Bill Scheessele


Is your company in a graveyard spiral?

OK. You just spotted a soliciation on the Federal Business Opportunities (FBO) website that is a perfect match for your government contracting business. It’s exactly the kind of work you do and unquestionably the type of expertise and experience your company possesses.

So you need to immediately gather the troops and get everyone started on writing the proposal.  A no-brainer right?  Wrong. Before you do anything, you need to answer these questions. Do you really know this customer and truly understand the issues behind the proposal?  And even more importantly; does this customer know you? If not, you may be in serious trouble.

What Do We Mean By a Graveyard Spiral?

If this is your typical approach to procuring government contracts, you are in what the aviator’s world calls a graveyard spiral. It’s when pilots, inexperienced in instrument landing, get into trouble in hazy conditions or at night when they’re unable to see the horizon. They believe they are flying straight when they’re actually entering a turn.

Since a plane loses altitude in a turn, the pilots’ instinct is to pull back on the stick to climb, but that just makes the turn tighter and increases the loss of altitude. The pilot becomes disoriented, G-forces take over and the plane is in a deadly spiral headed for the ground.

Why You Might be in a Classic Downward Spiral

Just like the pilots, you may be expending tremendous effort and getting nowhere – fast.  You respond to multiple proposals and your team is working harder than ever.  And for what?  You’re outlaying more time, money and resources to develop superbly written, graphically rich, and world class responses.  You feel enormously productive and satisfied that you’re doing everything you can possibly do to procure the business.

But your hit rate is only 10 percent.

Where’s the payback for all that effort?  And more importantly, can your organization survive this downward trend? And what about you?  As a business development leader can you survive this downward cycle?  You may be hitting your goal on the number of proposals you submit; but you’re failing at the real purpose of your job…a successful business development win rate.

So What are You Missing Here?

Your prerequisite qualifications are stellar for this procurement.  You have the precise background the government is looking for.  Unfortunately, your expertise and experience alone are the least effective drivers of your contracting success.  You have a lot of competitors out there that may just have the same levels of experience and expertise as you. What is your competitive advantage over these other firms?  People often think it’s price, but that rarely holds true.

There is something else at work here and savvy business development leaders recognize it.  If your company has not been involved in shaping the solicitation, you can be sure one or more of your competitors has been.  They have the inside track as to what the client is really looking for.  You are just guessing.

You Have a Loss of Control

Just as our pilots lost control of their plane, you have lost control of the business development process.  If you’re not controlling the process, the process is controlling you. Responding to open bid RFPs simply because you fit the job description is frankly pulling you into the government’s process. You have no way to influence or manage the process and no leverage over the outcome.  Your future is simply out of your hands.  You’re at the mercy of the source selection process.

You Need to get into the Driver’s Seat

Basically, you want to be driving the acquisition bus, not running along behind it.  And there are some simple, yet potent strategies you can use to avoid the graveyard spiral and gain control of the acquisition process.  These strategies fall into three basic categories:

  • Intelligence gathering
  • Relationship building
  • Competitive advantage

Gathering Vital Intelligence

You and your team need to be in the field often uncovering intelligence about what agencies and government entities are planning and what projects are in the pipeline.  You need to know these things before the RFP is even written.  The government telegraphs acquisitions long before releasing RFPs. That is why you have to really know your customers.  You need to watch for changes to the organization and mission, and any new challenges your customers are facing.

You should closely monitor publications that cover your customers and notifications that advertise for “sources sought solicitations”, and “Draft RFP Releases”.  Also, a canceled procurement may signify that a “new RFP” is being considered and you may have the opportunity to get involved in the development. Gathering validated intelligence requires making the right contacts, asking the right questions, and using the right resources.  It requires individuals with advanced communications skills and the ability to generate trust.

Building Key Relationships

The age-old adage that people buy from people is no less at play in the Federal contracting arena than anywhere else. But in this limited access environment, it may be difficult to connect with key clients.   You may have to employ some novel approaches to build client relationships.  You might be able to contact the contracting officer or competitive advocate with alternative solutions that may result in more innovation and competitive pricing. You could provide them case studies that highlight the success of your specific solution with other agencies. If federal employees get to know you, and more importantly, trust you and your firm, they will be that much more inclined to turn to you when the need arises.

