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22 ways to win in spite of negative past performance reviews

When you are a contractor, sometimes deadlines are missed, budgets are exceeded, or specifications go unmet. Sometimes it’s because of an oversight, bad estimates, or mismanagement. And sometimes it’s because the customer was unclear or changed their minds. Either way, your past performance record may suffer. Customer complaints, cure letters, or termination of a task can do irreparable damage to your ability to win future work.

It can be worse when you are trying to bid a recompete, because you can’t hide from it by not saying anything about it. The customer knows.

So how do you win a proposal when you know you might have negative past performance information?

Start by looking it at from the customer’s perspective. You have a vendor that had a problem. Do you care? What matters to you as the customer? Did they make things right? Did you have to drag them, kicking and screaming, to make things right? Or did they respond in a way that impressed you? What do you anticipate from them in the future? Do you still trust them? Are they better than your alternatives?

These are the questions that you need to anticipate and have answers for. You may have noticed that a lot of them depend on what you did. What you say about it now may not matter. The problem is that if negative performance drove the customer to complain, the odds are that you weren’t being responsive and how you did respond did not impress them. The least effective way to address a past performance problem is in a proposal. And yet, that may be just what you have to do…

Here are some of the proposal strategies we’ve tried with customers who had past performance problems:

  1. Change before the new RFP comes out
  2. Let them see the changes that are coming when the new RFP comes out
  3. Say that the new contract frees you from the restrictions of the old contract, so now you can bid the changes you wanted to implement all along
  4. Put the emphasis on how you responded instead of what occurred
  5. Show that you are an example of the right way to respond to a problem
  6. Show how the issue demonstrates that you are trustworthy
  7. Arrange for your president or a senior executive to meet with them, show commitment, and get feedback
  8. Talk about what changed during the course of the old contract
  9. Show that you proved your willingness to partner with the customer in difficult circumstances, even if it wasn’t in your financial interests
  10. Prove that every challenge you’ve faced has made you a stronger, better company
  11. Add staff
  12. Replace staff
  13. Add new resources, software, or tools
  14. Add or replace subcontractors
  15. If you can’t show a rapid response, show a thorough investigation and comprehensive resolution
  16. Explain why it can never happen again
  17. Put a new emphasis on prevention instead of repair
  18. Improve transparency and real-time status awareness
  19. Track metrics and then share the data
  20. Make everything new
  21. Give them a reason to believe things will be different, and give them something to want
  22. Show that how you have changed or responded makes you a better choice than any of your competitors who lack that experience and will show up unprepared


Remember that when the RFP comes out, the question in the customer’s mind is who they should pick. If you have a negative issue you may not be doomed. It just makes it harder to be the better pick. It is critical that you show why you are the better pick.

Out of all the things we’ve tried, what actually worked?

The only time these techniques work is when:

  • You have a positive relationship with the customer and they trust you
  • The customer has seen the changes you describe
  • Your competitors suck worse than you do


If you don’t interact with the customer except when there’s a problem, then all you can hope for are competitors who have messed up worse than you did. That’s not a winning strategy.

A winning strategy turns the negative into a positive by making it about a better future. A winning strategy makes the result of the problem something you can brag about. It’s not about hiding. It’s about using it as a stepping stone to becoming something better than your competitors.

Many more strategies and tips like these are available in the PropLIBRARY MustWin and Recipe Libraries. Information about how to get access to them is available here.

Let's discuss your challenges with preparing proposals and winning new business...

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Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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