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Carl Dickson

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  1. The kind of RFPs you bid impacts your: Win strategies Business development and proposal processes Staffing requirements Resource allocation Definition of quality Good advice for one type of RFP may be exactly the wrong approach for another type of RFP. Consider: Does the RFP provide written instructions, evaluation criteria, and a statement of work? If it does, then producing a proposal is a process of following the instructions, optimizing your response against the evaluation criteria, and fulfilling the requirements. If it doesn’t you are working blind. Does your process deliver the information you need to make up for it? Does the nature of your pursuits require you to move forward without it? Your pre-RFP and post-RFP processes will both be impacted, as well as your bid strategies and the story you tell. Is compliance mandatory? If it is, then producing your proposal becomes an exercise in accounting for everything you must comply with and showing compliance in your proposal. Winning becomes an exercise in going beyond compliance. If compliance is not strict, then you should think through the trade-offs, develop a strategy regarding compliance, and make it part of the story that you tell. Are alternatives permitted? When compliance is strictly required, alternatives are not usually allowed. If compliance is not strict, then you may be able to offer options and alternatives that change the rules. This gives you more options for differentiating yourself from the competition and for influencing the evaluation. Is communication with the customer regulated? Can you talk directly to the end user(s) at the company? Can you establish a relationship? Can you gain an information advantage? Or do you have to go through a procurement specialist? Does producing a proposal become about the relationship you establish before the proposal or about gaming the procurement system? Is the evaluation process formal? While the formality of the evaluation process tends to correlate with the sector/market (federal, state/local, private, NGO/NPO, academic, etc.), some are more consistent than others. Whether it’s formal or not, the more you understand about how a selection will be made, the better your ability will be to write a proposal that influences the evaluation in your favor. The less formal the evaluation, the more likely it will be to take into consideration factors other than the proposal itself. Is there an RFP? What if the customer asks for a proposal, but doesn’t issue an RFP? How does your company go about collecting requirements and documenting customer understanding to ensure your proposals are persuasive? How do you figure out the customer’s approach to evaluation and decision making so you can influence it? How do you know what story to tell? How consistent are the RFPs you bid? When every RFP you pursue is for the same thing, specified the same way, and evaluated following the same criteria, it makes it easy to recycle proposal content. When every proposal is not only for something different (or is for essentially the same thing but with different specifications) but is also evaluated with different criteria, you have to rewrite everything in order to improve your chances of winning. Broad statements about how reusing proposal content is good or bad miss the point that it depends on the consistency of the RFPs that a given company pursues. Now look at these considerations and ask yourself questions like: Who should write the proposal? What should the pre-RFP and post-RFP processes look like? How do you define proposal quality? What do you have to do to win? How should you organize your pre-RFP and post-RFP efforts? Should you use specialists or consultants? How many of each? As you go down the list, you will find that the answers depend on the circumstances. What makes sense for one company will be bad advice for another. The so-called best practices are not one-size-fits-all solutions that apply equally to everyone. If you want to know what the best approach is for your company, you need to understand your circumstances.
  2. Most companies bid a lot of stuff they shouldn’t. So to help you find a reason to “no bid” here’s a list of reasons not to: You find out about the opportunity when the RFP is released The customer has no budget or can’t afford what is actually required Your competition is cheaper There are too many competitors A key subcontractor backed out There is a requirement in the RFP that you can’t live with The price risk is too high The performance risk is too high You have negative past performance The customer doesn’t like you You don’t like the customer Customer won’t answer critical questions You have no advanced awareness The opportunity doesn’t fit corporate strategies The RFP is too vague The RFP is too specific There’s not enough profit in it You don’t have enough staff available to write the proposal You have a conflict with certification requirements The customer is unrealistic The schedule is unrealistic You don’t have the staff to do the work You can’t promise delivery of the key personnel You don’t know who the competition is You don’t know who the evaluators are The customer likes someone else You think the customer is trying to justify a selection already made The customer is just fishing/not serious Location, location, location You have a conflict with the delivery requirements There are intellectual property issues The contract type is not appropriate for the type of work Your awareness is limited to what’s in the RFP There is no potential for follow-on work Pursuing it would distract you from other opportunities You are not investing in the proposal effort You started working on the proposal after the RFP hit the street You can’t articulate why you should be the one to win The customer doesn’t know you You don’t know how the customer is organized You don’t know how the procurement fits into the customer’s strategic plans You can’t adequately perform at the price you plan to bid The technology requested is already obsolete
  3. The right way to develop winning bid strategies is to get to know the customer months ahead of RFP release. During this time you can position yourself to win and be prepared to write to the customer's unwritten requirements and evaluation considerations. But then there is the real world. Even though bidding something at the last minute is a bad idea, companies often can't resist. Of all the tutorials we have published, the one we enjoyed writing the most was How to Do Proposals The Wrong Way. We describe it as a worst practices manual for doing real world proposals. It was written to help people cope with a proposal they probably shouldn't even be bidding. We are writing a future tutorial on business development strategies, and in each of the last several issues, we've included an article on that topic. Recently we've addressed how to bid against (or as) an incumbent and strategies for writing about pricing. For this issue, the topic is how to preparing winning bid strategies The Wrong Way. When you only have a few days to prepare a proposal, you can't take several days to work out a detailed plan and annotated outline. That would be the right way to do it. To write a response to an RFP in just a couple of days, the first thing to do is to achieve compliance. Get the writing that addresses their requirements started. If possible, use a point-by-point format. Once you have a compliant document, then you can add your win themes and bid strategies. You'll probably need the time it takes to write the compliance response, just to figure out what your bid strategies should be. Remember: this is The Wrong Way to do it. For a winning proposal you want the win themes and bid strategies to be fully integrated with the solution so that the entire proposal serves to support them. Once you have achieved simple compliance then you can look at where your strengths are. If your staffing is well qualified, but expensive, then emphasize the quality you offer. If you have relevant corporate experience, emphasize your proven ability to deliver and risk mitigation. Also, look at the client's mission and goals for the project, and emphasize how you will help them achieve those goals. Then, just for good measure, throw in a statement about the value in your offering. If your are writing to an RFP that has written evaluation criteria, write a statement that describes how you fullfil each item that they are looking for. If there is no written evaluation criteria, write a statement that reflects the customer's needs and desires. If you don't know the customer very well, write a statement describing: How the strengths in your staffing will benefit the customer How the strengths in your experience will benefit the customer How your proven ability to manage the work will benefit the customer Any other major features of your proposal and how they will benefit the customer How it all adds up to your offering being the best way the customer can achieve their goals at the best possible value. If you put a sentence or two on each of the above in your introduction, it will greatly strengthen your proposal. You've got to give them a reason to want you in the proposal --- simple compliance is not enough. At the same time, you don't have enough time to plan before you write and then write to the plan. But if you can get something compliant on paper, then you can give it a fighting chance with a couple of paragraphs in the introduction to state what is special about what you have to offer.
