Pre-RFP: What Can You Do?

It’s that no-man’s land between knowing that an RFP is coming out any time now and the time you have to work on it. What do you do? What can you do?

Many proposal pros will tell you that the time leading up to RFP release can be frustrating (and their managers will echo this frustration–albeit for different reasons!). One of the reasons is that there are often no clear guidelines or processes about what you canand cannotdo before the final RFP comes out. If you start too soon to to write a proposal in response to the draft RFP (or RFI–Request for Information), you run the risk of having to revise a substantial amount of work after the “real” RFP comes out. If you do nothing, you run the risk of the playing “catch up”–trying to do everything at once–after the RFP hits. So, what’s a reasonable approach to tasks leading up to the final RFP? The approach you take can vary depending on the project and whether you’re the incumbent, trying to unseat an incumbent, or going after a new procurement. Let’s take a look:

1. Past Performance. There are few things that you can reliably expect time and time again in the proposal realm like past performance experience requirements. If you know anything about the requirements, you can begin to pull together the core components of your past performance–develop a “pre-qualification” process to narrow down the best candidates. And although it’s difficult (let’s face it, it’s always difficult without an official deadline!) assign someone the task of pulling together the data you need, including customer, project title, point(s) of contact, contract dollar value, period of performance, and, most importantly, how the experience is specifically relevant to the pending RFP.This task can be tackled regardless of the type of procurement.

2. Win Themes and Discriminators. Pre-RFP is a great time to develop the benefits of your team and your solution. A discourse on what win themes and discriminators (and “Ghosts,” for that matter) will be addressed in another post, but suffice to say, you can develop the key themes and supporting details (specific benefits) that set your team apart from the rest of the competition in brainstorming sessions leading up to final RFP release. Even without a strong understanding of win themes/discriminators, you and your team can put together a laundry list of benefits you offer to the customer–concrete benefits that can be fleshed out over time and incorporated into your proposal writeup.

3. Strategy to Unseat an Incumbent. While it’s risky to try to pull together the entire solution without specific requirements or guidelines, if you’re trying to unseat an incumbent you can start working on elements of your solution that you know will be considered. For example, the incumbent will undoubtedly “ghost” you (and other competitors) as introducing unnecessary risk to the contract. So what do you do? Begin developing key components of your transition plan and how will you mitigate the risk of operational disruptions during that critical period. Sketching out a transition plan can make it easier once the actual requirements have been released. Also, hopefully someone on your team (sales, technical lead) will have engaged the customer to determine what’s gone right–and wrong–during the time that the incumbent has been working the contract. This kind of due-diligence can even sometimes reveal that the customer prefers the incumbent, and is going through the procurement process as a perfunctory requirement (a strong indicator that you should “no-bid” and save time and resources for a more favorable prospects).

4. Strategy to Keep the Business. If you’re the incumbent, your transition will be a lower-risk scenario than any competitor’s (something that you can call out in your win themes/discriminators data capture sessions). But one thing you can do is to develop the hard data of why you deserve to win by explaining some of the reasons why: did you meet or exceed performance requirements/metrics? Do you have testimonials from the customer? Do you have any CPARs or PPIRS ratings that you can draw on to demonstrate that you’ve done exceptional or very good work? If you’re the incumbent and you don’t have this kind of information, that’s a strong indicator that you may need to revamp you project implementation approach (see my previous post about the proposal as a “blueprint” for implementation). Also, work with your project leads to get an honest sense of what has worked and what hasn’t–what are the customer’s points of pain/areas for improvement?

5. Strategy to go after Brand New Business. If your team is going after a new procurement without an incumbent, you might think that this is a level playing field, right? Wrong. The team with the winning hand is usually the one who has done their homework with the customer: they’ve done more than go to the industry day, they’ve met with the customer leads, conducted due diligence with the contracting officers, and have done the “legwork” required well before the RFP hits. You need to do the same if you want to get an edge with insight into the customer’s needs. Often, there will be an RFI for brand new procurements–if you’re planning to respond to a pending RFP, but didn’t know about the RFI or respond to it, that’s an indicator that you’re already behind the curve.

6. Who’s on first? Putting together your Team. At first glance, the answer may seem obvious, but the it depends on other demands on peoples’ time (remember, proposals are what people often do in addition to their full-time jobs). It can be tough to get management buy-in and commitments from the relevant resources for your proposal team–but you should make an effort, regardless. If possible, identify what each team member will be responsible for during the proposal process–clear understandings and expectations can go a long way toward avoiding confusion, and “who’s on first” scenarios.None of the suggested tasks I’ve listed above are easy to pull off for one simple reason: people don’t tend to be motivated without an actual RFP and an official deadline. But if you can get people moving on a couple of these fronts, you’ll be ahead of the game when the RFP finally hits the streets.