A winning proposal isn’t always the best

A proposal can be the winner for reasons unrelated to proposal quality

This article was originally published March 4, 2020 on WashingtonTechnology.com

Is a winning proposal a good proposal? Some argue that by definition, yes, a win is a good proposal. However, we all know that a proposal can be the winner for reasons unrelated to proposal quality—such as a price shoot out.

Therefore, when we look back at our win-loss track record, we miss a lot of important data if wins and losses are the only measures of successful performance. As a result, we may re-use a poor-quality proposal or dismiss a losing proposal that has some successful elements.

Are your proposals good?

In a Deltek webinar, Bob Lohfeld polled the audience to ask: “Are your proposals compliant, responsive, AND compelling?” Interestingly, only 15 percent of 150-plus respondents believed that their proposals were consistently achieving all three measures of quality. Another 35 percent responded that their proposals sometimes achieved all three. Meanwhile, 35 percent stated that their companies consistently do NOT achieve all three, while the remaining 15 percent responded that their companies do not even understand the importance of all three performance measures.

In my experience, bidders do focus on compliance (although often do not achieve that measure as I pointed out in a recent Washington Technology article). However, many do not fully understand the difference between a compliant proposal and a responsive proposal. And, many do not grasp what makes a proposal compelling.

Compliant versus responsive

Your proposal can be compliant but not responsive. How does that happen? The narrative complies with the instructions, evaluation criteria, and work requirements. The format, whether electronic or hard copy, conforms with the instructions. The proposal even includes a compliance matrix. However, the content fails to focus on the meaning behind the RFP words. The outline is correct, but the proposal narrative misses the mark, perhaps providing too much detail on topics the customer does not care about and too little on what they value.

Another common mistake that makes a proposal non-responsive is focusing too much on your company rather than the customer. The proposal can be compliant, but if every paragraph begins with your company rather than the customer, it is not responsive. Too much fluff, words that don’t matter, and unsubstantiated bragging can all reduce responsiveness. When evaluators read non-responsive content, they lose interest. Non-responsive content also reduces the evaluators’ trust in the bidder as a potential contractor.

Responsive versus compelling

Similarly, a proposal can be compliant and responsive, but not compelling. A proposal is compelling if it is rich in Strengths. Strengths in the federal market are features with proven benefits that have merit: exceeding requirements or significantly reducing mission or contract risk in a manner the customer values. The only way to understand what the customer values is to spend a lot of time with the customer listening to needs and then returning to discuss potential solutions. It is an iterative process, leveraging information gathered from a variety of customers to formulate potential solutions and then gathering feedback to refine the solution.

Using a Strength-based solutioning approach helps you identify potential Strengths, vet them with customers, and then articulate them in your proposal as part of your discriminating value proposition. Strengths make responsive content more compelling and make it easier for government evaluators to score your Strengths. Strengths also build trust because the proposal then demonstrates that the bidder understands the customers.

Other measures of goodness

Certainly, there are other valid measures of goodness. Lohfeld Consulting Group has seven proven quality measures that include compliant, responsive, and compelling as well as customer-focused, easy to evaluate, well-written, and visually appealing.

In proposal post-mortems, consider not only whether the proposal was a winner, but also whether it met the seven quality measures. If not, why not?

  • Was capture insufficient?
  • Did capture fail to identify Strengths?
  • Did proposal writing fail to articulate the value proposition in a compelling and customer-focused manner?
  • Was the proposal hard to read and lacking in visuals?
  • Was the narrative simply poorly written?

Even if your proposal resulted in a win, asking these questions is still valid because the proposal may have won despite its faults. There is always room for improvement.

Winning doesn’t validate the proposal’s goodness

I do a lot of proposal reviews and post-mortems. I have read proposals that are good and lost as well as proposals that are bad and won. Avoid the trap of equated a win with a good proposal. Critically evaluate your live and submitted bids using a variety of quality measures to identify areas for improvement. In the end, this approach will result in better quality and more consistent wins.

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
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