Stop Asking About Win Rate!

You’re hiring a proposal manager for your staff. You review a stack of resumes and/or LinkedIn profiles, and you identify a subset of applicants worth further consideration. You invite those individuals in for interviews. At some point in each interview, you say something like this: “You have good experience—X years in the industry, including Y years supporting proposals. So tell me, what’s your Win Rate?”


That’s the wrong question!

“Why?” you ask. “We all use Win Rate as a metric for proposal professionals. What’s wrong with that?”

Yes, everyone in the proposal world uses this term all the time. We toss it around freely, as a kind of “shorthand” concept: assuming that everyone knows what it means, taking for granted its validity, giving it a kind of exalted status as a metric for organizations *and* individuals.

I’m going to stake out a contrarian position, however: In my judgment, “win rate” is often misunderstood, misleading, and misused—particularly when applied to individuals (such as proposal managers).

At its most basic, “win rate” is a simple mathematical expression: the ratio of bids won as a percentage of bids submitted. If you win every bid you submit, your win rate is 100%; if you win none of them, it’s 0%; and if you win half of them, it’s 50%. It seems straightforward enough—until we start to apply the concept. That’s where we can get into trouble.

This concept does have some validity and usefulness at the organizational level. It enables organizations to track how they’re doing, at a basic level. Yet even at this basic level, there’s a limit to how valuable this metric is—and danger is overestimating its utility.

Consider, for example, the following scenario:

Opportunity Company A Company B Value
1 Won Lost $1M
2 Won Lost $1M
3 Won Lost $1M
4 Won Lost $1M
5 Won Lost $1M
6 Won Lost $1M
7 Won Lost $1M
8 Won Lost $1M
9 Won Lost $1M
10 Lost Won $1B
Win Rate: 90% Win Rate: 10%  
Capture Rate: 0.09% Capture Rate: 99.1%  

Based on the win rates depicted in this table, it sure looks like Company A is doing a lot better than Company B, right? Well, yes, but…that’s obviously not the whole story.

When we look at the dollar values of the bids there’s another metric that applies: Capture Rate.  That’s another simple calculation: the ratio of dollars captured as a percentage of dollars pursued. Looking at this metric, our assessment of the two companies’ relative success would be very different: Company B is actually doing *much better* than Company A.

The point, of course, is merely to illustrate that although “Win Rate” is useful in some respects, it is not a “be-all, end-all” metric for assessing performance.

Win Rate is even less useful—and, indeed, misleading—as a metric to assess *individual* performance. In other words, it’s the wrong question to ask.

One reason is that no individual is solely responsible for a winning or losing proposal. Each proposal truly is a team effort, requiring contributions from executives, managers, strategists, subject matter experts, writers, pricers, reviewers, graphic artists, editors… the list goes on. Rarely, if ever, is a single one of these contributors responsible for the outcome. So attributing a “win” to any of them makes little sense.

In addition, the result of any particular capture/proposal effort—winning or losing—often is outside our control entirely. Another team might come up with a better solution, a better technology, a better price. The customer may simply have a preference for a competitor. Or there may be any number of other factors—any or all of which may be outside our control—that can lead to a “loss” that affects “win rate.”

What value does the metric we call Win Rate have, then, if it measures something that is not within my control? Well, that brings us back to where we started: Stop asking people about their “win rate,” and start asking questions that matter.

Training: A Cost-Effective Proposal Improvement Strategy

You want to produce the best proposals you can, to maximize your win rate. Because of the budgetary constraints under which you operate, however, bringing in a consultant for every proposal is unrealistic. The question is this: How can you balance your budgetary constraints with your desire to improve your proposals and grow your business?

One way to improve your proposals without breaking your budget is through training of your own staff. For a reasonable investment, targeted proposal training can provide broad and deep understanding of the elements of successful proposal development, along with practical skills in a variety of aspects of that process.

Ideally, the training can be customized and tailored to fit your precise needs and easily calibrated to the participants’ level of experience.

Proposal Strategy and Development Consulting LLC offers a variety of training modules to serve your needs. Learn more here.

