Why Your Proposals Don’t Win

This is one of the most common questions in our industry. The funny thing is most people and organizations want to create all sorts of complex dynamics, conspiracy theories, dreams, fables, and excuses as to why their proposals fail to win and why their win rates and capture ratios are so low. I have now been doing proposals, capture, and business development work in the Federal space for 39 years. The reasons for having a really poor win rate have not changed in that time because humans have changed very little in that time. So, if you want to stop making excuses and get on the right path to winning, I have a few easy suggestions for you to change the dynamic.

1. Stop making excuses. This is the toughest challenge for any organization. You have to admit you have a proposal problem and that you need a definitive approach to improvement that relies on reason and logic vs. superstition and witchcraft. One thing to avoid here is the adoption of proposal fads. They are like fashion fads, good for a moment, then gone quickly. Your program has to have a mission, concrete goals, and a plan. Your plan must consist of these parts: Process—or as I like to say, culture change; people—got to have the right technicians; leadership—problems often start at the top with denial.

2. Know the customer. Your customers and potential customers have to be more interesting to you than you are to yourself. Learn everything about them you can. Mission, needs, issues, money, problems, hates, wants, direction, strategy, solutions, likes, dislikes, and risks. Ask them and talk to them about all of these things no matter how trivial they might seem to you. Whenever you talk about yourself always put it in the context of how you can help them solve a problem and how you have successfully done it before (and give proof). And remember, you can’t have a win strategy without customer knowledge.

3. Prepare Early. Do your capture work. A dollar invested in upfront capture—done right—is worth four dollars ill spent later after the RFP comes out and you have no preparations. There is a direct correlation between probability of win (Pwin) and early starts.

4. Know your competitors. If you can’t beat them, you might be able to join them. You can’t beat them if you don’t know who they are, what they can offer, what their relationship is with the customer, how they might price, how desperate they are to win, and what strategies any of them could use to beat you.

5. Shape the Procurement. This is the most misunderstood step in the business. You want the customer to have a successful procurement. If you have good ideas on this, tell them. If the ideas help you with Pwin, great! If not, still great. The idea is to get a procurement that makes the customer successful and builds trust with you. If you try to shape strictly to your advantage, they’ll notice and you’ll be on the outs. So make sure you submit whitepapers, comments on draft RFPs, and have a good dialogue with the customers to give them good ideas about how to have a successful procurement.

6. Get compliant. Non-compliance presents the easiest path to getting thrown out. I have seen firms thrown out for failing to submit a form that was called for. Make sure everything asked for in that RFP is covered. They can come back with an evaluation notice and say you didn’t do it quite right, but if you ignore a requirement, you have no recourse. Do multiple compliance reviews with multiple experts and resolve issues quickly.

7. Make your proposal simple and direct. One of the major complaints from evaluators revolves around their inability to understand what has been proposed. Clear, simple language with a clear, simple emphasis on solution benefits in the context of the customer helps avoid this problem. Simple, declarative sentences help. No equations unless they prove a point so dramatic that it would be the equivalent of finding life on Mars. Even complex graphics can be made simple. Focus on message, meaning, and a high score because there can be no guessing on what your solution’s significant strengths will be. Use the term “Significant Strengths” to make them obvious.

8. Do your color team reviews. If you skip a review your Pwin (probability of winning) goes down. Reviews do not have to be complex, involve 30 people, or take a week. I have seen excellent reviews on smaller proposals done by three people with outstanding results. The difference was they were done. Get your review team identified early, educate them on the procurement, your win strategy and your solution.

9. Do your Price-to-Win (PTW). I did a PTW assessment once on one sheet of paper and came within $10 million of our price and the winning price (ours) in less than 15 minutes. A bit unusual but the point was not that I was close but that I kicked off the activity early to do the work we needed to do in this area. You can make this as complex or a simple as you like. The point is it must be done. A simple PTW done well with the right assumptions is better than the most complex PTW done with the wrong assumptions.

10. Refer to 1. Do your lessons learned. Again this does not need to be complex. Do this for every win or loss. You will discover what can be avoided very easily. You will discover what can be applied to every effort. This forces you to stop making excuses and enables you to objectively look at what you are doing and how you are doing it. Do it like a proposal evaluation: strengths, weaknesses, non-compliance, recommendations, plans for improvement. You’ll gain value and improve quickly.

Changing the environment from wondering why you lost to enjoying why you won takes the courage to admit you have a business problem and then doing something about it. You can design a simple, but effective plan for improvement around these ten areas quickly. The key to success focuses on: do it, monitor it, change it as required through time, and never, ever let up and become complacent.