6 Steps for Strategically Selecting Past Performance References: A Practical Guide

Selecting relevant past performance summaries for Federal Government proposals is a complex blend of science and art. As bid and proposal professionals, our challenge is to align our past performance references with the requirements of each solicitation while instilling a high level of confidence in our clients about our performance capabilities.

Step 1: Determine whether you can use the past performance

Before you even begin to assess the recency, relevance, or merit of your past performance, verify that the customer will give you an excellent reference. Your competitors will bring their A+ past performance references, so anything less diminishes your proposal score. Use ethically sourced information to assess the competitor’s past performance compared to your own.

Step 2: Determine the optimal number of references

Sometimes an RFP does not specifically state how many past performance references you need. For example, the RFP states you need at least two references but not more than five references. When faced with a choice between several excellent references and one that is just satisfactory, an understanding of the evaluation criteria becomes crucial. If the customer doesn’t specify the exact number of past performance references to submit, it’s more strategic to submit only the top references rather than diluting the overall quality of your past performance references with a less impressive one.

Step 3: Meet binary requirements

RFPs often include binary requirements that seem straightforward but require precise interpretation. Clarify the customer’s definitions of timelines, contract values, and geographical locations to ensure your references meet these fundamental criteria. For example, if the customer indicates the past performance must be within the last 3 years, does the customer define that period as when they released the RFP or when you submit the proposal? If the customer indicates they want a reference for a contract of a specific value (or more), do they want its gross value or revenue earned? And if they’re going to conduct the work in a specific location, does the customer define the location as a city or a metro area?

Step 4: Ensure high relevance

Past performance relevance is the most common criterion, but relevance is vague. To meet the relevant test, provide past performance summaries that:

  • Span 100% of the customer requirements
  • Are of similar size, scope, and complexity
  • Address similar risks and challenges
  • Use similar types of labor categories

Provide as many details as possible about their relevance within the solicitation’s specified page limit using quantitative or qualitative data to verify your accomplishments.

Step 5: Aim for high confidence ratings

Consider whether your past performance will garner a high confidence rating. Confidence ratings can be somewhat subjective; however, customers look for quantitative or qualitative evidence describing how well you performed the work, kudos, commendations, and awards from customers, as well as descriptions of your ability to overcome challenges and mitigate risks.

Step 6: Navigate RFP Challenges

Select past performances that not only meet but exceed RFP challenges. For example, choose references that can be thoroughly described within the set page constraints. Additionally, when faced with unclear RFP requirements, prioritize references that most closely align with the perceived needs.


The art of selecting past performance references lies not in quantity but in their strategic alignment with potential client requirements and their ability to demonstrate your capacity to exceed requirements and expectations. By meticulously considering relevance, recent successes, and comprehensive RFP criteria, bid and proposal professionals significantly boost their chances of securing contracts.

By Brenda Crist, Vice President at Lohfeld Consulting Group, MPA, CPP APMP Fellow

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 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 $170B 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 www.lohfeldconsulting.com and join us on LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter.

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Brenda Crist