When the customer has already decided who should win before an RFP is released, the procurement is often called "wired." As in, "It’s wired for the company that they prefer." Often this company has helped write the RFP. In government procurement, one of the main reasons for all the rules is to prevent wired procurements. But they still happen.
Here are four recommendations that can help you win anyway:
- Take risks. This is something that most government contractors (and probably most other companies) are not good at. But you can't steal a customer away by being similar to their current vendor. You can't just be the same, but a little better. You should aim at being categorically different. You need to present a real alternative.
- Your proposal should read that way too. Throw out all the blah, blah, blah that has built up in your proposals over the years and speak directly to the customer. Throw out all of your past proposal text instead of trying to re-use it. Change the tone. Have an attitude (that alone is enough to discriminate you from your competition in most proposals). Be upfront about offering them a choice. But most importantly, you need to tell them a story that they want to be a part of.
- If there is an incumbent, keep in mind that the customer already knows them — warts and all. The customer knows the incumbents limits. The incumbent has been locked into a contract and a way of doing things for years. You need to remind the customer that the incumbent had their chance to be innovative and weren’t. You can be anything you want, but the incumbent can't escape what they've been. You need to be something different from the incumbent. There are only so many ways this can happen: staffing, procedures, responsiveness, personality, resources, capability, technology, results, etc. If you submit the same-old, same-old management plan as you always have just like everyone else, you won’t steal away a wired opportunity.
- Now for the difficult part &mdash If you are a government contractor you need to recognize that the government buyer (although it's often true for others as well) is both risk and change averse. You need to take risks, but the story has to be about how they don't have to take any risks or how they face more risks by continuing the status quo. This approach may be easier since changing vendors is an obvious risk no matter what you say to the contrary. If you are in a rapidly changing environment, it's a lot easier to make the case that failing to keep up is itself too big of a risk. You must offer change, but not a change in the customer.
While the customer may have some bias, it's extremely rare that an opportunity is truly wired. Also, keep in mind that a procurement that looks wired may scare away other companies, making the competitive field much smaller. This could make you the only viable alternative and helps boost the odds from terrible to merely bad. And winning a wired procurement against all odds is even more sweet than winning a normal proposal.
You need to play to the chance that the opportunity isn't truly wired, meaning that the customer is willing to change if given a good enough reason. All you need to do to win is to find that reason. And don't focus on price. Yes, it's best to come in with lower pricing, but that can't be your whole story or else they'll wonder what they have to give up if they pick you and view their preferred vendor as lower risk. You want them thinking about what they're going to get. Try giving them something they didn't even ask for, but probably want. Bring them a brighter future by offering something new. And that something new doesn’t even have to cost you anything — it can be a better way of doing things or a more responsive partner.
Make them question why the incumbent hasn't offered them anything new in all the time they've known them. Give them something they want more than the comfort of staying with what they've got. To do that, it will help to understand their goals and motivations. But if you don't know (probably the case because it's wired for someone else who knows them better), then take a risk and guess.
Remember: the procurement is wired. The odds are you are going to lose. To change the odds you have to change the rules. You can't do that without taking a risk.
Now just for fun, play it back and this time be the incumbent
If you are the incumbent, then everything above describes your competition...
So you've got to beat them to it. You need to say how you've been bound by the limitations of the current contract, but the recompete gives you the opportunity to make the changes for the better that you've been dying to implement. And with your history of lessons learned, you are the only one who knows what they are. Because you understand their goals and preferences so well you can actually deliver a brighter future and they won't have to take any risks to achieve it. You'll not only give them more of what they've come to love and rely on, but you'll give them something new as well. Put a major emphasis on price realism. You are the only one who knows how much things cost in their environment and therefore are in the best position to make trade-off decisions and deliver the best value. All anyone else can do is guess. Focus on trustworthiness, how they know you will deliver what you promise, and how you're not like those Other Contractors who will promise anything to get a contract and then quickly become ordinary. The only problem with this approach is that it has to be true.