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Customer Debrief Proves the Importance of Proposal Writing

I recently had the opportunity to review a debrief for a company that lost a proposal. I’ve done this countless times before, but this one stood out because of what I found. I can’t tell you the company or customer names due to confidentiality, but here are the key facts that I can tell you from the debrief:
  • It was a multiple award contract.
  • Seven companies submitted proposals.
  • The prices submitted were $651k, $595k, $587k, $528k, $501k, $494k, and $449k.
  • The company I was talking to had the $494k price (which was considered reasonable) and was the only company that lost.
  • Their past performance evaluation was somewhere in the middle, maybe a little better than average.
  • Their technical proposal scored low and was the reason cited for their loss.

Here are some of the conclusions I drew from the facts:

  • Best value is real (at least at this customer). The company lost before price was even considered. In fact, best value was given a lot of weight, since their price was second to the lowest and 24% lower than the highest price winner. In effect, the customer was willing to pay 24% more to choose a company with a higher technical score.
  • Being compliant is not enough. Their technical proposal was not thrown out for non-compliance. It just wasn’t good enough.
  • Had they written a better technical proposal they would have been one of the winners.

It is the last bullet that makes the most important point. This company, like so many all others, has a problem with completing writing assignments on time. There is always a rush at the end to complete the proposal. Everybody always sighs with relief when the proposal goes out the door and they are able to submit on time. Unfortunately, as this case shows, sometimes being able to “pull it off” and make the submission is too early to declare victory. Had they put more time into their technical proposal, they would have won. They know how to write a good proposal, they just ran out of time.

Future improvement depends on whether their failure at time management is a discipline problem or a resource problem. If it’s a discipline problem, then they need to focus on their content planning, writing, and quality validation processes. A little training, better guidance during execution, and much stronger executive level “encouragement” to meet deadlines should all be on the menu. If it’s a resource problem, then they were penny wise and pound foolish. In their case, the resources would have had to come from using an outside consultant. The going hourly rate for proposal writing consultants has been too painful for them to consider in the past. However, had they invested 1% of the anticipated award value on additional writing support, they would have won.

It is rare that you get a debrief that makes the issues so clear. Usually there are multiple causes of a loss and people always want to blame it on price (whether or not it’s true, it’s politically safe). But in this case, it can’t be blamed on anything other than the technical proposal. Their scores were good enough in the other areas that you can say with certainty that had their technical proposal been better they would have won. They should have won. Look at the pricing — if it wasn’t for the weak technical proposal, the customer would have wanted them to win. It was theirs to lose…

While it may seem hard to apply the lessons learned from this case to your company because your circumstances are different, there are a couple of things that you can take away from it. First, the quality of your proposal writing can make the difference between whether you win or lose. Second, your discipline in following the proposal process and the resources you devote to it can make the difference between whether you win or lose. They are simply that important.

By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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