  4. The answer is a simple mathematical equation: Bids x Cost < Profit x Wins Is the number of bids times the average cost of bidding greater or less than the average profit times the number of wins? In other words, you don’t want the cost of bidding to exceed any profit you might make. The key variables are: What is the cost of bidding? What is your probability of winning? Will it be profitable if you win? Small projects or slim profit margins decrease what you can afford to spend to pursue an opportunity. If you cannot afford to prepare a customized proposal and are planning to send the customer a “quick” proposal, then you are really trying to get away with sending them a brochure and a quote. You are basically trying to win by being the lowest cost. Small projects or slim profit margins are not the kind of opportunities where you should casually follow a low cost bid strategy. Big projects or nice profit margins are worth investing in winning, so your win strategy should not be to minimize the proposal effort. The real conflict is that to win, you want to invest in the pursuit, both before the RFP is released and in preparing the proposal after the RFP is released. If you are not consciously investing in the win then you are just fishing and hoping to get lucky. Unfortunately if you invest in the pursuit of a low probability opportunity you can easily spend more on the pursuit then it is ultimately worth. This is why some people don’t like to respond to RFPs. The problem is that they haven’t found a sweet spot where the profit from the wins covers the cost of bidding. This is usually because they bid on the wrong RFPs. This brings us to the probability of winning. The problem is you can’t predict it. Over time, you can track various factors and see how they correlate with your win rate. Because the same factors can have a greater or lesser impact from one company to the next (even one business line to the next), this is the only way to predict them reliably. The CapturePlanning.com MustWin Process is designed to provide the foundation for identifying these factors and tracking the metrics data needed so that you know what things correlate with a positive win rate at your company and how strongly. Short of collecting metrics over a period of a year or two, all you can do is identify “indicators” based on best practices and assume they correlate to a positive win rate. These “indicators” can include positive things like: You had an existing, positive relationship with the customer before the RFP was released You understand the customer’s needs and preferences You understand the customer’s procurement, evaluation, and selection methods The customer is willing to talk to you when you need clarification You have detailed knowledge of the competitive environment The potential for additional/follow-on work with the customer is high They can also include negative indicators like: You had no relationship with the customer before the RFP was released The customer doesn’t want to talk to you or help you understand their needs and preferences You did not help the customer develop the RFP You do not know who your competitors might be This project is likely the only work you will do for the company The dozens of pre-RFP readiness factors identified in the CapturePlanning.com MustWin Process can be used to create a list of bid/no-bid design criteria. These criteria can form the basis of a point-scoring system. In a point scoring system you add points for positive indicators and subtract points for negative indicators. The final score can be used to substantiate a bid/no-bid decision. Finally, the potential profit must be taken into consideration. However, you probably won’t know how much profit is in it until you prepare the bid (or more realistically start the project). Most companies either use an estimate such as their average profit rate or just use the potential revenue as a guide. If you can’t even estimate the potential revenue, there might be other factors that can be used to estimate the project’s size. What you use depends on the nature of your business. For example, a staffing company might use the number of staff, hours, or person-months. Other types of companies might use the number of units, deliverables, users, servers, square footage, etc. While a large project is always attractive at first, consider that the investment to respond to the RFP is much higher, but the win probability could be much lower. You might only have to win one to be very happy, but you could go broke losing bid after bid waiting for the win. Meanwhile smaller projects produce less profit to cover the cost of responding to the RFP. Ultimately, what has the biggest impact on the equation ends up being your win probability. To bid on RFPs successfully, you need to win enough of them (in dollars and in units) to cover the cost of responding to them. So the answer to whether they are worth bidding usually is driven by your probability of winning. If you go with your gut, you’re probably wasting your time. If you prepare a list of positive indicators and negative indicators and then assess each opportunity against that list, you’ll do much better. If you start bidding and find that it has potential, even if it is a rocky road, you can improve over time if you collect metrics regarding which indicators correlate with your win rate so that you can continuously improve your list (including how much weight to give each item) over time. Ultimately you win more and achieve the best profit not by responding to the most RFPs, but by having the best bid/no-bid indicators so that you only respond to the RFPs where you have decent odds of winning.
  5. Writing an RFP is difficult. It can be made a lot easier if you do some preparing first. Preparing will not only make it easier, but it will help make sure that you actually get what you want out of the procurement process. Understand your requirements as well as those of the other stakeholders. You know what you want. But do you know what the other stakeholders want (this may be completely different from what you think they need). With multiple stakeholders, it is entirely possible for the requirements to conflict. Be able to articulate your requirements. Describing what you want in writing is probably the easiest part of writing an RFP. And yet it is deceptively difficult. It's one thing if you are purchasing a commodity that can be ordered simply by giving a make and model number. However, if you are trying to purchase something more complicated, like a system or a solution that must be engineered, it is a lot more difficult. Some things can be written down as a set of specifications, either technical or functional. And some services can be quantified. However, some things are difficult to quantify and that makes it difficult to describe. Your goal should be to be able to articulate what you want in sufficient detail so that an anonymous reader will be able to provide it. It doesn't matter whether you use formal language, specifications, numbers, bullets, diagrams, or narrative prose. If you can't specify what you want performed or delivered, try specifying what you want the outcome to be. What matters is whether the potential suppliers will be able to provide what you need based on what you have written. It may take some research and more than one attempt to get this right. Know what is feasible. Is what you want possible? Is it practical? It doesn't make any sense to issue an RFP that is really a wish-list for something that can't be done, or can't be done within reason. Usually a buyer's goal is to maximize the Return on Investment, which means hitting the sweet spot between innovation and low cost. When you are purchasing something you are highly familiar with, it is easy to know whether what you are asking for makes sense. The problem comes when you are outsourcing because you don't have the expertise in-house and you don't really know what the best approach is. Understand the trade-offs involved. It is often said that you can have speed, low cost, or high quality --- pick any two. When you are preparing your wish list, make sure you don't ask for more than your supplier can deliver. If there are trade-offs involved, you want to be the one that makes them. If you don't explicitly specify how you want trade-offs made, then the vendor will fill the void by making a selection that may or may not reflect your preferences. Know your limits. Do you have a limited budget? Or a deadline? Or limited facility space? Or bandwidth? Or staffing? Or are there any other limits that could impact what the supplier needs to do to meet your needs? Are there things you definitely want included, or things that you definitely want excluded? Achieving Consensus. There are usually many opinions in a company regarding what it needs or wants. Creating an RFP that gives everyone what they want may not be possible. Giving everyone a chance to write everything they want into the RFP will send mixed messages to the vendor, create confusion regarding what you really want, and make your costs explode. In order to achieve consensus regarding your RFP, try focusing on the goals. It is easier to find common ground regarding the goals you want to achieve. And goals are more important than features. It is more important to fulfill your organization's goals than it is to obtain any particular feature or specification. Most of the arguing takes place around how to fulfill the goals. Try to structure the RFP around your goals instead of the features. One good technique to use is "divide and conquer." Identify where you can achieve consensus and where you can't. Try to focus on the areas where you can all speak with one voice. You should also remember that an RFP is about more than just the specifications. It is also about providing instructions to the vendors and describing your priorities in terms of evaluation criteria. You may be able to achieve consensus by adjusting your priorities (RFP evaluation criteria) instead of the specification. Speak with one voice to your vendors. RFPs written by committee often make it difficult to understand what the customer really wants. Or worse, different sections of the RFP contradict each other. This confusion will result in your vendor having difficulty supplying what you actually want and will likely result in higher costs as they pad their pricing to reflect their lack of understanding.
