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Blog Series: Pre-Proposal Planning (Blog 3)

capture management proposal management training Sep 20, 2022
Pre-Proposal Planning

Guest Post by Mitch Reed, DBA, CPP, Fellow APMP 

A Quick Refresher

In our first blog post, we asked the question, “Does the customer / contractor relationship prior to solicitation [RFP] release impact the award decision?” The answer is, yes – when certain circumstances apply. 

The two prior blogs discussed how the relationship between the customer and contractor impacts the award decision, and stressed the importance of a communications plan. This final blog discusses the pre-proposal planning effort, which uses the data collected from the communications plan 

Pre-Proposal Planning – What is it and why do it? 

The pre-proposal planning effort takes the information gathered while communicating with the customer and begins the process of converting this data into a proposal that is written to demonstrate the contractor has a clear understanding of the customer and the program.  

The primary goal of pre-proposal planning is developing a preliminary solution that meets the program requirements and creates an initial Price-to-Win approach. This crucial capture management effort likely requires multiple iterations during the government's acquisition cycle as actions from the communications plan evolve from working with the customer to develop or identify "soft" requirements to more defining detailed technical specifications. The Business Development or Capture Manager needs to communicate any potential solution concepts, innovative ideas, or new approaches to meet program requirements early on to gauge customer acceptance or rejection.  

Additional goals of pre-proposal planning include identifying teaming partners / vendors needed to support potential solutions, sourcing key personnel, and identifying internal resource requirements. Requirements may include facilities or long-term purchase order items that need to be negotiated early to meet the potential program schedule.  

What about the “Incumbent Advantage”?  

As shown in the research, being the incumbent does not equate to accomplishing the above pre-proposal goals. Of the 16 individuals interviewed for my research, six participants were incumbents recompeting for their current contract. None of the six were successful in winning the follow-on business / recompete. There were multiple reasons for these losses. Many can be attributed to Incumbentitis. Defined by Jans and Schauer (2022) of The Contracting Officer Podcast, “the incumbent contractor becomes overconfident and fails to recognize changes that have occurred during the period of performance of their current contract.” Other reasons for losses by incumbent contractors include:  

  1. Contractor’s proposal addressing requirements not included in the RFP
  2. Contractor’s proposal does not respond to the requirements versus responding to the requirements in the RFP 
  3. Building on 1 and 2 above, the contractor does not correctly price the actual RFP requirements 
  4. Contractor not addressing poor contract performance.  

Thus, to prevent or guard against Incumbentitis, or to ensure the team is prepared to respond to the proposal, it is critical that the Business Development or Capture Manager develop a clear understanding of the program from the customer's perspective. This understanding is essential for two primary reasons:  

  1. The capture and proposal team needs a technical / operational solution that meets program requirements, achieves key performance indicators (KPIs), and target dates leading to the development of the initial proposal themes and value propositions, drafts content development, and internal planning. 
  2. The capture and pricing team needs the potential solution to create a basis of estimate (BOEs), bill of materials (BOMs), and possibly more to begin developing a price baseline that will support Price-to-Win efforts.  

Identifying Discriminators, Themes, Features, and Benefits 

Pre-proposal planning must also include identifying solution discriminators, features, and benefits, and developing key themes to help the customer understand why your solution and your company are the best possible choices to reduce program, budget, and schedule risk. As stated in Reed, Santini & Smith (2018):  

To justify support for the winning selection, evaluators are looking for an approach that not only meets the requirement, but evidence that the vendor thoroughly understands the business challenges they are facing. A key strategy to developing such a response is to explain HOW the proposed solutions and associated benefits impact their operational and mission capabilities" (emphasis added).  

The operational impact differs from the solution benefit in that while the solution benefit is aligned with a solution feature, the operational impact is associated with the feature's benefit and is used to justify the solution being offered (feature). (p. 1) 

Just as potential solutions need to be presented to the customer, features and benefits need to be vetted with the customer to determine what will work and what will fail.  

The results of the above efforts can then be transferred directly to the proposal development effort ensuring the messaging is clear, and the capture / proposal team is ready to go on day one of the RFP release.  

Understanding Customer Requirement to Craft a More Compelling Proposal  

My research demonstrated the importance of understanding the customer's requirements as shown in the following results:  

Result 1: Contract awards were negatively correlated (-4261) to the customer's overall rating of the final proposal (i.e., customer contract awards decreased as the overall proposal rating increased). 

Potential reasons for this may include:  

  • Contractors propose a superior solution than their competitors but at a higher cost.  
  • Incumbents, with their intimate program knowledge, may bid "what they are currently performing" or "what they know the customer 'really' wants," and not the actual RFP requirements (i.e., "Incumbentitis”).  

Key Takeaway: While developing a solution, it is critical to propose a fully-compliant solution at the best possible price while carefully balancing additional services or more expensive products at a price the customer is willing to pay.  

