COMMENTARY

Magic isn't the secret to writing winning proposals

Compliance is key and accuracy rules

The often lengthy and detailed process involved with developing winning proposals for new government opportunities can sometimes seem almost mythical.

You decode a requirements document that is hundreds of pages long and identify a combination of recommendations from limited or conflicting information, past performance experience which doesn’t necessarily match the current opportunity exactly, and somehow propose a price you will have to live with for five years or more.

Don’t be fooled, winning proposals are created, and do not simply materialize from some magical force. It’s not magic, but a disciplined process.

By adhering to key principles and steps, such as: careful planning, time management, attention to detail, and assembling a team of experts, your organization can create your own recipe for success.

The bottom-line is that, while writing cost proposals requires following a basic formula, it is critical to develop a multi-level, detailed plan to include all data points and requests to ensure a timely turnaround and delivery. Following a process ensures your proposal is compliant (meets all of the government requirements) and accurate (no mathematical, grammatical, or presentation errors). Failure to be either compliant or accurate is a sure way to lose -- regardless of how great your solution is.

Here are some ‘pro tips’ from our experts to take the guesswork out of your cost proposal development process:

Arm Yourself with Tools for Success- Key Processes for a Winning Approach

From the get-go, it is essential to begin a proposal response approach that will result in a consistent, repeatable new business approach that wins time and again.

In a RFP review, for example:

  • Always be sure you read the full document up-front and ensure you have all of the relevant information required to respond accurately and comprehensively.
  • Document key questions right away, as well as identify areas where you’ll need more detail. Also, remember that the best time to meet the client, gather information, develop your team, and plan the proposal response is before the RFP is ever released.
  • Assemble your team and develop your production schedule that highlights key milestones and backs into known due dates. At this stage of the game, it is critical to involve your pricing team right out of the gate and before the RFP drops (at the capture process). This is a critical step because of the potential impacts your teammates and sub-contractors can exert on your cost decisions.
  • Always create a Compliance Matrix. The best proposal is often eliminated from consideration all because of a minor compliance error. To avoid this happening to you, put together a matrix to organize all steps, responsibilities, activities, deliverables, and team members so you can keep your eyes on the prize (that finished response!) and track progress at-a-glance while keeping communication lines open. The matrix should list everything the RFP requires so nothing is missed, and it also makes it easy for reviewers to check off the boxes to ensure you hit all necessary points.
  • Determine the Cost Schedule right away. This includes an assessment of indirect rates, using a model to calculate inputs and additional costs beyond RFP requirements, calculate your wrap rate, and analyze basis and pools, as well as ceiling impacts.

Tricks of the Trade - The Secret Sauce

  • Get Started Early. Particularly with cost decisions, time is a critical factor to be sure your data is accurate. Building in the over-communication and transparency among your team members is important to finishing the response in a timely manner, but also to allow for early intervention and mitigation of any roadblocks that may arise.
  • Develop a production framework and strategy early, and use it often. Implement a phased, targeted structure to your cost meetings during a response development process. Doing so early on makes it much easier to adjust for changes in requirements or information as they come up as you already have your framework established.
  • Master Excel. Consolidate data entry onto single tabs for easy management and recall, use color coded values as opposed to formulas where possible, check formatting, data validation, and perform independent quality checks on your model as you go to ensure everything is on track.
  • Manage your Sub-Contractors Effectively. Create templates for key deliverables and document responses to distribute to subcontractors, helping to ensure a consistent work product - and less editing, formatting, and merging later on - while establishing a structure of regular communication and status updates throughout each project stage.
  • Own the Narrative. Refer back to your compliance matrix regularly, create an outline based on the RFP, and create your narrative early in the process so it can grow and evolve as the process unfolds. The narrative is where you sell your price and clarify all bases of estimates.
  • Determine Labor Rates and Support Your Proposed Cost Elements. Typically, the distributor of the RFP will tell you what they are looking for. You’ll need to know early on what exactly you’ll be proposing to address this need. To do this, you’ll need to gather as much data as you can up-front and map requirements from the RFP against company, prime, and labor categories.

Remember- especially in the government sector, you are not just making a case about what is needed to address an identified objective, you are also selling what the associated costs will be.

Having a strong and competitive cost strategy for each of your cost estimates (staffing, direct labor, subcontractors, other direct costs, indirect rates, and fee/profit) is key to increasing win likelihood.

Doing this right, with compelling support, will ensure you are able to successfully defend your case in your response and demonstrate that your proposed solution - and the associated costs - are realistic and reasonable.

How To Develop a Tight Production Machine

At the top of the list is to always plan ahead! The enemy of timely production and accurate completion of tasks is rushing to the finish. It’s a good idea to dedicate at least three days for review - whether in soft copy or printed.

It is also a good idea to conduct your pricing reviews ahead of the last minute to allow for time to correct quality control issues, formatting (which is a compliance issue), and others. Allow five days here in your production schedule, ideally.

Other tips? Color code everything on your spreadsheet documents- this allows you to keep things organized, but also to know on the cost side which sheets are to be printed and submitted, and which stay with you.

Leverage all of the power of your team here as well; they are often your best proofers!

The Bottom-Line

Overall, the secret to a winning proposal process and cost structure is not a mystery. Proposals take time and effort - maximize both by ensuring you plan early, assemble a strong team, develop a compliance matrix, create a tight production schedule, use your narrative to sell your approach, and make sure you provide a compelling cost story. Remember - compliance and accuracy are key.

Adhering to these principles will ensure your cost proposal isn’t just a mix of ingredients. Instead, it is a well-formed recipe which produces a very tempting choice for the government.

About the Author

Matthew McKelvey is the president of the McKelvey Group, a financial consulting firm in Gaithersburg, Md.

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