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When was the last time a business proposal got you so excited you wanted to meet the people behind it?

When was the last time the response to a request for proposal (RFP) felt like a team had gone far above and beyond, working hard to understand the crucial issues facing your organization?

And when was the last time a written pitch made you chuckle and nod at the personalities involved – their self-deprecating humour not quite masking their deep subject matter expertise?

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Not very common, is it?

In a time of formalized procurement and strictly administered RFPs – especially for potentially lucrative government work – it is easy to operate as though relationships are immaterial and that decision makers are only interested in checklists. As the business development director at a law firm, I confess I've grown weary of competitive tenders when it seems clear from the outset that new bidders have little chance of unseating an incumbent. But strategically we must throw our hat in the ring to present a reasonable alternative, should the client ever need a second opinion.

Let's face it, RFPs can be a wasteland of opportunity costs. I'd rather pay a visit to the dentist.

But it doesn't have to be that way. I was blown away recently when an associate shared a successful bid to serve as the agency of record for a high-profile corporation tasked with delivering one of the largest infrastructure projects in North America. It was a coveted opportunity – almost every other agency team in the city would be competing for it. Undaunted, this associate came up with a game plan to not only describe a way to address the prospective client's needs, but to create a compelling piece of experiential marketing right in the proposal document.

The pitch used imagery, illustration and excellent copy to highlight brand differential and a unique understanding of the client's needs. The team took the bold step of heading to a beach on a freezing cold day in March – which in Toronto means there was still snow on the ground – to illustrate its excitement to start work on the account.

The proposal wasn't all fun and games – there were very serious messages of expertise, knowledge of the challenges to be faced, and a description of an approach to get from current state to future state. But the style would leave no doubt of the quality of this team, the seriousness of its intent and what it would be like to work with. And yes, it was the winning bid.

While we may not all have access to the type of creativity at this brand agency – Toronto-based Marshall-Fenn Communications, for the sake of disclosure I'm a former client – we all have unique knowledge, skills and expertise that we should be able to make shine through in our pitch materials. In a time when we often have less opportunities for face-to-face meetings, live conversations and presentations, your written communications must serve as a proxy for the experience of meeting in real life.

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Readers of your proposals should recognise themselves and their unique circumstances in your documents. They should feel that your proposal responses have been tailored to suit them, and that you have spent time and effort thinking about their situations and creating solutions to serve them. If they read nothing of themselves, you are missing opportunities to initiate conversations.

If you simply and mechanically answer RFP questions in point form and use the majority of the free-text word-count to describe the ancient history of your firm, you would be a boring dinner guest and an even less engaging service provider. You should be able to turn your unique knowledge and expertise into a compelling story about what you would do for an organization and how you will help it address its strategic goals if you are hired. Most importantly, show, don't tell.

The best compliment ever paid to one of the teams on which I served was that it was more proactive, thought-provoking and service-oriented than the client's incumbent team. It provided insights, it offered suggestions, and it repeatedly made the prospect feel the business challenges were as top of mind as they were for him. It really wanted, and won, the business.

Do you?

Gabriella O'Rourke has been focused on transforming the growth capabilities of service organizations for almost 20 years. She is currently the business development director for one of Canada's oldest and most distinguished law firms. Ms. O'Rourke blogs at http://thewallaceeffect.wordpress.com and she can be found on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/gorourke

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