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The problem with using Technical Subject Matter Experts on Proposals

The problem with using Technical Subject Matter Experts on Proposals

Subject matter experts are critical for strong proposals, but...

Without strong subject matter experts (SMEs) your proposal is doomed, but you have to use your SMEs right

How can using Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) hurt a proposal? At first blush that seems to be impossible. Great SMEs are crucial to writing a winning proposal. However, like a strong spice, they must be used wisely.

Why Using SMEs as Proposal Authors May Be Problematic

SMEs are, by definition, expert in their technical fields. However, this rarely translates to being expert at written communication, and even more-so, experts in writing a proposal that sells. Here are the top reasons SMEs should rarely if ever be asked to write any part of the proposal.

  • SMEs are a valuable resource that should be used only where others cannot do the job well.
  • SMEs are not experienced in writing what is essentially a sales document.
  • As technical experts, SMEs are likely to write in far more technical details than needed, taking up limited page space without increasing the probability of winning.
  • Most SMEs are problem solvers, and may tend to provide “point solutions” rather than describe a solution process that only uses technical details as examples.
  • The unspoken truth about many SMEs, especially in-house ones working for the current incumbent on existing contracts, is that they do not have much of an incentive to work hard for a proposal win; if their current employer loses the contract, the SME is likely to be picked up by the new winner, possibly with a substantial increase in compensation.

Best Ways to use SMEs in Proposal Projects

Some good ways to avoid the above issues and use technical SMEs efficiently in a proposal project are as follows.

  • Work with the technical volume authors to identify the fields their writing assignments will require consulting SMEs, and if possible, who the best SMEs would be.
  • Contact those SMEs, and where they are in-house ones, find a way to compensate them for the added effort (this does not necessarily have to be in a monetary manner, though that doesn’t hurt).
  • After laying out a good outline, have the technical volume authors put together a set of “interview” questions for each relevant SME; these questions focus SMEs on the specific information needed to support the proposal authors without making them feel too put upon to try and fully understand the requirements of the specific request for proposal (RFP); however, the last question to each SME should always be “What else do I need to know?” to solicit those things the authors don’t know, and don’t know they don’t know.
  • Have the authors then draft their assigned sections based on the SME input; then send the drafted sections to the SMEs for feedback to ensure (1) the authors got it right, and (2) the presentation is clear and not open to doubts as to its validity.
  • Invite the SMEs to provide further feedback in internal reviews, again, ensuring any technical errors in the draft are identified and corrected.

Even in those rare but happy occasions when your author is a technical SME in addition to being an excellent proposal writer, keep in mind that splitting his or her attention between the technical details and the best presentation may cause one or the other aspect to suffer. Support even such authors with SME peers at least at the early drafting stage, allowing the author to focus most of his or her attention on crafting the best possible outline and draft text. The author can shift gears to SME mode once the first draft is complete, shifting back and forth as needed.

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