Do you know what your customer fears?

Every government employee worries about something, and if you know how to read the solicitation, they might tell you exactly what they fear the most.

Any government employee who is involved in an acquisition worries.

Particularly the program people. They’re often picking a contractor who will support them for the next five years or so, and their professional reputation will be driven by how well the contractor they pick supports them. If they get a contractor that doesn’t perform well, the program they are responsible for may falter, and they will get the blame for it.

The contracting officer worries, too. His professional reputation is driven by his reputation for awarding trouble-free contracts with contractors who perform well. He worries that his contract won’t be a successful one.

So, how can you find out what, specifically the customer is worrying about?

Interestingly, they often tell you—in the solicitation.

For example, not every solicitation asks you to talk about how you will recruit and staff the contract. Occasionally, one does. You should interpret that to mean that at some point in the past, your customer has had a problem with a contractor who wasn’t able to staff up rapidly with high quality people. He’s telling you one of the things he’s worrying about.

Or he may be telling you that he really likes the incumbent employees, and when the incumbent contractor’s vehicle ends, he wants the new contractor to commit to hiring those incumbent employees.

If the solicitation gives you a lengthy statement of work, and asks you to talk about your technical approach to the entire work statement—and gives you three pages of proposal page real estate, he might not be really worried about that aspect of contract performance. He might be thinking that no matter what company gets the award, the winner will go to the same labor pool and pick the same people and perform pretty much the same. That’s not where he’s worrying about problems.

The customer pretty much has to ask about past performance, but if he gives you a minimal requirement, and a minimal page count, he might not believe that past performance will be enough of a discriminator to justify his spending a lot of his time evaluating it.

On the other hand, if he gives you a lengthy and very specific past performance requirement that the incumbent can meet, he may be telling you that he wants someone who looks very much like the incumbent to get the award.

If there is a significant change in the structure of the acquisition that may be telling you something that the customer is worrying about.

For example, if there is a change in the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) code used to describe the work, it may be telling. Since NAICS codes drive the definition of the size standard of eligible small businesses, the NAICS code may be telling. If the new NAICS code is larger it means that the type of work required has change to an extent where the predominant effort is better described by the new NAICS code. It may coincidentally be that the incumbent has grown to a point where he can no longer qualify under the original NAICS code, but can qualify under the new code.

The opposite may also be true: the structure of the procurement which the incumbent could previously qualify for, and can in fact still qualify for has been changed to something that the incumbent cannot qualify for.  Of course there need to be valid reasons for the change, but it may also mean that the customer does not want the incumbent back.

A long, long time ago, it used to be common knowledge in the industry that writing a proposal took a month or more.  With the growth of entrepreneurial spirit among contracting officers writing solicitations for indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (ID/IQ) contracts, and each trying to make his contract vehicle more attractive that the next contracting officer’s ID/IQ, some of them started promising that they could award a task order faster than their competition.  A key step in delivering on this promise was shortening the time they allowed contractors to develop a task order proposal.  Instead of a month, it became a half a month, then a week, and maybe only two or three days.

When everybody knew that it took a month to write a proposal, and a solicitation asked for one in less, it was often the customer communicating to potential bidders that he was worried that he wouldn’t get a winner who looked a lot like the incumbent.

Now, when you see an exceptionally short time period allowed in which to develop the proposal, it can still mean that somebody is worrying about something, but it’s not a definitive as it once was.  It could just mean that the contracting officer has grown up in the era since everybody knew that it took a month, and he doesn’t think there is anything exceptional about a short proposal time period.

Back in olden times, too, it used to be fairly common for a contracting officer to release a request for proposals right before Christmas.  Then he could go home, put his feet up, and enjoy the Christmas-New Year’s period, while contractors were torn between working as hard as possible to develop a superior proposal or enjoying the holidays. 

Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very much anymore.  Contracting officers are much more likely to finish their solicitation before Christmas, and put it on the shelf until the day after New Year’s.

Don’t share your worries with the customer.  If you’ve got a great section on how wonderfully smoothly you run the transition from the outgoing contractor, that you wrote once because there had been a problem with a transition, and you’re tempted to throw it in, don’t.  If it wasn’t in the evaluation criteria, the evaluators can’t give you credit for it.  They can, however, start worrying that you may have problems.

Your customers always worry when they publish a new solicitation.  Their worries may be different than yours, but they worry just the same. 

If you look closely, they’ll tell you what they’re worrying about.