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  • What government contractors can learn from commercial proposals

    Government contractors get most of their business by writing proposals. As a result, they put a lot of effort into proposal writing. They develop formal processes, send people to training, build infrastructures, and hire specialists.

    Writing a proposal in response to a government RFP can be a complicated regulatory-driven process. The complexity of the task can make it difficult to see the forest for the trees. A government proposal ultimately has the same goal as a commercial proposal --- to sell. Indeed, government contractors can benefit from studying commercial sales and proposal techniques.

    In a commercial environment, the proposal is usually not what determines whether you get the customer's business. Your company's relationship with the customer is far more important.

    With the process of doing business so heavily regulated, it is often easily to lose sight that you must have a relationship with your customer, even when it is the government. That is exactly what the regulations are designed to prevent. In the name of preventing corruption, government procurement processes can impede the contractor’s ability to understand its government customers and be responsive to their needs.

    Having a relationship with your customer is necessary to understand their needs and does not have to be a corrupting influence. One of the reasons that commercial firms focus on the relationship is that they may never get any guidance from the customer in writing regarding what to propose. While a government contract expects to get a meticulously detailed RFP, no matter how carefully it is prepared, the RFP will never address everything the customer wants. Government contractors who develop a relationship with their customers are able to prepare proposals that address the customer's unwritten requirements as well as their written ones.

    For commercial companies, the proposal is often just a draft for setting the contractual terms. If the customer is interested in doing business with you, you will have a chance to repair any deficiencies in the proposal.

    Commercial companies also have the luxury of being able to give the customer what they want, and not (necessarily) what they ask for. Unlike a government proposal, you may not have to achieve 100% compliance. If a commercial company thinks they know a better approach, they can ignore what it says in the RFP and still win. A government contractor must respond to what is in the RFP. However, it is important to understand that what made it into the RFP may not be an accurate reflection of what the customer actually wants. Having a relationship with your customer will enable you to better spot a discrepancy like this and present a solution that while it complies with the written request also delivers what they really want.

    Commercial proposals do not have the artificial split between pricing and technical approach. Indeed, the evaluation of a commercial proposal often starts with looking at the price and then seeing what they will be paying for. A vendor can promise anything, but they can be expected to deliver the things they price. No plan ever survives in the real world anyway. Approaches, methodologies, etc., can be changed after award. The key is to make sure that the pricing is reliable.

    Government RFPs often require approaches and methodologies to be spelled out in intricate detail. And those who evaluate them may not even see the pricing. But they still have the same basic questions --- "what can I expect," and "how do I know you'll live up to those expectations." Many acquisition reform trends (past performance, performance based contracting, best value, etc.) are intended to address these questions. In spite of these reforms, it can still be difficult for the government to perform an evaluation the same way commercial firms do. If you understand this and know what considerations are important to your customer, you can address them even if the procurement process does not ask you to.

    Carl Dickson
    By Carl Dickson, Founder of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

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