Pitfalls of Incumbency

(When What You Know Really Can Hurt You)

Steak and Baked Potato

Imagine that you go to a restaurant and order a rib eye and baked potato, no vegetable. Your server looks you in the eye and says, “Don’t I see you at the gym on Tuesdays? Haven’t you heard that a high cholesterol diet can lead to heart disease? And low-carb is really in right now. I’m going to get you a nice grilled chicken breast, some brown rice, and asparagus. I know you’ll like it better.”That server is doing exactly what so many Federal contractor incumbents do: assuming they know what their customer wants based on perceived insight, knowledge, and previous experience. But – taking this approach raises some interesting questions – for instance, what happens when you: 

  • Put too much weight on what you believe to be your insight into a specific program?
  • Think you know what your customer wants better than they do?
  • Believe you know your customer better than they know themselves?

We’ve all heard that old adage “what you don’t know can’t hurt you.” Federal Contracting requires a new proposal-related adage, “what you do know can hurt you.

 Incumbentitis (Indigestion)

From an offeror’s perspective, being the incumbent is the best position to be in. You have the contract already – all you need to do is keep it. The customer knows your work and, theoretically, is happy with it. Hopefully the reason the contract is being rebid is because it needs to be and not because your customer wants to replace you. Incumbency is a sweet road: each contract on which you are the incumbent is yours to loose, and often incumbents don’t even consider the possibility of losing. After all, you know the customer, the statement of work (SOW), the manpower requirements, the cost model, the performance expectations, and you know the contract.

Or do you?

If you deconstruct what an incumbent really knows, you’ll quickly discover that an incumbent typically knows prior program elements like the contract structure, SOW, customer’s communication channels, and program management structure. Problems arise when this knowledge is not current and/or specifically required by, or relevant to, the upcoming Request for Proposal (RFP’s) actual Evaluation Factors and Sub-Factors. When this happens, the incumbent’s “knowledge,” “understanding,” and “insight” results in lost contracts and the mysterious disappearance of incumbency holy grail.

Basics for Winning (Pepto Bismol)

An incumbent shouldn’t ever assume that the past is going to dictate the future. What a Government Customer wanted in the past may, or may not be, the same as what they want going forward. In addition to conducting significant pre-RFP positioning and shaping, the best way to write a winning proposal is to read and thoroughly understand the Request for Proposal (RFP), precisely follow its instructions, and provide your customer exactly what they ask for, not what you think they should ask for – or what you think they are really asking for under the surface.  Aside from providing a competitive price – writing a winning proposal requires addressing three basic compliance elements:

  • Section C (SOW or Performance Work Statement (PWS)
  • Section L (Instructions to Offerors)
  • Section M (Evaluation Criteria)

If an incumbent does not address these elements because they believe they possess some secret knowledge that better shows their understanding of the contract and the customer, they significantly increase the risk of a loss. The successful incumbent marries the information they “know” with the information requested in the RFP. Only when an incumbent can apply their insight directly to the RFP requirements and Evaluation Factors can a winning proposal result.

When a Source Selection Evaluation Board (SSEB) reviews a proposal they look at the RFP – particularly the Section M Evaluation Factors – for keys to finding the winner.

ElementHow To WinHow to Lose

(Section C)

Address the SOW to the extent required by RFP Sections Land MPresent extensive information

about the SOW that is not

required by the RFP or relevant

to the Evaluation Factors

Instructions to Offerors

(Section L)

Precisely follow organization, content,and format instruction

of the RFP

Ignore Section L instructions

and organize your proposal so

that the information you believe is

important flows in a logical manner

Evaluation Criteria

(Section M)

Present a thorough and robust

response to each Section M

Evaluation Factor and Sub-Factor

in the appropriate proposal section

as defined by Section L

Ignore, or minimal response to, the RFP’s Evaluation

Factors and address information

you believe is important


Remember that the RFP:

  • Provides instructions and evaluation criteria
  • Provides critical elements that must be addressed
  • Is designed to prompt offerors to present their information in a manner that directly addresses what is being asked for
  • Is the document against which your proposal is being evaluated

The RFP does not provide a method for which you can present what you “know.” Just as the server who places orders for his customer is likely to lose that customer, the incumbent who “knows” their customer can lose their prized incumbency. As an incumbent, a re-compete is yours to lose. Don’t be foolish and make it easy for your competition to beat you. Respond to the RFP. Plain and simple – just like a good old-fashioned steak and potato dinner.

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