Shape that RFP to your advantage

“The best way to increase your chance of winning is to influence the RFP.”

Gee, I’ve never heard THAT one before, Captain Obvious. Thanks for the helpful advice!

Have you ever looked at an RFP and said to yourself, “I know we can help this office do better, but the way this request is set up we can’t win!” There is hope! Despite what you may have heard, it is perfectly legal for contractors to talk to government buyers about a future procurement. (the key word here is future not current procurement) It is to their advantage to consult with the experts in industry about how to get the most out of their contracting dollars. You can use the pre-solicitation period to help them write a better request while also increasing your chance of winning by moving the RFP in a direction that benefits you.

But don’t get too cocky with this. If you use these meetings to bully the client into acting in your self-interest your efforts can backfire. That’s why any changes you propose should be in tandem with at least one good reason why they will benefit the government in the competitive and/or performance phases of the contract.  Some of these reasons/rationales include cost savings, risk mitigation, smoother integration with legacy systems, reducing personnel turnover, putting the best-qualified people on the job, leveling the competitive playing field, meeting socio-economic contracting goals, schedule and price realism, optimizing government-contractor communications … and the list goes on.  So, before you tell the government how to improve their RFP, give some honest thought as to why doing so would be of mutual benefit to you both.

We’ll start with determining what aspects of the RFP you need to shape, then discuss how to flex the “big muscles” in the RFP – the SOW and the Evaluation Criteria. We’ll close with some ideas for approaching the customer.  Here goes:

Decide What You Need to Influence

Never mind the small stuff like line-spacing and page count. You need to prioritize shaping the RFP requirements that will: 1) significantly help or hurt your competitive position, and 2) gain or lose evaluation points. These priorities fall into three areas:

1.     Helping Your Proposal

·         Evaluation Criteria

·         Resume Requirements

·         Past-performance requirements

·         Standards and Platforms

2.     Protecting Your Competitive Advantage

·         Award Process

·         Pricing Structure

·         Contract Type

·         Minimum Qualifications

·         Work Locations

3.     Demonstrating Competitiveness and Low Risk

·         Scope of Work

·         Performance Schedule

·         Conflict of Interest

1. Helping Your Proposal

Evaluation Criteria. You can make an argument that some factors (those favoring you) should be weighed heavily, and others (not favoring you) weighed more lightly.  Can you suggest some bonafide critical considerations in selecting a vendor for this specific project? Can you make an honest case for RFP requirements that line up with your strengths, citing such things as risk factors, emerging technology, interoperability, OEM support, transaction speed, etc.?

Resume Requirements. Education, experience, certifications, clearances, format.  Is it to your advantage to ramp these requirements up, or down?  If you need to bid a slew of contingency hires – especially as key personnel – it will benefit you to argue for “sample resumes” rather than named resumes. And what about those key personnel?  Do you have them on staff, or will you need to sub?  If you’ve got the people, remind your customer their project is too important or complex to be trusted to sample resumes and contingency hires.

Past-performance Requirements.  How recent must your projects be?  What’s best for you, and what argument can you make?   How large? --  same questions.  If your past performance is mainly as a subcontractor, you can make a solid argument that requiring “Prime Only” past performance is anti-competitive, anti-innovation, anti-small business -- and perhaps unpatriotic and paganistic to boot!

Standards and Platforms. Can you make an innovation/functionality/interoperability/low-risk argument for your own favored standards and platforms? Or is the customer strictly legacy-driven?  Can you argue for a switch from an old platform to a new one (yours!) based on cost savings or reduced risk?

2. Protecting Your Competitive Advantage

Award Process. What milestones would benefit you in the procurement process? Need an on-site Industry Day? Draft RFP? Would it be to your advantage to slow-walk the process, or speed it up?  Would a multi-award contract work to your advantage by giving you a shot at a little bit of the work, or are you good enough to agitate for a single-award contract, shut the door in the faces of your competition, and capture the whole shebang?  Be advised that the agency will always weigh whatever you propose in this area based on competitiveness, risk, and the procurement schedule.  Emphasize those points in your argument.

Pricing Structure.  What if the RFP requires hourly rates, or mixed rates?  Whatever scenario is best for you, you’d best be sure that the agency can endorse it before you start agitating for it.  Scan past agency RFPs for similar work to find support for your preferred approach.

Contract Type.  Standalone RFP or Task Order? FFP, other?  Can you only make a profit on a CPFF contract?  Or can you offer a killer price on a Fixed-Price bid and still make money?  What kind of low-cost value proposition could you shoehorn into an LPTA competition?  Should this job be an SB set-aside?