What NOT to Ask–and What Not to *Not* Ask

Sometimes, the most important question may be the one you don’t ask. And sometimes, the most important question is the one you thought you shouldn’t ask, but did anyway.

You might be thinking: What does this mean? I’m glad you asked!

When an RFP comes out, one of the key tasks for the proposal team is to analyze it, identify issues or problems (ambiguities, inconsistencies, missing information, and whatnot), and draft questions to submit to the customer. That’s not as simple as it sounds–there’s both art and craft in it. (Contact us for a quick lesson!)

After you’ve drafted your questions, but before you submit them to the customer, you’ll need to consider which ones to ask–and which ones not to ask. How do you decide?

The questions you ask should be in support of only one goal: enabling you to prepare and submit a complete, compliant, compelling proposal—NOT for any other reason. The following circumstances would dictate *not* asking a question:

  • If the answer to the question will not have any material effect on proposal preparation—i.e., it won’t impact your technical/ management solution or our price. (Why bother asking such a question?)
  • If there is a reasonable possibility that the answer to the question could be counter-productive to your proposal strategy—i.e., you might get an answer you don’t want.
  • If the question is designed solely to mislead competitors—this is unethical!

You may be surprised by the absence of one category that isn’t included in the list above: questions that “might reveal our strategy to our competitors.” That’s because those questions fall into the “what not to *not* ask” category. There are three rules to keep in mind in these cases:

  • Rule #1: Forget everything you’ve ever heard about this subject.
  • Rule #2: If you need the answer to be able to submit a complete, compliant, compelling proposal, ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS ask the question, regardless of how your competitors may interpret it. Here’s why:
    • The reason to ask questions is to help yourself submit the best possible proposal. If you don’t ask, you won’t have the information *you* need.
    • If there is any ambiguity in the RFP, and you don’t ask the question, you will lose the ability to protest an award on that basis later, if it comes to that.
    • Your competitors will not know which questions came from you anyway, because the Government will strip out offeror identifiers before publishing the Q&As.
  • Rule #3: If a competitor changes their strategy based on the answer to your question, they’re in more trouble than you are!

So, there you have it: What not to ask, and what not to *not* ask. Need more guidance? Just ask!

What to do?

Last week I made a presentation at the Association of Proposal Management Professionals National Capital Area chapter’s 2015 Mid-Atlantic Conference and Exposition. My presentation focused on an approach to improve Gate Review decision-making.

The gist of my presentation was a visual schema that breaks down Bid/No-Bid decisions into three simple, clear criteria. If all three criteria are met, a decision to Bid makes sense. If not, the decision usually (though not necessarily always) should be to No-Bid.

After I completed my formal presentation, there was time for questions. The first question presented a typical quandary: What is a proposal manager to do when a capture manager ignores these kinds of criteria and presents every opportunity as being worth pursuing? A proposal manager who repeatedly urges caution during Gate Reviews runs the risk of being perceived as overly “negative” and not a team player. And that proposal manager will still have to work with that capture manager on those opportunities, even if she or he doesn’t believe they should be pursued. What’s the solution?

My initial response (a bit glib, perhaps) was, “Nobody knows.” The truth is that many organizations fail to use clear, specific criteria to make these essential decisions, and in most organizations all of the incentives point capture managers toward seeing–and briefing–every opportunity through rose-colored glasses. And proposal managers often are regarded as mere “technicians” whose job is to develop a winning proposal–even though the proposal manager often has little or no control over winning or losing and almost never has any real influence over which opportunities are being pursued to begin with.

