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Solving the Proposal Dilemma

The game must be played by the government's rules which requires a highly structured and systematic process.

By Richard White
Federal Sales Academy in Bethesda, Maryland, www.fedmarket.com

Proposal writing is an inherently complex and chaotic process. It is an expensive and risky game that neither the government nor the vendor wants to play but must because taxpayer dollars are being spent. The game must be played by the government's rules to a fault and this requires a highly structured and systematic process. The process must begin with a customer to customer relationship. Without the relationship, you will not win the game.

Our email newsletters on proposal writing frequently discuss the dilemma associated with writing proposals and the need for an integrated sales and proposal-writing system. This whitepaper summarizes the problems associated with proposal writing and suggests a solution.

Most managers and owners of federal contracting companies view proposal writing as a necessary evil. Most companies do not do it well and the process is a chaotic exercise. Companies new to the federal market do not understand the process and don't do it well. They incorrectly believe that they can write winning proposals in response to Requests for Proposals without having built a relationship with the potential customer.

Why is Proposal Writing So Difficult?

Most people do not like to write. Those who do tend to postpone their writing tasks because writing is hard work. Writing a proposal is a very costly process. To do so well, a company must have a Proposal Manager with extensive experience and good writing and management skills. It certainly helps if your Proposal Manager has patience, is persistent and possesses a calm demeanor under pressure. Such traits are difficult to find in one person. Unfortunately, the Proposal Manager can't write the subject matter solution (called the "Technical Approach") required by the customer. The drafting of the Technical Approach requires the participation of technical specialists. Many technical persons lack writing skills because their educational focus was naturally on other matters.

Most owners and managers of federal contracting companies view proposal writing as a necessary evil. Some reasons that this perception exists are as follows:

  • The process is hectic and it never seems to go smoothly. As a result, no one in the company likes it.
  • It's an expensive process and those working on the proposal cannot bill their time.
  • It takes technical people off billable work (which compounds the cost problem).
  • Owners and managers, like others in the company, don't like to write (or review proposals).
  • The process is unrewarding since the likelihood for success is often low. It is a high-risk game that must be played in order to close deals that have already been sold through the development of customer relationships

Proposal writing is often treated like the ugly stepchild. In many instances, the process of writing a response to a federal Request for Proposal (RFP) is not a process at all. Rather, it becomes a series of chaotic events culminating in a last-minute crunch the day (and night) before the proposal is due. The chaos is centered on the Proposal Manager (if you have one). Although the Proposal Manager can produce the majority of the proposal, he must prod his technical people to produce the critical technical solution to the customer's problem. Most proposals win because of a customer centric, compelling Technical Approach. Those creating the Technical Approach are usually at the center of the chaos.

Proposal Writing Mistakes

The process of producing a quality proposal is inherently prone to problems. As aforementioned, it is difficult to manage the process and is costly. When a company does not win a bid opportunity, the morale of its staff often suffers.

Mistakes made by most companies include:

  • Inadequate funding and an insufficient dedication of staffing resources to the project
  • Management's failure to provide adequate leadership and moral support
  • Writing proposals that never had a chance of winning because the company did not have a pre-existing relationship with the customer
  • Not having a highly structured, integrated sales and proposal writing process
  • A lack of understanding of "defensive" proposal writing
  • The absence of an experienced Proposal Manager
  • Not having an incentive system and structure in place that motivates your technical staff to write effectively

The sections that follow discuss how you must change your corporate thinking to change the way proposals are written within your company.

Why Proposals Exist

Why do proposals even exist? Contrary to popular belief, proposals are not written so federal evaluators can select the best, high-value solution to their problem. Instead, proposals are prepared by contractors and submitted because federal acquisition regulations (FAR) require that this procedure be followed in order to document that a competition was held.

Why aren't proposals used as a method to find the best solution? The answer lies in the fact that, for services solicitations at least, the decision on the eventual contract winner has been made far in advance of the time the proposals are written. The agency wants an incumbent contractor back to eliminate a disruption in operations. Nonetheless, the agency is required by regulation to hold a public competition. Although the end user knows and trusts its existing solution provider, the Contracting Office requires a public competition. In this situation, the winning company has to write a defensive proposal to defend their pre-established position with the customer. Does the Contracting Office care about the number of trees that went into the losing proposals? Not really.

Is the winner always predetermined; no, not always. However, don't lie awake at night counting the revenue that you are going to receive from blind bids. You can win a small percentage but you will spend way too much money writing losing proposals and, equally importantly, burn out your staff in the process. Is there a better solution? Multiple award schedule contracts like GSA Schedules are a partial solution but don't look for any revolutionary solutions anytime soon. The political pressure to keep up an appearance of competition is too intense.

