Sometimes the federal buyer who loves you also needs you to lose. Here's the scoop on when and why to be the perfect loser, and how to turn that loser bid into your next win.
The perfect loser is polite, precise, persistent, and patient. She looks so happy because odds are good that she’s going to be winning really soon. You’ve heard that “You have to know what your buyer needs.” But imagine this: Sometimes what your buyer needs is a loser bid. That's right, she likes you, and she needs you to lose. Not forever, but yes, today. Here’s why
The vast majority of federal contract awards are won by exactly the person the buyer wants to buy from. How does that happen? More to the point, why would you ever write a bid you know is going to lose?
The contracting officer’s file needs to look perfect. The buyer has to document why she made the decision she did. There is a lot of pressure for your contracting officer to award work competitively, even if she absolutely knows who she wants to work with. Her file documenting the acquisition decision needs to be perfect. There is a ton of oversight of the acquisition process. Your contracting officer has multiple audit teams looking over her shoulder at how she’s carrying out the Federal Acquisition Regulations. If she break those rules, the possible penalties include jail time!
That’s true even if she had the option to award the contract using a sole source award! Did you know? A federal sole source award is a lot more work than it sounds! Even a file with just ONE offer must show a complete and correct proposal and a boatload of justification and process documentation.
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I want to make a distinction between an accidental loser proposal is different from a deliberate loser bid. The accidental loser proposal is deficient in one or more ways. Maybe it arrived late, or had more pages than specified, or didn’t use the correct format, or, perhaps worst of all, “…showed inadequate understanding of the buyer’s requirements.” A bid that’s disqualified for technical errors – the kind of thing you might make in a half-hearted effort to just “get something in the file” doesn't help the contracting officer. She needs to show that she chose among strong proposals from legitimate prospective suppliers. If you submit a thoughtless proposal, you make her look bad, and you leaves sloppy work in that agency’s records with your name on it.
A deliberate loser bid is a thing of beauty.
It is perfect. It might even bring the contracting officer to secret tears of joy. She sees that you get her. You understand her world. You have honored her with your effort. You have helped her look good. You followed the rules. You made it easy for her. She would love to award this thing to you. It’s not going to happen this time. But boy, have you ever showed off your best stuff. She’s excited about what you could do next time around.
The opportunity to submit your deliberate loser bid can happen at the precise moment when you think you're on the track to win. You have gotten to know the buyer. The agency and decision-makers have started to like you. You've gotten to know them well enough to be able to show them you know what you're doing. But they're not quite ready for you. They may have other plans in the line ahead of you. This is where being patient can seem frustrated and costly. It's also exactly the right time to be persistent, polite, and keep your head in the game.
All of your technical competence, all your past performance, all your relationship-building, all that pencil-sharpening on the pricing, can serve to get you into the top three, onto the shortlist. At that point, you're just hoping for the best. If you have done your job well, then you have given the evaluation team all the reasons they need to choose you instead of your competitors, and at your price.
You might find yourself at that point on the learning curve with that buyer. But be prepared: before the buyer needs YOU for the first time, what she actually may need most is your PAPERWORK. She may need to have some qualified proposals on file to choose someone she's been working with for a while, even if you've got her attention and she's kinda getting to like you. Part of the federal sales game is knowing your buyer well enough to know when that's true.
Proposals are expensive.
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You're not going to offer up thousands of dollars and months of time to write tons of loser bids. You need to make sure that the loser bids you so write are deliberate and strategic.
The Problem With "Getting Our Name Out There."
Ever hear somebody say that they are just going to bid something they found on FedBizOpps to "get our name out there"? That's the sound of an expensive idea. Here's why.
Profitable federal contracting is not a numbers game. Sure, pump out enough proposals and eventually one of them might win. Keep an eye on your win rate and your costs if you are playing that game.
Here’s the thing: just because you submitted a proposal doesn't mean you're going to get a debriefing. It also doesn't guarantee how much you will learn if you get one. It does mean that you have “standing” – the official right -- to ask for one. Absolutely do that.
How do you decide if it’s worth the effort?
A Bid-NoBid Case Study Snapshot
My client had done her federal competitive analysis. So she noticed a solicitation issued by a federal agency that, before she did her research, she would not have considered. The requirement was for a type and scope of work that was right in her wheelhouse and she had plenty of past performance to support the bid. Risk factors: she had never met the buyer. She found the solicitation less than 10 days before the deadline. And she had some technical questions about pricing.
She emailed the contracting officer, introduced herself and explained that she was new to the agency and didn’t expect to be a contender on such short notice. She asked her questions, and asked whether the contracting officer might be willing to meet with her after this competition was over, and discuss the possibility of future opportunities.
To her surprise, the contracting officer wrote back right away, let her know that the bid deadline was going to be extended, and eagerly invited her proposal.
That's what an invitation to "loser bid" sounds like. I told my client to think carefully about three issues.
First, proposal resources. Did she have enough time and resources to prepare, proofread, produce and deliver a high-quality, responsive proposal, based on the bid documents?
Second, pricing. After comparing her competitors’ pricing to her own, could she do the work at an acceptable profit?
Finally, capacity to perform. Her company was already hot on the trail of a giant project for a private sector client. I asked her to think carefully. “If your company were to win both projects,” I asked, “would you have the capacity, staff, and financing to perform both projects in the timeframe required?”
All three of those things needed to be true in order to make a proposal effort worthwhile.
As it turns out, a serious proposal effort would take no more than a day, and she got a green light on pricing and performance capacity. The bid is in! She’s waiting to take the next steps.
Ten Steps To Becoming The Perfect Loser
- Know your buyer – the actual people in the account involved in the project. That might include the contracting officer as well as decision makers and end users and possibly other contractors you’ll need to coordinate with if you win!
- Know your buyer’s technical, pricing, and management requirements from first-hand conversations, not just from a cold read of an RFP you see a few days before the bid deadline.
- Assess the level of competitor activity and, from Know what your buyer needs right now, this time.
- Commit the resources to make a first class proposal.
- Know your competition, especially whether you can price both competitively and profitably against them.
- Express your best value quantifiably.
- Prepare your list of debriefing questions according to FAR Part 15.506
- Understand the rules well enough to recognize what a legitimate cost for protest might be.
- Expect to lose, but be ready to perform if you win.
- Win or lose, get that debriefing. Even if you win, you still want to know your weak points, and show both gratitude and humility.
Finally, be super-gracious! Even if you lose, thank your contracting officer to ways for the opportunity to participate. First, thank her directly. Second, if she took considerable time and effort to encourage you and answer your questions, and you learned a lot in the process, write her manager a thank-you note! Be specific about the expertise your contracting officer shared, why she was great to work with, and what you learned.
Judy Bradt, CEO of Summit Insight, hates losing. She’s learned the value of grace. And she’s committed to YOU winning. She’s an expert at federal business breakthrough to the success you’ve always wanted. Email or call her at (703) 627-1074 today. Get her e-news. Visit www.SummitInsight.com