  6. Quote requests are usually used for the purchase of commodities, such as commercial off-the-shelf products, or other tangible items with set specifications that are usually available from many sources. Most product resale fits into this category. Quote requests usually provide a set of specifications that the product must meet and details on how pricing data should be supplied. There are subtle differences between a Request for Quotation (RFQ) and a Request for a Proposal (RFP). Responding to an RFP usually requires supplying information in addition to the price. The evaluation of an RFQ focuses on the price, and the lowest price that meets the specifications usually wins. RFP are usually used for more complicated purchases and the evaluation may be based on the overall value of what you are proposing, taking into consideration reliability, risk, and other factors. When responding to an RFQ, if the customer has already decided to make a purchase, has budget approval, and knows exactly what they want, they will probably be less interested in salesmanship or packaging, and more interested in the price. If they haven’t decided to make the purchase, they may be requesting the quote to see if it fits within their budget and you may need to persuade them to make the purchase as well as to select you as the vendor. In the letter or narrative text you supply with the quote, you should show that: You have the capability to deliver as promised You have the flexibility be responsive if requirements change You have experience fulfilling similar needs You have a history of delivering on-time and within budget Even though an RFQ response is usually a cost shoot-out, it can still be a good idea to demonstrate value. If you exceed the specifications or requirements or can deliver faster then they require, demonstrate how that will benefit them. It works best if you can quantify the value by showing that it will ultimately save them more then any difference in cost. Providing a better overall value and demonstrating how they will benefit will not only help to differentiate you from any competition, but may even help you to win, even if your price is higher. You should keep in the back of your mind that there are other reasons for a customer to issue an RFQ. Occasionally an RFQ will be issued to discover pricing, without any intent to actually make a purchase. Sometimes they are even used to justify using a preferred vendor. It helps to have a relationship with the customer so that you can understand the motivations behind the RFQ. It also will help you to link your response to what they are really trying to accomplish.
  7. When the Government is considering a procurement, but is not sure what to put in the RFP or who would respond to it, they often issue a Request for Information (RFI). An RFI provides you with an opportunity to make suggestions regarding what they should include in the future RFP if it goes forward. It also gives you an opportunity to show the customer that you are qualified, responsive, and helpful. Sometimes, responding to an RFI is required if you want to be able to respond to the future RFP. When this is the case, it will say so in the text of the announcement. When responding to an RFI, there are several things that you can try to influence, in order to give you a competitive advantage should an RFP be released in the future. These include influencing the: Technical scope. Try to include requirements that will limit the field of competitors. Specifications. Make recommendations that you can comply with, but will be difficult for others. Contract Type. If you have a preference, here is your chance to make a recommendation. Contract Vehicle. If you have a contract vehicle that you think is advantageous, recommend its use. Provide sufficient detail (POCs, procedures, contract numbers, etc.) so that they can implement your recommendation. Small Business. If you are a small business and think you can do the word yourself, recommend that it be released as a small business set-aside (or small disadvantaged business, if you qualify). If you are not a small business, you may want to point out any aspects of what they need that would be difficult for a small business to provide. Then state your willingness to team with a small business if required. Pricing. With many programs, choices made early on can have a big impact on the price. Here is your chance to influence those choices. Past Performance. If you don’t have any Government project past performance, make sure you recommend that they consider relevant commercial experience. Certifications. If you have any relevant certifications, recommend that they become requirements to limit the competitive field. If you don’t have relevant certifications, recommend that they not be required because they would limit the amount of competition, really are not relevant, would increase the price, etc. Methodologies. If there is a particular approach you would take, describe it so that they can make it a requirement. Make sure that you describe your recommendations in language that can be included in the RFP. Keep in mind that if you make a recommendation and it ends up in the RFP, everyone will see it and bid accordingly. Sometimes this will level the playing field and you will lose the competitive advantage. These recommendations are better to save for when you are responding to the RFP, so that you can keep the advantage and stand out from the crowd. There are other documents that are similar in nature to an “RFI” that they sometimes request. Two of these include: Sources Sought Notice. Usually used when they know what they want, but not who can provide it. Market Survey. Used to find out about a market and its suppliers. If you have questions about what they are trying to do, you should call the contracting officer. In fact, you should look for an excuse to call, if only to make contact and boost name recognition. Because it is not (yet) a procurement, you may find them willing to talk and to discuss options, trade-offs, intentions, and other critically important concerns that they will not be willing to discuss once an RFP is released. RFIs are often announced on Fedbizopps (http://www.fedbizopps.gov). You can do searches for the following words to find them: RFI ”Request for Information” ”Sources Sought” ”Market Survey” ”Pre-Solicitation Notice” Responding to RFIs is an excellent way to identify new business opportunities, find a point-of-contact, and establish a relationship with the customer before the RFP hits the street. Often, it can be many months from the release of an RFI to the release of an RFP, and not all RFIs will result in an RFP release.
  8. Being prepared ahead of RFP release means more than having had a meeting with the client and anticipating when the RFP will come out. Here is a list of information that you can collect in advance. If you have all of this on the day of RFP release you will be much better prepared to write the winning proposal. Features/Benefits, discriminators, and key points. What will be the key features of your approach? Be sure to include the corresponding benefits to the customer for each. Highlight things that will discriminate you from your competitors. Competitive Issues. List all known competitors, by name or category. Include their strengths and weaknesses. Address how to ghost their weaknesses. Identify which are potential teaming partners. Risk Mitigation. Identify key sources of risk (both in bidding and in performance) and your approach to mitigate each. Address how risk can potentially impact performance, cost, and schedule and what you will do to prevent it. Relevant Corporate Experience. List any projects that are relevant to this one. Include as many details as possible. Highlight sound bites that can be incorporated into the proposal response. Past performance. Survey your clients yourself so that you are aware of how they will respond to a past performance inquiry. Make sure the contact data you have is current. Identify Graphics/Illustrations. Prepare a list of graphics, illustrations, or photographs that will go into your response. Key processes, relationships, structures, and diagrams should all be on the list. Components of the Solution/Approach. Identify the key aspects of the solution or approach to be proposed. If specific products or technologies are involved, identify them. If a project is to be followed, identify the steps. Client data. Client organization charts, mission statements, budgets, strategic plans, relevant standards that must be complied with, sources of internal and external pressure, client preferences, and your best guesses regard who will participate in the evaluation.
