Sometimes choosing a proposal consultant happens accidentally. When we bought a small company down in Florida, Ray Vause was a consultant for them, and we got to see him operate before deciding to make him our own proposal manager consultant – and that’s been a very good thing. Through several proposals including a winning 50+ person effort for the Marines, we’ve continued to get good results from that decision.
I asked Ray to share his thoughts about choosing the right proposal consultant.
What should federal contractors keep in mind when choosing a proposal consultant?
A proposal consultant should truly be a consultant, not someone who is between jobs and looking for employment, who may leave once they have a permanent offer.
Look at their track record of experience and wins. Your consultant needs to have won some programs. A consultant should also have many years of experience writing proposals for different DoD agencies (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and different buyers within each DoD branch). (Note from Bill: Or civil agencies, depending on where your opportunity is.)
The consultant’s experience should also include different types of proposals (services, products, support, etc.), different volumes as volume lead and proposal manager (cost, technical, logistics, management, past performance, etc.), and various procurement strategies (LPTA, Best Value, etc.).
How many consultants should a company interview?
At least three. It is also very important to see references from companies who have used the consultant.
What can the business owner do to keep the work on track?
Daily correspondence with the consultant via email and conference call, attending the standup meetings conducted by the consultant, and reviewing the invoices and hours charged by the consultant.
What are important things to agree upon before starting work with a proposal consultant?
The process for each phase of the capture process, the level of detail for each phase of the proposal development (draft and final), and the level of authority the consultant has.
Is there anything else you think our readers should know about choosing a proposal consultant?
Proposal consultants have specific talent that many small businesses do not have on their staff. Good proposal consultants are hard to find. When you discover one who is flexible and works well with your senior staff, you have achieved your goal and you are on the road to success.
This is a guest post by TAPE Communications Specialist Walt Long.
My name is Walt Long and I work for TAPE as a communications editor and reviewer, with a special focus on our company’s color teaming process.
Color teaming a proposal document is a kind of “group editing” of the content. While I was already very familiar with editing a document on my own for clarity, grammar, and word flow, this multi-person process of sculpting a draft into a strong proposal was a new challenge for me.
Color team reviewing of the documents and graphics within a particular proposal not only involves editing by one’s self, but also includes presenting your edits and general experience of the document to others. This happens in a series of team review meetings, with each team identified by the colors pink, red, gold, green, and white.
Color team participants are made up of writers and reviewers, each with very different roles to play. I have learned that it’s important to assign the right people to write to the particular volumes required by the government’s formal parameters for each proposal.
There will be representatives from each team of Prime and Subcontractors, both employees and hired subject matter experts (SMEs)/consultants. It’s also important to line up experienced reviewers who can see things from the perspective of the government evaluators and explain what specifically is missing.
The color names given to different teams tell you which part of the editing process is being conducted. While individual companies may assign the colors somewhat differently, here is how I understand the color distinctions:
The Pink Team is the starter group, who clarify what the federal government is actually requiring be included within a particular proposal, and agree on an outline.
Next is the Red Team phase, where more focus is placed on refining certain sections for universal themes such as Corporate Capability, Transition Plan, Technical Approach, Management Plan for Primes and Subcontractors, Sample Task Order, etc. In addition to refining content, Red Teams have to look at the actual size and look of the proposal by considering page counts, the ratio of graphics to text, and the clarity of graphics and charts.
Meanwhile, on a parallel effort, away from this mostly word-centered review of the proposal, the Green Team is a separate group of folks who look at the always delicate task of what financial numbers will be presented in the proposal. Green Teams are made up of those with company proprietary information about how much to pay individual positions as well as how much to propose to the customer i.e., the government client.
Pricing is always both an art and a science when it comes to proposals; too high is always a risk but too low means that in the eyes of the customer, you are not facing the realities of the work in question, nor might you be able to hire and keep the talent needed to fulfill the contract.
Next comes the Gold Team, whose reviewers take in the entire proposal. These participants must have both the authority and the time to read their assigned volumes in their entirety, line by line. While Pink and Red Teams usually discuss their edits by phone, in my experience Gold Teams present their edits directly to the writing/production team.
Finally enters the White Team also known as “White Glove,” where basically every one of the final editors and compilers gets one more chance to look over the document for obvious mistakes or any visual space or sizing problems. This final edit and production phase is just as important if not more as all the work that has led up to this point. It is their job to create a physical hard copy of the entire document must now make it physically into hard copy via either CDs and/or paper, then be physically delivered.
