Responding to a request for proposal, but unsure how to make it stand out? I have some helpful pointers before you put pen to paper.
In my 36 years in the Department of Veterans Affairs, I often chose or participated in the process to pick a winning bidder in response to an RFP. I dealt with all kinds of awards, ranging from small, individual medical center contracts to extremely large national initiatives. Here are my takeaways from the selection process of larger contracts at the national level.
Write a well-organized proposal. As a young VA employee, the company name/reputation was often vague to me. I didn’t know the business landscape of the companies responding to an RFP. My holy grail was the score sheet. I remember doing my best to pore over the proposal and decide if they met the criteria on the scoring sheet. If the proposal was organized to make it easy to find those sections matching the criteria, it made the job easier and the judgment more certain.
Don’t skimp on key details – but don’t be wordy. Being in a time crunch made it hard to get through very long proposals. At the same time, if proposals were too short, they were occasionally incomplete. A proposal that fully and concisely answered the questions and gave a sense of trust that the company knew what it was talking about received high scores from me. Incomplete proposals, without basic entry criteria, on the other hand, were eliminated.
Tell us about your company where you can. Knowing the company contact helped in understanding the proposal, yet it was very unlikely everyone in the contract selection group knew the company staff. They were usually chosen to be in the group because they didn’t know the company or people. With this in mind, add helpful tidbits about your company, mission and relevant experience as long as it falls within proposal guidelines. This helped us pick a company that was the right fit, and added reassurance when we couldn’t have a company contact.
Understand that picking a winning bid is a group effort. My voice was only one voice. In VA, the selection process is decentralized and sanitized. A group generally gives its two cents on the proposal according to the criteria. The group scores are tallied, and the winning bid is chosen from there.
Familiarize yourself with VA. Experience with VA mattered. Maybe this was my bias, but over time, it was pretty obvious which companies understood the problem the best and knew VA space the best. Those groups identified the value stream and were realistic about what they could/would provide/do.
Know the difference between contracting officer and selecting officer. The contracting officer is the authoritative source for the process. In my experience, he or she was “black and white” about the process, certain facts and timelines. Also keep in mind, the contracting officer isn’t the selecting official – those are two different roles.
Be aware price is just one factor. In the largest contract I was involved in awarding, VA chose to prioritize expertise over price. Price was consciously not weighted very highly because VA knew it needed to attract the best in that space.
Trust that the process is fair. The winning contractor often surprised us. VA/government designs a selection process as fair and unbiased as possible. I’ve seen a well-executed process identify a winner that was unexpected and nontraditional at times.
Unknown contractor will find support. VA staff would sometimes cringe at having to change contractors for long-running projects, especially to a previously unknown company. However, VA staff supported the process and were often grateful at the new talent a new contractor would bring to the issues at hand.
So, winning a contract isn’t so much about convincing one person – it’s about being the best and communicating you’re the best. And once a contract is obtained, the real work begins.
Dr. Mike Davies
Federal Business, LLC