I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Stacey Coolican, CEO of Coolican Consulting, to talk about the topics Bob Lohfeld and I wrote about in our book, 10 steps to creating high-scoring proposals. As a former Senior Contracting Officer with an unlimited warrant and over 20 years’ DoD experience including supporting Acquisition Category I (ACAT I) major weapons system programs, Stacey offers tremendous practical experience with accompanying insights that add another perspective to the suggestions Bob and I share in the book (excerpts below).
Bob Lohfeld and I developed the 10 steps to creating high-scoring proposals presentation and book to share our modern perspective on proposal management and what matters within the proposal process. We walk through the source selection decision-making process and what the government evaluators and the final decision-maker look for as they review your proposals. We cover our strength-based solutioning process and the difference between features and benefits—and how to really make your proposal stand out—and then we walk through 10 actions that raise the competitiveness of your proposals and result consistently in high-scoring proposals.
Here’s a recap of the “strength-based” conversation we had along with Stacey’s CO-based commentary.
Not only do you need to know what you are doing, you need to know what your competition is doing. You need to capture what sets you apart and why you are better than your competition.
Question: Stacey, let me give you some background on what we mean by the following statement and then get your insights on our six-part definition of “strengths.”
We tell our proposal team that our goal is to create a proposal that outscores our competition and has no weaknesses, deficiencies, or risks. Our proposal has to be rich in features that can be scored as strengths in order to carry the day (of course, we’re not discussing LPTA types of procurements). We explain the four sentences in the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) that tell you explicitly how the government is going to evaluate proposals (FAR 15.305):
- Proposal evaluation is an assessment of the proposal and the offeror’s ability to perform the prospective contract successfully.
- An agency shall evaluate competitive proposals and then assess their relative qualities solely on the factors and subfactors specified in the solicitation.
- Evaluations may be conducted using any rating method or combination of methods, including color or adjectival ratings, numerical weights, and ordinal rankings.
- The relative strengths, deficiencies, significant weaknesses, and risks supporting proposal evaluation shall be documented in the contract file.
For purposes of this discussion, I’m focusing on sentence 4 and sharing our definitions of strengths, deficiencies, weaknesses, and risks developed from multiple agency source selection guides, including the March 2016 DoD Source Selection Procedure (“Proposal indicates an exceptional approach and understanding of the requirements and contains multiple strengths”), FAR supplements, and the best source of information about defining strengths—GAO through its writings and decisions in protest cases.
As a company, we’ve gone through this body of knowledge and created for ourselves a practical six-part definition of what constitutes a strength—all based on the statement that a strength is a feature of your proposal where the benefit does xyz.
- The first definition is that it’s a feature of your proposal where the benefit of that feature is that you can exceed a contract requirement in a way that is beneficial to the customer.
Just offering to do the work specified in the contract is like striving to be a C student in college. If you want to be a high-scoring offeror, you have to find ways where you can exceed a contract requirement in a way that is beneficial to the customer (for example answering call center calls in 30 seconds when the RFP calls for 60 seconds). Failing to do that leaves you very weak in this concept of evaluation strengths.
So, the first thing we look for in solutioning—is there something in our solution or can we put something in our solution that will exceed the contract requirement in a way that is beneficial to the customer?
I like the analogy of the student striving to get a “C.” Just meeting the minimum requirements may get you the “technically acceptable”, but what sets you apart from everyone else is the key. The benefit may or may not be something the Government is even aware of. Be cautioned, however, that just because you perceive it as a benefit, it may not be a benefit to the Government or it may not be something they are willing to pay extra for. For example, I was talking to a client the other day that was working on a small competitive proposal. He was aware the incumbent has two people doing the job and was excited to tell the Government he could provide three people and still cost less. What he didn’t realize is that proposing three people could actually be a weakness. The Government may not have the space for a third person. They may not want to invest the additional money for an extra Common Access Card (CAC). They may perceive having three people as hiring all junior people where the incumbent had seasoned, experienced staff (that they are happy with). It is about perspective, as well as knowing and understanding your customer.
- The second definition is that it’s a feature in our offer that increases the likelihood of successful contract performance or significantly increases the likelihood of successful contract performance.
Contract performance is technical, schedule, cost, quality, reliability, service to the citizen—whatever these measures of performance are going to be—and we take each measure and address it in a thought exercise to say, “What can we put in our offer that increases the likelihood of successful technical performance?”
