10 Tips for Winning Fast Turn-Around Proposals

Current economy is the driving factor behind the budget tightening trend – not only for households, but also for government agencies. Even if we are to believe cautiously optimistic forecasts about the economy, the evolution of acquisition laws with an ever-increasing demand for competition is continuing. For example, last year Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act that mandates changes to contracting regulations, including more competition for task and delivery orders. Competition in proposals is tightening even further as businesses are getting smarter on how to write winning proposals, and have an increasingly harder time differentiating themselves technically from their competitors. Even among small businesses, the knowledge and skills of how to win government proposals are increasingly commonplace. Affordable graphics, production, and collaboration tools level the playing field even further.

In these difficult times business owners and business developers have only two courses of action available to them:

1. Tighten their belts, bid on fewer proposals, cut costs, make even greater use of their overworked in-house resources, and hope to win on price based on lower rates. Hunker down and hope that their company survives until good times come around again, hopefully by 2011-2012 – and keep kidding themselves.

2. Increase their proposal development capabilities, bid on more multiple award contracts, and look for hidden opportunities in their existing IDIQ, GWAC, and other multiple award vehicles by sharpening and refining their approaches to winning task orders.

Most companies, including your competition, will be doing less and doing with less: they will cut down marketing, they’ll reduce spending on capture, and they will not make the investments into building a better proposal capability.

For you, now is the time to take action. More importantly, now is when you should allocate some time and money to implement smart measures that will help you sail through the hard times and prepare for the new competitive environments. Kevin Plexico, senior vice president of operations at Input, said that with no major single contract awards, contractors should position themselves to go after recompeted awards and task orders and multiple award vehicles, the latter of which now account for about 30 percent of government contracting.

To get you ready, here are my 10 tips for getting your short turnaround proposal win rate way up:

1. Train and equip your operations personnel to become your sales force. Let’s face it – majority of the project personnel do not know much about capture and proposals. They require training specifically geared to technical personnel to get them to assist business developers. Then, they can help identify, target, and secure opportunities with existing and new customers.

As you know, in fast turnaround proposals, advance notice is king. It is nearly impossible to put a winning proposal together in under 30 days, unless you are an incumbent or when it’s your core business. If you keep reacting to seemingly sudden task order requirements, training your project people will change this disturbing trend. Your operations staff will alert you ahead of time so that you have sufficient time to prepare. They have a trusting relationship with the customer because they are not pegged as the slick business developers. They will also find out what keeps the customer up at night, and what hidden requirements need answering. The key to success is not only the training but also the establishment of formal communication mechanisms between the operations personnel and business developers, and the integration of your operations personnel into your capture and proposal process.

2. Build a “file” on your IDIQ customer, or a GWAC set of customers. What I have found particularly helpful is to have a table that lists all key decision-makers; their profile; whether they are a friend, enemy, or neutral; and their top three pet peeves and hot buttons. This table is linked into the customer contact log. I also create a “customer map” that places the organization chart in the entire acquisition cycle, including Congressional appropriations and the end users, with the points at which you can shape acquisition. Collecting and distilling all materials and articles about this particular customer into a succinct document is important. This document should also include salient points from their presentations and interviews.

3. Develop capture and marketing collateral library. This library should include white papers developed by your technical gurus that relate to the specific areas this IDIQ or GWAC covers. Also, consider including studies that you may want to reference such as Gartner Reports, case studies, brochures, and other information your business development or program staff can hand to the customer for them to get to know you better and to build trust.

4. Keep a detailed task order win/loss tally. Another key detail is to keep a tally of what you are winning, what you are losing, and how well your competitors are doing in each area. You can glean all kinds of information from this tally. For example, what past performance your competitors may tout, and what are the important customer spending trends. This tally should be linked with the competitor profile you develop and your collection of notes from the win and loss debriefs.

5. Create a task order manual. The task order manual is a living document that covers a myriad of topics important to the contract vehicle. It contains the historical knowledge about the IDIQ or GWAC, how to interact within the team, what are the marketing and customer engagement rules for the team, how you assign task order work, how task orders get evaluated, what presentation approaches win for this particular customer, where to find all the important data for this IDIQ or GWAC, and other vital information.

6. Populate a collaborative workspace with a library of relevant documents. You need to build a documentation library. This valuable reference resource should include IDIQ proposals you have won and lost; all previous task order RFPs; a library of your and your teammates’ past performance information, with kudos from the customer; a database of resumes for personnel you bid frequently; management, subcontracting, quality, and transition plan templates; common win themes; contact lists for everyone who could be involved, including consultants you could call if you are short on resources; price-to-win information; any golden nuggets such as your company’s accomplishments and certifications; and an all-important graphics library.

7. Create proposal templates. To avoid spending extra time on formatting, I like having a proposal template with a custom toolbar built by using MS Word macros. This toolbar lets any author apply a professional style to the text, and saves time for desktop publishers. Other items you need are a branded cover with a space where you can insert an image and text custom for this bid; a typical transmittal letter; cost proposal template; and any other documentation that is common from proposal to proposal.

8. Create an IDIQ-specific task order proposal process and proposal management toolset. I prefer a Visio process flow that shows the capture and proposal process as applicable to the type of task orders you bid on. The process should include subcontracting, cost proposal, human resources, and other functional milestones. I also build checklists for every stage and task, a typical proposal resources plan, a kick-off template, instructions for reviewers, and typical proposal schedules for varying durations-from the shortest to the longest task order proposal.

9. Prepare both abbreviated and detailed style guides for the editor. Your editor, especially if they are new, should not have to guess or assume your conventions and rules. I like to have a brief 20-page version of a style guide at their fingertips that contains all the main rules they need to follow, and a full GPO style guide available electronically at their fingertips while editing.

10. Collect lessons learned to tweak your process and tools. Every time you finish a proposal, no matter how much you are tempted to catch your breath and forget everything, conduct a brief lessons learned session and document your conclusions. This is not an opportunity for finger-pointing, but rather a practical way to find out which information you can turn into templates and reusable boilerplate, what you can do better, what additional resources you may need, and how to better prepare to win future task orders.

If you implement these 10 recommendations, you are bound to be better off than the great majority of the companies in the market. Remember, even during the Great Depression, there were businesses and people that flourished. And, the government market is still growing, unlike many other markets that are just beginning to rebound. The competition will continue to get steeper regardless of what the economy is doing. It is up to you to make the right choices and to keep winning and growing, to defy the common attitudes and trends.

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