Consider these three scenarios:
- Your project manager says that the customer likes you and that there haven’t been any complaints lately.
- Your business development manager says you should bid an opportunity because “the contracting officer said we should bid,” and is going to send you the RFP.
- An executive at your company wants to bid an opportunity because he used to play golf with an executive at the customer.
Does the customer really like you? Do you have a competitive advantage? Should you bid?
The only honest answer is “I don’t know.” There is as much reason to disregard each situation above as there is to accept it. Project managers don’t want to say that the customer doesn’t like them. Business developers tend to want to bid every opportunity they find. And as for executives… well let’s just say that having played golf with someone who may not even be involved in the procurement probably does not translate into an advantage.
Something else you need to consider is that a great relationship with one person at the customer does not necessarily translate into any influence over the procurement selection. Is that person involved? Who else is involved? Does the customer have an internal consensus regarding what to procure or are there many opinions and/or power struggles going on? Does it matter (and will it impact the evaluation) if one person at the customer says they like you?
So how can you tell when the customer likes you and when that translates into a competitive advantage?
For winning business through proposals, it all comes down to whether your relationship with the customer gives you an information advantage.
If you have a great relationship with the customer, but you don’t understand their needs any better than anyone else does, then unless that person gets to make the selection, your relationship doesn't matter. A great relationship with a customer that doesn't provide the information you need is not a competitive advantage. On the other hand, even if your relationship with the customer is limited, if it translates into an understanding of their needs that exceeds what’s in the RFP and gives you an advantage over your competitors, that matters a lot.
So ask the project manager above about the customer's preferences, how they make trade-offs, issues they face, trends, etc. If they can’t have a discussion with the customer and come back enlightened, then your bid won’t be more insightful than anyone else’s bid. Ask the business developer above what the contracting officer told you that they didn’t tell everyone else. Ask the executive above the same questions you asked the project manager.
In the off-the-shelf process documents we sell, we've built the entire pre-RFP intelligence gathering process around getting answers to questions that provide the information you need to prepare a winning proposal. Whether the customer “likes” you or not isn’t one of the considerations. Either you get the information you need or you don't.
Information is vital to writing a winning proposal. Does the customer want a centralized or decentralized approach? Do they want to empower their field offices or control them? Do they see technology as a way to mitigate risk or a source of risk? Do they want to reduce staff or protect staff? Are they more concerned with short term or long term issues? Do they want a solution that is specialized and stands alone, or do they want something that's fully integrated? Do they want you to directly manage the project/staff, or do they want to directly manage the project/staff themselves?
Questions like these are usually not answered in the RFP. And yet they are vital for proposing the right offering, describing it in the right context, and knowing which benefits to emphasize. Guess wrong and you lose.
If the customer likes you, you’ll be able to discuss these subjects, get the answers you need, and gain the insight that will enable you to write the winning proposal. This is especially true when writing government proposals. After the RFP is released, the rules may not let them speak to you at all, and if they do they may have to say the same thing to everyone else. But if they like you, they will talk to you before the RFP is released. And if they really, really like you, they may even stretch the rules and talk to you after the RFP is released.
This only works if you bother to ask the right questions. A major reason we structured the pre-RFP portion of the process the way we did was because of how often companies arrive at RFP release unprepared. If you're counting on the customer liking you and are unprepared, without the answers to the questions you need, then instead of trying to win a competition, you're looking for a gift from someone you know less well than you think you do.
So forget about whether the customer likes you and focus on getting the information you need to write the winning proposal. You can measure your likelihood of winning by your ability to get that information. In fact, in our process documentation, we show you how to turn the pre-RFP process into a metrics and measurements system that really can quantify and predict the likelihood of your ability to win.