Adhere to the RFP Process! Six Common Misconceptions that Lead to a Losing Proposal

Many a job has been lost due to a simple failure to provide agencies what they ask for from potential business/Government contractors. As proposal consultants, we often encounter attitudes toward the proposal process that are misguided or just plain wrong; particularly from those new to the proposal game. These misperceptions can lead to unaddressed requirements, noncompliant proposals, unrealistic win-probability assessments, and general failure to fulfill customer needs. In short, a losing proposal. Here are some real-life examples:

1. “We don’t need to meet with the customer – once they see our proposal they will be won over.”

It is always worthwhile to meet with the customer – I consider it essential. Face-to-face is much better than a phone call. Assuming the meeting goes well, you will go from an unknown to a familiar quantity, which is a big jump in credibility. Plus, you can pick up valuable information during the meeting. I actually had a customer say during a meeting, “Don’t pay attention to what we wrote in the RFP – this is what we really want.” How can you compete with that if you don’t have the conversation?

2. “We don’t need to follow the RFP religiously, we’re much more creative than that.”

Oftentimes the RFP doesn’t make sense or doesn’t flow well. It is very tempting to get creative and change the order of things so that the proposal “reads better.” What you need to know is that the evaluators already have scoring sheets set up based on the RFP layout. If they don’t find what they are looking for in the designated part of the proposal, then you will get no credit, even if it appears in a different section. Worst case, you may be disqualified for noncompliance and the merits of your solution are never assessed. Remember, there is not just one evaluator but rather a team. Each person is assigned a different section of the proposal to score. You want to make their job easier, not harder. Follow the RFP outline scrupulously.

3. “They don’t really know what they need – we are the experts, so we know better than them.”

You may be the expert and you may know better than them, but don’t say it in the proposal. First, you may come across as arrogant. Second, no matter how much you know, the customer is still going to use the RFP as a yardstick to evaluate you against the competition. Follow the RFP precisely to win the competition – once you have won, then you can talk to them about possibly changing direction. You must first get your foot in the door.

4. “We’ll dazzle them with our credentials and examples of our work.”

You may be proud of your credentials and work, but the customer has seen this from every company and, quite frankly, is tired of it. Almost every company has briefed them on their capabilities and experience. Unless they specifically ask for it in the RFP, it will not be graded and will not count toward your score. Focus on their needs, not your capabilities. They are much more interested in how you will address their needs.

5. “We’ll offer them more than they ask for, to really wow them.”

The evaluation team is going to examine and rate the technical solution against the baseline requirements discussed in the proposal. Sometimes they can give extra points for going beyond the baseline performance (threshold vs. goal) – in these cases the scoring will be spelled out in the RFP. More often than not, they won’t want to pay additional money for added performance. If your solution shows added performance, they are going to ask, “How much is this going to cost me?”

6. “Cost is low on the list of evaluation factors – we can charge more because of our superior technical solution.”

What usually happens during the evaluation process is that the higher-ranking evaluation factors (e.g., technical, management, past performance) are evaluated first. The proposals that pass these hurdles successfully are then evaluated on cost. So even though cost is lowest of the evaluation factors, it can still determine which proposal will win. Cost may be the last consideration, but it is equally important.

There are, of course, many more examples that could be added to this list. Our job as proposal consultants is to guide our clients away from these potential proposal-killing ideas and misconceptions and teach them effective, winning proposal practices.

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