How to Win Government Contracts: Nailing Your Proposal

how to win government contracts through your proposal
how to win government contracts through your proposal

Your chances of crafting a winning proposal will improve if you apply a disciplined process that ensures you address all of the requirements and customer needs.

Veteran proposal managers know the process cold. They’ve been there, done that. As one of our colleagues once remarked, “Somehow by the deadline it all gets into a box.” But no matter how many proposals you’ve submitted, it’s prudent to ask whether your team is ready for the next big spending season.

A major, persistent challenge — whether your organization is large or small — is dealing with staff turnover. If your firm is growing, your new hires must quickly scale the learning curve. 

Or perhaps some of your more experienced proposal professionals are getting promoted into management roles and won’t be available to contribute next time. Your junior BD team members need to learn how to win government contracts.

Then too, the volatility of the business environment — along with the seasonal cycles of government contracting — might have made some layoffs necessary this year.

When the surge returns, you’ll need each new team member ready to hit the ground running.

How to Develop Winning Proposals

There are time-honored processes and procedures for developing winning proposals that generally focus on the color reviews, which are the formal quality checks of the proposal. Generally, the color reviews and expectations are: 

  • Pink Team: 60% customer ready
  • Red Team: 90% customer ready draft of an edited/formatted proposal
  • Green Team: price review with associated narrative, if required
  • Gold Team: 99.99% customer ready draft that is reviewed/approved by the signatory of the proposal
  • White Glove Review: final check of the document before submission

Every company has their own spin on these and specific processes for each review. The point is that everyone on the proposal team, including the SMEs, know the expectations and the quality of the draft they must submit. There are many proposal processes out there, but we have 6 major phases of the proposal process. 

Proposal Process Overview

It’s important for everyone on the team to picture the same map of what lies ahead. A key understanding is how the six phases flow from one to the next, along with roles and responsibilities of each team member at each phase.

No proposal effort should take off until everyone understands: 1) why most proposals don’t win and 2) what each team member must do to make sure your government proposal has the best chance of winning.

The figure below illustrates the steps in the Proposal Process as OST teaches it.

OST federal proposal development process how to win government contracts

Our proposal process mirrors the speed writing process:

  • 40% of your time brainstorming/researching and planning (Integration Phase and Planning Phase)
  • 20% of your time actually writing the first draft (between prepare Draft 1 and Draft 2 at the end of the Planning Phase and beginning of the Writing Phases)
  • 40% of your time editing, rewriting, and polishing (End of Writing Phase, all of Polishing Phase, and all of Production Phase)

Phase 1: Integration Phase

This phase starts after the predecessor Capture Process, before the final RFP is released, and ends at the conclusion of the Kick-Off Meeting. The major elements of this phase are: 

  • Reading the RFP
  • Conducting a requirements analysis
  • Making a bid-no-bid decision 
  • Developing annotated outlines and identifying work packages 
  • Gathering support materials and compliance checklist
  • Planning for/conducting the kick-off meeting 

Read the RFP 

This sounds trivial, but it’s likely you may come across someone who gives you feedback on your proposal section and they haven’t read the requirements. Some people just don’t know how to read an RFP. It’s critical for proposal managers to train their proposal staff on how federal government RFPs are organized. 

While the company leadership is making the bid-no-bid decision, the proposal team, contributors, and subcontractors need to start reading the requirements. This will get everyone thinking about the government’s specifications about what you must deliver, when, and how — both in your proposal and in your contract performance. 

However, you don’t read an RFP like a book if you are trying to understand what goes into the proposal. Instead, you read Section L, then Section M, and then Section C. 

Section L – Requirements 

This section of the RFP specifies elements of the required solution, along with how your proposal document must be constructed. Document specs include table of contents, page and illustration formats, and printing specifications, as well as instructions for digital file formats and electronic submission.

Essential information in this section also includes any page limitations for volumes or sections.

Section M – Evaluation Criteria 

This section of the RFP lists the criteria by which evaluators will judge your responses, along with the weighting of criteria for scoring the proposal on compliance and against its competitors.

Section C – Statement of Work (SOW) 

This section of the RFP describes the products and services the contract requires you to deliver in detail. It’s typically an engineering specification and forms the basis for the Technical volume of your response. 

Your Management approach will then explain how you will manage your performers to ensure the delivery and quality of your solution. Your response describes your firm’s unique solution to the problem or situation the contract is meant to address. (A SOW written in contract language that your firm is required to endorse may be titled a Performance Work Statement [PWS].)

Learn more about how to read an RFP here.

A pitfall that awaits inexperienced proposal teams is failure to appreciate that RFPs, like hastily written proposal documents, can be imperfect. Yes, you should treat the government’s requirements as gospel. But remember that RFPs are assembled by multiple contributors — much as proposals are — and sections might not be consistent. 

Or imperfect analysis by contracting staff might result in ambiguities or incomplete specifications. That’s why requirements analysis should also yield lists of questions you submit to the contracting office as early as possible in the development schedule.

A tool that readily discloses discrepancies as well as match-ups between RFP sections is the cross-reference matrix. Such a chart is a side-by-side comparison of corresponding statements extracted from each RFP section.

As writing progresses, the matrix should be a touchstone for authors, proposal managers, volume leads, and internal reviewers.

Approaches for Guiding Section Authors

Approaches differ on how a proposal manager should prepare guidelines for section authors. One approach is the annotated outline.