However, I wanted to offer something more substantive–and, I hope, more encouraging–than that, so I continued with some specific suggestions. In a nutshell:

  • Proposal managers need to cultivate strong, positive relationships with capture managers *and* corporate leadership (i.e., the decision makers). These relationships are essential in positioning the proposal manager to be regarded as–and, indeed, to *be*–a true “player” in corporate decision-making, including Bid/No-Bid decisions.
  • Proposal managers need to engage with capture managers about specific opportunities *before* they are briefed to the leaders for decisions. At the least, this early engagement may enable the proposal manager to raise concerns about a specific opportunity in a more limited, one-on-one setting, rather than having to be perceived as a “nattering nabob of negativity” within a larger group that also includes top leadership.
  • Proposal managers can become advocates within the organization for better decision-making. A defined, repeatable process; clear and understandable decision criteria; and full buy-in from the top levels of the organization on down can help to overcome the inherent incentives/biases for Bid/No-Bid decisions and remove personal emotions from the equation, enabling data-based judgments to drive corporate strategies.
  • Proposal managers must insist on having a voice in these decisions. After all, if they are going to implement the organization’s strategies and decisions, they ought to have some input and, ideally, influence in determining what they are. If proposal managers are not typically invited to Gate Reviews, I would suggest that they work with their managers to ensure that they get invited. If all else fails, I would even advocate that they consider the possibility of simply inviting themselves. Proposal managers can bring a perspective to these decisions that neither the capture manager nor the leadership bring–and that perspective is vital to sound decision-making.

The dynamics implied by the question are complex and challenging, of course. And organizational change is never easy. Nevertheless, there are some steps that proposal managers can take so that they are more than just bystanders within the organization, upon whom the burdens of Gate Review decisions made by others fall. They can become an important part of the process themselves. That will make their lives better, and just as importantly will lead to better decisions by the organization–which, ultimately, will bring greater success to everyone.

For more information about the Gate Review schema I reference above (which I presented in detail at the conference), feel free to contact me.

Back to Work

Now that the Federal fiscal year is at an end–with its attendant rush of task orders and such–and it appears that the Government will continue to operate (at least for a while), it’s time to get back to work. That means turning your focus toward the longer-term, strategic capture and proposal efforts that really move the dial for most Government contractors.

So, what opportunities are you planning to pursue over the next 3 months, 6 months, year or two? (You *are* looking that far out, aren’t you?) How are you preparing for them?

A well-written proposal is necessary, but not sufficient, to win contracts in today’s highly competitive environment. In fact, the most important work you do will happen well before the RFP drops. Ideally, about two-thirds of the capture/proposal effort should take place in that pre-RFP phase. This is when you are (or should be) focusing on customer engagement, competitive assessment, strategy development, team-building, and the like.

If you need support in positioning yourself to win these strategic pursuits, Proposal Strategy and Development Consulting can help. Contact us to learn how.

The Nitty Gritty

What do a proposal outline, a proposal schedule, and a proposal kickoff have in common? They’re a few of the “nitty-gritty” activities that are essential to a successful proposal–and they’re all skills that have to be learned. The question is, how do we learn them?

In most cases, learning how to outline a proposal for full compliance, develop a workable proposal schedule, or conduct an effective kickoff occurs haphazardly–primarily through ad hoc, on-the-job training. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have your proposal staff learn these and other key skills outside the pressure situation that a live proposal entails?

Fortunately, it *is* possible to learn these skills in a structured curriculum. Proposal Strategy and Development Consulting offers training in the following “nitty gritty” proposal skills, among others:

  • Outlining for Compliance
  • Building a Realistic Proposal Schedule
  • Developing and Running an Effective Proposal Kickoff
  • Making Standup Meetings Work
  • Powerful, Persuasive Proposal Writing
  • Effective Data Calls
  • Conceptualizing Impactful Proposal Graphics
  • Simple Yet Effective Tracking Mechanisms
  • Planning and Implementing Color Team Reviews

Training can be tailored to your organization’s needs. For more information, contact us.

Crunch Time

There’s only a little more than a month left in the Federal fiscal year. Agencies are scrambling to award contracts, so they can obligate current-year funding–aka “use it or lose it.”

As a result, it’s a busy time in Federal contracting. The chase is on for task orders under IDIQs, BPAs, and other large contract vehicles. Stand-alone RFPs also are hitting the streets in quantity. Things are hopping!

If you find yourself overwhelmed with proposals right now, Don’t Panic! Instead of waving your white towel in surrender, call in the reserves.