  9. If you want to write better proposals, one of the most important skills to develop is asking the right questions. When you go into your next meeting with the customer, you should anticipate what you’ll need to know to write a winning proposal, and ask questions that will get the information you need. When you start your next proposal, try asking yourself what questions the customer needs answered to make their selection. To develop your skills, try looking at the entire process and every aspect of what you need to do to win in terms of the questions you should ask. The process of identifying customers, understanding their requirements, and responding with a proposal is basically a flow of information, all of which can be articulated as questions. To help get you started, here are a number of questions, grouped into topics. It's not intended to be an all-encompassing list, but rather a different way of looking at things that can inspire you to formulate the questions you will need to be successful: Understanding the customer. What do you need to know about the customer to prepare a better proposal? Their priorities? Preferences? How they will make trade-off decisions? How they will perform the evaluation and make their selection? Relevant experiences they’ve had in the past, both good and bad? What they think is necessary for success? What kind of results they are looking for? Making estimates and pricing your offering. Pricing is often the last thing to be completed on a proposal. And yet that’s when people realize a lot of questions about what should be included/excluded, assumed, limited, etc. Knowing what questions to ask in order to make better estimates can result in better pricing, as well as a better narrative response. Understanding the competitive environment. Can you identify your competitors? Are they few or many? If you can’t identify your competitors by name, can you profile them or categorize them? What are their strengths, weaknesses, and other attributes? Are any of them potential teaming partners? Developing win strategies. What is it going to take to win? What does the customer need to know or do to select you? Why should they pick you instead of someone else? What motivates the customer? Writing a proposal section. What questions will the customer have about this topic? About you? About your offering? What process will the customer go through in performing their evaluation? How can you help them make a selection? How does the topic you are writing about relate to the win strategies and themes needed to win the proposal? How can you maximize your evaluation score? How will the customer benefit from what you are proposing? If you were the customer, what would you want to see in the proposal? Exceeding RFP compliance. Who, what, where, how, when, and why. Answer all of them, especially the ones they forgot to ask. Winning before the RFP is released. What will it take to achieve a competitive advantage? What questions do you need to ask to achieve an information advantage? Understanding the proposal process. Who are the stakeholders? What functional roles need to be covered? What are the information needs of each stakeholder? What information should you seek? What format should you store it in so it can build and retain usefulness for the next stakeholder? What guidance do participants need? What do you need to do to win? Reviewing the proposal. Does the narrative draft reflect what was in the content plan? Is it written from the customer’s point of view? Is there anything that should be added or deleted? Is it optimized against the evaluation criteria? The next time you are working on a proposal and you don’t know what to do, try thinking of questions — your questions, the customer’s questions, and the questions of any other stakeholders. Your likelihood of winning will be in direct proportion to your ability to anticipate and answer those questions.
  10. If you’re used to dealing with a mild-mannered, sometimes talkative Contract Officer (CO) who believes in Santa Claus and loves apple pie before RFP release, then you may be in for an enormous, personally unsettling change of behavior on the CO’s part when the RFP is released. The reason for this abrupt change of behavior may escape you, but you’re not dreaming. Something really did happen to cause the change… the RFP was released. RFPs with formal evaluation procedures usually regulate how the CO interacts with vendors once the RFP is released. This is certainly true in government procurements. In commercial procurements it depends on how formalized their procedures are. The rules are intended to ensure that bids remain fair, open, and competitive by ensuring that all vendors receive the same communications. This often ends up meaning that they will basically no longer communicate with you at all, except in writing. Here are some things to consider as you approach RFP release to help prepare you for when “The Change” strikes and complicates your Pre-Proposal efforts and impedes your capture goals. The chart below focuses on goals that capture managers typically have regarding their customer contacts. The goals are divided into six recognizable categories with sub-goals to assist in understanding behavioral reactions brought on by “The Change.” The “Before” and “After” columns show how your tactics may need to be different before and after the RFP is released. Goal Before RFP Release After RFP Release To help the customer define their technical requirements, assess alternatives, get an RFP written, and understand and execute the procurement process. Persuade them into brainstorming mode. Make suggestions for how to approach the procurement. You are limited to submitting written questions. The CO responds by distributing all questions submitted and all answers provided to all offerors. When possible, your questions should be prepared to lead the CO to your desired response. To understand their plans and goals, their procurement processes, and their preferences. Discuss what they are trying to accomplish. Try to determine why they're taking a certain approach. Make substantive suggestions from an "objective" point of view. You are limited to reading about their goals in the RFP. You can submit questions in writing, but only if they're valid and important enough to ask. Remember, if you can't stand the answer, don't ask the question. To identify the decision makers and who are involved in the procurement, especially the evaluators. Also, to identify how they fit into the customer’s organization. In your frequent customer interactions, ask questions in a direct and helpful manner. Keep in mind that your normal customer contacts may not be the evaluators of your proposal. Visit identified decision makers, and endeavor to see if they will identify other decision makers. If you know the decision makers, craft your proposal to be compliant with the RFP plus meet their needs, wants, and "Hot Buttons." If you don't know who they are, be as compliant with the RFP as possible. Assess the competitive environment and determine what other companies already do business with the customer in similar areas, what other companies may have influenced the procurement, the strengths and weaknesses of the competition, and which are competitors and which are potential teaming partners. Ensure that your Customer Contact Plan remains active at all times with everyone on your team asking plenty of questions of the customer. You'll be astonished at what you can discover. Be observant so that you can spot a competitor in the customer's office, and try to determine who they might be speaking with or frequently visit. If this happens, that customer point of contact needs lots of your best support right away. Ask for a list of interested bidders. Go back and review an attendance list for "Industry Day", the "Bidders Conference", etc. If you've got nothing else to go on, search "on-line" resources for information on incumbents and their teammates, or anything else of value. Answers to questions that you didn't submit may hold lots of helpful information. To introduce yourself. While you want the customer to recognize you later, you want to be perceived as an asset to them, and not a drain on their time. Remember the procurement is about them, and not about you. So be supportive, well informed, and sincere when asking questions of them. Even if the purpose for a meeting is an initial introduction, make the most of it -- you may not get another chance. There isn’t a whole lot you can accomplish now by way of introductions. Remember "The Change" has occurred, and if you ask a question, do not unnecessarily reveal your company identity or that of your teammates since that might damage your reputation or help the competition. To influence the procurement, and recommend procurement strategies, RFP requirements, evaluation criteria, and/or small business utilization requirements. If you receive a draft RFP(s) for review and comment, make absolutely sure that you provide an excellent team response. This may be your only time to shape requirements to favor your solution. With or without a draft RFP, use every opportunity to assess your team's presumptions and beliefs regarding the customer's acquisition. This is the time to make corrections in your Capture Plan. It's probably too late. However, remain alert and never let your guard down. There may be that “one in a million” chance where a crucial question by you or an answer to a competitor's question could turn the tide in your favor. We hope that these suggestions prove helpful to you, and that “The Change” never visits your proposal room.
  11. A company I know recently asked to me to help them prepare a proposal. As we talked, they realized that while they had talked to the customer and the customer was interested, they hadn't sufficiently defined the scope in order to write a proposal. They knew that they could meet the customer's needs, but they couldn't figure out how to price it in a proposal because there were too many alternatives and too many unanswered questions. Their sales process succeeded in getting the customer's attention and interest, but broke down when it came to preparing the customer to receive a proposal. Without a defined scope of work, they couldn't write a proposal because there were too many possible ways to structure a deal. Even if they had a defined scope of work, they hadn't discussed with the customer what process the customer would follow to receive a proposal, evaluate it, and make an award. Even though it can be difficult to initiate, it is important to have a conversation with your customer about what they would like to see in the proposal --- what the scope of services should be, how it should be priced, and how it will be evaluated. This conversation will help prepare them to receive your proposal and provide a common basis of understanding for how the process should work. A conversation about how the customer would like to move forward can be valuable in other ways. You may find that a proposal isn't even necessary, that the customer has accepted your qualifications and is prepared to sign a contract. Or you may find that the customer is just browsing and is perfectly willing to accept all the information you care to provide, but has no real intention of closing a deal. This conversation gives you a chance to evaluate how serious the customer is. It can also give you a chance to influence the proposal in ways that can work to your advantage and make things more difficult for any potential competitors. Even if the customer is serious, if they have to write an RFP it can be a serious impediment to closing a sale. If the customer has never prepared an RFP and has no process to evaluate a proposal, this conversation may be the only way they will get sufficiently organized to prepare one. When sales drag on and never close it is often because this preparation was not done. The customer doesn't know how to reach a decision and close a deal from their end. When a customer receives a proposal that they don't know how to evaluate and have no criteria to evaluate it against, they often fail to act on the proposal. If you want the sale to close, you need to make sure that the customer has this process in place.