Why a Federal Proposal is Different?

Federal Requests for Proposals (RFP's) are unique. They are:

  • Long, lengthy, and full of boilerplate and clauses
  • Not written clearly
  • Not well organized
  • Full of detailed, yet confusing, requirements

Federal RFP's are evaluated by a formal evaluation committee using a point scoring scheme. Although numeric, the point scoring scheme requires a subjective judgment on the part of an evaluator and is subject to the evaluator's personal views, experience, and biases. Most importantly, it is highly likely that the evaluators have met with vendors and have knowledge of each vendor's suggested to their problem.

These conditions make federal proposal writing unique. A federal proposal must be written with the customer in mind, meet each and every requirement without fail, and provide only what the RFP asks for. In short, it must be responsive, compelling, and defensive (designed not to lose).

Responding to a federal RFP is like renovating a home. It is a complex task requiring double or triple the effort originally estimated. There are no magic bullets. Writing a responsive, winning proposal requires a structured, systematic approach. Large prime contractors have developed their own approaches (sometimes not that systematic) to proposal development. Smaller companies gradually piece together an approach but their proposal writing efforts usually are somewhat random. The market for proposal-writing software is saturated with "convince them that you are the best" templates. The templates are designed for commercial proposals and are ineffective for federal proposals.

Write Defensive Proposals

Most authorities on federal proposal writing define a "defensive proposal" as follows:

  • One written with the goal of being the last proposal standing
  • An offering that presents a practical solution from the customer's perspective
  • One that gives the customer what it wants and no more or no less
  • A bid that addresses each and every requirement of the RFPA proposal
  • One that is clear, concise and devoid of sales puffery

From our perspective, a defensive proposal is all of these things.

Another definition of a defensive proposal is:

"A defensive proposal defends the position that you have already taken with the customer."

Ideally, you have met with the customer, identified their requirements, and proposed a solution that meets their requirements. When your company writes the proposal, it must prove that your business can do what your sales people told the customer it could do during the sales process. In other words, you close the deal with words and provable facts and assure the customer that they will minimize their risk by going with you. You may have sold one or more of the people on the evaluation committee. Now you sell the rest.

Don't bid if you haven't established a position to defend. You can count on the fact that one or more vendors have established positions. Attendees at our seminars lament that they can't get to the customer because there are too many prime contractors and other competitors trying to do the same thing. Welcome to the world of direct sales and hard knocks. You have to get through the flack or not play in the market.

Process versus Content

Proposal writing involves both process and content. Effective proposal writing processes are important but proposal content rules over process. Your company can develop a proposal smoothly and on time, with minimal hassle and without last-minute crises, and submit a product that is beautifully formatted with fancy graphics. Yet the end result may still be that it loses due to lack of "responsive content."

A proposal that has been deemed to include responsive content is one that contains all of the content or information that was asked for in the Request for Proposal and no more or no less. More importantly, the content must be presented in a concise manner and should demonstrate how your proposed solution is going to solve the customer's problem or otherwise address his or her needs. This, of course, begs the question of how a business discerns what the customer wants. The answer to this query is that you can only do so through aggressive sales and the use of the customer intelligence gathered during the sales process.

Defensive proposals present an easily understood and direct solution that addresses the requirements of the RFP and all of the other information requested in the RFP and no more and no less. The information is presented in a clear and concise manner substantiated with provable facts presented without embellishment.

Many of the attendees at Fedmarket's seminars have evaluated federal proposals while employed by the government. Without exception, they say that a federal proposal should not guild the lily. Specifically, a proposal should not contain:

  • Unsubstantiated sales pitches
  • Fancy bindings, graphics, and tab systems
  • Information that was not requested in the RFP

Evaluators are intelligent, hard-working people who want you to make their job easy. Extraneous information and frill will not have the intended impact. In fact, it actually works against you because it makes the evaluator work harder to discern your message. Graphics may be used but only if the graphic makes the presentation clearer and more concise. Do not add graphics in an attempt to impress the reader.

Evaluators tell us that if they ask for two resumes, they mean two resumes; nothing more and nothing less. When they ask for three past experience descriptions, provide the three requested. Resist the temptation to provide six under the theory that providing additional project descriptions makes you look deeper in experience and more capable.

