact the customer's project scope and milestones? 
  • How does your solution scale to deliver on future performance goals?

Prove your Win Themes and Discriminators

A proposal story isn't compelling and captivating enough without relevant supporting details. These relevant supporting details help evaluators better understand, and trust, your proposal. 

Supporting details are the messages that prove the value of your solution by verifying your win themes and discriminators. They also help persuade evaluators over to your line of reasoning and tick off that all-important evaluation criteria checklist. For example, if your discriminator is performance, than your supporting details might include:  

  • How do your experts build effective working relationships with their customer counterparts? 
  • How does your experience impact the customer's project scope and milestones? 
  • How does your solution scale to deliver on future performance goals?

Clear, Compelling Stories for the Win

All too often, when the proposal story is unclear, the feedback is predictable – "needs more detail".

Establishing win themes, discriminators, and supporting details before your team begins writing automatically gives your proposal focus and purpose - and a clear, compelling story that helps evaluators understand and score your proposal.  

Next in our series on proposal management best practices: Set-up your comprehensive compliance matrix to effectively manage and drive roles, tasks and responsibilities.  

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Cheryl Smith

Cheryl Smith is our Senior Content Writer. She has additionally been writing and managing proposals since 1998. Shipley trained, she has helped establish proposal centers and advised on capture strategy, coached orals teams and lead marketing, communications and knowledge management programs. Cheryl is a graduate of The George Washington University with degrees in Theatre, Communications and Literature. When she’s not sharing her passion for work, she loves drawing, writing, cooking and exploring the Virginia woodlands with her husband, their dog Chase and the fuzzy guests they host for Rover.

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