Common Errors Can Kill Your Proposal

There is only one way to win a fair and open competition: provide evidence that you offer the best solution with the least risk at an acceptable price. In contrast, there are many ways to lose.
You can submit an excellent proposal, make the short list, give your presentation, and even submit a “best and final offer” but still come in second. This happens all the time.

There are lots of gentle ways to fail: Your proposal simply didn’t have the quality of the winner; your firm lacked enough experience to justify the increased risk; your management plans, while adequate, were less detailed than those of the winner; during your presentation, your project manager failed to impress the evaluators; or your technical solution simply was not inspiring.

Losing Big Time

There are many ways in which to come in second. But, losing “big time” means you failed to make even the first cut. In other words, your proposal – which consumed great amounts of time, energy, and money – was dismissed early on, well before anyone created the short list.

In some cases, your efforts simply didn’t work – your proposal lacked the “right stuff.” It had such serious deficiencies that the evaluators didn’t get past page two. They knew after reading the summary or the first few pages that you had missed the mark. The evaluators then read the remainder of the proposal to collect enough specific evidence to justify declaring your effort “non compliant” or “unresponsive.”

Sometimes, evaluators read the entire document only to discover that your efforts are spotty. Some parts are excellent; others are vague. This leaves a lingering impression that the writer is expert in some relevant areas and badly lacks competence in others. And once an evaluator questions your competence, you’re out of the running. No evaluator will bet his or her career on a high-risk proposal.

Evaluators do not have to score an entire proposal to declare it unresponsive. They often identify the weakest section and then spend their time making notes as to why they scored it so low. These notes become part of the project file and can be used to defend an evaluation in the event of protest.

Successful firms know that every section of the proposal must be solid. Some RFPs require a minimum score for key sections such as project plans, experience or technical solutions. This ensures that proposals with a serious weakness in only one section cannot win the competition.

In most jurisdictions, evaluators also may dismiss any proposal they believe is inadequate, without producing detailed scoring to reach their conclusion.

In Massachusetts, for example, this authority is identified in the state’s Procurement Policies and Procedures Handbook under Disqualification of Responses. The handbook states: “… a procurement team shall disqualify any response that it deems unresponsive … which shall include responses that fail to meet, address, or comply with material requirements.” The key word in early dismissal of a proposal is “material.” If it’s important, and you treat it inadequately, you’re out!

Fatal Errors

Here are some examples of what most evaluators would consider material deficiencies or significant failures in your overall approach or effectiveness.

  • Failure to propose excellent people: Do not include resumes that contain unrelated information or that do not conform to the stated requirements. Resumes and other “boilerplate” should be rewritten for each proposal. Evaluators who read your proposal should conclude that the people on your project team are experts in the area of the proposal. If the resumes do not support this conclusion, then propose different people.
  • Failure to demonstrate directly-related work: Most RFPs ask for information about your firm’s prior experience and qualifications. This is an opportunity to highlight your work on similar projects. Failure to specifically describe directly-relevant work makes evaluators question your overall competence. If you cannot reference similar work, then you should identify other specific projects and explain why they are relevant.
  • Altering the schedule: Submitting delivery dates which are later than the schedule in the RFP is usually fatal. If you are the only supplier challenging the deadlines, your credibility becomes an issue. Sometimes, proposing alternatives or redefining deliverables is acceptable. But if you cannot meet the RFP deadlines, consider a “no bid.”
  • Missing a key requirement: Not all RFPs are well written and well organized. Often, requirements are distributed throughout the document. Yet missing a key requirement can cause your proposal to be dismissed as “incomplete.” Many organizations create a checklist of all RFP requirements and use it to ensure that their proposal is complete. Including this checklist in your proposal is one way of impressing the evaluators with your thoroughness.
  • Failure to understand the problem: Your proposal must prove that you understand the issues facing the potential customer. Many proposals are too vague. The writer assumes that somehow evaluators will know intuitively what he or she means. Repeating the RFP’s definition of the problem does not demonstrate understanding. Instead, describe your views, insights or experience with this problem. Explain how you’ve helped other organizations with similar needs. Assume that one of your competitors has a deep and thorough understanding of the issues.
  • Failure to connect tasks and deliverables: Show clearly that the project will produce a measurable outcome. Evaluators want to know that you have the techniques, tools, staff and organization to ensure success. They want to know “what,” “when” and “how much.” Your proposal must provide sufficient quantitative information to convince evaluators that your firm can deliver a quality product, on time and within budget. Remember that most IT projects fail! Discussing risks and methods of ensuring quality can differentiate your firm from the competition.

A Unspectacular Win

More often than most suppliers realize, the winning proposal doesn’t have the best product or technical design, nor the best ideas, nor the best management plans. In fact, in many cases, the winning proposal is unspectacular. But, the winning proposal scores among the top three in each evaluation category; therefore, it represents the best overall proposal with the least risk.

Many firms lose not because their products or designs are inferior or deficient. And not because their prices are too high, or because their management skills are poor. They lose because they have submitted a poor proposal – one which fails to convey the quality of their firm and its offerings.

Weak proposals stem from a failure to manage the proposal-writing process as a project. Proposal writing is just as important as product quality and technical skills. If you intend to be casual about the proposal and careless about its writing and contents, then don’t bother preparing it. At least one of your competitors will treat the opportunity seriously. Don’t represent your firm with a weak proposal that produces a poor impression. This often influences evaluators’ views on issuing your firm the next RFP.

It’s ironic that IT organizations – major firms which pride themselves on their project management skills – neglect to organize the proposal effort as a legitimate project. This includes failure to provide the required resources, lack of standards, lack of tools, failure to begin immediately and poor project management. All of these problems lead to running out of time to create a first-rate proposal.

A typical scenario goes like this: Little is done in the first two weeks after receiving the RFP. Activity heats up during the third week and reaches a frenzy five days before the submission deadline. Trying to prepare a proposal in too short a time often produces symptoms of hurry: bad editing, clumsy writing, poor proofreading, inconsistencies and errors.
The bottom line? Start work on the proposal well ahead of the due date and devote the time and staff needed to do it properly. In other words, treat the development of a proposal as a serious project or don’t start at all!