Providing a compelling Technical Approach is the key to a winning proposal. You can create a good Technical Approach using traditional outlining techniques, story boards, and the development of winning themes. CRMFederal, Fedmarket's newest product, uses a new, table-driven approach to developing a detailed outline for the Technical Approach. It provides a framework for defining tasks, subtasks, timelines, staffing requirements and solution concepts and approaches. The table hierarchy explains the following concepts:

  • The interrelationship of task and subtasks in the technical approach
  • The topics and subtopics that need to be covered
  • Where topics and subtopics need to be covered in the task/subtask hierarchy\
  • The level of detail that needs to be provided

The table-driven approach to developing a technical approach outline replaces more traditional techniques such as the use of story boards for adding content to a high-level outline. Our approach helps technical writers think and create content that would most likely not have otherwise been developed.

An Overall Implementation Plan

Contractors serious about developing quality proposals must come up with an overall implementation plan. The components of such a plan are as follows:

1. Have top management actually get seriously involved in the writing of the proposal. Recognize that immense waste has occurred if less-than-stellar proposals go out the door. Submitting winning proposals can have a major impact on revenue and the survival of a federal services company.

2. Integrate the sales and proposal-writing process. We have previously said a great deal about the importance of this component.

3. Hire an experienced, full-time proposal manager who has mastered the art of minimizing the chaos. It is essential to make sure that your proposal manager likes to write and edit rather than just manage.

4. Implement a structured, documented and automated proposal-writing process.

5. Invest in building a database of up-to-date resumes and summaries of your corporate experience and actually keep it updated. The proposal manager can oversee this provided he or she has the right software. However, management must implement the right carrots and stick to actually get the technical staff to do it.

6. Automate and "version control" your old proposals and Management Plan boilerplate. Once again, the proposal manager can do this but management must invest in effective software and staff support to accomplish the task.

7. Write the Executive Summary before the proposal kickoff meeting. Make sure that it includes winning themes and salient selling points. The person who drafts the Executive Summary should be the sales or management person who knows the customer best. We suggest tackling this task ahead of time even if the first draft of the Executive Summary is only an outline with critical selling points as bullet points.

8. Use an incentive system to compensate your best technical writers when you win. I can feel you cringing about this one but it works. After all, why do most of us come to work? Yeah, I know it's the creative challenge but money helps.

Automating the Processes

Conceptually, the overall process starts with building the relationship with the customer and ends with a winning proposal. You should make sure that the processes are integrated by taking the following steps. Use a Customer Questionnaire to develop Selling Points. Use the Selling Points to develop a draft Executive Summary and detailed proposal outline. Write the proposal from the detailed outline.

In automating the process, start with a Customer Database and Customer Intelligence Questionnaire. Use Microsoft Access or similar database software to develop a simple customer opportunity tracking system. Include a Customer Intelligence Questionnaire as part of the database. The questionnaire should include key questions like:

  • Who wrote the RFP and who is on the Evaluation Committee?
  • Who do we know and are they on the evaluation committee?
  • What are their problems and how can we solve them?
  • Who are our competitors and what does the customer think of them?

Guidelines and automated procedures for the following processes should be developed and tied together using a web-based system.

  • Executive Summary
  • Proposal Outline
  • Compliance Matrix
  • Deconstruct the RFP
  • Proposal Schedule
  • Kickoff Meeting
  • Technical Approach
  • Management Plan
  • Personnel
  • Corporate Experience

HTML procedures should link to downloadable Word documents for templates and tables that will become chapters of the proposal. Alternatively, use collaborative HTML editing software and then convert chapters from HTML to Word or PDF formats to produce the proposal.

You can build your integrated sales and proposal writing processes in-house by combining a CRM database product and existing in-house proposal writing standards and procedures such as corporate experience and resume databases.

Or you can purchase CRMFederal, a new web-based software product being offered by fedmarket.com in May, 2006. CRMFederal is comprised of ten web based tasks beginning with customer relationship building and ending with a completed proposal. Processes within tasks are activated through a web browser. Model proposal text and templates are provided in downloadable Word format.

Call Matt Hankes at 301.652.9504 ext. 26 for additional information on CRMFederal.

Call Richard White at 301.908.0546 if you have questions concerning the information in this paper.

Learn more about the concepts presented in this paper by attending one of Fedmarket.com's seminars at the Federal Sales Academy in Bethesda, Maryland. We offer two proposal courses: "Writing and Managing Winning Proposals" and "Capture Planning/Advanced Proposal Writing." Visit our seminar calendar for upcoming dates and locations or call seminar coordinator, Suzie White, at 301.652.9504 ext.10.

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