Read between the lines to know what your customer is thinking

What your customer is thinking might seem to be a mystery, but often the answers are right there in front of you.

Wouldn’t it be cool if, when we sat down to write a proposal, we could know what the customer is worrying about—what he really wants to see in our proposal that will enable him to quit worrying and just choose us for the contract award.

Interestingly enough, if it’s a government customer, we often can know what he’s worrying about, because he tells us. 

Government customers tell us how they’re going to evaluate our proposals.  They tell us what factors they’re going to look at, and how important those individual factors and sub factors are going to be. 

They may say, for example, that there is a management factor, a corporate experience factor, a technical approach factor and a cost factor.  They may say that the management factor is more important than the other two non-cost factors and the corporate experience and technical approach factors are approximately equal.

If he doesn’t tell you this way, sometimes the customer will tell you by giving you page constraints on the factors.

If he says he wants a section on management, he’s telling you that he’s had a bad experience with a contractor who couldn’t manage.  That much is pretty obvious, but don’t forget to look at what’s not on the list.  There is, for example, no mention of the contractor’s ability to recruit and retain high quality staff.

What does that tell you?  One interpretation might go like this: In the recent past, the customer (or somebody he knows) has had a bad experience in which he made the award to a company that wasn’t able to manage the effort to his satisfaction.  The company he awarded to may have been a whiz at recruiting and retaining outstanding people, and in fact, did so well that the customer never considered the possibility that this was a risk worth thing thinking about on the recompete. 

He’s telling you that if you want to win, one requirement is a powerhouse section on management.

If you’ve got a powerhouse section on recruiting and retention, one so strong that it got a specific mention in the debrief on the contract you recently won, does this mean that you can’t use it?

Not at all; if you’ve got it, use it, particularly if there’s a competitor who isn’t very good at recruiting and retention that you’re trying to “ghost.” 

Just remember that a powerhouse section on recruiting and retention isn’t going to overwhelm a weak management section. 

If the evaluator has 60 points to award for the management section, and he gives you 40, it doesn’t mean that he can turn around and make up the difference by adding 20 points into your score for your wonderful recruiting and retention concept.  If he did that (and if he got caught at it), he would be inviting a protest—and with good reason, because your competitor could argue that, had he known that recruiting and retention was going to be evaluated, he could have included his prodigious words on that subject, and been better than you.

Particularly in this era of page constraints, where the contracting officer limits you to a specified number of pages, every page that you add about subjects that weren’t asked for are pages taken away from the specific topics that the CO did ask for.  Your competition has more pages to talk to the things that the customer really cares about (and has told you he cares about).

Cost is almost always said to be the least important factor, and you may wonder if that is true.  It probably is; read the fine print.

These solicitations almost always tell you that cost is the least important factor but as non-cost factors come closer together, the importance of cost goes up.  That means this: if our hypothetical solicitation has three companies bidding on it, at the end of the day the comparative prices of the non-cost factors for the three are 68, 70 and 72, cost becomes the decisive factor.  The customer isn’t going to pay a penny more to get two additional evaluation points.  Differences this small are statistically insignificant.  The non-cost scores might as well be equal.

But if there are significant differences in the scores for the non-cost factors, cost may become insignificant. Considering the following outcome to our hypothetical evaluation:

eval chart

Vendor A had the highest non-price and the highest non-price score.  Vendor B had a slightly lower price, and a slightly lower score on the non-price factors.  Would the customer pay the extra million dollars to get the slightly better non-price factors?  It’s a judgement call, but probably not.  If you look at it in isolation, you might conclude that it all came down to price, but it wouldn’t be an outrageous action.

If you consider vendor C in the equation, you can see that he had the lowest price.  Would the customer just go for the low price and pick him for that reason?  Again, it’s a judgement call, but probably not.  It (usually) really isn’t all about price!

If you read the solicitation closely, including reading between the lines, the customer will tell you a lot about what he’s worrying about.  If you can submit a proposal that responds well enough to those concerns, you can overwhelm the more generic proposals that our competitors submit. 

And sometimes, even overcome the “price is everything” syndrome.