Lessons Learned from a Proposal Disaster

We have had a wonderful winning streak in the past year and a half winning literally every proposal we ran, but all of a sudden, our fortunes turned. A new client engaged us to help them prepare a proposal. They agreed to provide to us some key inputs such as subject matter expertise, raw past performance data, resumes, and a compliant price volume that they decided to prepare themselves. We went through our regular steps in educating them about the proposal process, held a kickoff, developed a schedule with plenty of contingency time and a goal to deliver the proposal a day early, provided guidance and templates, and prompted and waited for the promised information.

The deadlines kept slipping, as the client was busy with other priorities. We did what any good proposal people would do in the situation: increased the frequency of contact, added status meetings (that the client neglected), asked if the client would please allow us to interview them so that we could write everything ourselves (in vain), and made general pests of ourselves. As the deadline was nearing with no inputs from the client, we requested and got the extension from the government. We summoned the elusive client to our offices to pry the information out of them, but the client showed up to the daylong working meeting without a computer. Every time we confronted the client, he would absolutely, eagerly promise to get us the information “tonight, no problem.” It never came.

Within 48 hours of the due date, as we were finishing the technical volume, we saw the cost volume for the first time. It had serious compliance issues that required obtaining a formal quote, wrong labor categories, and discrepancies with the technical volume that effectively changed the solution. We proceeded to burn the midnight oil to correct multiple places in text and graphics in order to line up the solution with the price volume.

We got the first past performance reference within 24 hours prior to the due date. It missed some key information, including the actual narrative. The second promised past performance reference failed to materialize. It wasn’t looking good, and it wasn’t getting any better.

After a second sleepless night in a row dealing with the last minute inputs, the day of the electronic delivery arrived, with a 2 pm deadline. True to form, the client wasn’t there. They sent their teammate to sign everything and deliver the proposal. In the 4-hour period before the deadline, the teammate spent time on the phone making a valiant effort to obtain the missing quote for the cost volume, get a replacement past performance reference, and gather other missing bits of information to bring the proposal into compliance. The clock was ticking mercilessly.

Finally, various inputs arrived between 90 and 27 minutes prior to the deadline: unformatted information for the new past performance write-up, a new cost volume still missing an introduction and needing a review, and a quote in need of a rewrite. Fingers typed feverishly, and a mad rush of transferring multiple large files ensued. The technical volume that we wrote made it in with 15 minutes to spare, but the teammate was still trying to make changes to the cost and past performance volumes. The information made it to the government a few minutes past the deadline.

A week later, we got a letter disqualifying us from the competition on the grounds of being late. The client, in response, decided not to pay our final bill and even had the nerve to demand the money he had paid us to date, blaming us for not delivering on time.

I wanted to share a few lessons learned with you from this proposal disaster, so that you never have to encounter a similar situation.

One lesson learned is to educate AD NAUSEAM your clients, bosses, and colleagues, on just how much goes into a timely proposal delivery. Many fail to appreciate the tail end of the work. There is a REASON why we, proposal professionals, plan for extra time for delivery. Everyone who has been around the proposal block a few times knows just how much there is to do while you are getting ready to deliver, and that Murphy’s Law reigns supreme.

You have to plan to: go over the compliance checklist to ensure everything is ready for submission; test the upload function ahead of time; remove hidden metadata; make sure that graphics look the same once they have been PDF’ed and compressed; take extra time to play with the document because files may not compress enough for electronic delivery; combine or split documents; triple-check all the files and CDs to see if they can open on different systems; allow time for correcting last-minute errors in obvious places that everyone overlooked; make sure all the forms are signed and scanned correctly; ensure document titles, versions, and sequence of submittal are correct; give plenty of time for the files to transfer and for you to get a read receipt; if you are delivering hard copies, set up a contingency plan for printers breaking, allow time for book check, and print an extra set for an alternative delivery plan; and on, and on.

Another important lesson learned is to be able to push back on some projects and clients, regardless of whether you are a full-time employee or a consultant. Proposal professionals have a natural tendency for being heroes and thriving on deadlines. Some of it is good because of customer focus and wanting to win no matter what. But you can’t count on rescuing everyone from themselves, especially if they are habitual deadline deadbeats. You can’t always be the only one who cares, left holding the bag. If you count on critical information from others, and have gone out of your way to explain the importance of getting this information by a certain date, and you are not getting it, you have to stand up for yourself.

