Get the edge over the competition for government contracts!In the battle for government contracts, seize the competitive advantage with Winning Government Business: Gaining the Competitive Advantage with Effective Proposals, Second Edition.Includes complimentary access to the Winning Government Business website.
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About the Author
Steve R. Osborne, PhD, is founder and president of Cornerstone Training, Inc., a proposal development and consulting firm. In more than 30 years in business development, he has captured over $12 billion in government contracts, notched a win rate of over 90 percent, conducted classes on business capture, authored texts on the proposal process, and served as a professional consultant to many companies vying for government contracts. He holds a PhD from Arizona State University, where he also served on the faculty.
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Winning Government Business
Gaining the Competitive Advantage with Effective Proposals
By Steve R. Osborne
Management Concepts PressCopyright © 2011 Management Concepts, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Winning New Business from the Federal Government
Each year the federal government procures products and services worth billions of dollars. In fact, the number is in the hundreds of billions. The sheer size of this market attracts the attention of hundreds of companies that compete for this vast source of potential revenue. If you are reading this book, you either work for one of those companies or hope to join the hunt.
The only avenue available to those who seek to share in the spoils of federal spending is through the competitive process. Typically, bidders prepare a proposal in response to a request for proposal (RFP). Occasionally the government buys a product or service without competition, but those circumstances are rare. Mastering the complex set of skills required to prepare proposals, therefore, is a critical prerequisite to winning government business. For those companies that rely upon government contracts for their livelihood, proposal development is an essential survival skill. Everything else being equal, your ability to prepare proposals is the single most important factor in attaining new business from the government.
Proposal team members often ask why they have to write a proposal. After all, why can't government customers buy things the same way the rest of us consumers do? They could decide what they need, survey the available products or services that fulfill that need, and pick the one they want. Actually, in a sense this is what government customers do. They first define a need or requirement. Then they communicate the need to industry by posting a notice on the Federal Business Opportunities website. The government customer then releases an RFP or a request for quote (RFQ) that defines its need and provides instructions about how to bid. Once proposals or bids are received, the government customer evaluates them against a set of defined standards to pick a winner. For RFQs, it selects the lowest-priced qualified bidder.
Proposals enable the government to evaluate offers and select the company it deems the best choice. Unlike consumers, the government is not supposed to just pick anyone it wants. Instead, the evaluation process is highly regulated. It is intended to be fair and objective, with the goal of selecting the bidder that represents best value to the government.
The proposal process permits any company that believes it is qualified to compete for government business. It is intended to give everyone a fair chance. It also is designed to maximize competition. Competition is good. It stimulates innovation, promotes quality, and reduces cost. As taxpayers, and the beneficiaries of many government services, we should applaud the competitive process. Ultimately, it is in our best interest and the best interest of the country. Unfortunately, the federal government procurement process is controlled by a mind-boggling array of regulations and is implemented by an inefficient bureaucracy. That is the downside of the competitive process. Yet, it is a process we must navigate effectively if we want to acquire business from the government.
WHY IS PROPOSAL PREPARATION SO DIFFICULT?
There is an old saying that the only thing worse than having a government contract is not having a government contract. Part of this sentiment reflects the difficulty of acquiring business from the government, which typically entails the arduous task of preparing a proposal. Under the best of circumstances, proposal preparation is a serious challenge. Normally, the process is extremely difficult. Often it is nightmarish. During a difficult proposal, it is not unusual to hear someone threaten to quit and open a hardware store or bait shop just to avoid future proposals.
What makes proposals so difficult? Multiple factors contribute to the challenge. My candidates for the gremlins that contribute to proposal Hades include the following.
Puzzling RFP Structure and Content
To the uninitiated, a government RFP can appear to be a jumbled hodgepodge of regulations, requirements, contract deliverables, and instructions that defy human logic. Many RFP sections read more like a document you would expect to receive from your lawyer than an invitation to bid. Sorting through RFP sections and finding what is important can be a daunting challenge. It can be nearly impossible if you are not familiar with the various sections.
Inconsistent or Confusing RFP Requirements
Government RFPs are often assembled by committee. Separate groups prepare different RFP sections. Sometimes they do not coordinate their respective work efforts. Other times they cut and paste sections from old RFPs with different requirements. The result in either case is inconsistent or contradictory requirements. In yet other instances, an error in the RFP makes it impossible to perform the contract.
For example, a few years ago I was working on an RFP that required us to modify a series of flight simulators. Aircraft equipment kits required to perform the modification were to be provided by the government. Unfortunately, the RFP-scheduled date for kit delivery was after the scheduled delivery dates for the simulators. It took us until the week before the proposal was due to get this issue resolved.