Gaining Competitive Advantage

Your greatest advantage will be to get in on the game early and truly understand customers’ issues.  This will take both intelligence gathering and relationship building so that you are well in the loop prior to the RFP release.  If feasible, offer to do a needs analysis that will provide the customer additional insights into the requirement.  If given this opportunity, you will need to assure the client that the results of the analysis will be available to all competitors and not just proprietary to your company.

Transparency and trust are the key watchwords here if you want to bring true value to the customer.  Offer to provide input into the RFP and gain a deeper understanding of the real impetus behind the request.  If you don’t understand the complete requirement, don’t be afraid to ask.  You’ll be amazed at the leverage and good will you can achieve with these kinds of BD actions. 

Changing Your Course

Following this proactive BD approach can dramatically change your downward direction and get your company climbing upward.  Knowing when to say no to an RFP and when and how to submit a proposal are probably the two most important decisions a BD manager can make.

Make sure you’re not flying blind.  If you’re losing altitude and flying off course, you just may be in a death spiral.  Check your compass and get back in control!

About the Author

Bill Scheessele is the CEO of MBDi, a global business development services firm providing expertise in Business Development best practices in the national security, defense, scientific, energy and engineering industries. The firm offers BD consulting services in addition to education workshops to help BD professionals and teams identify hidden strengths, barriers to progress and opportunities for improvement. Learn more about MBDi, their revenue growth resources and their new virtual training options at or 704.553.0000.

Reader Comments

Thu, Apr 30, 2015

Smartprocure is a joke. You add no value to any data at all. Pure GIGO. You get data, not intelligence.

Thu, Apr 30, 2015

"Offer[ing] to provide input into the RFP," as recommended by the author, is the kiss of death. Where has the author been? In the current environment, that might be construed as a felony by someone observing the pre-RFP process. Federal employees are understandably trained not to accept such "help" from contractors. And offering a "White Paper" as opposed to something labeled as a cut of the Statement of Work provides no safety. Yes, of course, it would be good to develop the substantive respect to influence an RFP in a way that advantages one's company, if that is the goal, but this advice in this column, including the offer a "needs analysis" may strike some contracting experts as inadvisable. The fear would be that a contractor found to be doing those things might be disqualified.

Thu, Apr 30, 2015 VA

Even if a customer knows and likes you and/or your company, they may not be a decision-maker/evaluator on a given proposal. Also, many COs ban themselves, CORs, and program office reps (those with the actual need to be addressed by proposals) from speaking/meeting with industry, even when there is no "live" RFP or RFI. OFPP touts it has busted that myth but alas, it isn't so. Can industry whistle-blow on COs that don't follow the fAR? Also, I am unfamiliar with "competitive advocates" in agencies, other than small business advocates. Where to competitive advocates sit within agencies and do they go by other titles?

Wed, Apr 29, 2015

Unless you already have a special relationship with a client, not to mention know him at all, and, you dare get past the contracting officer, the odds that the customer will accept your offer for a free "needs analysis" are between 0.001 and 0.000. And, many successful contractors (i.e., with admirable hit rates) would dare say that the offer of a needs analysis will be received as an insult. Such an offer suggests the customer has not done his homework or does not know what s/he is doing. Mr. Scheesele rarely uses the word marketing. If one spends 80 percent of the total BD budget on getting to know customers and taking steps that they will know you and think of you, is the way to go. You should not spend more than 20 percent of your BD budget on proposals. One fears that even a thoughtful exposition as Mr. Cheesele's column surely is will make the strategy and the activity of BD needlessly complicated and off-putting. Market first, and use its results to sift through the smallest number of proposals that can be written with the highest probability.

Wed, Apr 29, 2015 Theresa Gallo Florida

Well written. Important invaluable information here. Where do the vendors go for this intelligence? One place has it all and more.

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