Industry experts’ proposal war stories and lessons learned – Part 4 of 4

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;

Or close the wall up with our English dead.

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility:

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger;

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood…

Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,

Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit

To his full height. On, on, you noblest English. (-William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act III, 1598.)

Here’s the wrap-up of my current 4-part series on capture and proposal war stories shared from industry veterans (stay tuned for more jaw-dropping war stories as I’ve received many from readers that I’ll share in future posts).

As you engage in your next capture and proposal effort – unto the breach again – consider the war stories shared in my previous posts and those below, and commit to avoiding them in your future engagements.

  • The experience from which I learned the most valuable lesson happened early in my career, when I was a very green proposal center manager (and lead writer/coordinator as well). The proposal was due at 12:00 p.m. to a State Department of Transportation (DOT). That morning, I was still receiving edits from reviewers and coordinating graphics and word processing. Printing and binding wasn’t completed until about 11:00 a.m., so I canceled our courier and held on to the proposal for dear life as our graphic artist sped down the Mass turnpike. Literally jumping out of the moving car, I raced up the escalator to the third floor, pushing past everyone and anyone in my way, only to arrive at the DOT secretary’s desk at 12:03 p.m. 12:03 p.m. – 3 minutes too late; 180 seconds too late. No amount of cajoling changed her mind (and rightly so) – she could not stamp our proposal. The phone call I made to our VP of Sales/Marketing was the lowest moment of my young career. I learned the hard way – deadlines are deadlines…period. And, if the client can impose them without exception, then so can the proposal manager. I now build in so much time at the end of proposal schedules that SMEs frequently grumble about their initial draft due dates. Recounting that story is a great way to silence those complaints. –Luanne Smulsky, Principal, ib4e Writing Solutions LLC
  • A non-native English speaker confused the word “improve” with “improvise,” and informed the customer we were going to improvise their processes. No one noticed this error until production. I learned that neither color team reviewers nor spell check catch all errors – a fresh pair of eyes is always useful! –Lisa Pafe, Principal Consultant, Lohfeld Consulting Group
  • During an orals presentation that was being taped by the government, the videographer dropped to the floor and started crawling under the table pulling on cables. After a few minutes, he got up and went back to recording. During the Q&A session, the contracting officer asked whether or not there was anything that caused the team distress or was a distraction, and the bid program manager responded with a simple, “No.” Lesson learned: One doesn’t have to repeat the process or implement a “do-over” strategy if one believes it wasn’t their problem. –Betsy Blakney, Senior Proposal Development Manager, CACI, Inc.
  • My favorite proposal-related war story was when, on a beautiful sunny day, the power went out and fried the chargers of 3 of our 5 laptops (mine included). Three of us working on one side of the room had our laptops plugged into the same electrically outlet. Unexpected? You bet! Apparently, a car hit a utility box a few blocks away causing a massive outage. Luckily, I had recently saved my work to the external hard drive that I use. What I learned from that experience was to carry an extra charger and to save often to an external hard drive! –Mary Beth Frazza, Owner, Frazza Formatting
  • I worked very hard on a capture and proposal activity for a major NASA bid and thought we had done a good job on it. Apparently the government didn’t think so, and when they debriefed us as a losing bidder, they found lots of shortcomings in our bid. After reflecting on the loss, I concluded we should never have bid this deal. It was just too much of a stretch for us to be a credible winner. After that, I had a new appreciation for making good pursuit and bid decisions and raised my personal standards for what deals we would chase. Tightening up our pursuit and bid criteria raised our win rate, reduced our workload, lessened our B&P expenditure, and produced steady revenue growth for the corporation. Looking back at this it all seems so simple. To be a winner, you just have to stop chasing losers. –Bob Lohfeld, CEO, Lohfeld Consulting Group

What lessons learned stand out in your mind? What would you share with someone new (or experienced) in the capture and proposal field? Send an email to me at with your lessons learned, and I’ll share your advice in upcoming posts!