Proposal Strategy and Development Consulting is here to help–in crunch time or any time. Whether you need assistance with strategy development, proposal writing or management, or production, we can help. We’re ready to support you in winning your share of the end-of-year dollars. Contact us to learn more.

Finding the Sweet Spot

Making smart decisions about which opportunities to pursue is one of the most important elements of success in the contracting world. It’s also one of the toughest challenges.

Consider the following scenarios:

“Chasing Everything That Moves”: In this scenario, the organization has a pipeline full of contract opportunities, but does little to qualify or prioritize them. Because the organization has the capability to perform any of these contracts, it considers everything a “good” opportunity. In pursuing all of them, however, it finds itself spread so thin that it can’t give any opportunity the time, energy, and resources it really deserves. The result? This organization pursues many opportunities but wins few, if any of them.

“Hiding in the Shadows”: In this scenario, the organization focuses only or primarily on what it considers “sure things.” It takes few risks. It also has a very thin pipeline. As a result, this organization also achieves few wins–because it’s just not bidding very much.

“The Muddled Middle”:  In this scenario, the organization’s pipeline may appear to be healthy, but a deeper look reveals a lack of focus, with no clear strategy and unclear criteria for deciding which opportunities to pursue. This scenario leads to middling results, at best.

Do these scenarios seem familiar? Are you interested in a better approach?

Join me for my presentation titled “Finding the Sweet Spot: A Visual Schema for Gate Review Decision Making” at the APMP-NCA Mid-Atlantic Conference & Expos 2015 on October 22nd. Details and registration information here.

What is Compliance?

Proposal professionals use the word “compliance” a lot. We even have a special tool–a compliance matrix–that we use for every proposal, to ensure that the proposal is “compliant.”

But what do we really mean when we talk about compliance?

You may use “compliance” as a synonym for “meets the requirements.” In this interpretation of the term, you might consider the proposal compliant if it addresses all of the requirements of the RFP.

Is that all there is to it, really?

Well, no, not really. It’s a bit more nuanced than that.

Addressing all of the requirements may make a proposal complete, but it does not necessarily make it compliant. A compliant proposal does more than merely “check the box” for each requirement; it also truly “answers the mail.” In other words, it is substantive, not perfunctory.

That distinction can make a significant difference during proposal evaluation–perhaps even the difference between winning and losing. Keep that in mind as you assess the “compliance” of your next proposal.

Begin With WHY

One of the first things students in journalism school learn is that the “lede” (first paragraph) of every news article must address a few simple questions: Who? What? When? Where? How? The answers to these questions give readers the essential information up front. Subsequent paragraphs of the story flesh out the story, providing additional details, quotes, etc.

Proposal writing is different. Although a proposal must answer those questions as well, another question is even more fundamental to winning: “Why?” Virtually every paragraph of a proposal, not just the first one, should give the reader–the customer–a reason to select you rather than a competitor. Every reason is an answer to the question, Why?

Ultimately, the customer wants to know: What’s in it for me? Why should I care? Why does it matter to me?

Answering this question drives capture and proposal strategy, planning, and execution. Before you can start writing a proposal–before you can even start planning the proposal–you need to address this fundamental question: Why should your prospective customer award this contract to you, among all the competitors out there? This question should drive your capture and proposal strategy, planning, and execution. It entails identifying what’s important to the customer (what we in the proposal business call issues and “hot buttons“) as well as what distinguishes you, in a positive way, from your competitors–what we call discriminators. The latter requires an assessment of strengths and weaknesses–your own, and your competitors’.

That analysis should lead to an overall strategy for winning the contract, which then leads to proposal strategies–as embodied in what we call “win themes.” These win themes should be woven throughout your proposal, reminding the readers/evaluators why they should select you for the contract.

As should be evident, Why? is more than a mere question. It’s a process. This process begins well before you begin writing the proposal, and continues throughout the capture and proposal life cycle. If you can’t provide an answer to this question, the who-what-when-where-how of your proposal probably won’t matter. If you want to win, you need to begin with WHY.