  12. Within the CapturePlanning.com MustWin Process we measure progress and quality against what it will take to win. During the critical pre-RFP phase of the pursuit, we use Readiness Reviews to ensure measurable progress. For each of the four Readiness Reviews, specific questions, goals, and action items must be completed. Within our process documentation we provide a nice long list of the specific questions, goals, and action items you can use to arrive at RFP release ready to write the winning proposal. The purpose of this graphic is to help you understand how to design and customize your Readiness Reviews in order to know what it will take to win. Also, it helps the people executing the process to see how the Readiness Reviews "add up" to knowing what it will take to win.
  13. In the commercial marketplace, marketing efforts often center around segmentation strategies. Selling to the “public” lacks focus. You have to divide the “public” into segments that you can reach. In the Federal marketplace, marketing efforts often center around RFP release schedules --- find out who is going to release an RFP that you can bid and then position yourself to win it. A lot of effort goes into finding out who is going to release a suitable RFP. In the same way that marketing to the “public” lacks focus, market to the “Government” also lacks focus. There are tens of thousands of buyers. You need to segment the potential buyers in order to focus your efforts to identify suitable upcoming RFPs. One high-level segmentation approach is to divide a marketplace into horizontal and vertical markets. An offering that has broad applicability is considered horizontal. An offering that is suitable only for specific applications is considered vertical. Horizontal offers may have more potential buyers, but locating individuals is harder. A vertical offering restricts the pool of buyers to specific areas that are easier to reach. Off-the-shelf products tend to be horizontal in nature. For example, everybody buys PCs. Services can go either way, but contractors tend to look at them horizontally --- whatever you need we’ve got people who can do that. One approach to gaining a vertical perspective is to think in terms of solutions. Get to know customers in a specific area and offer solutions to their needs. Beware --- some companies bastardize this approach by becoming too “solution oriented” and end up offering to solve any type of problem for anyone. The key is to get to know the needs of customers in a specific area. In the Federal Government, this can be a specific department or agency. For example, you might tailor products/services to help the FBI solve law enforcement problems, and for growth expand the offering to other law enforcement agencies within the Department of Justice. As you develop your understanding of the customer’s needs, you should also be developing your understanding of their buying habits and purchase cycles. Because you only have to monitor as many buyers are in your vertical segment, it is easier to gain advanced notice of suitable RFP releases. And when an RFP is released you have an understanding of the customer that runs deeper than what it says in the RFP and you are able to offer solutions to their problems instead of a simply response to the RFP. This is how you win. And as you develop a reputation for being able to solve the problems of those in your vertical market segment, you become positioned to consistently win.
  14. Many companies have business development gate systems to help ensure that they are pursuing quality leads. Each bid they pursue has to pass through a certain number of “gates” or reviews to determine whether the bid is worth the investment. Some companies have lots of gates (around a dozen) and some companies just have a few. This begs the question, “how many gates should your bid process have?” Gate systems are often considered when a company realizes that it needs to formalize its bid/no bid decision making. First you realize that you need to make a formal bid/no bid decision. Then you realize that there is no one point in time that’s best to do it. You can’t really decide to bid until you see the RFP. You shouldn’t invest in pre-RFP pursuit without due consideration. So right there are your first two gates. But is it one at lead identification and one after RFP release? Or do you need another one in between? Or more than one? You need to decide things like: How much to budget for pursuit. But should you make it available all at once, or a little at a time? Whether you think you can win. But you learn this over time. Whether you have gathered all the right intelligence that you can in order to support the bid. Whether to go it alone or team with other companies. What to offer. What your win strategies should be. How much to budget for the proposal and what resources to use in preparing it. How many gates does that add up to? The answer doesn’t matter, because it's not the number of gates that matters — it's what you achieve at each one. If you make a list of what you need to achieve prior to starting the bid, then you can decide how many gates or reviews to allocate them to. And that’s the hard part — knowing what you need to achieve prior to starting the bid. In the off-the-shelf process documentation we offer, we recommend four reviews. Why four? Because it makes the math easy. If you start a year ahead of RFP release, you get three months to prepare for each. If you start a month ahead of RFP release, you get a week to prepare for each. Because each still has the same questions to answer, goals, and action items, it's easy to see how you get better results the earlier you start. What matters more than the number of reviews is what you have on your list of questions, goals, and action items to be achieved at each review. In general, we characterize the four reviews we recommend as: Lead Identification, Lead Qualification, Intelligence Gathering, and Proposal Preparation. Within each review, we separate the questions, goals, and action items into categories like customer, offering, competitive environment, and self-awareness. The questions build on each other to break things down into more and more detail, and ensure readiness at RFP release. When structured properly, you not only get a way to measure whether you are ready for RFP release, but you also get a matrix of metrics that you can use to identify what impacts your win rates the most. In our process documentation we show you how to turn the questions into a system of metrics and measurements that you can use not only to measure your progress towards readiness, but also to assess what impacts your win rates.
  15. The first thing to realize when reading a Federal Government RFP is that you don’t have to read the whole thing! It'’s easy to feel intimidated when you look at a printed copy of an RFP that’s at least an inch thick (or even much, much larger). When you realize how much of it is content you have to read vs. how much it is boilerplate that’s there because regulations say it has to be there, it’s not nearly as bad. The format for most Government RFPs is fixed by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). The FAR mandates that Government RFPs be divided into sections A through M. Each of these sections has a certain purpose and must contain certain information. But only a few of these sections relate to what to bid and how to prepare your proposal. Of the lettered sections, the key ones to focus on are: Section L. Where you’ll find the instructions for formatting, organizing, and submitting your proposal Section M. Where you’ll find the criteria and scoring system that will be used to determine whether your proposal wins. Section C. This is where they say what it is they want you to propose (often called the "Statement of Work"). Section B. This is where they tell you how to format your pricing. And sometimes, Section J. Sometimes they hide important stuff (like the Statement of Work) in Section J, attachments. This doesn’t mean that the other sections are not necessary. Some may have things that you must respond to, like Section K, where they put the “Certificationss and Representations” (Where you may have to “Certify” or “Represent” things like whether you are a U.S. firm, a minority firm, that you haven'’t defaulted on previous contracts, etc.). But the others are part of the legal form or contract boilerplate, and you won’t have to read them the same way you will the Statement of Work and Evaluation Criteria. The best approach to reading a Government RFP isn'’t necessary to read it sequentially from start to finish the way you would a book. Instead, first look at Section A (usually the cover page). In a box on this page is the due date. Now you know how much time you have to prepare your response. Next jump to Section L and focus on how they want the proposal organized. Whether you think it makes sense or not, you absolutely must follow their outline. Then go to Section M and find out how you will be graded and what they think is important. Now go back to Section C and find out what you have to propose doing or supplying. To really understand how and what to offer, you'll also need to look at Section B, so you can see whether they want it priced by the hour, in fixed price units, or some other way. Keep in mind that how you present the proposal will be bound by the instructions in Section L and how you will be graded is in Section M. Section C may take 50 pages to describe something that is only 10% of the grade, and only 5 pages to describe something that is 50% of your grade. Read Section C with the evaluation criteria in mind. Here are some additional things to look for: When reading Section L: Look for instructions regarding page count, page layout (margins, fonts, page sizes), submission method, and outline/content. When reading Section M: Look for scoring method, score weighting, evaluation process, past performance approach, and “best value” terminology. When reading Section C: Look for requirements (are they explained, understandable, and/or ambiguous?), contradictions (between requirements as well as Section L and M), feasibility, and opportunities for differentiation between you and your competitors. When reading Section B: Look for correspondence to the requirements and evaluation criteria. While you don't have to read everything at first, you really should at some point read the whole RFP because sometimes you'll find something important hiding in those other sections (maybe an insurance requirement, a deliverable schedule, etc.). Once you've read a few government RFPs, you'll be able to do it quickly because you'll know where to skim and where to focus. Different sections of the RFP are often written by different authors, and sometimes boilerplate is inserted without adequate review. Do not be surprised to find contradictions and ambiguities. Ask questions (you should find a deadline for them in Section L). Sometimes the interplay between the various sections can provide valuable insight into what they have in mind. Make sure you comply to the letter and give the potential customer what they want instead of what you want for them.