Typical things that increase the likelihood of successful contract performance include a proven methodology or process, a tool, a management team that’s done it before, capital facilities available to support this project without needing to build new ones, etc. All of these arguments can be woven into a proposal to provide evidence that you have a high likelihood of successfully accomplishing the contract’s technical, cost, schedule, quality, reliability, service to the citizen, etc. objectives. They’re those features that can be scored as strengths.
Know what the Government wants and needs better than they do. Be able to convince them it is worth the premium – or better yet, be able to add the capability at no cost. Now that can be a discriminator.
Exactly! One of the concepts I tell my clients, is to not only point out their experience in the past performance write up, but to let the Government know (if appropriate) that the same key players will be on the proposed effort. Receiving exceptional CPARS is always a good thing, but a better thing is to say, our company has done this very successfully in the past and, oh by the way, these people are being proposed for the new effort. It doesn’t matter as much if you have done it in the past, if everyone has left and you no longer have that corporate experience – as it would to be able to say the same staff that did the exceptional job before will be working on this effort, too. Being able to tie the people with the experience can be a distinguisher and lower risk.
- If we take this same concept and now use the Nexus Argument to broaden out the evaluation factors, we can say that a strength is a feature in our offer that increases [significantly] the likelihood of successful mission accomplishment (agency mission, safety, lethality, etc.).
Let’s look at the agency mission. For example, is there something in a DoD space that increases the lethality of a weapon system, even though that’s not specified in the RFP or increases the survivability of troops deployed in the field or systems deployed in a military conflict.
Are there features in our proposal that increase the likelihood of successful mission accomplishment? If there are, they can be evaluated as strengths.
Industry knows what is in the realm of possibility much better than the Government does, most of the time. The acquisition process can take so long that, sometimes, what the Government thinks they want, can be obsolete before they even award the contract. Being able to propose the latest and greatest widget/process to the Government can set you apart from your competition. Know what the Government wants and needs better than they do. Be able to convince them it is worth the premium – or better yet, be able to add the capability at no cost. Now that can be a discriminator.
- Because all the strengths ultimately get traded off against the cost or the price, we ask ourselves, “Is there a feature in our offer that the customer would pay extra to receive?” because in the end all these strengths are going to be traded off against the bidder’s cost.
To award to other than the lowest priced offer, the selecting official must do that tradeoff and decide that a particular feature or set of features is worth an extra $x million in making that award decision. Are these features in our offer of value to the customer?
In best value procurements, the government can use three different definitions of what constitutes best value. These are:
- You’re top of the competition in terms of quality and have the lowest price so your proposal with the top technical score and lowest price constitutes best value to the government, or
- You have the lowest price and all competitors being equal in quality, e.g., the government received proposals from six companies; all offered to do the requested work; all had many great features in their proposals; but your company gave the lowest price so you win. In this definition, lowest price is best value to the government, or
- The government wants to award to other than the lowest priced offer because that company offers features in its proposal that are so valuable to the government that they would pay extra for this set of features—justified by strengths in this proposal. To be strengths, the offered features need to be tangible to the customer and something that they’d pay extra to receive. In this case, an award to other than the lowest priced offer is best value to the government.
Again, taking what we talked about in the first two definitions – make sure the enhancement you perceive as value is a value to the Government. The DoD is also starting to use the concept of a Value Adjusted Total Evaluated Price (VATEP) found in Appendix B of the DoD Source Selection Procedures (https://www.acq.osd.mil/dpap/policy/policyvault/USA004370-14-DPAP.pdf). What this does is let you know what the Government is willing to pay for above threshold performance. It takes some of the subjectivity out of the Government decision making, helps industry understand what is important to the Government and how much they would be willing to pay for the increased capabilities. This concept is win-win because the Government gets proposals with the enhancements they had in mind and industry doesn’t have to read the Government’s mind.
- Because risk and weakness are linked together, we can look at features that mitigate mission or contract risk, and those features can be scored as strengths.
If you’re mitigating mission or contract risk, you are thereby increasing the likelihood of successful contract performance. We can approach this from a risk mitigation point of view and look for features in our offer and present them in such a way that they could be scored as evaluation strengths. We often take every feature that we think will increase risk mitigation and cast them as strengths and vice versa.
Risk is a big deal. The more you can mitigate it, they better the Government feels. The Government will have more risk tolerance in an SBIR/STTR than they will in prototype development. You can sometimes tell the risk they are willing to tolerate by the contract type. Firm Fixed Price puts the risk on the contractor. Cost Plus puts the risk on the Government. Make sure you know and understand the differences.