Minimum Qualifications.  Here’s where you can really rise above your competition if you’re persuasive enough.  Minimum number of years in business? Minimum wages?  “Prevailing” wages?  Employee benefits? Compliance with EEO and Disability clauses?  Recruitment and hiring practices?  Requirements for facilities and equipment? Do you have advanced CMMI, ISO, PMP, Lean Six Sigma and factory/software certifications?  Good; give reasons why they be required in the RFP.

Work Locations. What balance of on- vs. off-site work would favor you?  Should the buyer require your off-site location to be located within 35, 20, or 5 miles of the customer site? What about required resources and equipment at your off-site location?  Do you have advantages here that others don’t?

3. Demonstrating Competitiveness and Low Risk

Scope of Work.  Advise the agency as to specific tasks and objectives that need to be accomplished to solve their problem, as well as what metrics are most applicable.  Remember, you want to tilt the advantage to YOUR solution. How general or specific do you want the Statement of Work (or Scope of Work, or PWS) to be? Is it best for you that the SOW only calls out overall requirements (good for CPFF contracts), or specific tasks (good for fixed-price contracts)?  If specific tasks seem to require explicit continuation of an incumbent’s current staffing and technical/management approach, then you may want to pass (although an aggressive competitor might point out any aroma of anti-competitiveness or anti-Small Business). How competitive and risky your company appear to evaluators depends on how squarely you can nail the SOW requirements.  If innovation is your strong suit, agitate for a vague SOW.  If you’re best at checking off tasks on a list, argue for a detailed SOW.

Performance Schedule.  Here’s another area where you can show up your competition but be careful.  Government evaluators are trained to spot unrealistic scheduling in proposals.  If you can suggest cost-saving or risk-avoiding tweaks to the government’s schedule, do so.  But DON’T offer to complete a 12-month project in eight months; that’ll tag you as an unrealistic, high-risk contractor. The agency didn’t pluck that 12-month schedule out of thin air.

Conflict of Interest.  Here’s an often-overlooked area that can narrow down your field of competitors. If a competitor held an actual contract to help draft the RFP requirements, should they be allowed to bid on the follow-on contract to fulfill those same requirements?  Simply raising the hot-button conflict-of-interest issue can cause contracting offices to have second thoughts about certain competitors.  This might be how you compromise competitors who have those “inside” relationships with the agency – or hold contracts in multiple, interrelated areas.

How Do I Reach the Decisionmakers?

Getting them on the phone is great.  Meeting them in person – whether at group events, symposia, trade shows, at their place, at your place, wherever – is better.  But the surest way to make sure your argument to shape the RFP gets delivered, read and taken into consideration is the old-fashioned written word.  SUBMIT FORMAL QUESTIONS to the contact person named in the solicitation.

When can you submit questions? At some point in or around the Draft RFP stage, questions will be formally solicited.  But if you want to get started sooner, submit your questions sooner, or simply call the agency contact and ask your questions; they don’t have to stop answering the phone until after the RFP is issued and the “competitive period” blackout begins.

Leverage your present and former teammates or trusted industry contacts.  This is a great way to confirm or refute competitive information that has come your way.  Use your relationship with them, to possibly access their relationships with your target customers.  Maybe even suggest joint visits.

The Long-Term Strategy is to become a “Trusted Advisor.”  The government is so focused on “leveling the playing field” and working from standard commodity-based cost/price models, that many competitions dissolve into bidding wars where most of the competitors seem alike, and nobody wins with a decent margin.  Still, in most cases, the winning contractor will be the one who has taken the time and trouble to shape the agency’s vision of a solution that includes reasonable pricing, minimal risk, innovation where it’s needed, and adherence to legacy systems as necessary – all well in advance of the final solicitation.  That winner has become a “Trusted Advisor” to the buyer.

Source: PleinAire Strategies

Source: PleinAire Strategies

So here’s the takeaway:

It’s no longer enough to respond to an RFP with a compliant proposal.  Unless you have actively involved yourself in helping the buyer shape that RFP, the chances are good that your compliant proposal will be nothing but answers to questions that were written by two or three of your competitors.  But if you have made genuinely helpful suggestions for RFP changes to the government  –  along with well-reasoned and honest justifications/rationales for those changes – you have put yourself in a much better position to be competitive.

This month’s blog author is ZKDS affiliate, David Christovich. Dr. Christovich has over 30 years in marketing for high-tech software, engineering, IT and telecom companies supporting DoD and civilian agencies. He has managed over 300 competitive proposals to the Federal Government, ranging up to $1 billion in value with a proposal win rate over 40%. He has been a marketing/proposal manager and consultant for many small and large businesses in the Washington, D.C. region.