  16. The format and composition of a Federal Government RFP is mandated by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). This very lengthy and detailed set of rules defines what must go into an RFP and how it must be structured. Government RFPs that are based on the FAR are broken down into sections that are identified by letter (A - M). If you learn what is in each section, you can go straight there and save yourself tons of time. Remembering what is in each letter can be hard if you don't have them memorized. Here is a list of what is in each section: Section A. Information to offerors or quoters Identifies the title of the procurement, procurement number, point of contact (POC), how to acknowledge amendments and how to indicate “No Response” if you decide not to bid. Section A often appears as a one page form. Section B. Supplies or Services and Price/Costs This is where you provide your pricing. It defines the type of contract, identifies Contract Line Items (CLINs), and Subcontract Line Items (SLINs) that identify billable items, describes the period of performance, identifies option periods (if any), and provides cost and pricing guidelines. This section is often presented and responded to in tabular form. Section C. Statement of Work (SOW) Describes what the Government wants you to do or supply. Outside of your pricing, most of your proposal will be responding to this section, tell them how you will deliver what they need. Sometimes this section is contained in a separate appendix and is frequently associated with other appendices in Section J with other details to enable the bidder to understand the nature and scope of the tasks requested in Section C. Section D. Packages and Marking Defines how all contract deliverables such as reports and material will be packaged and shipped. This information is important as these instructions may effect costs and raise logistics issues. Section E. Inspection and Acceptance Describes the process by which the Government will officially accept deliverables and what to do if the work is not accepted. This can also affect costs and identifies tasks you must be prepared to undertake. Section F. Deliveries or Performance Defines how the Government Contracting Officer will control the work performed and how you will deliver certain contract items. Section G. Contract Administrative Data Describes how the Government Contracting Officer and your firm will interact and how information will be exchanged in administration of the contract to ensure both performance and prompt payment. Section H. Special Contract Requirements Contains a range of special contract requirements important to this particular procurement, such as procedures for managing changes to the original terms of the contract, government furnished equipment (GFE) requirements, and government furnished property (GFP) requirements. Section I. Contract Clauses/General Provisions Identifies the contract clauses incorporated by reference in the RFP. These clauses will be incorporated into the contract. While it doesn’t require a separate response, it’s terms will be binding. Section J. Attachments, Exhibits Lists the appendices to the RFP. These attachments can cover a wide range of subjects ranging from technical specifications through lists of GFE. It generally is used to provide data you need in order to respond to the Statement of Work. Section K. Representations/Certifications and Statements of Offerors Contains things that you must certify to bid on this contract. These can include things such as certification that you have acted according to procurement integrity regulations, your taxpayer identification, the status of personnel, ownership of your firm, type of business organization, authorized negotiators, that your facilities are not segregated, that you comply with affirmative action guidelines, whether you qualify as a small business, disadvantaged business, and/or women owned business, etc. Section L. Proposal Preparation Instructions and Other Provides instructions for preparing your proposal. These include any formatting requirements, how they want the material organized/outlined, how to submit questions regarding the RFP or procurement, how the proposal is to be delivered, and sometimes notices, conditions, or other instructions. Section M. Evaluation Criteria Defines the factor, subfactors, and elements used to “grade” the proposal. Proposals are graded and then cost is considered to determine who wins the award and gets the contract.
  17. The average sales person does not spend enough time analyzing Section M when completing a proposal. Not to grasp all of this key section is to do business at your own peril. The government only has a few ways to buy including RFP, IFB, schedule,and RFQ. By law, the IFB is low bid, and this is why it is so neglected. If the government is buying $2 million of a brand name product, they should be using an IFB at least 90% of the time. Many agencies fail to do so. We have even seen court cases on this issue where the court ordered the agency to cancel the RFP and use an IFB. But what about RFQ's and schedule buys? They must be awarded to the low bidder, unless the bid contains a best value equation. The FAR requires the CO to state the relationship between price and technical. In a recent court case, even the GAO, with its weak review powers, overturned an award by HCFA in which HCFA made a value award for storage systems after their RFQ said low price. We recently saw a similar case in a civilian agency where the agency said they would do a schedule buy, had no equivalent to Section M, and did not award to the low-priced supplier who met their needs. This is a sure protest loser if one comes. But GAO also recently okayed buying Microsoft at a higher price from a schedule holder and rejected a non-schedule, lower-priced bid. CICA in 1984 okayed schedules as a business but required low price awards and required that the program be open to everyone. It is or is it? The job of NFL wide receiver is open to everyone if you run a 4.1 40 and weight 220. Schedules are hardly open to everyone. The two most common conditions are Sun won't let you put their stuff on your GSA and your past discount history was not well managed, preventing you from obtaining a GSA at a profitable price. If you doubt this, just ask Sun, Oracle and Microsoft to be on your schedule. Call me when they all say yes. But the sales guy, when he gets a bid, has to ask questions such as how long is the life cycle, what training do you want, what is the best value award basis, etc. If they don't, they may starve to death.
