The easy answer is all those regulations. Another good one is whether full compliance is mandatory or not. But the real answer is something different. It’s something that people struggle with. You can look up the regulations. You can learn to comply like a robot. But the most important difference will determine whether your proposal is a success or a failure.
How do you get your proposal started?
In both government and commercial proposals, the proposal should really start before the RFP is released. But let’s put that aside for a moment, along with other steps like kickoff meetings, etc. Also, I’m going to lump all proposals written against RFPs that are formally evaluated by the customer into the same category as government proposals.
Most people start their proposals with an outline. But how do you prepare your outline?
In a commercial RFP, you pretty much make it up. Most commercial proposals are evaluated with a great deal of subjectivity and are not formally point scored based on written instructions and evaluation criteria. In fact, most commercial RFPs are more of a wish list, starting point, or framework than a set of specifications that must be followed exactly. When this is the case, and it varies all over the place, the goal is to give the customer the information they need to see you as their best alternative. This information may be in addition to or instead of whatever was in the RFP.
What makes government proposals so different and challenging isn’t just that you have to give them exactly what they asked for in the RFP. What makes them so different is that your outline must match what is in the RFP exactly. This must be true even if the RFP is ambiguous, contradictory, out of sequence, outdated, or flawed in some other way. Resolving those issues to come up with the right outline is difficult and stressful.
Government proposal specialists use a compliance matrix to match the requirements from different sections of the RFP. When an RFP is well written, everything matches and the sequence is in synch. When the RFP is not well written, things don’t match and you have more than one sequence that you have to somehow resolve and make compatible.
I’m coaching a company that is dealing with this right now. In fact, my customer is probably reading this. I feel bad because she has a really convoluted RFP that she’s trying to make sense of. Instead of being a nice, neat case where you just follow the rules and use the outline provided, it requires judgment calls. Things could go in more than one place. It’s not clear whether there is a place for some things. What they say they want to be in the proposal, how they say you should organize things, and what they are going to evaluate do not match up. But regardless of whether there is a place specified for everything or if there is more than one place, every requirement must be addressed somewhere. And it has to be where the customer expects to find it.
That is what a compliance matrix is designed to resolve. But in this case it requires more judgment calls than it should. I’m helping her put things where we think the evaluators expect to find them. In some cases we have to guess. I hate it when customers do this to themselves. The evaluators are going to have a hard time because every vendor will make different judgment calls and each proposal will be organized differently.
In a commercial proposal that is not going to be formally evaluated, you might organize things in a logical fashion because the customer is subjectively looking for the best proposal, and not trying to point score against the RFP. In the commercial world, you can propose whatever you want and the customer might just go for it if they think it makes sense. But in government proposals, you must propose exactly what they ask for and prepare your proposal exactly the way they asked for it.
These different approaches to preparing the outline have major implications. If you try to respond to a government proposal like you would a commercial proposal, your proposal may get thrown out without even being evaluated. And if it does get evaluated it will be at a disadvantage because it will be hard to score if it didn’t follow the RFP exactly or if you didn’t understand how the evaluation process impacts the outline. Learning to prepare an outline for a government proposal is one of the most difficult parts of responding to a government RFP, and if you don’t get it right you won’t win regardless of what’s in your proposal.
Getting the outline right is the first step in realizing that your proposal is not about you. It’s not about whether you think it’s well organized or how you would like to present your offering. Getting the outline right for a government proposal is all about putting information where the evaluator expects to find it so they can find the right words to complete their evaluation forms. Your proposal is about them.
Commercial companies that want to do business with the government may get past the registration requirements, survive the lengthy sales/RFP process, find a way to meet the past performance requirements, and then blow it just because they didn’t understand how much needs to go into thinking through the outline for a government proposal. So it may not be the first thing you think of when you imagine the difference between government and commercial proposals, but the getting the outline right is definitely one of the most important.
By, the way, if you need a little help preparing your outline or even just a second set of eyes to make sure it’s right, feel free to contact us here or on our sister site, Virtual VP Services.
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Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY.
The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.
Carl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.
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