MULTI-PART SERIES: How proposals are scored – Up close and personal, Part 4

A COVID conversation with Jacob Bertram, former Director of Contract Operations at GSA

Just because COVID-19 is forcing us indoors doesn’t mean that we can’t get together and learn from one another. Recently, Lohfeld Principal Consultant and Capture expert Dr. Doug Himberger interviewed former GSA Contracts Director, Jacob Bertram. In this fourth installment, Doug and Jacob discuss how proposals are scored as part of developing a strategy for winning business at an agency. For the previous installment, click here.

[Doug] Some of us have been writing proposals for years—decades in my case—and while I think we have gotten better at the process of writing a proposal, I think that we’re always trying to get smarter about how proposals are evaluated and scored, what makes us win or lose. We all hear the term, Best Value Tradeoff Evaluations. We hear it somehow correlates with a company’s strengths being important in a best value tradeoff. So, if that’s true, how do you present those strengths in a proposal so that they matter, so that they get scored and evaluated?

[Jacob] So in the old days, proposals used to come in binders. I remember when I first started off as an auditor with DCAA, I got a FedEx box with a binder in it. And then as I got working on bigger proposals, those in the hundreds of millions of dollars ranges, boxes of binders would just show up and people would have their printed Excel spreadsheets and all that kind of stuff. And over time, it’s moved into electronic only. And I would say that is a double-edged sword. I really like having the paper and flipping through it, seeing what catches my eye on one page, all of that. That was kind of fun, I thought. I think one of my first jobs in government was comparing two binders to make sure they had the same information in them or the exact same pages. And I was really excited when I found out they didn’t, because that meant I was doing my job, right?

But in today’s electronic world, having color is very important. So, if you can bring color to something or bring bold highlights or pull quotes or something like that, that’s going to get attention. Because if you think about it, proposals aren’t read from beginning to end. Certain people get assigned different parts of it. So, if you’re assigned a technical volume and you’re looking at one particular aspect of the solution, you’re going to be scrolling through the proposal. If you just think of one person just hitting the scroll button or scrolling down with their mouse, what is going to pop up and get their attention? It’s going to be a table or a chart or a picture or something like that. So, if you can bring your strengths to the table, by putting them in a different color or a font or something, they will get attention.

Let’s say that the RFP says you need to meet with the customer or the end user once a week. If you just say, “We’ll meet with you once a week,” I would call that a “spit-back” where you’re just saying, “Hey, yeah, I’m just going to meet with you.” But if you say, “We have the best technology in order to meet your needs. A customer can log in to our portal, see the status, all of that information.” If you can highlight it somehow, put it in a different color, just really talk about how you’re going to do it and how to make it effective and fun, I think that is going to get attention. Maybe have a little triangle or icon about meeting an RFP requirement next to it, so, “The requirement is to have a monthly meeting or weekly meeting, and then we’re going to always be able to provide you information through our secure web portal. You can see where it is. Or, “We’re going to meet virtually over Zoom.” The point is going to be how effective are your communications.

And then discuss what results do you have at the end. Has it increased customer satisfaction, or has it resulted in decreased cost or something? So, don’t just describe the innovative technology that you’re going to use, but show how, in the end, it helps the end customer. That way, as someone’s writing down some strengths, they record, “This new technology platform for communications – it works, it meets the requirement, and it has increased cost savings.” And they’ll just write that down as a strength and then the benefit, and then really how it’s going to be of value to them.

[Doug] One of things connected to the Best Value Tradeoff approach is that one of the elements that influenced them strongly when they scored was whether or not something exceeded a requirement in ways that actually mattered to the customer. What does that mean, to exceed a requirement?

[Jacob] Let’s use technology as an example. The requirement is to have an uptime of 95%. Your solution has a 99% uptime. That would exceed this requirement. Or, if you’re in aerospace and the requirement was being able to save X-amount of gallons of fuel over a flight and you save more. Think of the RFP as the bare minimum requirements in the statement of work or in the performance work statement, and think about how you can exceed them. So, if you’re looking at something where traveling a hundred miles an hour is the bare minimum. If you have something that can do 125 or 135 miles an hour, that might be important to highlight—if it’s going to add that extra value to the customer.

Maybe excess speed isn’t really that important. Then that might not be something that you use your proposal real estate for. Knowing what the customer values and how it’s going to be used is going to be there. And that’s really where the technical experts come in, where they can say, “Yes, it is important that it goes that extra miles per hour or that extra 4% of being up and online ready to go is going to be very important,” or “The customer put in the 95% in there because the current supplier is down all the time. So, if we can pledge to be up 99%, that’s going to be there.”

Focus on the cost of doing the requirement as well. If the minimum time is 95%, and you can easily get to 97%, but 99% is going to increase the price dramatically, you might not need 99%. You might need 97%. Focusing on your proposal holistically is going to be very important where a customer might be willing to pay more for added value. And if the answer is, “We might not need to pay for 99%, but 97% will work,” then price it accordingly for the 97%.

[Doug] We hear that exceeding requirements or reducing risk is important. We see it all the time in debriefs that when the government considers risk, they consider whether offerors have faced and mitigated the risks before and can prove their solutions lessen risk. How does the customer think about risk? Often bidders will be very industry focused on what is the risk from our perspective, but how does the government consider risk when they look at evaluations?

[Jacob] The government is very inherently risk adverse, and very shy to take a risk on anything, especially if it will cause an increase in cost or downtime or make them look bad. So that’s one of the things to think about and having tried and proven solutions to technology—especially if there is a commercially viable platform out there that’s going to really reduce the government’s risk. If you can say, “We were able to apply this solution to these companies or these agencies, and this is the result that they had,” that’s going to drastically reduce the risk. Think of it as like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. So, if you get a DCAA-approved accounting system, that’s considered gold standard. Think about that also with your technology that you’re bringing to the market or your solution—who else has tried it? The government doesn’t want to be one of the first people out there to try something brand new, because it might not work. So, if you’re thinking, “Okay, we were able to develop this commercially. These companies have used it. These are the results. These are the certifications it has; we’ve been approved by any number of organizations,” that’s going to reduce the risk. If it worked well for Department of Defense, they are one of the gold standards in procurement. If it worked well for DOD, DHS is going to follow along. Department of Interior will follow along. GSA will follow along. It’s important to show that it’s worked somewhere else, and the risk is drastically down.

[Doug] Okay, thank you. The concept of exceeding requirements and reducing risks, we see it all the time. This helps frame those thoughts as we write our proposals.

Look for the next discussion on our Lohfeld Insights blog—Up close and personal, Part 5: Influencing the acquisition process and LPTA solicitations.

 

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