In other cases the customer has asked for the information in electronic-only form, in which case software issues and transferring the information over the web by the deadline become the make or break process for the entire effort.
Here are a few caveats for effective color teaming I have learned along the way:
- Find or hire the best writers and reviewers you can afford. Such expertise pays off in the end.
- Writing and reviewing proposals is difficult work, dealing with large volumes of complicated information. Those in charge of the teams must allow enough time for both sides to finish their tasks with reasonable and professional process. (Having the right people who specialize in the writing or reviewing of their assigned parts goes a long way towards the efficiency needed.)
- If you are a color team writer or reviewer, it’s best to put your ego off to the side, and hear (or give) criticism as graciously and honestly as you can with only one thing in mind: What will make this document a winning proposal in the eyes of the customer? Towards that end, everyone’s opinion can be valuable and needs to be heard, within reason. Those who see things differently must be encouraged to speak up, while the others must refrain from judgment. It is this process of considering and using different perspectives that is the heart of the color teaming process.
During my experience as a newcomer to color teaming, I have learned that it is an expensive and time consuming prospect, meaning that some proposals/documents are simply too small in size and scope to justify such outlay of a company’s limited resources.
That being said, I also think that such a process is a very good way to sculpt and process a proposal or any other document from start to finish. If done right, you get a finished product that has been examined from many different points of view, resulting in a polished and evolved document.
Well, the folks behind the Contracting Officer Podcast have definitely shown some real focus, by targeting the concept of targeting (bad pun is entirely mine). I introduced hosts Kevin Jans (Skyway Acquisition Solutions) and Paul Schauer (CACI’s National and Cyber Solutions) in a previous post about the true cost of proposals.
The real issue with the topic of targeting is the law of large numbers. For example, the folks at Skyway Acquisitions target companies and that means their reachable market is all 500,000 companies registered in the SAM database (the Federal Government’s System for Award Management).
If they pare that down to target privately owned companies with over $500,000 in annual revenue, with five or more employees, who have won at least one government prime or subcontract in the last three years, that would still be 250,000 companies! As my millennial friends would say, “OMG!” that’s a lot of companies. “That’s a lot of phone calls, man,” Kevin jokes.
He says to also consider your weight class, “the right size of an opportunity that you can afford to win or lose without derailing your company.” This goes back to one of the three critical questions we talked about in the previous post: Does your company have the capabilities to win this job? What resources do you have available to solicit and deliver this potential contract?
Now for TAPE and many of you, our market is the Federal Government. I don’t know how many total buyers there are, or buyers plus KOs and contract specialists, and lions and tigers and bears, oh my, but I know there are a lot.
So how do we narrow down the targeting? It’s really quite simple. Start with who you already know. Who’s doing things in areas you already know how to do? Instead of sending out 25,000 pieces of junk mail (heaven forbid), we need to focus on where we can get in the door.
We can contact our 25 closest friends in the business, and then in our follow-up, ask, “Who in your agency might be needing our ABC services?” If they have no direct need, or their contracts don’t come up for years, or if they like their current support, then what about one of their neighbors or sister agencies?
What I particularly loved in this podcast episode was their focus on having a mindset of abundance, which Kevin explains as being able to think, “There’s more opportunity for me than I could ever chase, so therefore this one that doesn’t fit, it’s okay to walk away from it and keep going.”
It is indeed an abundant universe. You have resources like this blog and the Contracting Officer Podcast, you have friends, you have people you did good work for in a different situation, and now’s the time to test that abundance. But target the things you know and can do, and leave the rest of the abundance for me and other of my readers!
This is a guest post by Marsha Lindquist of Granite Leadership Strategies.
When you are spending your money on developing proposals, you want to increase the odds that you will win. That spells success and business but from a financial perspective, it spells a good return on your investment (ROI). Even though you likely get reimbursement of your bid and proposal costs through your contracts, you want to make wise use of those dollars.
Proposal failure is not in your vocabulary. So what increases the odds that your proposal will be a success, translating your proposal into a win? You want to improve your chances of winning your next bid. Here are a few points to keep in mind.
What questions would you recommend a company get the answers to before the RFP is released?
There is a never ending list of things you can get before an RFP is released. Following a formal capture planning process is the most effective, proven, best practice for getting as many of these answers before RFP Release. At a minimum you should know:
- Customer – know your customer: who they are (organization chart – identify the key decision makers and influencers), and mission and vision for theme development. And know your position with this client. Is there time to build a relationship? How well known are you?