Reconciling inconsistent and poorly defined requirements is simply part of the job. Often this involves writing a question and submitting it to the government contracting officer — and then waiting for what you hope will be a clear answer.
A "blivit" is ten pounds of manure in a five-pound bag. Proposals have a similar quality, only the commodity is time instead of manure. (Some would argue that there is a correlation between the two.) There never seems to be enough time to perform all the tasks required to prepare an effective proposal. Most federal procurements give bidders between 30 and 60 days to prepare and submit their proposals. It is not unusual for proposal teams to design a system, determine how to support it logistically, write a 300-page technical proposal, and prepare detailed pricing, including a life cycle cost analysis for a 10-year contract, all in 45 days.
Federal procurement streamlining initiatives also place more of the burden on the bidder. Many RFPs require bidders to prepare their own program management documents, like the statement of work, contract data requirements list (CDRL), product or performance specifications, and complicated management tools.
Time pressures are made worse by RFP amendments that require a major change in your proposal or provide answers to questions that force a change in your technical approach. Although RFP amendments may include additional proposal preparation time, the time allotted might be insufficient to make the changes properly.
Time is the single biggest enemy of proposal teams. Its effective management is critical to a winning proposal effort. The only saving grace is the realization that your competition faces the same time pressures and challenges.
Many of the people assigned to work on proposals have regular day jobs. Consequently, they must juggle their normal daily workload with proposal demands. This can be very frustrating to employees torn between competing priorities. The short time fuse of most proposals only exacerbates this problem.
Lack of Proposal Skills and Experience
There is nothing in a normal work environment that prepares people to work on proposals. Proposals require a unique set of skills that are not easily acquired. Like most complex skills, they are best developed through experience. However, some people will work on only a few proposals during their entire career. At best, they will enter the proposal fray once or twice a year. Few ever receive constructive feedback on their proposal performance. Hence, errors are propagated from proposal to proposal. Over time, poor proposal practices become institutionalized.
Most proposal team members receive little or no proposal training. Yet they are tasked with analyzing RFP requirements, preparing storyboards, identifying themes and discriminators, and writing complicated proposal sections that will convince the customer that their company should be awarded the contract. Technical personnel generally have sufficient writing skills to accommodate the business communication requirements of their jobs and communicate with their technical peers. Yet they often lack the peculiar blend and style of writing demanded by proposals.
RFPs routinely request that bidders present information in an illogical order and ask questions that seem peculiar to those not accustomed to government proposals. Consequently, proposal authors struggle to make sense of their assignment and become frustrated because they are asked to perform a task for which they are unprepared. Frequently, proposal authors work tirelessly for two or three weeks before their efforts are reviewed. Following an evaluation of their work, they are told they have failed to respond adequately to RFP requirements and their proposal sections must be completely redone.
Lack of Tools and Processes
The general lack of good proposal tools and formalized processes is an additional factor that contributes to proposal difficulty. Tools include templates, examples, or aids that help proposal team members perform their assigned tasks. They include things like an author guide that clearly shows the author what to address in his or her proposal section. Other helpful tools may include a style guide and proposal directive that identifies the required proposal format, specifies the writing style to be used, and sets standards for things like how to handle abbreviations, the preferred format for graphics, and how to refer to the team being proposed to perform the contract.
A formalized process consists of a series of well-defined, integrated stages of proposal development. Each stage has a defined product, and proposal team members are given detailed instructions about what will be accomplished during each stage and their role in the process. Hence, they know what is expected of them and when things are due. Having a proposal road map available helps ease proposal anxiety. It also enables proposal team members to understand the overall process and how the different stages fit together.
Many organizations lack a formalized proposal process. Each proposal follows a different course of events driven by the personality, style, and whim of the proposal manager. The absence of a formal proposal process only heightens the difficulty of proposal preparation. Proposal team members are often confused and frustrated because they do not know what is expected of them or because they lack a clear picture of what is going to happen during the proposal preparation process.
Except for procurements that allow multiple awards, the government competitive process is binary: There are only winners and losers. No silver or bronze medals are awarded. Few things are more disheartening than to slave over a proposal every day for two months, eat a metric ton of stale pizza, have your family forget what you look like, and drink 100 gallons of bad coffee, only to end up in the loser's circle. On the other hand, winning a major competition is an exhilarating experience.
Everyone wants to be a winner. Every proposal team begins by believing they will win or at least that they have a very good chance of winning. No one invests the resources required to prepare a government proposal with the intent of losing. You do not join the race just to get tired. You compete to win. The future success of your company and the careers of you and your fellow employees depend upon it.
