An Interview with Kevin Ball

Every now and again, we feature an interview with one of your clients—people who read and evaluate your proposals—to get their perspective on the proposal process. This time around we interviewed Kevin Ball, P.E., Environmental Services Manager for the Naval Engineering Field Activity, Northwest. Mr. Ball has chaired many qualifications-based selection boards, including A/E, Design/Build and Environmental Restoration.

From your perspective as a proposal evaluator, what is the main reason proposals fail?

The number one reason proposals flop is the proposal writing team (principal, writer(s), and production) is either absent or is dysfunctional. Too many proposals are pumped out by the marketing person, with little involvement by other key players. The principal needs to provide corporate vision and translate that to the specific proposal. Key technical staff must have input; if the marketer does the writing, he or she can only translate the quality and capability, not invent it. Plus, the subs must be fully involved in the process. All the players must focus on the best way to “answer the mail” on all the issues of interest to the client.

How does this “dysfunction” show up in the proposal?

You see disjointed sections, a lack of focus on what you’re proposing, the benefits to the client, and a lack of proposal quality control. Often the proposal lacks a comprehensive “big picture” understanding of the work and/or client.

How can people overcome this?

Well, that’s another thing. The functional team should take the time to have the proposal independently reviewed by someone who doesn’t know the firm, project, or the client; someone who can provide an outside view to tell you if the whole proposal fits together. The proposal should be clear enough that a non-technical reader can tell exactly what you’re trying to get across.

Too many proposers also make the mistake of misjudging the knowledge level of the clients. You have to know how much they know. If you’re proposing on design services for a hospital, you have to realize the hospital board members, i.e. doctors, who read your proposal won’t have the engineering expertise to follow a highly technical proposal. On the other hand, we get proposals from firms who apparently don’t realize that we’re architects and engineers who do understand the technical details. We occasionally get proposals that talk down to us. That’s a turn-off.

Basically, know your readers.

Absolutely. And another thing; don’t substitute assumptions for reality. If you assume the client wants something, but don’t know for sure and haven’t had enough contact from the start to know that, your proposal is in trouble. Or if you assume one of your team members—a sub—will provide key work but you never check that capability, that assumption unravels very, very quickly.

And this shows up in the proposals?

Very clearly. You tend to see a higher instance of rhetoric without substance and claims without support. When you bounce it against the references, the references consistently reflect the shortcomings we interpret from the proposal.

So you do check references.

Yes. Actually, references are more important than ever, and a higher percentage of our time is spent checking references than just two or three years ago. On a large contract we recently awarded, we spent maybe five days checking out prime and sub references, listed and unlisted, on four proposals.

What’s another reason proposals fail?

Too many firms do not read the solicitation for comprehension. We will ask for, say, six or seven competency areas, and the proposer submits four. There is a reason we asked for these things, especially in indefinite quantity contracts. I’m always amazed how many people must think, “Gee, do they really have work in all the areas they’re asking for?” If we didn’t, we wouldn’t ask for it.

So the bottom line is, give the clients what they want.

Sure. And make certain it’s easy to get at. On a standard A/E proposal, if an evaluator cannot read it, understand it, and get what he or she wants from it in twenty minutes, you are in deep, deep trouble. That’s when they are going to look for reasons to toss it, and not keep it. That’s a “human factors” issue.