- Scope – understanding the background of the requirement from a program and technical perspective is key to determining risks from a business, contractual and technical standpoint. What is the customer buying and asking you to price? Has the client endorsed your solution?
- Hot Buttons – what are the top three issues facing the client and how does your solution solve those problems?
- Competitors – does a competitor have a stronger position or inside track? Who are the top competitors and what is your strategy to counter their strategies?
- Discriminators – what is unique or significantly different in your approach that will influence the customer to select you?
- Win Strategy – what are the top five things you need to do to win this deal?
- Other – how can you lose? Are you challenging your assumptions? Have you done a black hat or SWOT? Do you know your vulnerabilities and issues? And if so, what is your plan of action to mitigate these? Do you have staffing challenges? What is your pricing strategy?
There are many factors involved in qualifying an opportunity that include not only asking the customer questions, but the timeline in which you work to qualify the requirement, understanding the customers preferences and biases, putting a winning team together, including identifying qualified staff to write the proposal without adversely impacting an existing contract or proposal effort.
There are tools on the market you can purchase to help quantify data as these questions are being answered. There are also tools to help calculate your probability of win, which should increase as you implement your plans. There are also services you can purchase that develop, populate and manage these tools and all the data points that feed into your capture plan which are utilized in making your bid/no bid decision. Whichever approach you decide to use, at a minimum, decide to utilize a capture planning process that organizes the inputs, and manages the outputs.
What are the most important things you must do to avoid proposal failure?
- Planning. Planning will help avoid inappropriate assignments, reactive behavior and decision making. Strategic planning provides a framework for decisions, is conceptual and directional (account planning and capture planning), and motivates, informs and stimulates change.
- Compliance. Trying to tell your own story without addressing the requirement, not following instructions and ignoring the evaluation criteria is a recipe for a losing proposal effort. Since no one personal evaluates an entire proposal, it’s incumbent upon the offeror to make it easy for the reviewers to evaluate your proposal. Excellent responses don’t mean any points if the evaluator can’t find them or you don’t address the requirement. It translates to “risk” to the customer.
- Limiting budgets and resources. If you are not going to take proposals seriously, very seriously, then don’t plan to spend a penny getting started. You need people who know how to plan, organize and write. Even the presentation and verbiage (proposal language) will leave an impression on the evaluators. This is your company image as well, don’t fall into the trap of thinking your technical people can write a technical report and call it a proposal. Invest in the appropriate people and resources to produce a quality, well thought out and organized, winning proposal.
There are a lot of upfront steps to complete before getting to the proposal, such as developing corporate growth strategies & planning, market assessment & positioning, opportunity identification and qualification, pipeline development and management, capture management, and finally proposal management. So you see, if you are not investing the appropriate time and resources up front, your probability of a successful proposal effort drops significantly.
Marsha Lindquist, President of Granite Leadership Strategies, Inc., has over 30 years experience as a business expert in Government contracting. She has enhanced her clients’ cost competitiveness, improved their contractual positioning, and solidified overall strategies with companies including BP Amoco, DynCorp, and Northrop Grumman. Marsha adds value by telling you what you need to hear. For more information on her, please visit http://wwwGraniteLeadershipStrategies.com.
This article was originally published on the Granite Leadership Strategies blog at http://www.graniteleadershipstrategies.com/making-your-proposal-a-success/ and was reprinted with permission.
I recently listened to an episode of the Contracting Officer Podcast, a show that talks about the government market from the contracting officer’s perspective and aims to make government contracting better, one contract at a time.
Hosts Kevin Jans (Skyway Acquisition Solutions) and Paul Schauer (CACI’s National and Cyber Solutions) discussed how much it actually costs to write a proposal for a government RFP. An important and much misunderstood topic!
The first key point they make about proposal writing is that even though it seems like a no-brainer that proposal writing would be part of what they call Zone 3 – The RFP Zone, it’s not (their “zones” are explained in earlier podcasts, but you should kind of get the picture from my emphasis in this post on qualification and capture).
“Proposal writing starts long before the RFP is released, before the draft RFP is released,” Paul explains. The process goes back to the Zone 2 (Market Research for their audience of contract folks, or what we industry folks would call capture – shaping the potential RFP), so that’s where the costs start as well.
This is an extremely important point that often the government does not appreciate. From the moment of market research, and sometimes even before when the true customer begins to think of the requirement, cost is beginning for industry. There is where you as the contractor begin answering the question, “Can we solve this customer’s problem?”