  18. A widely held belief among people doing federal business is that a protest costs far too much and is not good business because the agency will retaliate. I reject both claims as not being factual. Now a protest can cost hundreds of thousands, but you only do this when you are right, think you can win, and millions are at stake. And in many instances the feds have to pay your legal fees if you win. I have been involved in probably more than 1000 protests. Here are a couple. I submitted a bid to Treasury and a two-page protest that took only an hour or so. About a month later, the agency called and told me they had denied my protest on their RFP. I thanked the CO and told him I would now decide if I wanted to pursue the issue in another venue. He said while I was deciding could I stop by at 2pm. I asked why and he said to pick up my contract. I had won the bid. In another case I read in the CBD about a sole source to AT & T. I operate under the assumption that any sole source to IBM or AT&T is most likely illegal and that, while the government does about 40% of their business sole source, about 80% of this sole source business is certainly illegal. I wrote a one-page protest to the USDA Competition Advocate that this was most certainly an improper sole source. And I did not even care if they did the sole source. I had no client interested. But if you don't drive your car for three years your skills diminish. Same is true of protests. When was your last protest? This entire protest took one first class stamp, one page of paper, one envelope, and about 15 minutes to create. Within about 10 days the sole source was canceled. Vendors only win about 10% of GAO protests. Most of them are not skilled or they get their legal help in Boise or San Diego. Boise is where you get help in hunting elk. San Diego is where you get help to surf or deep-sea fish. There are no dog sled trainers in Tampa, are there? But here is exhibit A. Remember the $25 billion GSA FTS RFP? It was awarded by Carol Hall, CO, 60% to AT&T and 40% to Sprint. Then the contract came to an end. Just prior to the end, MCI filed a protest against a proposed GSA tech refresh with AT&T. The court in B-276659.2 ruled the tech refresh was a cardinal change and out of scope and denied GSA the right to pursue the sole source with AT&T. Carol was long gone and some other CO did this. Now comes the new FTS 2001 RFP. Who wins? Sprint wins 60% and MCI wins 40%. For the first time in American history, AT&T is no longer the dominant voice career in federal. Don't file any protest as you will only make the Captain mad and he will get you.
  19. The most favored customer (MFC) and price reductions clause (PRC) operate jointly - seldom will you see the MFC clause without the PRC, and the PRC has no meaning without the MFC clause. There simply does not exist a legal basis for these clauses to exist. The FAR standard at 15.4 is "fair and reasonable". Their inclusion in an IFB or RFP is clearly not proper. It is currently in the FTS 2001 RFP improperly. GSA has imposed these clauses in the schedule program for decades without legal basis. But no one has taken GSA to court. So, the bluff wins. The MFC clause is based on the premise that the government deserves similar or better discounts than the best discount you offer to a particular customer category. When you apply for a GSA schedule, you are required to identify the best discounts you have granted the following customer categories: Dealers/retailers; distributors/wholesalers; educational institutions; state, county, city and local governments; OEMs; and others (national accounts, end users.) Based upon the information you provide, the government will identify the customer that you have granted the largest discount to as your most favored customer, such as the OEM category. It is up to you to negotiate with the government in identifying the category that is most similar to the government customer. This will usually be the end user customer category, which ordinarily receives a lesser discount than offered to other customer categories and is most similar to the government in the way it buys. It is important when you are negotiating any contracts that include the MFC/PRC that your most favored customer is identified, for the PRC is contingent upon the discounts offered the MFC. Once the MFC category is identified, the government will generally negotiate a discount that is equal to, or better than, the discount given the MFC. The PRC states that if you violate the contractually agreed upon pricing/discount relationship by offering a (better) discount to your MFC, you have invoked the PRC. This means from the date that the violation took place, you will owe the government a discount proportionately equal to that given the MFC. Further, should you be audited and the government finds that the data they have relied upon to negotiate a price with you is inaccurate, you will be subject to civil and possibly criminal penalties, such as large fines and jail sentences. How can you avoid the MFC clause or PRC violations? Read the solicitation provisions included in the GSA schedule solicitation document. It specifically provides that: Sales outside the scope of the contract are not subject to MFC/PRC. This means sales exceeding the contract's maximum order. Direct sales to the federal government are not subject to MFC/PRC. The government is always interested in obtaining the best price possible. You are not required to account for discounts offered to the government, and discounts to the government that differ from the GSA schedule price do not violate the PRC. Extra discounts offered your MFC will not violate the PRC if you offer the government a likewise discount. This can be done on a temporary basis, minimally thirty days, and does not violate the MFC/PRC. Extra discounts offered to customer categories other than your MFC do not violate the PRC. We would like to make the case that GSA does not deserve any special price consideration from vendors in schedule negotiations. The rules clearly require procurement from lowest price vendors or justification of higher prices. GSA should be content to let market forces determine price. If Vendor A gives GSA 3% and Vendor B offers 8% for a comparable product, Vendor B will get the business. If this does not occur, this means that the entire schedule program is not workable and should be abandoned. If GSA and GAO cannot enforce this simple concept then we can only conclude that the higher priced product is worth more. Further, government money is not better than commercial money. The government is very slow pay and always pays in arrears. In the commercial world, the price is based on the vendors commercial contract terms, often payment in advance, always payment in advance for rentals and numerous other terms that are not present in government contracts. Then we have vast differences in contract performance terms, liquidated damages, termination for convenience, default and inability to commit to multi-year prices. All of these differences serve to illustrate that getting a schedule is not a hot deal for most firms. There is nothing in the regulations or legal background that gives GSA the right to demand a most favored customer price Further, this GSA policy is inflationary for the commercial, state, and local government market. We have seen many instances in which vendors would have offered other customers a better price except for the price reductions clause. Thus, GSA causes a higher price for other government units and the commercial sector. Then we have a monumental blind spot in GSA dealing with prices offered distributors, dealers and OEMs. GSA does not grasp or chooses not to grasp that the discount given these firms is simply the cost to do business. GSA often has a 10% overhead and markup on items sold in GSA stores but they quickly forget this in schedule negotiations. They forget about damages, business losses, theft, advertising, hiring, training, and the dozens of other expenses, including insurance, which a business must suffer. So we have the massive problem of getting GSA to grasp that the government does not deserve a most favored customer price as the price of admission to the game. GAO has ruled in decision B-183942, dated July 12, 1976 at CPD 76-2:31, that the government has no inherent right to any price other than what competition produces is a competitive bid. GSA ignores this legal case. Now you have a schedule award and immediately fall under the price reductions clause. The clause is ambiguous in meaning and especially in what events trigger the clause. But most importantly, numerous reasons exist why GSA should not get a price reduction just because someone in the commercial world does. For example, consider the following examples and ask yourself if the government deserves, under any reasoning, the commercial price: My commercial contract calls for 2% ten day PPD. Government rules call for a 20-day PPD. My commercial contract calls for rental payments on the first of the month. My schedule says I can bill at the end of the month. My commercial contract only says that purchase orders must be accompanied by a check for 25% of the purchase price. My schedule says that I can bill after a 30-day acceptance test. I offer a commercial firm a 30% discount on product A because they buy ten of product B. Product A is on schedule and B is not. I continue a 20% discount contract with a customer of five years standing who is 10% of my business, yet GSA wants 25%, guarantees to buy nothing and does not even guarantee any business next year, nor even that I will have a schedule next year. I give a national firm a 20% discount. This firm immediately sends a letter to all offices that we have entered into this relationship and the firm's field offices should give strong consideration to our product in filling their needs. GSA does nothing for me once I have the schedule. I give a national firm a 30% discount and the firm names me as the official company supplier for product A to be given preference over all other suppliers. This is similar to a GSA requirements contract. GSA does nothing re the schedule. I give a firm a 20% rental discount in return for a three-year, no-out contract. GSA wants 20% with a 30-day out and a fiscal year out. Readers, what we essentially have here is a long standing problem where GSA has taken each vendor, individually, into a closed room each year for the last "X" number of years and beaten the living daylights out of each one. They have been able to do this because each vendor thinks the end is near if you have no GSA schedule. Simply not true. When will you reach a point of no return? Several major firms, in recent years, have been unable to reach agreement on a schedule with GSA and have survived nicely without a schedule for a year or two. All readers have a large stake in this problem. Government agency customers may well not be able to procure many products from schedules if these matters are not resolved. The trade groups have been mostly silent and ignorant. And vendors, most of all, need to pressure GSA directly and also through their respective trade groups. Good luck!