Result 2: The awarded price was higher or lower than the other prices evaluated (meaning, the award price fell out of the awarded range) and was negatively correlated (-0.4611) with the customer's responsiveness to discuss the RFP anytime reasonably requested. This result was interpreted to indicate that the contractor:  

  • Did not meaningfully engage with the customer during the early phases of the acquisition cycle, thus, did not understand the program requirements, budget, or both (see blog 1 for more information about this communications exchange)
  • Engaged with the customer early in the acquisition cycle and felt comfortable reducing the proposed price based on their understanding of the program. 

Key Takeaway: In addition to the above scenarios, the incumbent frequently bids with current program personnel even though the customer's budget may not have increased or decreased. This often means the customer's budget cannot support the experienced, and more expensive, personnel. Understanding the customer’s budget may mean proposing lower salaries and/or replacing some personnel with less experienced individuals or with those who have a reduced rate. I have been involved with a few opportunities where just the opposite occurred; we failed to bid salaries high enough to get the correct personnel needed, which led to the loss of the program.  

Remember: Understanding the customer's program budget is a fundamental goal of the communications plan. 

Additional research findings that impact proposal planning include past performance and the use of personnel or subcontractors with customer relationships.  

Result 3: Reputational performance satisfaction (customers' past performance evaluation score) had no impact on the Award Decision.  

The results of this research indicate that, unfortunately, the actual proposal past performance submission appears to be just a "checklist item" that must still be fully compliant with the RFP. Based on experience, I know this is not always the case. Before the RFP release, every effort should be made to ensure the customer is fully aware of your past performance and capabilities. The Perceived Commitment results supported this approach.

Key Takeaway: Perceived Commitment, when moderated by Communications Interchange, was associated with a positive Award Decision. Perceived Commitment is developed by ensuring the customer is aware of the contractor's past performance and their ability to execute the program before the RFP's release.  

Result 4: Relying on indirect customer relationships through an employee (specifically hired to pursue an opportunity), teaming partner (subcontractor), or Subject Matter Expert (SME) / consultant was not a successful strategy in establishing past performance or demonstrating qualifications to receive an award. Note: this result may be due to the small sample size, as this is a widespread practice among contractors.  

Key Takeaway: This also may indicate that customers rely more on the prime contractors' past performance than the contractor personnel's specific internal past experiences or a subcontractor's past performance when evaluating the team's ability to perform. As shown above, contractors must be compliant with the RFP’s past performance requirements. However, during evaluation, the past performance scores do not appear to contribute to the final Award Decision. Again, this may be due to the small sample size.  

Putting it All Together: How To Use This Research to Develop Better Proposals 

Understanding the answer to the question, “Does the customer/contractor relationship prior to solicitation [RFP] release impact the award decision?” can help shape not only how you approach a response but how you respond in general. By understanding the different levels of trust and commitment, you can position yourself for upcoming contract opportunities before the solicitation release. Developing a communications plan does not need to be a complex endeavor. Ensuring your plan addresses the six factors identified in the last blog can help you be part of what shapes the proposal. The pre-proposal planning takes all the pieces you’ve culled together and integrates them into a written response. Taking the time to speak to the customer, develop a communications plan, and formatting them for the proposal development can set you ahead of your competition.  

Trident Proposal Management hosted a Webinar Q&A session with Dr. Reed. You can watch it here. 

Dr. Mitch Reed, DBA, is a seasoned capture and proposal expert who brings more than 30 years of experience supporting business and proposal development. Dr. Reed recently completed his doctorate dissertation on Assessing the Business-to-Government/Contractor Relationship and the pre-solicitation relationship impact on award decisions. He has condensed his dissertation into a three-part blog series that presents his findings on communications’ impact on contract awards, and how to apply those findings to support proactive, effective communications and pre-proposal planning.  

This blog is part three of a three-part blog series. Read blog one here and blog two hereWe’d like to thank Dr. Reed for his contribution to contracting research and providing us with information to share with the contracting community. If this blog seemed overwhelming, then today is a great opportunity to reach out to the Subject Matter Experts here at Trident Proposal Management. We can help you take the first steps (or recompete steps) in your upcoming proposal.  

Reference: Jans, Kevin and Schauer, Paul. The Contracting Officer Podcast, 298 - Incumbentitis – ENCORE. 2022. Available at: Accessed September 20, 2022.  

Reed, Mitchell Lee, "Assessing B2G Customer/Contractor Relationships Using Social Exchange Theory During the Search and Selection Stage." Dissertation, Georgia State University, 2022. doi:  

Reed, Mitch; Santini, Nelson; and Smith, Kathy (2018). Operational/Mission Impact: Features/Benefits' Third Act. Unpublished. May 2018. 

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