By the time a Request for Information (RFI) comes out, “the writing’s already started,” Kevin says, “And that’s why it’s so important that the investment in brain power, in resources, in time, and of course, in labor” has already started as well. Here again, while we’re talking about brain power, resources, time and labor, what’s really going on is relationships – a company building a picture of what the customer is looking for, based on how the customer describes it. This is the early stages, even before the RFI or market survey comes out. Remember that often the RFI is about set-aside issues, not about solution issues.
It’s important for both sides – government and industry – to understand the true cost of proposals. This gives the buyer and seller a level playing field as they communicate through the proposal process. Kevin says this is one of his favorite sayings: “Ambiguity in here is going to lead to mediocrity.”
This is perfect, yes indeed, ambiguity leads to mediocrity, but if ambiguity remains, it’s the industry’s fault for not asking all the questions for fear something will be revealed to competitors, and the government’s fault if they don’t answer by bringing new clarity to the question. Questions are good, not a forced delay and to be resented. Over-explaining can be costly as well, Kevin points out.
Paul says to compare this to hiring a contractor to put a new roof on your house. You might use any combination of marketing messages, past performance, and talking to friends, and then get quotes from several companies. They pretty much all do the same thing, so the quotes will be pretty simple.
“Think about it,” he says, “if you went out to all these companies and you said, ‘I need a 12-page proposal with double-spaced, 12 Times New Roman font on the whole thing, graphics have to be no smaller than 8 font, and you can’t use anything, but the primary colours,’ …. You wouldn’t get a single bid ‘cause nobody’s going to put in that time and energy.”
Contracting officers should remember that “the amount of proposal documentation that you have to submit could drive decision making on whether or not a company actually bids on your acquisition.”
Paul explains that the government team writing the RFP has to realize that they’re driving more cost to the taxpayers with their complex RFPs that take longer to respond to and evaluate. And this is a critical point – bad evaluation processes and lack of clarity drive up costs. So do all the regulations, and these lead to higher costs to the government.
Now LPTA has adjusted that, but the competitive pressure means less well-constructed proposals, and lower quality of responses, or lower quality of people you can afford for the prices bid. We can never forget the trade-off between price and quality.
In government contracting some inefficiency in the process is a given, with so many regulations in the FAR. But it’s those rules that give everyone an equal opportunity to bid, says Paul. Unfortunately, most of the inefficiency is actually self-inflicted – by the government as they write RFPs, and by contractors because they don’t do a good enough job evaluating their decision whether to bid on a contract.
“If you’re really having to force that language [while you’re writing an RFP], that should tell you something.” We’ve talked a lot on this blog about focusing your federal contracting efforts, and being able to answer these three key questions about your prospective customers:
- Does this customer have money allocated to solve this problem?
- Can your company solve this problem?
- Do you have the capabilities to win this job?
If you can’t answer yes to all three of those questions, don’t waste your time writing a proposal. Contractors should never forget that business development and proposal writing cost money, and there will be a single winner and many losers. Every loser needs clarity as to why they lost.
The process of setting out to win a new contract is generally divided into phases. The larger the opportunity and the more sophisticated the competition, the more detailed you’ll want to be about the steps in this process.
As you might imagine, large companies have enormously intricate systems for managing this, and the King of these systems is the Business Development Lifecycle from a company called Shipley that produces a methodology with hundreds of steps and all sorts of defining documentation for every step.
For our purposes as small businesses, we merely have to understand that there is a process, and those hundreds of steps can be summarized into a few key small phases that we have to pay attention to.
Step One – Identifying and Qualifying the Lead
At the very beginning of the capture management process, you have a lead. It could be something that you’ve downloaded from one of the information services like GovWin, it could be an announcement through FedBizOps, or it could be a piece of information that you’ve gotten from a current customer about potential future needs.
You may also see Sources Soughts or Requests for Information (RFIs), processes agencies use to determine if there are two or more qualified businesses in a particular set-aside category that would be interested in bidding on a contract. If so, the agency may set aside the contract for that set-aside category.
Whatever the source of the lead, your company must answer three fundamental questions:
- Does this customer have money?
- Does this customer have a problem that we can solve?
- Does the customer know that our company can solve their problem?
The process of answering these questions is called qualifying the lead, and typically involves some customer contact and on-site exploration, as well as researching your predecessor’s contract (the incumbent who had been doing the work up until now). Once that is done, you’ll need to have an internal meeting to decide whether this lead is worthy of pursuit.
