Can proposal managers and contracting officers find common ground?

Do proposal managers and contracting officers (COs) have anything in common? Most likely, what we have in common is that we are on each other’s list of pet peeves. Or, one could argue, proposal managers think about the CO much more often than the CO thinks about us! As in, “When will the CO answer the questions? Will the CO extend the due date?”

In addition, very rarely, if ever, are proposal managers and COs in the same room. Usually, the capture manager, program manager, and/or business development (BD) professional handles one-on-one meetings with the CO, so proposal managers and COs rarely if ever come face to face. If we ever meet, it is usually in a public setting such as an industry day.

Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in a National Contract Management Association (NCMA) Government Contract Management Symposium (GCMS) breakout sessionTalking to the Other Side: Proposal Managers and Contracting Officers. This session brought together proposal managers and COs for an opportunity to communicate, ask each other questions, and even vent a little. Clearly the topic was of interest, as the session was standing room only. Here are a few things I learned about each side.

3 things COs don’t understand about proposal managers

1. Communications from the CO greatly impact the workload

When the CO issues an amendment or answers questions, there is a ripple effect. Proposal managers must carefully analyze the new information. We must update numerous artifacts: the compliance matrix, outline, schedule, writing templates, and more. Even if the due date is extended, workload and stress levels increase as the team tries to make sense of the changes. COs do not necessarily understand or appreciate these impacts, nor do they care.

2. Lack of information stresses us

We have all faced the situation of submitting questions and receiving no answers. Unanswered questions cause great stress to the proposal team. The proposal must stay on schedule, so the proposal manager must make assumptions to proceed with solutioning, writing, and reviewing. The waiting game gets more stressful as the due date approaches. Again, COs do not care about these proposal manager problems.

3. Compliance is king

Proposal managers focus on compliance first and foremost. Sometimes it is challenging to ensure compliance for the following reasons: RFP inconsistencies, numerous and/or last-minute amendments and Q&A, lack of a conformed copy of the RFP, last-minute changes by reviewers, and/or unclear or no answers to questions. Quite often, we must make assumptions or a best guess as to what is compliant to move forward and stay on schedule. On the flip side, COs often think we don’t care about compliance based upon their review of our proposal submissions.

3 things proposal managers don’t understand about COs

1. Your RFP is one of many

Today’s COs have enormous workloads. They are juggling multiple solicitations in various stages of maturity. Because of workloads, lack of trained staff and other stressors, they may issue draft and final RFPs that are inconsistent, unclear, or incorrect, thus creating the need for subsequent amendments. COs are not thinking about how this situation stresses the other side of the fence; they are just trying to get it right by providing written clarifications. Unlike the proposal manager, they are not hyper-focused on one RFP, so they may not have time to correct every inconsistency or error.

2. They don’t inform because they don’t know

Most COs are cautious by nature as they are bound by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and want to avoid protests. They would rather wait until they have complete and accurate information before issuing any information at all. It may seem that they are torturing the proposal manager, but often they are waiting on information from legal, program, acquisition, or budget staff. After we submit our proposals, the CO is waiting for the Source Selection Board results as well as legal reviews. Calling or emailing them to ask when they will issue information is definitely not appreciated! In fact, these nuisance communications are a definite pet peeve of COs according to conference attendees.

3. Compliance is king

COs naturally think that they have issued comprehensive instructions and clarifications needed for the proposal manager to manage preparation of a fully compliant proposal. They often do not understand why we are asking so many questions about a document that they consider to be clear. (Hence, the famous answer to our questions: “Read the RFP!”) Therefore, when they review the proposal, COs have little patience for compliance issues. Nor will they search for information that is difficult to find due to unclear language, bad writing, lack of cross references, no compliance matrix, and/or poor visual communications.

Finding common ground

My final observation about this unusual meeting between COs and proposal managers is that we are all trying our best to do a good job. Both sides want a positive outcome (a best value winning proposal). However, we never put ourselves in the other’s shoes during the brief time in the longer overall acquisition cycle when our paths do cross: RFP release through proposal submission. The dialogue at the NCMA GCMS event was an unusual opportunity to share points of view, and attendees agreed that they want to continue talking.

By Lisa Pafe, Vice President at Lohfeld Consulting Group, CPP APMP Fellow and PMI PMP

Lohfeld Consulting Group has proven results specializing in helping companies create winning captures and proposals.

As the premier capture and proposal services consulting firm focused exclusively on government markets, we provide expert assistance to government contractors in Go-to-Market Strategy, Capture Planning and Strategy, Proposal Management and Writing, Capture and Proposal Process and Infrastructure, and Training. In the last 3 years, we’ve supported over 550 proposals winning more than $135B for our clients—including the Top 10 government contractors. Lohfeld Consulting Group is your “go-to” capture and proposal source! Start winning by contacting us at and join us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

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