Effective communication is an important aspect of any business—and when it comes to contracting with the government, one of your best tools can be your ability to write a winning proposal.
To make contracting fair, government agencies often use a Request for Proposal (RFP) or Request for Quote (RFQ). These are public documents that outline the agencies' requirements for specific products or services. In order to bid on these jobs, you have to submit a proposal—but as you can imagine, there is often a lot of competition.
Carl Dickson, founder of CapturePlanning.com, shared few tools of the trade at the 2016 American Express OPEN for Government Contracting: Success Series event held in Washington, D.C. Since 2001, his firm has specialized in writing award-winning government contracting proposals.
Here are some of his tips on how to write a strategic proposal that can help win your business a government contract.
1. Work backwards.
Begin with the end in mind. “If you start when the RFP is released, then you are starting too late," says Dickson. According to Dickson, proposals are scored, not read. In order to get the highest score, your proposal should reflect your customer's preferences. He suggests you talk to your customer before, during and after the proposal. Most proposals are based on how well you understand your customer. Try to answer the following questions:
- What does your customer care about? Is price more important than quality? Is speed a factor?
- What is your value proposition, and how does it relate to your customer's preferences?
- What problem does your product or service solve in relation to your customer's preferences?
- Who are you teaming with?
- How are the proposals scored?
- What does it take to win this contract?
- What is your customer's operating policy?
- What are your customer's pain points?
- Who are they currently contracting with?
You may need to do some research. Check government websites such as usaspending.gov to see what your customer has purchased in the past. Attend their pre-bid meetings and networking sessions to meet stakeholders. The more you know about the agency, the better you can respond to a bid.
2. Create an outline based on a compliance checklist.
Dickson says that a lot of proposals get thrown out because they do not adhere to compliance issues. To overcome this, Dickson suggests reviewing the RFP thoroughly to identify the compliance requirements. Drop the requirements into a spreadsheet to serve as a checklist, then develop an outline. The outline will serve as a document shell, which can make writing your proposal much easier and help ensure that you do not miss important details.
—Carl Dickson, founder, CapturePlanning.com
3. Collect the right data.
“The proposal-writing process is a mechanical creation, not a creative one," says Dickson. Proposal writers should not tell a story, but address all the things that need to go into the proposal and match them to the needs of the agency. It's important to have the right offering and approach to match the bid. To help accomplish this, Dickson suggests gathering all the ingredients, such as your management plan, methodology, deliverables and quality assurance plan, that need to go into the proposal before you start writing. To strengthen your proposal, learn about the company that previously held the contract and ascertain their strengths and weakness. How is your product or service better?
4. Develop a differentiation strategy.
Because RFPs strive to make everything equal among the competition, it is your difference that matters. “If you don't differentiate, you will lose," says Dickson. Most of the proposals he sees are not differentiated; they often emphasize the same values and what he calls “vague promises of greatness." Dickson says you should avoid such promises and use tangible differentiators that matter to your customer. For example, if every proposal offers the same excellent track record, then your track record should be faster, better or stronger than your competitor. The way you articulate your differentiation is why a customer will select you. Here's an example of a typical claim, along with a better alternative.
Typical claim: We have an excellent track record.
Better alternative: Here are all the things we will do for your agency in a way that will be transparent. If a problem arises, we will tell you what we are doing about it without you having to ask.
5. Start writing.
Once you've done the above, start writing. Use your shell to input all your compliance and pertinent data. But try not to do what your competitors do: Don't spend the entire proposal talking about yourself, Dickson says. “Talk about your customer and what they will get." Write from the customer's perspective. If you did your homework and all of the above, you will know how the customer perceives value, so build upon that. Write as if you are answering the evaluator. Your evaluator will want to know what you can deliver and whether you are better than the other contributors. Your proposal should answer those questions in a way that is compliant, speaks to your customer's preferences and hopefully, if necessary, unseats your incumbent.
Writing a winning proposal is about communication. One of the best ways to communicate your proposition is to know what your customer wants and needs, and that begins before the RFP. By using the above strategies, you can help set yourself up for a better chance at winning those government contracts.
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For more government contracting resources, visit openforum.com/governmentcontracting.