Many have no problem managing a team and holding it to the deadlines, but everyone tends to want to please bosses and clients. Bosses and clients that throw unrealistic deadlines your way; withhold key inputs; disrespect your boundaries, your time, your work, and your instructions – will negatively reflect upon the quality and integrity of our work. At the end, they will also be unhappy with your performance, no matter what kind of heroics you exhibit.

The first step with someone who is a habitual offender is to let them know IN WRITING that their inability to meet a deadline may result in the proposal being late. If the behavior continues, put them on notice, politely, that the project is in danger of failing due to their performance, and document everything painstakingly. It is bad form to walk off in the middle of a proposal, but you have to be fearless and firm to take steps to protect yourself and your professional reputation.

The last lesson learned is a reminder that winning proposals is a team sport. Even Michael Jordan couldn’t carry the whole game on his own – he needed a strong team to shine. Proposals that win require everyone’s commitment – clients, bosses, authors, subject matter experts, teammates, and not only the proposal professionals assigned to the job. One may hope that individual performers work miracles at the last minute, but it is a much more powerful position to put together a strong team and give it the right resources and support to win.

 

9 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from a Proposal Disaster

  1. YG says:

    I see my own feelings being put on a piece of paper here as this is kind of dilemma that I face day in and day out. I second you for what you have written there….difficult deadlines, insufficient time, indicative pricing, fluffing up the numbers by conceptualizing the whole flow, etc. In the end, get what you may, you are responsible for ultimate good or bad deliverables.

  2. Excellent post! It mirrors much of my experience. I’ve been lucky, I guess, because my proposal work has been as a writer/editor WITHIN the organization preparing the proposal rather than as an outside consultant. But even so, the sense of urgency and need to have full cooperation of the team was something that was absolutely critical in successfully meeting the RFP criteria. It may have been easier for us all being part of the internal team. We had more available management buy-in and support to ensure our SMEs were available to provide critical information and to grease the skids, if needed to make the process work smoothly. Thanks for posting this–it made for some good reading and will be quite instructional to those considering doing something like this.

  3. mohammad najaa says:

    Thanks for sharing.
    Yes, this sometimes happens when the client is not considering you as part of the team or as a colleague of equal standing during the engagement, trying only to dominates the relationship which in turns lead to tensions and suspensions in the relationship.

  4. Thank you for your comments.

    If you need proposal support, please, contact Lisa Arlt Escoto at 703-307-8749 or larltescoto@ostglobalsolutions.com.

    Get your copy of the Executive Summary Secrets, a self-study course on how to write high-impact executive summaries, at http://www.ostglobalsolutions.com/execsumsecrets-embed.

    You can also still get the replays of the 30-hour comprehensive webinar, Blueprint for Winning Government Contracts for Small Businesses, at http://www.ostglobalsolutions.com/blueprint.

  5. Excellent post. Thanks for sharing your experience. I think you probably did a very good job of trying tio explain about the deadlines. However, I don’t think any amount of education, training, warning, etc. could help a company this clueless.

  6. Mikey says:

    Without know the whole situation outside of what was written, I have to wonder why did you walk away 50% of the way in it? Or threaten to do it and at 75% walk? This writing screams the client didn’t care about wining the work and can now blame someone else for their own laziest.

    If a client won’t work with me, I will walk.

  7. Dipesh says:

    I appriciate this post and thanks for sharing your experience with us. Taking this discussion further, we sometime got stuck when input depends on partners and they do not reply untill last moment. In this case as a proposal manager we should always ready with alternate plan to work out if partner do not reply on time. WE can also ask for extension but it doesn’t give a good impression on customer. Tight timelines are now routine of a proposal manager even though there is sufficient time but some of stackholders in team will make it sleepy. The problem arrives when our inputs depend on senior resources and they do not reply on time despite of several follow-ups. In this case we can request them only again and again and remind them about the deadline and importance of the opportunity for the organization. At the end of day even we don’t get deal from customer, it is important to make a good impression on them with good proposal for future opportunities.

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