Step Two – The Capture Phase
Once you decide to go for it, the capture phase is when you work out all the details. This is when we really get to know the customer, understand their hot buttons, their problems, and their visions for how this function is going to work in the future. What new innovations are they looking for? What’s not working for them today? By the end of this phase you want to have built a technical solution that will specifically address those things.
In an ideal world, we actually help the customer to shape and understand their own requirement, in a way that we can clearly support with a positive result for everybody involved. You’ve found a customer and you’ve got the answer, now hopefully you can help them see that you have the answer.
In this phase you will also need to talk to the agency’s small business office so they know you’re out there, as well as the contracting folks. Plus, get a clear understanding of what NAICS code this thing is going to come out in, so you can make sure you’re eligible as a small business for the work.
When the agency releases their RFP (Request for Proposal), you have to meet internally again to decide whether you’re going to bid or not. You may choose not to if the RFP seems to favor the incumbent contractor.
Step Three – The Bid and Proposal Stage
If you go for it, you enter the third and hopefully final stage, the bid and proposal stage. Now you’ll need to line up everything you know about what the customer needs, along with what your company does well, and see how those match up.
This is getting into what’s called “answering the mail,” named for two crucial sections of an RFP – Section L, which lays out the requirements for supplying the quote, and Section M, the portion that defines the evaluation criteria. You must demonstrate that your company is compliant with the requirements established in the RFP.
Again, in a large business there would be hundreds of steps to follow here in the proposal stage. Fundamentally, you’ll take Section L, use that to create an outline, fill in that outline with everything you know about the project and your technical approach, and then prepare a compliant proposal. There’s usually a separate section for technical and pricing information, and those may sometimes be divided up into sub-sections.
Here’s one example of a capture management process outline by the folks at OCI – Organization Communications Inc.: http://www.ociwins.com/Capture-Management/business-capture-management.html.
Capture management is a long process that doesn’t always lead to winning the contract, but it always gives you experience and learning you can use in future successful bids.
Teaming is a way of life in the federal contracting sector. It’s a rare circumstance when one company can win a contract of any significant size by themselves (other than businesses that provide facility maintenance, support services, etc.). Almost all large contracts are done in a multiple fashion with large and small teammates.
According to this article at Inc., the American Express OPEN Victory in Procurement report found that “small business owners who paired up with other small firms or acted as subcontractors won 50 percent more contracts.” In this article, our focus is on your role as a subcontractor.
Your first step towards a successful team contract should be a lawyer’s office, legal website or your PTAC. They can help you create your own non-disclosure agreement (NDA). An NDA will protect you as you proceed through the contracting and identification process; it’s a promise that neither you nor the other party will disclose each other’s information outside of these teaming discussions.
Your next step is a teaming agreement, which generally consists of a whole lot of definitions, points of contact and boiler plate explanations (much of which are repeated from the NDA). At the core of the teaming agreement is what is called Exhibit A – this is where you define the responsibilities of the parties and, most importantly, how work will be allocated amongst the prime contractor and the subcontractor.
There are many ways you can divide work. The simplest is for the prime and sub to agree on a specific percentage share, recognizing that you can’t exactly split things down the middle because you can’t split a person.
It’s very important that Exhibit A specifically identify how you intend to do things, and the work you expect from your partner at every stage of the process. While you’re writing the proposal, who’s going to perform each of the functions? When it’s time to go out and market yourself, who’s going to do that? All of these are important considerations in this process.
Let’s assume that you’ve put yourself out there to various groups and networks and you’ve managed to find the right partner to team with as your prime contractor. Together, you put a proposal together and sent it off to the government, and lo and behold, the government awards the prime contractor the contract.
You’ll recall that piece of legislation that will give more power to the small business officers to enforce percentages that the primes have to give to their small business subs, and now you can see why this is so important. Too often there is a difference between what was promised and what was actually delivered (because, in the end, large businesses want appliances, they don’t want subcontractors). It is very important to get these details in writing, no matter how much you trust your partner. Even if your prime contractor is your relative – even if it’s your mother – get it in writing.
Partnering up with a larger business allows you to go after work that you wouldn’t be eligible for otherwise; you wouldn’t be able to bid on it. The large business needs you to fulfill their small business requirements. They also want certain things from you (customer knowledge, fast performance, functional capability). People like the nimbleness of small businesses – things can move faster without the huge overhead and complex procedures of larger organizations.
All this translates into another set of ways in which you can find customers and get to work.