Ask the Right Questions to Understand Customer Objectives

Did you know the leading indicator for predicting whether you will be successful in a government bid is how well you understand the customer’s requirements and objectives?

As a capture team leader, one of your first jobs is to understand and document your customer’s requirements and objectives. Requirements are the activities a company must do when it performs the contract. They include technical and management tasks described in the scope of work, generally found in Section C of a federal government request for proposals. But they can also reside in other sections and attachments to the RFP.

On the other hand, objectives are more elusive. They are the desired outcomes that the government hopes to achieve by having a company perform the contract requirements in an exceptional manner. Every bidder will offer to perform the contract requirements, but the successful bidder will show how its approach ensures the government’s objectives are achieved. It is not sufficient simply to offer to perform the contract requirements — you must propose to perform them in a way that makes your customer’s program a success.

RFPs generally do not contain objectives and must be deduced from research or discussions with government personnel — preferably before the RFP is released. Because those discussions are so important, you must plan and practice so you know what questions you are going to ask and who is going to ask them.

To ensure capture teams ask the right questions, consider running a practice exercise in which all team members write 10 questions they would like to have answered when meeting with the government. Gather those questions, and divide them into three categories. The first category comprises questions about requirements. The second includes questions about objectives. The third includes questions that might not be appropriate to ask because the customer might be reluctant to answer.

Next, within each category, eliminate duplicate questions and consolidate similar questions. Order the questions from the best to worst based on how important the prospective answer is to the team. Finally, word the questions to ensure that each is clear and asked in a way that gives a high likelihood of returning an answer with the insight need.

Divide the final questions among team members who will attend the meeting with the government. If possible, conduct a mock government meeting with the capture team coach acting as the government executive. All participants ask their assigned question as they would at the meeting. This exercise lets participants practice the questions and helps the team decide the order in which to ask questions. Generally, the team begins with questions about requirements and then moves to questions about objectives. After several practice sessions, the team is armed with well-crafted questions presented in a logical and insightful manner, and it is ready for the real meeting.

This exercise yields multiple benefits. The capture team will ask important and relevant questions during its meeting, which will yield answers for a good understanding of both government’s requirements and objectives. The government benefits from a well-structured, efficient meeting with a meaningful exchange of questions and answers. The interchange demonstrates that your company understands this business, is highly professional and is the kind of contractor the government wants.

Understanding customer requirements is one of the first steps in capture management and is fundamental to winning. The better you understand these requirements and objectives, the higher your win probability. As capture manager and coach, your mantra is simple: The best informed wins.

By Bob Lohfeld

This article was originally published April 5, 2010 in

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Lohfeld Consulting