Are you Better than Bryce Harper?
No one likes losing. But if you’re in the government contracting game, you’ll get used to the occasional awesome proposal that loses. What is a reasonable percentage win chance (pwin) for your firm? If you tell your boss that you can equal Bryce Harper’s best year batting average (31%) would that make her happy?
While there is no magic formula for calculating a realistic pwin, to make an informed bid decision you should gather as much objective data on a potential opportunity as possible, and combine those data with your knowledge of your company’s capabilities, as well as your instincts. I submit 9 criteria to consider.
1. The Government is risk averse. The Government will usually (not always) award to the offer that represents the least risk of failure. Why is that? Think about your friends on the other side of the evaluation panel. What is it like for them when a contractor does not perform as promised? What happens when the contractor promises the moon but blows through the budget just getting out of Earth orbit? Unfortunately, government contracting staff remember these instances far more vividly than the innovative contractor who does a great job. Especially vulnerable to a contractor’s poor performance is the Contracting Officer who signed off on the source selection decision. That CO’s name will be all over the documentation and sanctioning of the non-performing vendor. So is it any wonder that the successful proposal is usually the one that represents the least risk to the Government?
2. Do they know you? Unless the client’s technical evaluators have confidence in your team’s ability to do the work to their satisfaction, you will not win. This may not be a stated evaluation factor, but it is always a key factor in the government’s decision. If they don’t know you, there is risk in trying you out. But what about those incumbents who are doing mediocre work but still win the re-compete? There can be a downside to being the incumbent if there have been performance shortfalls. But when one is on the inside, on the jobsite and interacting with the client every day, there are ways to mitigate poor performance. We all know how tough it is to get the attention of government employees and inside information beyond what is written in the RFP. If you do not have a direct connection to the technical staff on the work, or an indirect one through a team-mate, you will have a very difficult time convincing them that they should award you the work. Client intimacy matters.
3. Understanding the Agency. You may know the Contacting Officer’s Technical Representative back from when they used to work in the Veterans Administration. But if you do not know how the agency works NOW, you present a risk to the success of the execution of the contract. Each agency has its own way of operating and its own measures of what is important. Regulatory agencies are driven by lawyers, NIH is driven by scientists and researchers and if you can’t prove that you understand the military mindset, think twice of responding to that DoD solicitation. Have you read up on what the new Director’s priorities are and figured out how the work described in the RFP aligns with those priorities? Have you read the latest Government Accountability Office report on your target agency? How is your agency defending itself form budget cuts in Congress? How will your awesome solution give them one more way boast about their wise use of appropriated funds? Do you understand how the latest re-organization has changed the culture of the agency? What are the external threats to the agency mission? The people reading your proposal are thinking about these things every day. You must convince them in your response, that you understand their challenges and the stakes involved.
4. You must convince the Government that you can meet the staffing needs of the proposed project. Your innovative technical approach to solving the agency’s problems will not be worth a plugged nickel if you cannot propose the right staff to get the job done. Your project leadership must have both the key technical skills and the contextual experience (i.e., agency experience and client intimacy) to convince the evaluation panel you will deliver. If you don’t have that world-class staff in place right now, you will need to credibly convince them in the proposal that you have a plan (preferably proving it with a story about how you have done it before) to get the staff on board. (Word to the wise: Contingent-hire personnel – especially in key or lead positions – spell “risk” for the Government. See criterion #1).
5. You need to convince the Government that you have the similar, relevant and recent experience to do the proposed work - that what you are proposing is something you have done already - with objective and compelling success metrics. Please remember that you do not make a strong case with adjectives and flowery language. You make it with cold hard data points. “For agency XX we increased web site traffic by 320%, email marketing open rate by 250% and click-through rates by 1250% over a six-month period, by using the same methodology we are proposing.”
6. While I do not discount the power of a strong technical solution, do not make the mistake of falling in love with your engineers’ brilliance. Your technical solution must be able to deliver on whatever the government specifies in the RFP as being important. We all complain that the government is 10 years behind on its IT infrastructure choices and 8 years behind on its use of digital media in outreach. That should tell you that the race does not always go to the most brilliant, but to those who can read, understand and respond to the “shalls, wills and musts” stated in the RFP. Don’t assume you know better that the government about its needs; they have spent months assembling their RFP, and everything you read therein is probably there for what they consider a good reason. Design a technical solution that delivers on both the stated and unstated needs, and describe that solution in a way that touches on the benefits of the solution, not one that just describes the features of the solution.
7. Innovation and a history of on-time, on-budget performance add luster to your proposal. But price matters. Price always matters. And it matters a lot. Regardless of the contracting mechanism or award criteria – Best Value (BV) or Lowest Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA) – make sure you are priced low enough to win, but not so low that you lose money on the work. Good pricing will require both research and creativity and must be developed in tandem with your technical solution. Once you have worked out the budget that you are comfortable with, figure out how to cut it back. Then find a way to cut it some more while remaining compliant with the RFP requirements. If you don’t do this, your competitor with a similar technical score will beat you out by the smallest of margins on price.
8. What is the track record of your partnership/teaming structure? In order to shore up deficiencies in one or more of the aforementioned criteria, we take on teaming partners. While these partnerships might make up for a lack of agency experience, provide the past performance required or the expertise needed to complete Task 5.1(a-d), the Government is savvy enough to know that if this is the first time you and your team-mate have worked together, then there is added risk (there is that word again) that things will not go as planned. If you are planning to bid another firm as a major partner then it will help you a great deal if you can find a way to state that you have worked together before.
9. Lastly, an often-overlooked factor for success in a proposal effort is the amount of time you have to put it together. Time allows for a thoughtful approach. Time allows for the conduct of adequate research to understand the competitive environment, the agency needs, and to sew up the right partners. Time allows one to write and re-write the proposal until it tells the right story in a compelling and clear way. No matter how late you stay up and how much staff time you throw at a proposal effort, you cannot make up for lost calendar days. If you are late getting started on a proposal response compared with your competition, take this into account as you discount your pwin.
After taking all factors into account - and knowing that there will be 3, 4 maybe 8 proposals submitted with yours then unless you are a strong incumbent - beating Bryce Harper’s best year (31%) may be a realistic pwin for your effort. Don’t be discouraged. Instead, be realistic with yourself, your leadership and your team about the likelihood of success. Then do everything you can to beat the odds and win that sucker. Happy hunting!