Proposal automation: Benefits, capabilities and how to prepare
Proposal automation: Benefits, capabilities and how to prepare
For most bid and proposal professionals, working through the steps of answering RFPs is second nature. Unfortunately, for those using traditional, manual processes, much of that work is tedious, repetitive and time consuming. Indeed, you may be all too familiar with the ctrl+f, ctrl+x and ctrl+v loop. Luckily, with proposal automation tools, you can make the process significantly faster and easier. Not to mention, you’ll be able to give those well-worn keyboard shortcuts a rest.
As business-wide digital transformation initiatives spread to the departments responsible for RFP responses, the need for efficiency and data collection naturally leads to proposal automation. And, the RFP software that makes automation possible is increasingly common, impactful, accessible and affordable.
Understandably, the prospect of increasing automation may not excite you. In fact, it may raise uncomfortable questions. For example, you might wonder if your job is at stake, if it actually saves time and if it’s really worth it. In this post, I’ll strive to explore each of these concerns about proposal automation and more.
To start, we’ll begin with the definition of proposal automation as well as how it works. Then, we’ll cover which steps in your proposal process can be automated and the human input still required. Next, you’ll learn the three primary benefits of automation. And to conclude, I’ll offer ways your team can prepare now for proposal automation in the future.
Proposal automation is the use of technology to perform actions in the proposal process with no human intervention. Essentially, it takes simple, repetitive tasks and sets rules that enable technology to complete those tasks at the right time, in the right way, automatically. Proposal management software generally includes proposal automation features to assist with proposal completion, workflow tasks and knowledge management.
How does it work?
Certainly, it’s not necessary for a proposal coordinator to understand the software engineering and code that makes proposal automation work. However, a basic grasp of the concepts and logic behind automation helps users understand how to maximize its value and troubleshoot if needed.
With origins in manufacturing lines, automation has come a long way in the last few decades. While advances in technology continue to expand the capabilities and boundaries of automation, the basic motivations remain the same.
Whether automation is moving car parts from one assembly line to another, or transferring information from a knowledge library to a proposal, the goal is to eliminate or reduce the amount of human effort required to complete tasks.
Proposal automation example
Generally, automation works using if/then logic. For example, in the RFP response process, you may want to send a reminder to your subject matter experts (SMEs). So, the logic for that task could be stated as: If SMEs have not approved their assigned questions by three days prior to the due date, then send a reminder email to their inbox. In this case, the ‘if’ part of the statement defines the required conditions that must be met for automation to occur and the ‘then’ of the statement is the action that is triggered.
Each piece of automation requires several key pieces of data. For the simple automation in this example to work, the system needs to recognize and pull together all of the following data:
Users designated as SMEs
Status of their questions (draft, in progress or approved)
Current date relative to the due date
SME email addresses
Follow up email copy
When you understand that each element of the if/then statement is a piece of data, it’s easier to see the possibilities for additional automation as well as figure out where to look if something isn’t working as expected.
Beyond workflow automations like the example above, RFP response tools also use artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing to expand and improve proposal automation capabilities.
Proposal automation capabilities (and why your input is necessary)
Just like other technologies, proposal automation is a tool. Certainly, it can save your team a lot of time, but it definitely won’t be able to replace you. Proposal expert Ashley Kayes, addressed the potential of RFP response automation tools in a recent post on her Proposal Reflections blog saying,
“Will automation tools and AI eventually replace all of us and independently write the proposals for our companies? I think most of us agree that this will never happen in our lifetimes. However, I do believe that enhanced versions of these AI and proposal automation tools will ultimately empower our proposal teams to focus our efforts on tailoring content to meet the needs of individual customers and other critical tasks.”
Certainly, we expect that automation will continually advance. In fact, at RFP360 we’re constantly creating new ways to automate tedious steps of the proposal process. While it’s exciting to speculate about what automation may be able to do in 10 years, when considering investing in software it’s important to set realistic expectations. Don’t get me wrong, RFP response automation has the potential to cut your RFP response time in half, but we’re a long way from one-click proposals.
Current capabilities and limitations
Completion of previously answered questions
One of the most impressive and valuable features of RFP software is the ability to import an RFP and automatically review it for repeat questions. Not only will automation identify the questions you have encountered before, but it will also suggest relevant answers from your knowledge library. So, you no longer have to search through endless emails and old proposals to find the right answers.
When considering investing in proposal automation software, it is important to understand how each automation tool works to find relevant answers. Some systems use exact match searches, while others leverage the AI and natural language processing tools I mentioned before to find synonyms and related knowledge records.
Input required: Selecting the right content from multiple options
With time, your knowledge library grows and answering RFPs becomes increasingly efficient. Naturally, your answers will vary slightly depending on the opportunity. Unfortunately, when there are several possible answers to a single RFP question, automation isn’t able to understand the nuance in responses and select the perfect one. Certainly, it still saves time by providing you with all of the relevant choices. However, that complex reasoning still requires a proposal professional.