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
  22. Many companies do business exclusively by responding to government RFPs. Specialists are often employed by government contractors to help write their proposals. Government procurement processes are very complicated and highly regulated. And the regulations and process is different for each government. Federal, state, local, and international governments all have different regulations and processes. Many government procurement processes are based on those used by the Federal Government. The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) is the primary set of rules governing how the Federal Government manages the procurement process, including how it issues RFPs and receives proposals. The FAR specifies that at certain dollar thresholds, business opportunities must be announced and anyone who wants to bid may obtain 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 companies issue RFPs, they usually have due dates, and sometimes they even mean it. But most of the time you have a little wiggle room if you run into a problem. You have to manage things differently when your due date is absolute. Businesses often use proposals to provide a written description of a transaction as a basis for approval. Large companies sometimes even issue RFPs and use proposals as a competitive process to begin negotiations. Unlike Government proposals, there is little or no regulation of proposals between businesses, although larger companies may be bound by a significant amount of policies and procedures. 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! There are many kinds of proposals used in the private sector. A brief list might include: Investment proposals Real estate proposals Sales proposals Banking proposals Funding proposals Insurance proposals Construction proposals Product development proposals Marketing proposals Janitorial service proposals Joint-venture proposals Software proposals Advertising proposals Etc., etc., etc.
  23. Commonly folks have asked me what the technical difference is between a contract and a grant. The difference is not about the dollar value or who the buying entity is nor the kind of work being done. Instead it is about the legal concept of default. In my eyes, the corner stone of whether something should be called a grant or a contract lies in whether one is legally bound to produce results as one is in a contractual relationship or whether you are simply granted funds to do something. Did you get that nuance? Perhaps that is oversimplifying it. Essentially, a contract is a legally binding document in which the parties make promises to deliver a product or service in exchange for consideration (usually money.) A grant on the other hand is when one party grants funds to another party to do something, in reasonable hopes that the task can be accomplished. If the task is accomplished - great, everyone is happy and it could lead to more grant funding! On the flip side, if the task is not accomplished there are most likely no legal ramifications (assuming you have broken no other laws) as would be the case in a contract. If we were to compare and contrast the two mechanisms we would say that a contract has two parties exchanging promises where one party delivers and one party pays. A grant however has two parties where one party gives the money and one party performs the objectives in hopes of achieving them. Do you see the difference now? In summary, the difference between the two mechanisms - grant vs. contract mainly deals with the legal concept of default. If you do not deliver under a contract you are in "default" and can reasonably assume some justifiable action may be taken against the party that did not hold up its end of the deal. However, if you do not deliver under a grant, minimally you can rest assured that you will not deal with financial or legal repercussions. However, from a business perspective, if you do not produce under either mechanism it is fairly likely that you will not receive those kinds of funds again in either a grant or a contract form. So as much as you might not be heading off to jail, you may find yourself wondering where your next meal is coming from and defending your good name. Accordingly, if you are in the Government Contracting arena it is always wise to make sure you understand which instrument you are working under. If you are faced with using a contract rather than a grant and you have some concern surrounding whether you can attain a goal or the task at hand, you will definitely want to use a "best efforts" type contract. This will allow you to operate as if it were similar to a grant where you have high hopes of attaining said goal, but ultimately not guaranteeing you can deliver.
  24. If you have a written RFP, it will probably include instructions for how to format the pricing and contractual details. If not, how you format your pricing is up to you. If you are looking for a little guidance to get started, consider the contract types below. Each has a different way of accounting for costs, fees, and profits. There are contract types not on this list, and many, many variants. Depending on what you are proposing you might follow one of the structures below or do something totally different. The final judge of whether you have presented your pricing properly is your customer. Consider how they will want to pay for what you are proposing. Time and Materials (T&M). Payments are based on hourly rates and costs of materials used, up to a not-to-exceed amount. Cost-Reimbursement. Reimburses the Contractor for incurred costs. This pricing arrangement enables contractors to take on financial risk, but it provides little incentive to control costs. Cost-Plus-Fixed-Fee (CPFF). Reimburses the Contractor for costs and adds a negotiated fee (i.e., fixed dollar amount or percentage). Cost-Plus-Incentive-Fee (CPIF). Reimburses the Contractor for costs and adds a negotiated fee, which is adjusted by a formula based on target costs, providing an incentive to keep costs low. Note: This type of contract may also include fee adjustment as an incentive for the Contractor to meet or surpass negotiated performance targets. Cost-Plus-Award-Fee (CPAF). Consists of a base fee (which may be zero) and an award fee, determined at periodic milestones set forth in the Contract. Firm-Fixed Price (FFP). The price is set and fixed by unit of product or measure. FFP contracts impose the maximum risk on the Contractor and minimum administrative burden on the customer. Fixed-Price Contract with Escalation (FPE). Establishes a fixed contract price, but provides for adjustment based on specified contingencies, such as an economic price adjustment. Fixed-Price Incentive (FPI). A fixed-price contract that provides for adjusting profit and establishing the final contract price by application of a formula based on the total target cost.
  25. When the customer announces that an opportunity you have bid on has been awarded, you should request a debrief to provide feedback on how your proposal was evaluated. On Federal proposals, they may be required to provide one when requested. If you have lost, the feedback can help you improve your future proposals. But you should request one even when you win, and for exactly the same reason. A debrief can help you understand how the customer perceived your proposal and help you make better decisions. Keep in mind that you don't want to impose on the customer and that some customers will be concerned that you are going to protest their decision. There may be some questions that they are not comfortable answering, and you shouldn't push. If you do not intend to protest, you should make it clear to the customer that you just want feedback so that you can provide them with better proposals in the future --- it's in their interest too! Here are some questions to consider asking during a debrief: Basic questions: Who won? How many bids were received? What was your overall score? Was your score closer to the top or close to the bottom? What was the winner's score? Did the winner have the lowest price? Did the winner have a higher score on the technical evaluation factors? If price was a major factor and you lost: Did you score higher or lower than the winner on technical factors? Did you scope the level of effort (number of people/hours) appropriately? Was the skill level of your proposed staffing too high? Did the winner propose more or less staff/hours? By how much? If you scored higher on technical factors but lost: Did you lose because your higher score on technical drove up the cost? If your price had been the same as the winner, would your proposal have represented the best value? If you scored lower on technical factors: How did your staffing score? How did your technical understanding and approach score? How did your past performance score? Did you have any compliance issues? If the incumbent won: Did the incumbent score higher on the technical evaluation factors? Did the incumbent score higher on experience? Would a more clear statement that you would retain the incumbent staffing have improved your score? Miscellaneous: How did the presentation and appearance of your proposal stack up against the competition? What differentiated you from the other bids? Was your proposal easy to navigate and score? Was the appearance of your proposal better, worse, or about the same as your competition? Did it contain any fluff or content that should have been substantiated better? Is there anything the customer would recommend for you to improve?

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