Many companies do business exclusively by responding to government RFPs. Government procurement processes are very complicated and highly regulated. Government contractors often employ proposal specialists and implement formal processes to improve their proposals.
The primary set of rules that define the composition and formatting requirements for Federal Government RFPs and the procurement process is called the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). The FAR specifies that at certain dollar thresholds, business opportunities must be announced and anyone who wants to bid may request the RFP and submit a proposal. The RFP contains a “statement of work” describing what is to be proposed, instructions for how to format and submit your proposal, and evaluation criteria that tell you the scoring and selection process. Submitting a government proposal involves responding to the RFP.
With a Government proposal, the due date is absolute. You cannot be 1 minute late. It is not unusual for companies to ship two complete copies, just in case one gets lost in the mail. When you are responding to an RFP issued by another company, they usually have due dates, and sometimes they even mean it. But with a private sector proposal you usually have a little wiggle room if you run into a problem. You have to manage things differently when your due date is absolute. This is one reason that most government contractors have formalized proposal processes.
In a Government proposal, it is critical to be strictly compliant with everything in the RFP. In a business proposal, you can be as non-compliant as you think you can get away with. And the customer might not even mind if it makes sense or saves them money! The necessity of being absolutely compliant is another reason why government contractors need formalized proposal processes.
Companies who do business in the private sector usually have less formality in their proposal processes. They also have less consistency from one proposal to the next, depending on how much consistency there is in each deal. If every customer engagement is different, as is the case for most service businesses, then every proposal is potentially different. If every sale is the same or highly similar, as is the case for most product businesses, then every proposal may be similar. But there is no outside force or regulations imposing structure on the proposal process, such as there is with a government proposal.
Even in the most chaotic commercial environments, however, there is much that can be learned from government proposal processes. Even though the structure of a commercial RFP isn’t regulated like it is for the Federal Government, you should look for an RFP to address:
- Formatting, outline, and submission instructions for the proposal;
- A statement of work describing what is to be done or delivered; and
- An evaluation criteria and process describing how the customer will evaluate the proposal
Government proposal writers can expect to find this information in the RFP. But a private sector RFP may or may not address them. If not, then you should ask the customer for clarification. Many of the questions people have about how to do their proposals are really customer specific and are a result of not getting this information from the customer.
Even if there is no written RFP at all, you can emulate the process. Simply identify the customer’s requirements through verbal communications and meetings and then write them down yourself in a list. Make sure that your list of customer requirements includes the formatting/outline instructions and evaluation criteria. This list will enable you to track the requirements through the writing process to explicitly ensure that all are addressed.
In formalized government proposals, a cross-reference matrix is often built by combining the formatting/outline instructions with the statement of work and evaluation criteria into a proposal response outline. The cross-reference matrix shows where each RFP item is addressed in the proposal. In a government proposal everything in a proposal is tied to the customer’s requirements (requirements written in the RFP and those gained from intelligence gathering activities). The cross-reference matrix gives you a tool to allocate everything that you want to go into your proposal in such a way that it corresponds to the customers instructions, work requirements, and evaluation criteria. If you identify each of these types of customer requirements, then you can emulate the cross-reference matrix approach. This will help you write the proposal, ensure compliance, and can even be included in the proposal to show the customer that you have addressed all of their requirements.
The Government formally evaluates proposals in a process that checks for compliance with all RFP requirements and incorporates a scoring mechanism that reflects the evaluation criteria in the RFP. One of the goals when, responding to a government RFP, is to make the proposal easy to evaluate. Not all companies that issue RFPs will go through a formalized evaluation process. However, making an explicit attempt in your proposals to address their requirements while reflecting their evaluation criteria can only help your chances, even in a completely subjective evaluation. In order to make your proposal easy to evaluate you need to have itemized evaluation criteria and an understanding of the evaluation process. Any staff who contact the customer should make it a priority to acquire this intelligence.
If there is one universal rule for proposals it would have to be plan before you write and write to the plan. The goal of proposal planning is to ensure that the writing is correct the first time. Writing and re-writing takes too much time when the deadline clock is ticking and doesn’t provide any means for quality assurance. For each item in your proposal outline, you should plan:
- Which customer requirements it will address
- Which evaluation criteria it will reflect
- What are the bid strategies
- What themes, selling points, discriminators, or other points of emphasis will be incorporated
- What projects/experience it will cite
- What graphics/illustrations will be included
Some proposal specialists use a process of storyboarding to accomplish this planning. With storyboards, you build the high-level proposal outline and then complete a storyboard for each item on the outline. The storyboard contains headings for items such as those listed above. Authors complete the storyboards to provide the information that needs to be presented in a section and complete the low-level outline. The storyboard acts as a data collection tool when working with multiple authors.
Instead of storyboards, some proposal specialists use annotated outlines, with the proposal outline, RFP, and other items listed above cross-referenced. Annotated outlines can also be used as a data-collection tool. Carefully formatted, they can be used to create a checklist to use when writing or reviewing a proposal section. Regardless of whether you use storyboards, annotated outlines, or some other methodology, you should document your proposal plan in such as way that you can validate it prior to writing. Government contractors often hold a formal review of the proposal plan, before any text is written.
When the only way you get new business is by responding to RFPs, it’s easier to accept that you must invest in your proposals if you want to win. Most government contractors expect to spend 1-3% of the projected award on any given proposal. For a government contractor, the relationship with the customer is often second to the regulated process in determining who will win. You can have an excellent client relationship and lose because you didn’t dot all the “I’s” and cross all the “T’s” in your proposal. In the private sector the relationship is usually more important than the document, and if the proposal isn’t good enough the customer may send it back for improvement. As a result, private sector firms tend to place more emphasis on the relationship than on the proposal. But if you don’t put enough emphasis on your proposal, you have a weakness in your closing process. And that’s not where you want to be weak.
Even with a highly regulated procurement process, savvy government contractors recognize that most proposals are won or lost before the RFP hits the street. The relationship with the customer does impact the evaluation process. And writing good proposals requires customer awareness well beyond what you learn in the RFP. Activities the occur pre-RFP and post-RFP are both critical to winning the business. This is why some companies (private sector and government contractors alike) try to integrate the sales function and the proposal into a single “capture” process.
Even if you don’t need the amount of formalization that government contracts have developed for their proposal processes, you can still learn from their experience:
- Proposals can be won (or lost) before the RFP hits the streets, but the proposal is still a critical part of closing the deal
- Know what information you need from the customer (whether or not there is a written RFP) to write the proposal and collect it
- Plan your response before writing it
- Use a cross-reference matrix to explicitly relate everything in your proposal to the customer’s requirements
- Conduct formal proposal reviews to provide quality assurance
The word “proposal” means different things to different organizations. What one company goes through to produce their proposals may be completely different from how you do yours. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from them.