Collaboration with experts
We all know that as the proposal coordinator, you spend a significant amount of time wrangling answers and approvals from various subject matter experts and stakeholders. Often, this means countless emails, follow-up calls, chat messages and reminders. All of these activities are centralized in RFP software.
As you work through the proposal, you can collaborate in real time to assign questions, write new answers, review content and request final approvals. These actions then automatically trigger various notifications and alerts to keep participants on the same page.
Input required: Assigning user roles and responsibilities
Proposal automation isn’t able to identify who plays which role in the RFP response process. Indeed, for large organizations, the number of variables that determine who contributes to an RFP make it far too complex for a computer to understand. However, for you, it’s a simple matter of matching sections and questions to the relevant users.
Real-time progress tracking
When your boss wants an update on how the proposal is coming together, automation has an immediate answer. Rather than reaching out to every contributor and finding out the status of their work and compiling a report that will be out of date before you can even send it, proposal automation software enables you to see real-time visualizations of each proposal project.
Input required: Interpretation and optimization of the process
While dashboards and reports are much easier to create and view in RFP software, they lack the context and big-picture view you provide. The real-time information can help you identify bottlenecks, but it won’t be able to determine why they’re happening or how to fix them. There’s simply no replacement for the strategy and process insight you provide.
Knowledge library data collection and maintenance
Curious how often subject matter experts make adjustments to answers from previous proposals? Wondering when the last time was that someone reviewed your compliance content? Proposal automation tools collect this information as well as other helpful response metadata. In addition, you can set up periodic, automatic review cycles to prompt SMEs to verify and refresh the content they’re responsible for.
Input required: Careful review and revision
Proposal automation can only provide you with the information it finds in your knowledge library, it can’t verify if that information is still true and accurate. In addition, it can’t warn you that one of your answers still contains the name of the company from your previous RFP opportunity. Indeed, when it comes to avoiding embarrassing moments like that, there is no replacement for your careful review of the proposal.
The 3 biggest benefits of proposal automation
At the end of the day, automating these processes needs to deliver value to the bottom line. There are three primary benefits to consider.
1. Enhanced efficiency
Automation saves time. RFP responses are an investment, so as efficiency increases, so does profit. When you leverage automation, you spend significantly less time finding information, sending reminder emails and verifying responses. In the time you save, you can take on more strategic, higher-value projects.
2. More consistent processes
Automating the RFP responses using an established, repeatable process in a centralized location provides much needed organization and clarity. Manual RFPs often involve information that’s shared through email, spreadsheets, calls and more — this siloed knowledge increases the risk that your proposals contain inaccurate or inconsistent responses.
For example, Swish Maintenance responds to around 200 RFPs per year to support business growth. Using a knowledge library with content that they categorized, tagged, and updated, they were able to provide more up-to-date answers saying,
“…the good responses we want to reuse are all in one place. Sometimes we just need to provide pricing or a quick quote, and other times we’ll have to give a more detailed response. Now I can just go straight [to the knowledge library] and find everything we need.”
3. Data capture and analytics
Each RFP and corresponding proposal contains a wealth of data. Indeed, data collected from automated processes enables organizations to calculate RFP software ROI. In addition, RFP data analysis uncovers avenues for process improvements, pricing optimization, sales messaging refinement and more.
How to prepare now for automation in the future
While automation can undoubtedly save almost any proposal team time, some organizations may not quite be ready to make the investment. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do now. First, create a business case for proposal software. Then, begin building the foundation for successful automation.
Map your current proposal process in detail
Creating a detailed, step-by-step map of your process is the best way to identify areas that are ready for automation. Start at the beginning. What steps happen when you receive a new RFP? Who is involved in the decisions? What information is gathered? Who plays which role in proposal creation? And so on.
After you’ve defined your process as thoroughly as possible, estimate and note the hours required to complete each task. Consider what steps take the longest and which are the most repetitive. This exercise will point you to the areas where automation will be most impactful. Not to mention that benchmarking the time and cost involved in RFP responses allows you to calculate return on investment once you adopt a solution.
Another powerful way to prepare for automation is to consider what you will do with the time you save. We all have a list of projects and ideas in our heads, and with automation, you’ll be able to put them into action. If nothing comes to mind, we have a couple of ideas to further improve your efficiency and effectiveness.
The more information and historical RFP data you have, the better off you’ll be when you are ready to adopt proposal automation. Explore your proposal library and identify knowledge gaps as well as any opportunities to improve the quality of your data.
Remove duplicate and outdated answers
Ensure on-brand messaging
Improve consistency in tone, word choice and style
Record which answers appear in winning proposals
Identify commonalities in won and lost opportunities
Despite all the advances in automation for proposal teams, the RFP process is still human. At its core, it’s still about connecting people and finding customers that will help you reach your goals while you help them reach theirs.
Again, Ashley Kayes, sums up the potential of proposal automation nicely saying, “Leveraging these tools effectively in the future, I believe we will increase the efficiency of our business development and proposal process by automating some of the most time-consuming pieces of the process and helping us to make smarter, more-strategic decisions on the opportunities we pursue.”
There can be no doubt that automation is part of the future of RFPs. But, the real question is: Will you be ready?