Oct 232014

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Dr. Earl R. Smith II

Management sometimes misses the obvious. Nowhere is this mistake more serious than when it comes to testing responses to RFPs or bids that are being submitted. A simple but effective addition to the process can radically improve the chances of winning.


The beginnings of a good idea

Recently I sat in on the presentation of a proposal. It was in response to a request for a proposal (RFP) that involved a fairly significant amount of business. The company that was receiving the presentation to had hired me to advise them on a range of strategic issues.

The most striking thing about the experience was that, from one point of view, the founders were very well prepared. Their proposal and oral presentation were polished and contained all the usual sections, their slide show was professional quality, and they spoke with passion and deep knowledge about their company and its products. The materials which they provided were all neatly and professionally packaged.

But early in the meeting it became apparent that the team was not prepared for what they were encountering. Their pitch was clearly more appropriate for a group of fellow technologists. They kept referring to solutions to generic problems and seemed at a loss to respond to specifics as they related to either the business being bid on or the customer offering the contract. They had not taken into consideration the needs and concerns of the company to whom they were presenting.

Worse than that, they did not seem to understand what the RFP was really asking for. The representatives from my client kept interrupting the flow of their pitch with a number of completely normal threshold questions and it went downhill from there – and that was because the presenters were bidding on what they thought the client needed rather than what it has asked for.

None of the members of the presenting team seemed to be aware of just how insulting this behavior was. They were, in effect, saying to a group of people “now, now – what you have asked for is not really the issue. Let us tell you what you really need.” Needless to say, the meeting was over far before it broke up and the company was not even considered for the award.

After the presentation, I asked the head of the client’s team how frequently this kind of thing happens. He shook his head and responded “More often than I would like and far more often than needs be. The tragedy is that it doesn’t have to.” When I asked what he meant he replied “I’m probably the first outsider that they have ever given this presentation to. As a result their pitch comes to me without any real critical review. What is most discouraging is that their entire presentation was not focused on my concerns as a prospective client – nor even on the basic requirements of the RFP. Either they are so dim-witted that they can read and understand our RFP or they do understand it and choose to ignore it.”

“And what they don’t seem to realize is we were looking to get something very specific and were willing to pay well to get it. What these guys did today was not only establish a negative brand with us but with any others that I end up talking to about them. Every proposal that we get from them in the future will be viewed with skepticism and quickly round-filed.”

I immediately understood what he meant. One of the services Longview provides to clients is the establishment of advisory boards designed as a high level, business development engine. I had built such a board for a company that is in the enterprise level software business. One of the company’s proudest achievements was that they had earned a high level of certification for their software development process. This certification was prominently mentioned in all of their promotional materials and on their website.

The senior management team was presenting during the first ever gathering of the board. The advisory board consisted of five very high-level individuals with an average of three to four decades of experience. Most had built businesses or run very large organizations. All of them had risen to the top of their profession. This first meeting was designed to bring the board members up to speed.

The software certification was prominently displayed on one of the earliest slides that the chief operating officer presented. One of the board members interrupted the pitch with a question, “OK, I’m one of your customers. Other than making your software more expensive, what is the value of this certification to me?” It quickly became clear that any answer which the team could offer was focused on the ‘choir’ – those individuals who had already bought in to the value of the certification process. They were not able to provide an answer from a client’s perspective. As a result, they lost the confidence of the board and had to work hard to get it back.

As I related the story my friend nodded and ruefully smiled. “I’m glad to see that this happens to other people. I had taken to thinking that we were the only space that encountered this kind of thing.”

Borrowing from another space

I first came across the idea of red-teaming years and years ago when I was working in the government contracting space. It is now widely used in the commercial sector. Here’s how it works:

A proposal team will submit the results of its efforts to a panel of outside experts well prior to a submission to the client. The process is designed to make sure 1) that the proposal correctly addresses the RFP; 2) that the solutions offered are ones that would likely be accepted by the client; 3) that the proposal is credible; 4) that the costing of the proposal has been done correctly and does not contain any extraneous expenditures and 5) that the team can present and defend the proposal in a highly professional and effective manner.

This process is now standard procedure – in fact, widely considered an essential part of best practices – in both the government contracting and commercial space. The danger of not following these best practices is severe. I know companies which, in the re-bidding process, failed to adequately challenge the proposal team and lost major contracts that they should have won.

When your people prepare a proposal they and you run the considerable risk of becoming so close to the trees that you grow less and less capable of assessing the forest. A professional, independent review of your funding request, well before you present it to the client, could make the difference between being winning the business or wasting a lot of time – yours and the client’s.

A key factor in a truly successful red-teaming effort is that the red-team be truly independent of management and the company. By that I mean that none of the members of the red-team should have any significant relationships with members of the senior team – are not beholding to them in any way. A second factor is that red-team members need to be very experienced with the client and the focus of the RFP. If members are to really going to be able to contribute to the process, they need to be able to judge with some certainty the true needs and intent of the client and the requirements of the RFP.

Red teaming can be applied with considerable benefit to testing and refining all proposals. This process can assure that it meets the needs; adequately addresses the concerns; is clearly and professionally delivered and definitively answers the threshold questions that the client is likely to have.

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