- Finally, the sixth criteria for us is that the strengths we propose should not be neutralized by other bidders, e.g., if they are not neutralized, then these strengths become a discriminator for your bid.
It works like this. If we proudly say in a proposal that we are CMMI Level 3, the government at first pass through the proposal will say, “That’s a good feature. It increases the likelihood of successful contract performance. We’ll score that as a strength.”
Then they read the second proposal, and the second offeror is proudly CMMI Level 3, and the third, and so on. When the evaluators finish reviewing all the proposals, they look at them and say, “We’ve scored everyone a strength for being CMMI Level 3. We should reconsider our scores. Being CMMI Level 3 is not really a strength. That’s just the state of the practice.”
Accordingly, this apparent strength that the first bidder had is neutralized because all the other bidders say the same thing. To become a discriminator in the final evaluation, the strengths that we propose must not be neutralized by another bidder.
Remember—when developing your own proposal, you need to include what you consider to be strengths, even if you know the competition will include similar strengths to neutralize yours
Of course, the converse is truth—we can keep another bidder from having strengths by neutralizing their features that might have been scored as strengths. When we do competitive assessments, we look deeply at how the competitor is going to propose—what’s going to be in their solution—and then ask ourselves what we need to do to neutralize what the competitor is doing in their bid to the extent we can anticipate it. In the final analysis, it’s what sets you apart from the competition that wins the day. We’re going at the competition one on one to match up strengths to neutralize everything we can about the competitions’ proposals.
This is a concept most companies miss. Just as you say, they put things in their proposal they think will set them apart, not realizing everyone has the same ideas/credentials. A good analogy is the high school student at a small school that has excellent grades, many extracurricular activities and is a star athlete, does exceptional on the SATs, and is disappointed when he does not get into his Ivy League dream school. He doesn’t understand that all the kids applying to that school are just like him. He may be a stand out in his community, but he is average against his competition. Make sure you know what will set you apart.
These six criteria form the body of the definition for what constitutes a strength, and it’s a very narrow definition. When we run this definition against proposals, we find lots of features in proposals that companies are terribly proud of, but those features have no merit when it comes to making the final selections.
We had one company tell us, “We have a company cafeteria here, and that’s a discriminator.” That’s not a discriminator because it has nothing to do with increasing the likelihood of successful contract performance. It doesn’t increase mission accomplishment for the customer. Is the customer going to pay extra because you have a company cafeteria? Hardly!
By going through this test and using this definition, you can set aside many features in your proposal that take up space, but in the end, have no merit and no bearing on the outcome.
Remember—when developing your own proposal, you need to include what you consider to be strengths, even if you know the competition will include similar strengths to neutralize yours—otherwise your evaluation may come back showing weaknesses because of their omission from your proposal.
We use this very narrow six-part definition when we work on proposals to confirm, “This is what is meaningful. This is what goes forward in the evaluation.”
Focus on building “strengths” into your proposal early in the capture process. Test them with your client. See if they’re valid, and build on them; if they’re not, go back to the drawing board in developing your solution to incorporate as many strengths as possible.
This is why it is so important to know your customer and get involved early. Help inform the requirements by knowing and talking to your customer. Take advantage of industry days and network at professional events. Waiting until something is posted on FBO is almost always too late to start. Not only do you need to know what you are doing, you need to know what your competition is doing. You need to capture what sets you apart and why you are better than your competition.[su_note note_color=”#78a4dc”]Stacey Coolican is a seasoned Department of Defense career Contracting Officer (unlimited warrant), service-disabled Veteran, and member of the Acquisition Corps. During a distinguished 20-plus-year civil service career, Stacey served as a contract specialist and Contracting Officer for several agencies within the Department of Defense and is now the CEO of Coolican Consulting, LLC. She earned a Master’s Degree in Acquisition Management from the American Graduate University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Networking from Strayer University (Summa Cum Laude). Stacey also holds two Master’s Certificates and two Associates Degrees from various universities. She is a DAWIA Level III certified acquisition professional in Contracting, Level I certified in Program Management, a Certified Professional Contracts Manager (CPCM), the training co-chair for the National Veterans Small Business Coalition (NVSBC), and a previous 3-term board member for the National Contract Management Association (NCMA) Old Dominion Chapter.[/su_note]