If your organization is primarily or solely dependent upon government contracts, planning for and preparing proposals is the most important business activity you will perform. In the words of the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, "Winning is not the most important thing, it is the only thing." Not only is winning the key, but you must be able to win consistently. Keeping work in your company's pipeline is a never-ending task, whether you work for a small company or a major behemoth.
Consider an organization with annual revenues of $24 million. Sustaining that revenue level requires $2 million of new business per month. However, you will not win everything you bid. If your win ratio is 25 percent, you will need to bid for $8 million worth of new business each month. If you are more effective, winning 33 percent of your bids, you will need to bid on only $6 million in new business each month. Note that this is only to maintain your current revenue stream. You must bid for even more work if you want to grow.
The analogy holds for larger companies. A company with annual revenue of $240 million needs to bid on $60 million in new business each month to sustain current revenues based on a one-in-three win rate. It almost makes you feel sorry for the big guys — those with annual revenues of $40 billion or more. Well, almost.
It costs money to plan for and prepare a proposal. In fact, it can be quite expensive. Generally, it costs as much to prepare a losing proposal as it does to prepare one that wins. Money spent on losing proposals is money lost. It cannot be spent on other things the company may need. At some point, a poor win rate will undermine an organization's ability to sustain itself. Thus, the emphasis on winning is more than just talk. You must win to survive, and you must win consistently to stay afloat in the competitive waters of the federal government.
COMMON PROPOSAL MISTAKES
If winning is everything, we will be well served to avoid making mistakes that limit our potential success. Over the last three-plus decades, I have worked on or managed nearly 200 proposals. For more than 20 years, I have earned my living solely by developing bid strategies and managing proposals for a wide variety of clients. Throughout this period I repeatedly witnessed companies making the same proposal mistakes. Those mistakes tend to be common across companies regardless of size or type of business. They are expensive mistakes. Each undermines the ability to submit a winning proposal. Most of them result in the inefficient use of company resources.
Here are some common mistakes to avoid if you want to gain competitive advantage and win federal contracts:
Underestimating the difficulty of preparing a winning proposal. Preparing a winning proposal is a complex, arduous process that requires adequate resources — people, time, tools, and facilities. Shortchanging the process to save money is akin to spending dollars to save dimes.
Overestimating the ability of the proposal team. Proposal teams require a broad mix of people and skills, even for small proposals. Two categories of people are needed: those who are experts in their assigned areas of proposal responsibility and those who are legitimate experts in proposal development. Don't make the mistake of using an inexperienced proposal manager or selecting someone to lead the proposal just because he or she has great management skills or is a technical expert.
A related common mistake is having one person serve as both the proposal manager and the program manager. For small proposals, this may be possible from a workload standpoint, but it is still not wise. Proposal and program management require very different skill sets. Few people possess both. For large proposals, it is practically impossible for one person to handle the workload of both positions. Eventually one or the other is shortchanged.
Starting too late. The development of a bid strategy and preliminary proposal planning and development must begin well in advance of the RFP. Waiting until the RFP is released to start your proposal puts you at a significant disadvantage. It exaggerates the problem of not having enough time to prepare the proposal and yields the competitive advantage to companies that start early.
Excerpted from Winning Government Business by Steve R. Osborne. Copyright © 2011 Management Concepts, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Management Concepts Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART 1 The Foundations of Winning Proposals,
CHAPTER 1 Winning New Business from the Federal Government,
CHAPTER 2 Anatomy of a Government RFP,
CHAPTER 3 Federal Government Source Selection,
PART 2 The Pre-Proposal Phase,
CHAPTER 4 Strategic Business Planning,
CHAPTER 5 Long-Term Positioning,
CHAPTER 6 Building and Organizing the Capture Team,
CHAPTER 7 Pre-Proposal Phase Activities,
CHAPTER 8 Bid Strategy,
PART 3 The Proposal Development Phase,
CHAPTER 9 Analyzing Customer Requirements,
CHAPTER 10 Developing a Proposal Preparation Plan,
CHAPTER 11 Effective Proposal Management,
CHAPTER 12 Writing the Winning Proposal,
CHAPTER 13 Tips for Effective Proposal Writing,
CHAPTER 14 Preparing the Winning Cost Volume,
CHAPTER 15 Proposal Reviews,
CHAPTER 16 Proposal Production,
PART 4 Post-Proposal Submittal Phase,
CHAPTER 17 Post-Proposal Submittal Phase,
CHAPTER 18 Contract Award and Performance,
APPENDIX A Sample Capture Plan,
APPENDIX B Acronyms and Abbreviations,