This is a list of topics and message points that must be covered in the section. Color-coded annotations pasted to each message point are the corresponding Section C, L, and M requirements. The author then has a handy reference for making sure that everything gets covered in the response.

A storyboard typically focuses on an illustration of the process or product that the section describes. A crucial test of the illustration and its accompanying narrative is whether an ultimate benefit to the customer is demonstrated.

Whether outline, storyboard, or another format is used, the assignment it presents is the author’s work package. (We provide some insights and suggestions on this phase in our recent post Developing Proposal Graphics.)

Culminating Phase 1, the proposal manager devises a plan of work to deliver the proposal document by the government’s specified deadline. A controlling factor will be the schedule, which in the case of a major federal proposal will be 30-60 days following the release date of the RFP. 

Against this schedule, the proposal manager applies the team organization, which mirrors the technical, management, and cost areas of the firm’s solution. Team organization includes roles and responsibilities of each member for sections and volumes of the response. The plan is implemented when the proposal manager assigns work packages to authors. 

Phase 2: Planning Phase

During the Planning phase, the team brainstorms strategies and approaches, and then they research open items, gaps, and questions for the contract office. Under the direction of the proposal manager and the supervision of the volume leads, authors and SMEs develop their work packages to create a first draft.

One of the carryover tasks from the Integration Phase is inserting win themes into your outline and using them as a guide during brainstorming.

Creating win themes is a capture activity because they drive the Win Strategy, gap analysis, and messaging to the customer throughout the capture.

However, many times the win themes are incomplete (or not started), so it is up to the proposal team to finalize the feature, benefit, and proof statements that the authors and reviewers will use to judge the proposal’s effectiveness.

Learn more about win themes by reading Developing Win Themes for Federal Government Proposals.

In-Process Reviews

In an agile proposal development process,  the proposal manager assigns intermediate deadlines called “in-process reviews” for drafts. In a traditional approach, pages get posted in section order around the walls of the proposal room.

BD and proposal managers, as well as volume leads and other authors, will see the elements of the response taking shape. 

They can add notes or suggest edits. They can add questions or challenge assertions. More often than not these days, technology replaces the proposal wall and war room, so contributors can simultaneously edit wherever they are.

Time for the Pink Team Review

The phase ends at the completion of a Pink Team review. In this and the subsequent color team reviews, internal evaluators score the proposal much the way the customer’s evaluators will.

Reviewers include company senior management and BD executives, along with outside experts, and perhaps even consultants who have experience with competitors. The reviewers apply the criteria set forth in Section M of the RFP and mark up questionnaires. 

The proposal manager will discuss scores and recommendations with leadership and then will task team members with revisions of their drafts. (See our blog article Black Hat and PtW 2020 for how to conduct competitive reviews [link]).

Phase 3: Writing Phase

Phase 3 starts with recovery efforts based on issues discovered during the Pink Team evaluations:

  • resolving deficiencies
  • correcting errors
  • strengthening message points and win themes

Additionally, the proposal manager freezes the outline at this point. The proposal team’s goal is to create a customer-ready draft in preparation for the Red Team review. 

Authors will iterate drafts until it’s time for pens down. Then the draft will go through an edit and desktop publish (formatting) so the Red Team Reviewers can review a 90% customer ready draft. 

Phase 4: Polishing Phase

During the Polishing phase, document development proceeds from Red Team recovery to final draft. It will go through another polish edit and page reformatting, as needed.

Generally, this is where the “one voice” edit occurs, so the document reads like it was written by one person instead of many. During draft iterations, company leadership and the proposal manager make a firm decision to proceed with submission. After Read-Out-Loud sessions for readability and clarity of messages, the proposal is ready for Gold Team review.

Phase 5: Production Phase

After Gold Team recovery, which should not require major revisions, the entire proposal document is printed, checked (page-proofed), and delivered to the customer.

Generally, a Gold Team review is a signatory review by the leadership, who should only be looking for fatal flaws. Do not let your Gold Team become Red Team 2. There is generally not enough time to recover and submit the proposal by the deadline.

Phase 6: Post-Proposal Phase

After the proposal is submitted, the proposal manager and BD will collect lessons learned. If the Government so requires, principal performers on the team may be asked to present their proposals in oral presentations.

This is also a time for possible Q&A and negotiations with finalists. We also recommend that the bidder have a Post-Delivery Win Strategy. Then your performing team is ready to hit the ground running on Day One. 

After the Award, the bidders may receive debriefs to learn how their submissions actually scored with the Government evaluators. Whether or not the proposal is a win, a key concluding step will be to update documented lessons learned. As a result, your proposal team will be ready for the next effort. 

Remember to always ask for a debrief, even if you win, because you may have just submitted the least-bad proposal. Also, you need to know what the government thought of your solution. Then you can adjust your plan before the contract kick-off. 

Winning Government Proposals is a Process

The experienced, talented proposal manager sets the pace against a schedule. This way no requirements are missed and no steps in this process skipped. Of course, the heat of the moment can impel haste, and you must do whatever is necessary to “get it in a box.”

But a formal, disciplined, and ongoing BD approach can avoid the hurry-up response when an RFP drops. That process involves developing an opportunities pipeline by which you continually track federal contract opportunities. Your team and the BD managers then conduct gate reviews to decide which bids are worth chasing.

It stands to reason: If you know what’s coming, you’ll have more time to plan your response. And you’ll have a much better understanding of what the customer needs to justify awarding your firm the contract.

Need to win more government contracts and lower BD costs? Take our Foundations of Proposal Management course.

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