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Government Contractors: Top 10 Rules of Winning Proposals

Have you wondered how some government contractors keep flying high and winning more contracts? Here's their winning pre-flight checklist.

winning proposals government contractors

Jim McCarthyThis post is based on a presentation delivered at the Veterans In Business Conference. The presentation was made by Jim McCarthy, Principal Owner and Technical Director, AOC Key Solutions, Inc. (KSI), a federal contracting proposal and business development consulting firm. Since 1983, KSI has helped clients win over $130 billion in federal contracts.

With a nod to David Letterman, Jim presented the top 10 rules for winning proposals. Drum roll please!

Rule #10

Demonstrate that you understand the mission and challenges of the customer and the contract. Fail to convince the evaluators that you “get it,” and you have no chance of winning.

When your proposal is first being evaluated, if the customer doesn’t think that you have a clue about their challenges and pain points, you’re all but out of the running.

However, if they sense that you “get” their issues, it improves their whole disposition and attitude toward your company and your proposal. It can increase your scores across the board. Make sure to demonstrate your understanding in the Executive Summary, introduction and throughout the proposal.

NASA contracts are a good example. They call it the “mission suitability factor.” Basically, does the contractor understand our agency and mission and what needs to be accomplished? Of course, this is a very subjective measure, but if you don’t get it right your odds of winning will be diminished.

Rule #9

Institute a formal “lessons learned process” and use it, win or lose. “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”

Don’t rely exclusively on the official feedback after the contract is awarded. It tends to be overly complimentary (even for those not awarded the contract), and often the government does not disclose much detail. With protests on the rise, the government is reluctant to include specific feedback that it fears could be somehow be used against it.

In addition to the Government’s debriefing, document and review feedback from everyone involved in the proposal: the capture team, the proposal team, subcontractors, vendors, etc. And do this whether you win or lose. Document the good, the bad and the ugly. This information should become a shared body of knowledge within your company and serve as a checklist for future proposals.

Rule #8

Never submit a generic proposal, contract description, or resume untailored for the specific opportunity. You must stand out!

  • Tailor to the job
  • Add RFP key words and phrases
  • Quantify, quantify, quantify

Comb through the RFP and look for keywords and requirements and use them throughout your response. On the topic of resumes, a common problem is that they focus on job descriptions. Instead, focus on accomplishments and include numbers to back it up.

Rule #7

Compliance is key.

  • Compliance will get you 80-90% of points
  • Ingenuity will get you the rest

If your proposal is substantively excellent but non-compliant, you risk elimination from further consideration. Make your proposals evaluator friendly. Conform to what you expect to be the evaluators’ checklist. Answer the mail. If the evaluator can simply find what he or she is looking for, your scores will tend to be higher. Make it easy for the evaluator!

Rule #6

Support your approach with proof statements, metrics, quantifiers, validators and examples. Be alert for unsubstantiated claims that undercut your credibility, introduce doubts, and increase perception of risks.

Avoid unsupported terms like “highly qualified,” “unique,” “best practices,” “best-in-class.” Instead, include quantifiable facts to back up your claims.

Rule #5

Price to win or don’t bother

  • If you aren’t pricing to win, you are pricing to lose
  • You are wasting time and burning money

The market is hungry, and if you’re not hungry you’re not going to win. In this era of lowest price technically acceptable, the government is looking to stretch every dime. So don’t pad your proposals with every kind of contingency. If you’re not making this cost-effective for the government, don’t bother answering the proposal. They won’t select you just because you are nice guys or gals.

Rule #4

Treat a good reference like royalty. Nurture past performance references–only the absolute best will suffice

  • Score of 4 out of 5 not good enough
  • Vet in advance

Some contractors take for granted that customers will give a good reference score. Don’t assume they will.

Before submitting every proposal, call every reference. Ask them if they would be willing to serve as a reference. If they agree, ask if they would be able to give you a 5 out of 5. If they can’t, don’t ask them to be a reference.

After you have submitted the proposal, keep in touch with the reference. Answer their questions. Let them know when they should be expecting the reference form. Thank them for being a reference.

Rule #3

If it doesn’t “hurt” when appointing a Program Manager, you picked the wrong person.

  • To appoint “down” is better than to appoint “up”
  • Appointing the last person on the bench is not the winning formula

Within reason, put an over-qualified, not underqualified, project manager (PM) in the proposal. You don’t want to convey that the PM is going to get on-the-job training and a promotion if you win the contract. A highly qualified PM demonstrates corporate commitment to the customer.

If the PM to be appointed (should the contract be awarded) will be sorely missed in their current role (and/or by their current customer), you’ve got the right person on deck.

Conversely, if the appointed PM is sitting on the bench between projects or not a crucial team member that anyone will miss, you’ve got the wrong person.

Rule #2

Convince your skeptical management team that the job can really be won. Evaluate bid opportunities carefully and honestly using objective decision criteria.

  • Avoid knee-jerk bids
  • Use written bid/no-bid criteria

If your management does not support pursuing a contract, you’re not going to win it. You’ll end up scrounging for resources and a budget to fight a losing war. Instead, get management enthusiastically on the record in support of each contract pursuit. Get them involved early and often—not just at Red Team.

Rule #1

START EARLY. Either pre-sell and pre-position or no bid and fight another day. Fight a battle you can win. You are unlikely to overcome a late start.

If you get a late start on a proposal, you might catch up, but you probably won’t. That’s because someone else has already built a relationship with the customer and is influencing the proposal. Sure, there are a few instances where a latecomer has won. There are also people who win the lottery but relying on low probabilities is not a good strategy.

Instead, focus on getting in front of customers as early as possible and provide thought leadership to position your company as the ideal solution before the RFP is written.

Jim McCarthy from AOC Key Solutions can be reached via email or by calling 703-868-8263. For the latest government contracting news, watch his show, Government Contracting Weekly on Sunday mornings at 7:00 on WUSA-TV9 or online 24/7 at www.GovernmentContractingWeekly.com

photo credit: argusfoto via photopin cc
The Principal and Founder of Artillery, Douglas Burdett is a former artillery officer and Madison Avenue ad man. He also hosts The Marketing Book Podcast, where he interviews authors every week about the latest in modern marketing and sales.

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